HEAD ON KNEES: David Byrne Keeps Making Sense

Rock folks like him because he brings a touch of classy eccentricity to populist dumb fun. Avant-garde types invite him to join their projects, hoping his legions of MTV faithful will follow. Call David Byrne the ambassador of weirdness, a sort of cultural caller who dances artists and audiences from opposite ends of the spectrum toward each other until they do-si-do somewhere in the middle. But the middle of Byrne's road isn't as safe as it sounds. With all that fast traffic around you, funky rhythms flying one way and quirky ideas whizzing the other, you have to stay alert.

On the other hand, if you pay too close attention to what David Byrne is up to these days, you could get dizzy and fall down. Every time you look, he's going a different direction. This week The Knee Plays (the only American-originated section of Robert Wilson's thwarted epic the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down), which features words and music by Byrne, begins a 10-city American tour with a two-week run at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. Next week his first feature film as director-writer-actor will premiere at the New York Film Festival: in True Stories, Byrne plays deadpan tour guide on an affectionately snoopy survey of an imaginary Texas town called Virgil, which is populated by cartoonishly vivid characters played by the likes of Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray, gospel patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples, and local amateurs (including 50 sets of twins). The movie's imminent national release will be accompanied by other Byrneana, including a handsomely illustrated Penguin paperback of the screenplay and an album of songs from the movie performed by some band called Talking Heads. In January Byrne will make his TV debut opposite Rosanna Arquette in the PBS comedy pilot Survival Guides, which was written by playwright Beth Henley (who wrote True Stories with Byrne and Steve Tobolowsky) and directed by Jonathan Demme, whose unexpectedly huge 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense brought to middle America the previously cultish pleasure of Byrning down the house.

When we met, at a Japanese restaurant in Soho, Byrne was racing against his deadline to finish composing the opening-credits song for Demme's new film, Something Wild (he's hoping to engage legendary salsa sensation Celia Cruz to sing it). But he didn't look like a crazed artist bulging at the forehead from excessive cross-cultural references, or a world-weary aesthete burdened with the social responsibility of introducing Robert Brustein to Martha Quinn should the occasion ever arise. No, with his skinny-limbed body encased in a demure blue suit and his graying black hair neatly combed back from his widow's peak, David Byrne in person looks like nothing so much as a generic male stick figure from a Roz Chast cartoon. And he speaks about everything from kabuki percussionists to Dallas barbecue joints in the same dry, straightforward, slightly adenoidal voice.

That voice may be Byrne's most valuable asset as the ambassador of weirdness. It certainly lends a sensible continuity to the disparate scenes that make up The Knee Plays (at ART, Byrne's narration will be performed by an actor). Originally designed as transitional stitchwork linking the 15 major scenes in Wilson's five-act, 12-hour opus, these 14 brief entr'actes were first performed together as a piece at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis at the end of April 1984 -- just two months before the CIVIL warS was supposed to be unveiled in its entirety at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles. When the CIVIL warS was canceled (probably forever) for lack of funds, Byrne's score -- 12 pieces, seven of them with spoken texts -- was recorded for ECM Records, and the production subsequently toured Europe in the same version that will be seen in Cambridge.

The sorry tale of the CIVIL warS' unmaking led me to think the independent marketing of The Knee Plays was an afterthought: when you can't sell doughnuts, sell doughnut holes. But apparently from his very first meetings with Wilson, Byrne envisioned The Knee Plays as detachable from the larger work. "I wanted to do something that could travel and be seen by more people. I thought it was a shame that so many people had heard of his [Wilson's] work and not many had seen it." Byrne had been profoundly affected by what he'd seen of that work -- the stunning Wilson/Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach at the Met and the elegant spectacle A Letter to Queen Victoria on Broadway, as well as Curious George, one of Wilson's notoriously dumdum "Dialogs" with Christopher Knowles. As Byrne put it, "A light bulb went off. I thought, 'Here's something where you don't need a story to be mesmerized for an evening.' In that sense, it's just like music. There's a logic based on something other than narrative. It freed me to think you could do whatever you want."

