TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 1985

DAVID BYRNE AND THE MODERN SELF: “HOW DO I MAKE THIS WORK?”

STOP MAKING SENSE (1984), compiled from footage of four 1983 Talking Heads concerts, is a good movie, but it counts more as a major contribution to our current stock of troubled figures—or figurative troubles. According to the credits, Stop Making Sense was “conceived for the stage” by David Byrne, lead singer of the Heads. Byrne had pictorial intentions to his design, which director Jonathan Demme respected. Instead of a plot, the movie chronicles the elegant gestures and twitches, manic and grand, of Byrne’s ongoing struggle to find a fit between his 3D body and the 2D screen. Toward the end of the film Byrne encases himself in the literal, boxy flatness of a white suit a couple of feet too wide for his frame. Throughout, severe lighting reduces his face to a play of light and dark planes against a field of darkness.

Because Byrne designs such 2D intensity into his figurative presence, I’m tempted to say this film of a rock performance is more pictorial than musical. That would be an exaggeration. From start to finish, the music is powerful—“same as it ever was,” to quote the groups song “Once in a Lifetime.” Now and then it comes close to overwhelming the image on the screen. But it never does.

We let ourselves believe the image of the stage spectacle will cohere because we see it being built. The film begins with a close-up tracking shot of Byrne’s white canvas boat shoes striding toward the camera. As the camera pulls back, it turns out that his destination is a bare stage. “Hi,” says Byrne, whose suit is also white and whose dark hair is carefully slicked down. “I have a tape I want to play.” He sets a ghetto blaster next to the mike, turns it on, you hear a rhythm section, and then Byrne starts to play the chord structure of “Psycho Killer” on his guitar. With his goosenecked head-bobbing and his voice as “tense and nervous” as his lyric, Byrne dismisses all rock-star fictions of an easy contact with the audience. Nor does he play the brute who rejects the audience out of hand. With his eyes sliding off to interior thoughts, with his odd Psycho-Pierrot saunter, and the rag-doll stagger of those moments when the music buffets him.across the stage, Byrne gropes his way to an uneasy contact with the audience.

Tina Weymouth appears next. Her bass frees Byrne’s guitar to follow a melodic line. The music’s complexity builds from number to number, as the rest of the band comes on stage. But for that the stage has to be constructed: as the band plays, the crew wheels one, then another, platform into view. The first bears percussion equipment, the second synthesizers. Everything—traps, keyboards, mikes, personnel—lines up with the edge of the stage. Like the movie screen, the architecture of the image is rectilinear. Behind the Talking Heads you sometimes see the bare white back wall of the stage, sometimes a field of darkness, sometimes projected planes of color—red or blue, with words like “ONION” in white letters ala Ed Ruscha. The words give way to allover images of bookshelves, then a pattern of a night skyline. Then all these flat projections disappear, leaving the blunter flatness of space defined by a proscenium arch.

Designing this concert for the stage, Byrne was like a grown-up assembling a building-block world, complete with people—the four original Talking Heads, plus five more who have gravitated to the band in the 1980s. Byrne’s visits to this world of his own invention are major events, but, as the inventor of the planet of the Talking Heads, he can’t really be a part of it. He’s an outsider and he knows it, signaling his knowledge with a dazzling repertory of alienated moves: grimaces straight out of low-style, brand-X cartoons; mad-scientist leers; sudden fits of the shakes; hyperkinetic lopes around and around the two platforms; a pas de deux with a tilting, lit-up lamp; running in place; hoedown stomps that induce the backup singers, Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt, to join in. They show good spirits but their grace can’t help looking like mockery, as they try to mirror Byrne’s ecstatic clunkiness. Guitar player Alex Weir never tries. His moves are as loose and warmed-up as Byrne’s are tight and cold and wound-up. With his human immediacy, Weir reminds you of all that Byrne’s stage presence has renounced.

Stop Making Sense is about renunciation. With every spasm Byrne jettisons an illusion of contact, communion, expressiveness. Devising a variant on his basic “Psycho Killer” self for each song, he demonstrates over and over that a public self is a Frankenstein self, a monster put together from bits and pieces of image-tissue. But we don’t recoil from this creature, with his inexplicable hand signals, his suddenly empty eyes, and his outer-space versions of hip postures. Like the monster-hero of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the greatest of the gothic romances, the onstage Byrne has feelings. Too many, in fact. They are horridly intense and very close to human. So we empathize with everyone of his dance steps, even though we could never make them.

