Just Play It

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, September 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

Just Play It


Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek


Byline: Malcolm Jones

Ex-Talking Head David Byrne on how music works.

Music fascinates David Byrne. He's captivated by questions about how it's played and recorded, who listens and under what circumstances. Not much gets by him.

"I rented a car the other day, and just flipping through the channels, I thought, oh, my God, there's a niche for this and this and this! It's just mind-boggling."

His voice is softer offstage, playfully animated and speculative, but with enough echoes of his singing persona's familiar herky-jerky rhythm to leave you feeling like you're talking with "Psycho Killer"'s older, cooler brother. The arresting thing, though, is not how he says things but the surprising turns his reasoning takes.

So instead of seeing all those stations as evidence of social fragmentation, he sees community. "It makes you a member of a tribe," he says with an almost wondering air. "And your taste in music ties you all together. That need is almost more important than the music itself."

Then he laughs. "Of course, if you have musical taste like mine that covers a lot of different genres, it might be pretty hard to find people with similarly eclectic tastes."

Sitting in a conference room at his downtown Manhattan office on a recent summer day, he was dressed for the heat wave outside in white jeans, T-shirt, and flip-flops. He looked like a man on vacation who long ago stopped worrying about trying too hard.

Why should he? At 60, Byrne already has the resume of five normal people. Over the course of four decades, changing personas faster than most men change ties, he has flourished as a musician, visual artist, film director, and author, and he has collaborated with everyone from Twyla Tharp and William Eggleston to Caetano Veloso and, most recently, St. Vincent. A musical he worked on with Fatboy Slim called Here Lies Love, about Imelda Marcos, will premiere in New York next year.

Now he has decided to write about it all--a lot of it anyway--in How Music Works. Idiosyncratic, informative, and drily funny, his book is neither the typical aging rock star's autobiography nor a how-to about performing or songwriting. …

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