Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Archive for the ‘Talking Heads’ Category

What Everybody’s Listening To At My House

Monday, May 7th, 2018

We can’t get enough of David Byrne’s new album, “American Utopia.” It’s on constant replay on the home stereo (such as it is), in my car, and in my head. (Fitting, for a former Talking Head.) It’s a terrific album, filled with fun weirdness.

It’s also provided a backdrop against which to note the evolution of what I’ll call David Byrne’s positioning. The David Byrne of the 1970s and 1980s, who evoked the jittery discontent of modern life through abstruse words and a highly neurotic sound, is long gone. The more recent David Byrne, heard here and on his collaboration with Brian Eno of 10 years ago, “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” is very direct in his concerns and somewhat homiletic. “Is this meant ironically? Is it a joke?” he asks in the liner notes re the title of the new album. “… These songs don’t describe an imaginary or possibly impossible place but rather attempt to depict the world we live in now. Many of us, I suspect, are not satisfied with that world — the world we have made for ourselves. We look around and ask ourselves — well, does it have to be like this? Is there another way?” Byrne was similarly earnest on that surprisingly upbeat disc with Eno, and has gone so far as to launch the blog “Reasons to be Cheerful,” which promulgates the good news from around the world about Economics, Education, Health, Culture and more. If you fear that, say, Climate Change is hopeless, you’ll want to turn here. I don’t think it’s just because he figures we can’t handle any more bad news. Somehow, David Byrne, who always seemed emotionally remote, has become a warm-hearted social activist.

Three weeks ago, I took my wife to Las Vegas to see Byrne’s show, at the gorgeous Smith Center, where the acoustics proved to be remarkable and the performance even moreso. In addition to reinventing his music, Byrne has set out to reinvent the stage show that accompanies it. Note, below, the absence of an onstage set or, even, the normal components of a live concert: no drum kit, no cables, no amps, no keyboard stand, no guitar rack, no foot pedals, indeed, no nuthin’ except the musicians and whatever they can carry. This is very much a marching band.






Rock concert? This didn’t seem like one. My wife said it was more like a combination of performance piece with music. Above, they set a mood for “Burning Down the House.” Below, note how the band, including the 65-year-old lead singer, plays dead while just the keyboardist carries on.


And, here, how he opens the show, simply sitting alone onstage and singing about the workings of the human brain.


That photo alone shows that Byrne is an interdisciplinary artist, not a rock musician. (As did this sensational and odd installation he put in the Pace Gallery in Menlo Park, which I went to see last year.) He’s a musician, yes, but also a visual artist, a film director, and a writer of non-fiction books, including “How Music Works.” His show is also tightly choreographed, and filled with joy — the joy of the music, and also the joy radiating from the performers who are delighted to present it.  In that same week, my wife and I saw another interdisciplinary artist, Laurie Anderson. (Byrne on Wednesday night; Anderson on Friday night at the Wallis in Los Angeles.) Byrne has said he won’t be reuniting with Talking Heads because that would be an exercise in nostalgia and he’s not interested in that. Laurie Anderson, meanwhile, is on what’s clearly a nostalgia tour:  a clip show of her greatest hits, of sorts — video bits; some spoken word; talk about past events; very occasional electric violin. It was disappointing to see such a provocative artist reduced to just showing up and pulling bits out of a hat, and even more dispiriting to learn that, when unscripted, she can’t tell a good story.

Byrne’s show featured eight songs from the (highly recommended) new album, eight Talking Heads songs, and six songs from his many collaborations over the years. If there are tickets left somewhere near you, you might want to get them. Maybe watching this recent appearance on “Colbert” will help convince you.

Today’s bonus music video

Monday, January 9th, 2012

And here’s the low-budget puppet theatre version. All I can say after watching this is: I’ve worked with smaller budgets.

Today’s music video

Monday, January 9th, 2012

Who doesn’t love that great Talking Heads song about babies, “Stay Up Late”? Especially when it’s played on accordion and tuba.