Byrne and Michael Jackson have one similarity: each has invented a new way to insert the performing body into the possibilities of dance. Jackson’s dancing is a rhetoric of inspired gesture, an attempt to persuade us that he knows instinctively how to endow street moves with the look of physical impossibility. We almost believe this claim to inborn knowledge, even though Jackson has let it be known that he spends hours alone in his room, perfecting his routines in front of a full-length mirror. Byrne works out with a video monitor. Where Jackson tries for a look of superlithe spontaneity, Byrne wants robotic oddness. Jackson pretends, like Liberace, that it’s only natural for him to go everywhere in his stage outfit. Byrne sings in a big suit that wouldn’t work offstage.

Like the Michael Jackson the world knows, the public David Byrne is a jerry-built self. Unlike Jackson, Byrne insists that his visible persona isn’t natural. It is unnatural. Byrne is as polished as Jackson or Lionel Richie or Vic Damone, but what his polish reveals is awkwardness, rawness; android angst. In Stop Making Sense the band serves as the emblem of the world: culture, society, the rock biz, all that is outside a rock singer’s self. Alienated from the band even as it orbits around him, Byrne stands (and twitches) as an emblem of selfhood plagued by self-consciousness, by knowledge of its own put-together Frankensteinian artificiality. And Byrne permits no appeal to sentiment to blunt that knowledge. In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the replicants—lab-born quasi-humans—are melodramatic: programmed to die about four years after manufacture, these creatures accidentally develop feelings that make them yearn for humanity’s standard threescore and ten. So the big violins of soap opera waft through Blade Runner. Byrne is more severe with the notion of alienation. His spookiness burns away all poignancy, whether that of weepy replicants or of the fin-de-siècle lovestruck Pierrot.

Byrne’s white suits read not as a swathing of innocence, but as a near opposite: a pictorially effective way of ensuring that his presence always counts as a figure, relegating everything else to the status of ground. He insists on something that the painterly lather of neo-Expressionism often tries to hide: in a world of institutions, “lifestyles,” and scenes designed to absorb the self, all selves with even a trace of authenticity must acknowledge that they are—but must also object to being—patched together. Selfhood is a state of resistance to the seemingly natural fate of absorption. Its first tactic is to admit that singularity lives by means of artifice: images, fictions, rhetoric. Next, the surviving self must acknowledge the shakiness of all that artifice constructs.

Near the end of Stop Making Sense a shadow appears against the back wall of the stage—it is Byrne’s body distorted by the light beam’s angle. Then the giant suit looms into view, at least doubling the volume of his body, and you realize that the shadow was a distortion of a distortion. During a big-suit song, “Once in a Lifetime,” Byrne arranges his left hand in the form of a duck’s head and quacks it at his own face. “How do I work this?” asks the lyric. The singer is asking about himself, the creature he has invented for use in the world. Enforced by suit, stage, and camera lens, the general flatness insists that Byrne’s self-images are definitely images, if not so definitely selves.

In the song “Life During Wartime,” Byrne gives his pictorialism the job of confining his arm and leg flapping to a narrow plane that reminds me of the spatial constraints on Mannerist figures. And his reductive lighting sets members of the band adrift in shadows that look Caravaggesque—this season, anyway. But his most heavily charged links to painting are the ones that point up the family resemblances between his stage presence and the frantic figures who inhabit neo-Expressionism and its offshoots. ’

Byrne is like one of todays painters, but one who has decided to do without the usual, unexamined faith in art—the automatic assumption that images in high-art mediums must of necessity transcend the status of mere images. This faith is a sentimental kind of snobbery, one designed to prevent a confrontation with the terror of the self and its life as a patched-together artifice. Among all the art-world artists of Byrne’s age, only Robert Longo offers as much resistance to high-art sentimentality. Exploiting his memories of movies, TV, and ads, Longo makes paintings that don’t claim to be paintings or even sculptures in any usual sense. His works are Herculean meditations on the collapse of art mediums and media categories. With all imagery decentered, homeless, Longo asserts the self as the will that imposes a contingent order on the culture’s fragments.

In Pressure, 1983, Longo exchanges Pierrot’s melancholy for bitter knowledge. Byrne’s white suits transform Pierrot from a lovelorn ghost to an automaton haunted by his own displaced humanity. And Longo’s Heads Will Roll, 1984–85, places a silhouette of Byrne’s big-suited character at the right-hand edge of a field that reads as an Action Painting, a housepainter’s mistake, and a low-relief field of suburban housetops.

Carter Ratcliff is a poet and critic who lives in New York: his books on Robert Longo and Pat Steir are forthcoming.