Tag Archives: David Byrne

Recommended Reads from the Rock and Roll Bookshelf

25 Apr

Lately, I’ve focused more on films or books about musicians rather than the music itself. I don’t know if that’s because there haven’t been a lot of new releases I’ve been interested in or because I haven’t been to a live show in a while. (Maybe I just wanted to look badass by reading a book that’s been blurbed by Slash, Kirk Hammett and Billy Gibbons while waiting for a blood draw at my doctor’s office.)

The two most recent rock books I’ve read couldn’t be more different, and I recommend them both:

So many facets, so little time ...

So many facets, so little time …

David Byrne’s How Music Works is the definition of eclectic, which comes as no surprise. Byrne has not stood still since the Talking Heads broke up and has diversified his artistic output over the years to include painting, producing, writing scores for film and dance, and even cycling. His most recent project is Here Lies Love, which began as an album he did a few years ago with DJ Fatboy Slim as an interpretation of the significance of the life of Imelda Marcos. It is now being presented at the Public Theater as “a 90-minute theatrical experience” for which “dancing is encouraged” and  “comfortable shoes and clothing are recommended.”

How Music Works is Byrne’s meditation on why music sounds the way it does and how the music industry has grown up around the desire to capture and share the “real” experience of live performance when, of course, that can never truly happen. While not exactly light reading, it’s not as dreary as it sounds, either. He’s got a droll sense of humor and he points out things I never considered before, like how the acoustics and floor plan of a performance venue – be it a cathedral or CBGB’s – determines the success of the music played there almost more than the talent of the musicians does.

What I found fascinating was his description of how he’s written lyrics to some songs based not on their meaning as much as their tonal quality: he’ll want certain vowel sounds to be part of a phrase, so he identifies words to deliver them. This is antithetical to pretty much any other songwriter I’ve heard of, save maybe Stephen Sondheim. David Byrne isn’t looking as much for the emotional or even intellectual connection we have with words. Instead he aims to connect us to their power as expressions of pure sound, as instruments.

Do as I did and read it on a long plane trip. Even if you don’t enjoy the book you’ll look incredibly erudite.

drawing on every boy's notebook in high school

This was the drawing on nearly every boy’s notebook cover in my high school in the early 1980s … although usually it was drawn with a blue Bic pen

At present, I’m in the midst of Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page by Brad Tolinski, who is the editor in chief of Guitar World magazine. The stated purpose of the book is not to dwell on Led Zeppelin’s lurid history or Page’s fascination with the occult but to talk solely about the man as musician.

jimmy-page double neckPage’s background as a studio session guitarist helped him develop a superb work ethic and keen ear as a producer. As the third and last lead guitarist for the Yardbirds – following Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck – he began to push his love for American blues into new directions. Then Led Zeppelin became the most successful band in the universe … and here we are with a book full of vivid memories of how it all came together with Jimmy Page steering the ship.

Overall this is a very good read, with Page coming off as the thoughtful, disciplined and inspirational musician he was in the 2008 documentary, It Might Get Loud. (Nothing like seeing Jack White and the Edge get starry-eyed over watching their guitar hero up close.) Tolinski asks intelligent questions, and his background gives him solid footing when talking to Page about guitars, equipment and production tricks and techniques. Still there’s an element of drooling, fanboy awe and superiority in some of his questions that makes me – and perhaps Page – giggle:

In retrospect, your agenda was clear: Led Zeppelin was taking the existing ideas found in traditional blues, folk, and rock and moving them into the future. Led Zeppelin III was a substantial leap in that direction.

Okay, okay, well, there it is, then.

Reading this book inspired me to listen to ultra-familiar Led Zeppelin material with fresh ears, which is practically a miracle – and reason enough to recommend it.

So, what’s on your nightstand these days?

See you on the flip side …

Stop Making It Make Sense

10 Feb

For years I have been schooling up my older girl in the finer points of rock-and-roll. I’ve done my job so well, she took great pains to learn how to pronounce the word “pedagogy.” (In case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced “pet-uh-GO-gee” … and the fact that I am sharing that information here proves her point, I suppose.)

Since I’ve made so much progress on that front, I have decided to expand my efforts to include a new pupil: my nine-year old. It may be long while before I’ll take her to a concert, so I’m introducing her to the magic of live performance via great rock documentaries. We began with, what else? Woodstock.

My first viewing of the classic was a midnight showing in Richmond when I was in high school. My suburban mind was successfully blown about 2:00 a.m. when Joe Cocker came on and, due to the late hour as much as his volcanic performance, he and the falsetto-singing Grease Band became the most smoking hot bunch of longhairs ever.  My daughter had to settle for a small screen screening on our upstairs TV.

When the naked hippies went flitting by and she got age-appropriately grossed out, it occurred to me that parental guidance was going to really be needed if we watched any of the other interviews.  I skipped ahead to key performances, starting with Santana’s barn-burning “Soul Sacrifice”:

Given that most of the gossipy trivia I knew about Woodstock involved drugs, drugs and more drugs, I couldn’t say much about the performers (other than assure her that yes, the Grease Band singers were guys).

Of course, rock and roll movies aren’t all brown acid and Wavy Gravy. For our next Rock and Roll movie night, we watched Stop Making Sense.

Made sense at the time …

When I watched this in Cambridge when it came out in 1984, the Talking Heads and David Byrne’s shark-eyed stare were cool, no explanation necessary. Watching it nearly 30 years later with my youngest, though, I was barraged by questions:

“Why is he using a tape recorder?”

“Why is he jerking around?”

“Why is the stage all red?”

“Why are those words on the screens?”

(It was as if she had read the taglines for the marketing campaign.)

I tried to get her revved up by sharing tidbits about my favorite numbers. “Those back-up singers had to be in great shape,” I pointed out when “Life During Wartime” began. “They’ll be jogging through the entire song.”

“Spoiler alert,” my nine-year old muttered. I think I heard her eyes roll. Once again, I had to shut up. I had to allow her to absorb the musical experience on her own terms.

She fell asleep before David Byrne toddled in wearing the Big Suit. Clearly not her cup of chai tea, this movie. Oh well, at least she tried it once … like avocados.

Over time, we’ll find our musical groove – watching rockumentaries, sharing playlists, going to concerts. I’ll just have to get used to the fact that I won’t need to narrate the tour forever.

See you on the flip side …

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