Musical insights

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

I just found out about a great new music podcast, Sound Opinions, in which two very knowledgeable taste-makers bring a lot of insight to an hour-long discussion about music. Their range is wide and their taste is informed. On the most recent show, they discuss music with economist Paul Krugman, who notes that given the dire state of the world economy he needs music more than ever. Other discussions cover the music of Bob Dylan, R.E.M., Neil Young, and others.

Here’s a link to the page about their recent show with Brian Eno. Eno, it should be noted, is not in the studio with them — they’re in the U.S., and he’s speaking with them from England — but these guys are so natural, so comfortable, that it sounds like they’re all sitting together talking over tea. In this particular interview, Eno is given just credit as an early pioneer of important musical trends (new wave; sampling; spoken word over music; ambient music; using the synthesizer as an instrument; and many more), and is asked smart questions about how he chooses collaborators (David Bowie; David Byrne with or without Talking Heads; Robert Fripp; Devo; Bryan Ferry with or without Roxy Music; as well as a couple of bands I don’t care about, such as U2 and Coldplay). The interview is played against the backdrop of music they discuss, from Eno’s vast repertoire, in such a way that every bit creates a new and better understanding of connections and influences across his 40-year career. (In the process, teaching me something new about “America is Waiting,” a song of his with David Byrne that I’ve been listening to with great appreciation for 30 years.) If you’re at all interested in music — and musical trends — of the past 40 years, I highly recommend this interview.

Today’s music video

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Thirteen years ago, David Byrne’s performance on the show Sessions at West 54th Street proved definitively how much he didn’t need the other people from Talking Heads. This video of “Making Flippy Floppy” serves as Exhibit A. The band is electrifying: I think the backup singer is terrific, in energy, look, enthusiasm, and vocal colors, and the keyboardist brings several good new textures to the song, but then, every member sounds great. On a personal note, I have to say that David Byrne’s dance moves here speak directly to my soul. I encourage you to watch the entire video — including the final minute where he explains to host Chris Douridas his thinking behind the choice of those clothes. To this day, David Byrne is always thinking.

In defense of Rebecca Black

Monday, April 25th, 2011

At age 13, Rebecca Black is a talented young girl trapped between enormous sudden fame and instant lasting ridicule. You wouldn’t think that someone who has received 120 million views of her video on YouTube, and who recently performed her song “Friday” on “The Tonight Show,” and who has done all this without the benefit of a major label or close industry connections, needs anyone to come to her defense, but I’m going to do it anyway.

First, here’s her video. If, somehow, you haven’t already seen this, you’re going to want to watch it as a point of reference. And if you ever can’t find it again, simply go to YouTube, consistently one of the five most visited websites on the planet, and start to enter Rebecca Black’s name into the search field. Here’s how far you’ll get before YouTube suggests the correct response:  one letter. That’s right, you’ll get as far as “R” before it suggests “Rebecca Black Friday.” Before “Rihanna,” “rad,” or anything else you might think would come up first. Try the same thing with Google and you get the same result:  one letter, and it’s “Rebecca Black.” Lady Gaga is just damn glad that her name doesn’t start with “r.”

Now please take a couple of minutes and pay witness to the source of her fame. Here goes.

Now that you have watched that, it’s done to you what it did to me last week: It has nested in your head, where it will stay for days on end, no matter how you try to get it out or subsume it with other, more widely respected music. Are the lyrics “good”? No. But they don’t compare badly with those of some other songs. To wit:

A Horse With No Name

On the first part of the journey,
I was looking at all the life.
There were plants and birds and rocks and things,
There was sand and hills and rings.
The first thing I met, was a fly with a buzz,
And the sky, with no clouds.
The heat was hot, and the ground was dry,
But the air was full of sound.

