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`Who, me? A Renaissance man?' Meet David Byrne, eclectic rock musician/filmmaker

By Hilary DeVriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 1986


GOSH, you'd think the guy was, like, reinventing culture or something. Platinum records. A hit movie. Cover of Time. Talk about your wild, wild life. Rock's new Renaissance man is on a roll. But suggest this to David Byrne - founder of the break-the-mold band Talking Heads and creator of the equally irreverent new film ``True Stories'' - and this New Wave Wunderkind demurs with a bit of ``Who, me?'' befuddlement.

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``Well, you don't wake up thinking, `Hey, what's the Renaissance man going to do this morning?''' says the lanky musician and filmmaker, sounding more than a little acquainted with his own quizzical lyrics: ``You may ask yourself, how did I get here?''

How, indeed?

The man who put punk rock on its ear a decade ago with lyrics embedded in equal parts anomie and off-the-wall humor underscored with African polyrhythms and a touch of gospel-inspired doo-wop is doing the same with film. Byrne's feature, ``True Stories,'' opened last month and has been earning critical hosannas coast to coast. Reviewers have called it the most original film of the year. Although some have criticized Byrne for taking potshots at easily caricatured eccentrics, others insist the director is remaking the definition of feature film.

Part rock-video, part ``Winesburg, Ohio,'' ``True Stories'' is only the latest and most ambitious achievement in Byrne's grab-bag career. In addition to founding the Heads, one of the decade's most talked-about bands, Byrne has created a dozen record albums and seven videos. He helped create the Talking Heads concert film, ``Stop Making Sense,'' and has collaborated with composer Brian Eno, choreographer Twyla Tharp, and theater director Robert Wilson.

Indeed, Byrne is comfortably at the apex of that current generation of artists who are mixing up American culture - melding music, dance, and performance and blurring the boundaries between high art and pop culture, between the avant-garde and the commercial. Byrne, proclaimed Time magazine, has ``the decade's dominant hip sensibility.''

Byrne himself is, well, eminently Byrne-like on this sudden mass adulation. ``It's kind of scary,'' he says, sounding more like the tongue-tied high school science brain he once was than the nation's reigning pop artist. ``I thought for sure the [Iceland] summit would bump it [the Time cover].''

Currently making the rounds to promote the film ``True Stories'' as well as the band's spinoff album and a paperback book of the same name, Byrne evinces much of the same engaging anxiety and idiosyncratic charm in person that characterized his earliest work with the Heads. Dressed in a gray flannel suit and sporting slicked-back hair, he exudes an aura of being slightly out of step with his environment. He has been called ``one of the most absent-present people I've met'' by Spaulding Gray, one of the stars of ``True Stories.'' During a lunchtime interview with a small group of reporters, Byrne seems intent on fulfilling this description. He casts sidelong glances at his questioners, prefaces his answers with long pauses, and throws out the occasional ``Yikes!'' He twists his fork, examines the tiny haystack of carrots on his plate, and laughs frequently and abruptly.

Although both Byrne and the band have mellowed since they hit the charts in 1977 with the catchy punk tune ``Psycho Killer,'' Byrne has resolutely retained his offbeat world view. ``I tend to think that other people notice [eccentricities]. But they don't stop to hold them up and look at them,'' says Byrne. ``I think it's the act of holding them up that makes it funny.'' His is an attitude distinguished as much by his wide-eyed fascination with the banal as by his SoHo sensibilities.

``The way this film framework was constructed was inspired a little bit by my work with [avant-garde theater director] Robert Wilson,'' explains Byrne in the introduction to the book version of ``True Stories.'' ``With few exceptions, almost all the story ideas in the movie came out of tabloid newspapers.''