David Byrne carries everything he needs in a big red knapsack. He is self-contained. Like a strangely merry refugee, he wears the pack wherever he goes, his world on his back. "It weighs me down a bit," he says, "but I'm kinda married to it. I feel naked without it now. I like bein' portable." [...]
There's nothing remote or superior in his expression. Despite having known every boulevard and back alley of fame, he is all wonderment. He smiles up at the band as if dreaming that one day he, too, might be a rock star. "That's somethin'," he says more than once, laughing in the dark. "Look at that!" [...]
Byrne is frugal and a bit of a control freak. Though he divides his days between commerce and art (Luaka Bop in the morning, compositions after), there is nothing dreamy about him, at least before lunch. Even Byrne's music is grounded in pragmatism. He has never shunned the marketplace. "I don't hold much with downtown snobbism," he says. "The kind of thing where, if people like something, it can't be good."
"Look Into the Eyeball" was conceived two summers ago. Partly spurred by a concert in Madrid that Byrne thought was "all wrong rhythmically and sonically, but with a great vibe," he was driven to combine the romance of orchestral music with percussive forms. But, as Byrne sees it, art must show fiscal promise if it's ever to grow up strong. So he searched out examples of the concept he was after: evidence that his impulse had forebears in the real world of music and money.
"I wanted to create a historical confirmation," he says. "This was a tradition I was going to expand on, not something out of the blue." He made a combo tape, a mix of Bjork, Serge Gainsbourg, Caetano Veloso (a founder of Brazilian Tropicalia) and even Isaac Hayes's "Theme from Shaft."
"A lot of those songs were very successful," he says. "Our record wasn't meant to be some pretentious, arty project. It could be accessible without pandering. And here was the proof."
Byrne and his friends laid down musical tracks. As is his custom, the words weren't yet written. The only way to arrive at the right lyrics, Byrne finds, is to speak in tongues a little. Listen to the early demos from "Eyeball" and you hear everything in place -- only, Byrne is singing gibberish. Not tentative gibberish. The "words" are clear and confident: oh mefah, sye kalyaneu-sheu! Incredibly, in the harmony track, Byrne often seems to be mouthing the very same sounds. His main objective is to avoid censoring himself. "It's like fishing in your unconscious," he says. "A lot of what you find gets thrown back. The music makes it rise out of you -- whatever you've been thinking about. Usually it even takes me a year or two to understand what any given song is about."
During Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense" tour, Byrne's bandmates were dismayed by his perfectionism, which often took the form of a fanatical adherence to the all-black set. "I was turning into a little dictator at the time," he has said. "Nobody could have a cup of water! That would detract from the look of the show." Byrne hopes he has changed somewhat. "I deal with stress a lot better than I used to," he says, shaking his head. "There were times when I threw microphones. At crew people. It's really embarrassing." [...]
"The band was always secondary to what he envisioned for himself. We've learned not to take that personally." [...]
Watching David Byrne is like peering into an ant farm. His tics suggest nothing so much as a covert division of labor that governs his mind. He's intensely focused, but on several things at once, and each issue seems to be vying for position. As you speak to him, his eyes dart wildly, as if he's simultaneously puzzling out a melody, working out schedules and craving a sandwich.
Conversely, he still has an outsider's knack for nailing the absurdity upon which good-and-noble society is based. His pose is as a naif who buys it all: corporations' can-do rhetoric, the caring embrace of government, how convenience makes life easier. Byrne was once called "the Typhoid Mary of the irony epidemic," but that's a fundamental misreading of him. His stance is one of ambivalence, not condemnation.
"I really think he sees the total madness of things with a sweeping breath of love," says Beth Henley, who co-wrote Byrne's 1986 film "True Stories." "He doesn't miss anything. He's not out to judge. Just to see."
Even when gazing at one of the corporate-headquarters signs he likes to photograph -- the tattoo on the belly of the beast -- he says, "You have to admit there's somethin' beautiful and seductive there." If societal comforts weren't so alluring, they wouldn't be dangerous. Byrne has no use for rage when left-handed exaltation will do the job just as well. Rage doesn't communicate. [...]
Everybody knows everybody else, and no one wants to seem easily impressed.
The singer quietly meanders on stage wearing a khaki shirt and khaki pants. That's David Byrne all over: he's an art-technician, here to perform a service like a plumber or repairman. He refuses to present music as any one thing. It transports, yet is a workaday task. It is a spiritual release and a bodily function. It's ecstatic and ridiculous.