Although they both traveled in the arty Soho scene, the two men didn't meet until about four years ago. Ironically, they were introduced in a Tokyo restaurant by a mutual friend, art patron Christophe de Menil, who gave Wilson a cassette of Byrne's score for Twyla Tharp's breathtaking dance-theater extravaganza The Catherine Wheel. That music is what prompted the director to enlist Mr. "Psycho Killer (Qu'est-ce que c'est)" in the CIVIL warS. "He kind of laid out his grand plan -- 'We're doing a section in Germany, in Italy, in America, Japan, France, and Holland' -- and gave me my pick," Byrne recalled. "He was offering a lot, which was very flattering, but I settled on being involved in the knee plays because that section seemed most likely to be lightweight and flexible. It was something I could handle.

"What he had to offer as far as the story goes was essentially one sheet of paper with little drawings representing each knee play, and underneath was a little statement of what happened in that scene. 'People find a boat in a jungle and ride on it, then take it apart and make a book out of it.' That would be the extent of what's described -- no concept of how it would be done physically." The stage action of The Knee Plays, which evolved out of a workshop in Tokyo with choreographer Suzushi Hanayagi (who worked on Wilson's Alcestis at the ART last season) and designer Jun Matsuno, has the small scale and austere formality of a Noh drama: bare stage, simple costumes, stylized props. "We decided it would be nice if the piece had a slightly Japanese slant to it," said Byrne, "because it seemed possible that actors trained in the discipline of Kabuki or Noh might have some feeling for Bob's kind of theater, which turned out to be true. They could do that kind of minimal movement and make it seem meaningful, make it seem like there was something going on inside their head. They weren't just moving in slow motion."

The elegiac, New Orleans-style score for The Knee Plays is a radical departure for Byrne. It's a far cry not just from Talking Heads' nervous dance rock but also from the experiments with "found" sound on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, his collaboration with studio whiz Brian Eno, and from the sleek rhythms and spacy electronics of The Catherine Wheel (Byrne's most exciting work so far, if you ask me). When he first started adding music at the workshop in Tokyo, he tried playing Eno-style slowed-tapes -- "drones and things, spooky music" -- and then experimented with random percussion a la Sam Shepard and Joe Chaikin's Tongues.That seemed to work, so he made a number of studio recordings with traditional Kabuki percussionists. "But in the end, what with the stage devices we lifted from Kabuki and Noh and bunraku, it was all getting too Japanesy," said Byrne. Inspired by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, an ensemble that fuses contemporary pop funk with traditional New Orleans jazz, he substituted 12 three- to seven-minute songs scored exclusively for horns and drums.

These stately Dixieland marches contrasted almost bizarrely with the stylized Japanese choreography. That's why Byrne liked them. "I thought something repetitive but funky would be one of the least expected sounds to place against those slow-moving visual tableaux." Wilson didn't mind -- the only instructions he gave about the score were that the musicians had to get on and off the stage quickly and that they had to play loud enough to disguise the clump-clump of set changes. Such are the pleasures of working with a structuralist director.

As with the score, Wilson left the style and substance of the written texts entirely up to Byrne rather than trying to coordinate them with other elements of the CIVIL warS, such as Heiner Muller's written contributions or Matthew Brady's photographs. There is a vague narrative progression involving the transformation of a tree into a boat, then a book, then back into a tree, but Byrne chose not to refer to these images, or to Japan, or to New Orleans. Instead, thinking back to a writing exercise he had used only once on a Talking Heads number ("See and Be Seen," from Remain in Light), he wrote several whimsical, Laurie Anderson-like prose poems. "I though of them as vaudevillean entr'actes," Byrne said. "Yeah, I guess they were the comic relief." In "The Sound of Business," two men listen to make-believe oldies like "Visit Me Quick" and "Taste of Believing" on their car radio; "Today Is an Important Occasion" describes a woman dressing for success; another text simply lists 26 "Things To Do."

