Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Full Carnival Drag: How Music Works by David Byrne

Musician David Byrne

Over the past couple of weeks I have been to a backyard concert featuring Jacob Moon and Suzie Vinnick; a Tribute to the Music of Pink Floyd at Hugh’s Room in Toronto; and led a discussion on the importance of music in the life of the church. We talked about the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of music and experienced all of those aspects in the concerts. I also spent a long time trying to arrange a song on the guitar. Then David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works (McSweeney’s, 2012), appeared on the shelves. I bought it immediately.

David Byrne is the brainy and gangly leader of Talking Heads, a band which even during its lifespan seemed to exist outside the pop music world. Against contemporaries like The Clash, Elvis Costello and The Sex Pistols, the Talking Heads were…ummm…artsier and maybe even geekier. Byrne’s angular dance moves and odd vocalizing was, at times, off putting, but, with Tina Weymouth’s bass and Chris Frantz’s drums providing a funky bottom to the sometimes political lyrics, the band managed to successfully combine art school ideas, rock ‘n’roll rifts and whimsy. The whimsy and art were multiplied in Byrne’s solo career as he added influences from World Music and performance art to his resume. He has published a number of books, one on the use of Power-Point, another on his habit of taking a bicycle with him when he tours. How Music Works contains a chapter expanded from a talk, another one from an introduction to a picture book about CBGB, and yet another which began life as an article in WIRED magazine, and much more.

How, exactly, does music work? Byrne deals with virtually every aspect from putting together a band, deciding on stage craft, writing the songs, and finding influences. But the book is more than an autobiography; it is almost a philosophical work. It’s the kind of book you might expect from the guy who wrote “psycho killer, qu’est-ce que …fafafafa…” He gives some autobiographical detail about playing rock ‘n’roll on the ukulele; or falling asleep at the Bath Festival, age 18, when he was awakened by the sounds of Led Zeppelin. He then witnessed Dr. John in “full carnival drag” playing his “funky voodoo jive” to an audience that tossed beer cans at him! The autobiography only serves to illustrate the points he wants to make about music and its place in our world.

He describes how the construction of pop songs as three and a half minute entities was made necessary by the limitations of the 45rpm single. Longer songs were either edited, or simply cut in half to fill the B-side. It took the influence of Bob Dylan and The Beatles for record companies to manage to squeeze those extra minutes onto vinyl. He points back to the folk tradition and the length of ballads from the pre-recorded music world. The songs might go on forever, until the story was told. Byrne yearns for the days when people made music instead of just listening to it.

For example, there’s a current project I’ve been following on-line that is recording some popular folk musicians on a 1930’s Presto direct-to-acetate disk recorder onto one 78rpm record. Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright are among those who have participated. The website quotes John Szwed from his book Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World, “What he was aiming for was a means of helping Americans redefine the country to themselves and to the world by means of performance.” Byrne might argue that the “performance” Lomax captured was structured to give the impression Lomax wanted to give rather than be an authentic slice of raw Americana. Byrne talks about Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, who “was an all around artist who loved to play pop songs…[which] Lomax forbade him to play…[in] New York [because] he wanted to present a ‘raw Negro,’ an authentic primitive, straight from prison, for New Yorkers to gawk at – and appreciate as well.” So even in those early days of recording, “authentic” music was manipulated. It’s how music worked, and was worked.

David Byrne continues the discussion with the history of recorded music: the development of albums, 33 1/3 vinyl, and on to CDs and mp3s. He has a section entitled “Crappy Music Forever” which tells of a therapist who had used music to treat his psychotic patients, but had to give it up by 1989, because “the natural healing and therapeutic properties of music were lost in the rush to digitize.” Byrne paints a picture of the eventual users/purchasers of music as valuing “convenience over quality every time.” It’s hard to argue with him. Live music sounds better than Edison’s cylinders, LPs carried more music, but because they played slower they didn’t sound as good as 45s or 78s. Cassettes, 8-tracks, CDs, mps? Convenience over compression!

There are sections on World Music, its popularity, and its adoption by bands like Talking Heads. He also presents arguments for finding the original players and learning at their feet. Byrne describes the music business as he’s come to know it and talks about the creation of some of his own albums. He includes a wonderful chapter about the costs associated with recording and pie charts showing the division of profits. The book is filled with information and insights that cause the reader to scratch his head and smile, even laugh out loud. Byrne is an engaging writer for all his quirkiness as a performer. While the book is well illustrated it is also available as an e-book with more interactive pictures.

I may have to buy it twice!

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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