I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name,
It felt good to be out of the rain.
In the desert you can remember your name,
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.
La, la, la la la la, la la la, la, la
La, la, la la la la, la la la, la, la

I think that that compares rather unfavorably with Rebecca Black’s lyrics:

It’s Friday, Friday
Gotta get down on Friday
Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend, weekend
Friday, Friday
Gettin’ down on Friday
Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend

The 13-year-old Miss Black’s lyrics express an emotion that many of us can relate to (which I will characterize as “Hooray, it’s Friday!”), and she does so in a way we can understand. Meanwhile, the grown man who wrote America’s “A Horse With No Name” tells us that he “met a fly with a buzz” and that “the heat was hot.” I have to think that while he was in this desert, he was ingesting mescaline.

Here is another set of lyrics which you may also recognize, also written by a grown man, one who has had a rather noteworthy career:

When I’m ridin’ round the world
And I’m doin’ this and I’m signing that
And I’m tryin’ to make some girl
Who tells me baby better come back later next week
‘Cause you see I’m on a losing streak
I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say

Under scrutiny, I don’t think that the lyrics of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” are any better than those of Rebecca Black. It’s a short slope, after all, from “I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say” to “we so awesome.” Lyrics aren’t the point, as proved so unerringly by David Byrne, whose lyrics both with and without Talking Heads serve to connote a feeling (usually anxiety and alienation) rather than denote an argument. The point of a song is the song, and lyrics are just a part of that. Not convinced? Try reading pseudo-poet Jim Morrison’s scribblings in service of The Doors; divorced from the instrumentation, they are unbearable.

While my daughter, who is only a couple months separated in age from Rebecca Black, and is thus a generational peer, will have none of this, and throws her hands over her ears whenever I play this Rebecca Black song, I know the song is every bit as infectious as “The Macarena,” which I have not heard once in 15 years and which I’ve nevertheless been unable to plunge from my consciousness. “Friday” also does not seem to me far removed from Katrina and the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine,” which was regarded then and now fondly, and which is no less puerile. So I have to think that what we’re looking at here is age discrimination. Part of me is just glad that, for once, it’s directed at the too-young rather than the too-old.

Will Rebecca Black last? I rather doubt it, but who knows? One measurement of success is parody. “Weird Al” may not have gone after her yet (although he’s already set his sites on the Gaga; watch for the video, coming soon), but this fellow has, and thereby further proves her credibility.

More Captain Beefheart

Sunday, December 19th, 2010


I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much coverage the dearly departed Don Van Vliet has been getting.

Today’s LA Times had a large obit smack on the front page of the Calendar section. Here it is.  I especially appreciated the degree to which Richard Cromelin noted the Captain’s influence (although I couldn’t help noting that the band Talking Heads is referred to as “The Talking Heads” — despite their having once released an album entitled “The Name of This Band is Talking Heads”).

Early this evening on NPR I heard a rather lengthy coverage of Captain Beefheart’s career, including a bit of audio from one of his last interviews, conducted  in the early 1990’s. In that interview at least, Van Vliet, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, sounded greatly weakened, and barely able to speak intelligibly. That, in addition to his frustrations with other performers and the general state of his musical career, made it easier to understand why he quit music for a highly successful career as a painter. Still, it was an odd experience hearing what I’d always considered a rather obscure and nigh “unlistenable” favorite act of mine profiled so lovingly on NPR.

Finally, I caught Henry Rollins’ show on KCRW. Although the online setlist doesn’t mention Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band, Rollins spoke passionately about the impact of their music, and played three tracks — one from the band’s first album, “Safe as Milk,” one from the masterpiece, “Trout Mask Replica,” and one from “Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)” — spanning their career. All three were exciting and showed the impressive range of their inventiveness. Rollins said that all the Captain Beefheart albums are worth listening to (I agree), even though some are out of print. (Including the debut, “Safe as Milk.”) He said that often when an artist as significant as Beefheart does, someone will do a reissue or a compilation collection, and he’s hopeful for that. But then, more importantly, he said that he’s got ten 90-minute tapes of unreleased Captain Beefheart music and that he’s going to start digitizing it and throwing on the air. Some of us have been waiting almost 30 years for new Captain Beefheart music. Stay tuned.

