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Music writing

David Byrne sings for Imelda Marcos

interior-byrne This article first appeared in the Guardian, in July 2007.

David Byrne keeps a small black diary on his bookcase, with ‘DB – Idears’ written on the spine in gold ink. Without rifling through its pages, a sore temptation when left alone in his study, there’s no telling how old it might be. It could contain handwritten lyrics for Talking Heads songs, a note to Brian Eno or Twyla Tharp, a draft screenplay for his film, True Stories, or a sketch for the chair made out of dried macaroni that sits by the window.

If his latest project was conceived there, it was surely a red-letter day, two silver stars, with an exclamation mark bold as his shock of white hair: ‘Write opera about Imelda Marcos! Call Fatboy Slim.’ It could be a punchline about art-rockers in middle-age, a riff on his famously restless imagination. Until the curtain goes up at New York’s Carnegie Hall next week, that is.

Byrne sits on a swivel seat in his art studio. His hairy arms are salt and pepper now, his eyes intense and fidgety. No-one would ever call him relaxed, but he is friendly and patient, even though describing the creative process comes much less easily than the art itself.

“Some years ago I read some books about the courts of people in power,” he explains. “They behave in an artificial, theatrical manner. They have rules in an insider situation like that that have nothing to do with the real world. Then I read about Imelda Marcos and her going to Studio 54, converting the roof of the palace in Manila to a disco, and I thought ‘maybe this is a way in for me, maybe that music is an expression of what having that kind of power feels like’. Not that people in a club after a few hours of dancing go ‘off with his head’ but there is this heady feeling, and there may be some connections there.”

Here Lies Love was designed to be a multimedia production that Byrne could send out on the road, but at Carnegie Hall, as at the show’s debut in Adelaide last year, he will lead the band, link the songs with a minimal, unscripted narration, and lend his joyous, irrepressible yelp to the odd number. Two comparative unknowns play the key roles, Dana Diaz-Tutaan as the first lady of the Philippines and Ganda Suthivarakom as her servant, Estrella.

The musical follows the ‘Steel Butterfly’ from the genteel poverty of her childhood to the wild extravagance of her life in New York, where she engaged in handbag diplomacy with five US presidents, became close friends with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and charmed everyone from Pope John Paul II to Emperor Hirohito of Japan.

“It was liberating being able to write from the point of view of another character,” Byrne says, “and no-one’s going to think that you’re using that character to voice your own opinions about something. I love the idea that it’s all true, that I can write in a song about her dancing with Kissinger and it’s documented and there’s video footage to prove it.”

Byrne spent weeks cycling around Manila on his fold-up bicycle and interviewed scores of people, some who suffered under Ferdinand Marcos and others who still adore his widow, but the show he has written steers clear of moral judgements. Several Australian critics have complained that the widespread corruption and state-sponsored murder which defined the later years of the Marcos regime should have been addressed. In The Age, Raymond Gill wrote that “it’s like doing a concert about Pinocchio and not mentioning his nose.” There is no reference to Imelda’s infamous collection of shoes either.

“For me the darker side of the excesses are for the most part a matter of record,” Byrne argues, “and what’s more of a challenge is to get inside the head of the person who was behind all of that, and to empathise, and understand what drove them and what made them tick. You could set up another character who’s the critical person who’s always railing at them and criticising human rights abuses or whatever else. I haven’t done that.

“I think the excesses are well known. A lot of the audience is going to come with that knowledge already in hand. They bring that as baggage. For me to tell the things they already know is a waste of an evening out.”

He recruited Norman Cook through his management, having never met him before, and after a year of exchanging songs and beats over the internet, flew to Britain to record at Cook’s studio in Brighton. Byrne describes the music as “house, techno, vaguely latin,” but won’t share it yet, apart from a tiny extract streamed on the New York Times website.

“I imagined it being dance music, so I thought I should go to a professional for help,” he says. “Norman’s awfully good at that, and he has played an instrument at some point, so he has an innate sense of song structure that not everyone in the dance community has. He knows what a song is.” The album is finished, bar the mixing, but is unlikely to appear for months, if at all, in its present form.

Byrne is widely perceived as a singular, idiosyncratic artist, but most of his best work is the result of collaboration. The Grammy and Golden Globe trophies on his mantelpiece, tucked away behind cans of mushy peas and microwavable Spotted Dick, are for the Last Emperor score that he wrote with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Cong Su. He has a long-standing creative partnership with Brian Eno, best known for the pioneering sample-based album My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. He created The Catherine Wheel with choreographer Twyla Tharp, The Knee Plays with theatre director Robert Wilson and has recently been working on a series of books with fellow polymath Dave Eggers.

“I think to some extent I am a little bit of a control freak,” he admits. “Maybe I’ve learned to accommodate and steer things, to give in, in certain ways, but then incorporate the giving in into something I’m comfortable with. I’m trying to think of a real head-butting episode.” There is a long pause, during which I imagine him throwing microphones at crew members during rehearsals for the Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense. “Maybe my choices have been fortuitous,” he offers.

For three years now, Byrne has been keeping a journal at his website, by turns revealing and thought-provoking, as always with more questions than answers. “I was a peculiar young man,” he wrote last April, “Borderline Asperger’s, I guess.” Asperger’s Syndrome is a neurobiological developmental disorder characterised by a lack of social and communication skills. Popular understanding of the condition is influenced by Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, whose central character, Christopher, finds reading human gestures and forming relationships extremely difficult, and determines happiness by the number of red and yellow cars he sees on the way to school.

“I’d only heard of whatever it’s called, a syndrome, a few years ago,” Byrne says, “when a group out of Stanford proposed a spectrum that goes from Autism to Asperger’s to sort-of-good-at-math. I thought ‘wow, I see a lot of myself in that’. Not that I was good at math, but I could be very focused on certain projects or things, and painfully shy, although I’d get up on stage, and then be incredibly shy the minute I stepped off the stage.

“And it fits with the thing that at some point, after a couple of decades, it wears off, it lessens and goes away. Here I thought that the bits of therapy I’ve had and making an effort to be more social really paid off, but it could just be the thing kind of wears off by itself.”

There is a small paper sign stuck to the door of Byrne’s studio, apparently made by some real life Christopher. The writing is childish, and the sentiment anti-social: ‘Do not enter my personal space, you are not welcome since your presence interferes with my lifestyle and gives me a headache.’

His assistant brings tea in a mug bearing the grinning faces of George Bush and Dick Cheney, a commemorative item for their inauguration in January 2001, before the ‘War On Terror’ had been set in relentless motion. Byrne was a vocal opponent of the invasion of Iraq, but has since withdrawn, to blog to the converted at his website.

“It’s like we’re in shock. At least I am,” he says. “The majority of Americans don’t want to commit more troops, Congress doesn’t want to commit more troops, the Iraqis don’t want more troops, but George and Dick do, and by God they’re gonna have it, and I thought ‘holy fuck! Can they just do this?’ I thought only people like Saddam Hussein could do those kind of things.”

He is writing an elliptical protest song, which could be the flipside of Listening Wind, from the third Talking Heads album, Fear Of Music, in which he gave voice to a terrorist, Mojique, with plans to bomb American imperialists.

“I have some lyrics that I’ve been working on,” he says, “I’m trying to figure out how to write a political song that’s very personal, that’s not ranting about a specific issue or a specific event, but that deals with what it feels like in a culture that allows those things to happen, or how you sense a prevailing mood in a culture or a society.”

It is a return to Life During Wartime, and as that song observed, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around. Rome is burning, but Byrne is dancing in the flames, hand in hand with Imelda Marcos.