David Byrne has always resisted easy definition. His long-ago group Talking Heads stood out initially for its geeky, reductive, whitebread minimalism, then reinvented itself as a swinging, latter-day big band, brimming over with influences from Northern Africa and South America.
In the years since, Byrne has worked in theater, film, and photography. He founded a venturesome record company, Luaka Bop, and has continued to make his own albums (with and without his long-time musical partner, Brian Eno). He has taken up the cause of bicycling, specifically in New York, which is the usual way he gets around his adopted city (he is a native of Scotland) and which he chronicled in a breezy series of observations in Bicycle Diaries.
How Music Works, his ambitious illustrated new book, is decidedly generous — welcoming, informal, digressive, full of ideas and intelligence — and one has the pleasant sense that Byrne is speaking directly to the reader, sharing a few confidences he has picked up over the years. It is part autobiography, part how-to-guide, part history and part prognostication, all engaging but none really complete. While those who want an in-depth memoir of Talking Heads may be disappointed (although there are some terrific nuggets), Byrne touches on so many subjects that few readers with a more general interest in music will feel left out.
Not surprisingly, he is least convincing when writing about classical music and opera. He’s even a little flinty about it: “I never got Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven — and I don’t feel any worse for it,” he acknowledges. But he has plenty of smart things to say about pop music. “We now think of the sound of recordings when we think of a song or piece of music, and the live performance of that same piece is now considered an interpretation of the recorded version.” True enough, and a distinct change from even 50 years ago. He points out that some of Tom Waits’ songs “would sound pretty corny, sung ‘straight,’ without his trademark growly vocals. The sound of his voice is what makes them work.”
Byrne has been around long enough to recognize that music may be an extraordinary art but that it can also be a tricky business. He examines the history of recording, from wax cylinders to MP3 downloads. He talks specifically about the advances and royalties he has received and then compares the figures to those accrued when he “self-produced” his recent collaboration with Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. He notes the irreversible decline of traditional record stores — Tower, Virgin, Borders and HMV — but recognizes that, through the Internet and other venues, “there have never been more opportunities for a musician to reach an audience.”
“If you think success in the world of music is determined by the number of records sold, or the size of your house or bank account, then I’m not the expert for you. I am more interested in how people can manage a whole lifetime in music.”
It’s a worthwhile goal — and David Byrne and his book make for good company.
Tim Page reviewed this book for The Washington Post.