Although unrelated, Byrne's written vignettes are more coherent than most of Talking Heads' Cubist cryptograms (sample verse: "Isn't it weird/Looks too obscure to me/Wasting away/And that was their policy"), and they are certainly more intelligible than the Gertrude Steinian babble Wilson has favored in works like The Golden Windows and I Was Sitting on My Patio... Still, unfolding at Wilson's typically leisurely pace, The Knee Plays may seem slow, airless, almost stultifying at first. Don't worry. Sit still. The effect is gradual, cumulative, and finally very powerful. The ending reverberates back not only through The Knee Plays but through the entire idea of the CIVIL warS. The last spoken line, "In the future there will be so much going on that no one will be able to keep track of it," encapsulates the Sisyphean futility that historians must feel, especially since mankind seems perversely determined not to learn from past mistakes. Yet the pantomime that follows -- a baby Buddha (wise child?) reads a book and conjures onto the stage the same tree that began The Knee Plays -- contradicts that apocalyptic despair with a radiant image of hope.

Byrne chose to have his texts spoken rather than sung because "I wanted them to be another layer between the action and the music rather than being completely part of the music. I was curious to see what the result would be of putting these banal observations against this kind of mythic, fairy-tale imagery." His penchant for juxtaposing disparate elements (image/text/music) rather than synthesizing them into a harmonious blend is clear from his songwriting; Talking Heads' lyric sheets tend to look like concrete poetry. But his taste for what he calls "layering" also stems from his exposure to experimental theater -- not just Wilson's work but also the Wooster Group's L.S.D., which slapped together Timothy Leary and the Salem witch trials to study the erosion of moral values in the search for higher consciousness, and Mabou Mines' Dead End Kids, an "intellectual vaudeville" of songs, dances, films, and scenes tracing the quest for knowledge from alchemy to nuclear power. Byrne's direct involvement when Mabou Mines began with JoAnne Akalaitis, the director of Dead End Kids, approached him to join Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament. She later helped Byrne stage the Talking Heads' concert tour that was filmed for Stop Making Sense; in return, Byrne composed the musical soundtrack for Akalaitis's film of Dead End Kids, which opens this fall in New York.

It's not too surprising that Byrne should feel a kinship with these avant-garde theatermakers. They share with rock songwriters a purely intuitive working process, which Byrne describes as "You start with nothing, you float some ideas around, you sift through them, and gradually something starts to gel." They also share a preference for collages over conventional narratives, that familiar postmodern taste for (in architect Robert Venturi's famous words) "richness and ambiguity over unity and clarity, contradiction and redundancy over harmony and simplicity." Or as Laurie Anderson says in "Sharkey's Day," "You connect the dots/You pick up the pieces/That modern feeling."

I wondered whether Byrne had any thoughts about why his generation of vanguard artists is so resistant to narrative, to the conventional sense of coherent songwriting and playwriting. is it the influence of drugs? TV? computers? rock and roll? "Whoa," Byrne moaned, reeling from my loaded question. "I would hate to rule out stories. Some of them can be moving and powerful. I guess the thing is that most of the time you get a sense from strict narrative that there's only one thing goes on, and in today's world people are more used to bouncing from one thing to another and experiencing different things simultaneously."

When the success of Stop Making Sense emboldened Byrne to undertake a feature film, he naturally gravitated to this collage structure, and from working with Robert Wilson he knew exactly how to proceed. He started collecting everything he could find about the mundane peculiarities of Middle American life. "In True Stories I stay away from loaded subjects," Byrne writes in the introduction to the Penguin paperback. "I deal with stuff that's too dumb for people to have bothered to formulate opinions on." Eventually, he took all the material he'd accumulated -- photographs of kitschy Americana by William Eggleston and Mark Lipson, clipping from Texas Monthly and the Weekly World News (one of those supermarket rags that are always announcing FOUR-YEAR-OLD GIVES BIRTH TO ST. BERNARD!), drawings of imaginary events and characters, and ideas for songs -- and stuck them all over the walls of his LA bungalow until he arrived at some kind of logical sequence. Then he ran up against the problem Wilson always encounters: how to string these things together with words.

