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

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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.''

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``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.''