Today’s right-wing video

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

I don’t agree with the politics of this video — I think Obama has accomplished a lot, especially given the challenges — but I have to say, this is a clever video, and a funny one. When was the last time you could put “right wing,” “clever,” and “funny” in the same sentence? Thanks to Joe Stafford for making me aware of this.

Today’s music(-related) video

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

In which David Byrne talks about his love for music, and his opinion that lyrics are overrated.

As someone who has been listening to Byrne’s lyrics for more than 30 years, I agree with him that it’s often the sound of lyrics (his lyrics, anyway), that’s more important than the meaning. That’s because the songs he’s done both with and without Talking Heads have been largely connotational rather than denotional — they connote a certain mood or situation, most often: a rootless anxiety. (Or, sometimes, a quirky sort of hope.) This displacement from his surroundings puts him squarely in the tradition of postmodern artists where, of course, meaning is less important than immediate impact. Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf and William Burroughs and Donald Barthelme were usually more interested in transmitting a feeling than telling a story. And that sounds like a close approximation of what David Byrne does in his songs.

Thanks to Paul Crist for alerting me to this video.

Music to my ears

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

eno.jpgI don’t have a lot of interest in pleasant music. Yes, I can hear that it’s soothing, but I can’t figure out why you’d want music to soothe you. I want music to snap me out of it, to communicate something new in an interesting, dynamic way that’s impossible to refute.

So, it’s easy to see why I like a lot of what I like:  Roxy Music, Talking Heads, David Bowie, the ubiquitously written-about (here, anyway) Pere Ubu, TV on the Radio, Frank Zappa, Sonic Youth, Van Dyke Parks-era Beach Boys, King Crimson, and the like. What are the common elements? Intellectualism, contrapuntalism, dissonance, and surprise. What else do many of them have in common? Brian Eno.

It’s impossible to track the music I like without repeatedly stumbling across the name Brian Eno. The best Bowie albums? (Lodger, Low, “Heroes,” Outside.) They all featured Eno writing,  producing, providing “atmospherics,” or a combination of all three. Same with the three Talking Heads albums truly worth owning, including the astonishing Remain in Light. Eno has had the immense good taste or good fortune to work repeatedly with the likes of Robert Fripp, Harold Budd, John Cale, Philip Glass, David Byrne, and many others, and I’ve gotten this far without mentioning another act he’s produced by the name of U2 because their music does nothing for me. Along the way, he invented ambient music and made a lot of money doing so.

Eno can’t “really” play music, although his ability to twiddle knobs on early synthesizer systems and tapeloop machines he stapled together in the early 1970s enabled him to play live with Roxy Music. As someone with lots of ideas and very little skill, Eno is the prototypical modern artist. The abstract expressionists couldn’t paint, Martha Graham’s dances don’t look like dance, there is some doubt that most of the current academically hailed playwrights can write a play, and Brian Eno can’t play an instrument or read music. When asked by one interviewer if he would have been a music had he been born at an earlier time, the 61-year-old Eno said no, because his instrument would’t have been invented yet. What instrument is that? “The recording studio.” There is obvious enormous benefit to the presence of a naif. Why does Eno’s 1974 album Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy still sound so fresh, and so wrong? Because it wasn’t  hampered by someone who knew how to do it “right.”


The past few years, Eno, who is also a painter, and is a painter in a similar way that he is a musician albeit with more training, has been doing installations of changeable art created by a random shifting interplay of abstract images, shown against a backdrop of ambient music. He’s now brought that show, “77 Million Paintings,”  to Long Beach, where I’ll be seeing it on Sunday with a friend similarly well-versed in all things Eno before, miracle of miracles, we’ll also catch a lecture by Eno at the Carpenter Center that evening. Yes, I got those tickets almost as soon as the event was announced; good thing, too, because the lecture sold out almost immediately. I’ve been following Eno and his work with great interest for 30 years, and this is the first time he’s made an appearance anywhere near me, so I wasn’t going to miss out. Expect more here after the event.