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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

``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?

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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.''

A G-rated pseudo-documentary in which Byrne, with cowboy hat and bola tie, functions as the film's deadpan narrator, ``True Stories'' is a purposefully fragmented journey through the fictional town of Virgil, Texas. Marking its sesquicentennial with a ``Celebration of Specialness,'' Virgil is populated with the most eccentric folk this side of Ripley's ``Believe It or Not.''

``In `True Stories' I stay away from loaded subjects - sex, violence, and political intrigue,'' Byrne explains in his book. ``I deal with stuff that's too dumb for people to have bothered to formulate opinions on.''

Indeed, the film is a hip assemblage of images ripped from everyday USA - shopping malls, tract homes, AstroTurf - all shot in Crayola-crayon colors and laid on a thumpingly variegated sound track that runs from reggae to rock. Although Byrne collaborated on his script with several writers, including Beth Henley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, the film playfully, aggressively thumbs its nose at plot.

``I think a story is only one way of having a kind of curve or flow of dramatic tension,'' Byrne says. ``Most movies are based on the assumption that narrative has to be the carrying point. I think it's a mistaken assumption.'' Conversely, what most characterizes the film is the director's scattershot fascination with American pop culture. ``They moved me,'' says Byrne about some of his images, particularly the film's opening and closing shots of a little girl walking down a deserted road. ``I never stopped to ask, `What's this for?' I just thought it was something charming.''

Indeed, several Byrne-watchers insist that ``True Stories'' represents his coming to terms with Middle America, that the talented if paradoxical artist (Henley referred to Byrne as a ``nerd savant'') has made his peace, revealed the method-to-his-madness. Byrne himself confesses, ``I'm kind of presenting here some elements, and if you look at them this way, you can like them. Granted there is a lot that's wrong, but I'm saying it could be this way, a funny little Utopia, almost.''

Possibly that comment is not surprising, coming from one whose life reads like a chapter out of the American dream. The only son of British immigrants, Byrne was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, and grew up in Baltimore in a politically vibrant, socially liberal household. Although turned down by his junior high school chorus, Byrne early showed keen interest in music, art, and science; his father is a former Westinghouse engineer.

During his brief stint at the Rhode Island School of Design, Byrne began to meld his varied interests and dabble in conceptual art. Among other projects, he punched out Xerox art and played the violin with a lighted candle on the bow. Later, after moving to Manhattan, Byrne continued his peripatetic artistic samplings, occasionally performing in coffee shops with dramatic readings of transcripts of TV game shows.

Eventually his quixotic artistry focused and then emerged as the cerebral, danceable - and bankable - tunes of the Heads. His forays into film - several of the band's videos are in New York's Museum of Modern Art - are an extension of his multiple interests.

Byrne, now dividing his time between Manhattan and Los Angeles, continues to record with the band, although he chafes at music videos as ``confining.'' He is also considering such projects as another collaboration with Robert Wilson and filming transcripts of people talking. Moviemaking, Byrne says, will be primary, particularly since the $5 million ``True Stories'' already ranks 14th on Variety's top 50 film list.

``Yeah, it's not the ultimate art form,'' says Byrne. ``That doesn't exist. But [film] comes pretty close.''

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