"I approached a lot of writers at one point," Byrne said. "That was a fun experience, kind of like show and tell. I had a wall full of drawings, storyboards, and I had the concepts for the characters, but I had no thread that would link them together. So I'd talk them through all the events -- 'Then this happens, then this person sings, then this person does that' -- and ask them to come up with something. This whole performance for an audience of one would take about an hour and a half. I did it a lot. It's not the usual way to approach a writer in LA. most of them would be kind of dumbfounded at the end of it."

Among the writers Byrne dumbfounded were Monica Johnson, Albert Brooks's screenwriting partner, and Joan Tewkesbury, who wrote Robert Altman's Nashville, to which True Stories bears more than a little resemblance. Tewkesbury was busy, he said, "but she encouraged me to stick to my vision. She was afraid that I'd go Hollywood." Considering Byrne's distaste for traditional Broadway theater, it's rather hilarious that the writer he chose to work with was Beth Henley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Crimes of the Heart. Actually, Byrne started collaborating with her boyfriend, Steve Tobolowsky, but then she got so intrigued she pitched in. What Byrne liked about them both was their sense of humor, which has more in common with Flannery O'Connor than with Neil Simon. "They're both Southerners, so they had respect for their peers in the South -- from a slight distance."

After the three of them took a trip driving around the countryside and shopping centers in the Dallas-Forth World area, Henley and Tobolowsky wrote something approaching a screenplay. "I kind of took what they did and chopped it up," said Byrne. "What they gave me was more of a story. In order to show a lot of stuff I wanted to show, take a tour of the whole town and spend time listening to the musical numbers, a story would be a big distraction. Actually, I thought if the story was too strong, then any side trips around the town or lingering over musical numbers would be a distraction. I thought that would be unfortunate, because what I really wanted is a portrait of a town and not one person's relationship." Naturally, Byrne's structure prevailed, and the result is a deliriously peculiar mixture of rock video, mock-documentary, and Our Town. Although Byrne plays the narrator, he lets the other performers dominate. In fact, Lubbock-born monologuist Jo Harvey Allen virtually steals the show playing a character called the Lying Woman, who confides, "I wrote 'Billie Jean' and most of Elvis's songs" and attributes her psychic powers to being born with "a little hairy tail about an inch long."

A big part of what makes David Byrne an exceptional artist is his knack for collaboration -- it takes the ambassador of weirdness to incorporate the talents of Meredith Monk, Spalding Gray, and Beth Henley all in the same movie. His openness to exchange is surely a key to Talking Heads' longevity. And the list of quirky, heavy-duty artists he's worked with outside the band is mind-boggling. Besides Twyla Tharp, Brian Eno, Robert Wilson, Jonathan Demme, and Joanne Akalaitis, there's performance artist Julia Hayward, who contributed crucial imagery to Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" video; avant-pop choreographer Toni Basil, who codirected the award- winning "Once In a Lifetime" video; and Robert Rauschenberg, who designed a special-edition plastic cover for the Speaking in Tongues album. When I wondered who he'd like to collaborate with that he hasn't yet, he hesitated. "I have to be careful with this, because it'll sound like an open call," he said. "I'll have to pick someone who isn't likely to read the Boston Phoenix." Of course, he came up with the perfect idea: 66-year-old Czechoslovakian scene designer Josef Svoboda, who not only doesn't subscribe but seems an unlikely idol for a rock star.

During our conversation, I completely forgot that I was talking to a rock star until the photographer arrived and asked where the session would take place. Byrne reluctantly agreed to be photographed at home, but he specifically asked her to leave his furniture out of the picture. "People will start studying it and saying, 'This is the way he lives.'" Teasing, I asked, "Are you ashamed of your furniture, David?" It wasn't that, he said. "When I had my picture taken for the New York Times, people somehow deduced from the view outside my window where I live, and they started showing up on my doorstep." He suddenly relaxed into a great big laugh. "That was bizarre."

Boston Phoenix, 1986