It wasn’t that long ago that David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, and Alex Timbers were responsible for the unique landmark musical, “Here Lies Love,” at the Public Theater. It’s still a shame it couldn’t be moved to Broadway or filmed, but the Alex Timbers directed night was historic and memorable.
To make it a little easier on themselves, Byrne and Timbers are back, this time on Broadway, for “David Byrne’s American Utopia.” (Timbers is creative consultant this time, Annie-B Parsons is choreographer and director of musical staging.) This is a hybrid of a Broadway musical, experimental theater, and a rock concert with brilliant choreography and stage setting. I could not have loved it more.
Byrne, you know, is an artist, a genius, let’s face it. The breakthrough music he wrote for Talking Heads between 1977 and 1988 was a substantial meal then. Now it’s a four star event. Those songs– the bulk of this show– were always theatrical. In the early 80s there was always talk of bringing albums like “Remain in Light” and “Fear of Music” to off Broadway.
Starting as a nervous quartet from the Rhode Island School of Design, the quirky foursome had songs like “Psycho Killer” and “Don’t Worry About the Government” that were peppy, catchy, and strange. They were among the early New Wave groups. Seymour Stein signed them to Sire Records, and they were off and running. (I saw them early, early on in Boston, where, like the Cars, Blondie, the Ramones, they overturned pop music.)
In a couple of years, the Heads were performing at Radio City Music Hall with African musicians, stomping through “Life During Wartime” (aka This Ain’t No Disco) and “I Zimbra.” They were magic. I’m looking at their set list from November 2, 1980– 39 years ago– and it’s quite stunning how far ahead Byrne, Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison were in front of anyone at that moment.
The “American Utopia” songs aren’t a lot different, and their timelessness is no surprise. Even now, Byrne is like Einstein compared to today’s pop purveyors. He’s experimental and commercial, avant garde and populist all at the same time. The ideas of brain connectivity, of humans meeting humans on equal playing fields, on embracing the strange remain or are even more compelling than ever.
Byrne is joined on a spare gray stage by six percussionists, two guitarists, and two background vocalists. Everyone sings, plays, dances, moves. Timbers, with choreographer Annie-B Parson, has built on Byrne’s past performance history, especially the famous Jonathan Demme-directed “Stop Making Sense,” to create a concise narrative. Byrne, now 67, is no longer that geeky string bean I saw at the Rat in Boston in 1977. A tad fleshier, with a thick mop of gray, he twirls and stomps. His voice, always reedy in Hank Williams way, enforces lush values. He’s also just self-deprecating enough so that we don’t take any of this too seriously.
Of course, the centerpiece is “Once in a Lifetime,” which grabs a standing ovation among those who know it deserves its own Pulitzer Prize. “This is not my beautiful wife!” Byrne preaches. “This is not my beautiful house! My god, What. Have. I. Done???” The song is like Cheever, Updike, Richard Yates, and Styron all rolled into one. Its flipside, “This Must be the Place,” remains one of rock’s most beautiful, melancholy melodies. Knowing he’s in a Broadway house, where there’s a little intimidation, Byrne advises the audience it’s ok to dance to “Burning Down the House.” Last night everyone was relieved to remove invisible seat belts. The funk was just too persuasive.
I’ll see it again if they let me. Don’t miss this. Make a point of it.
PS I owe so much of my music education from 1977 to WBCN Boston’s Charles Laquidara. I hear he’s in Hawaii now. I awoke one morning to my radio singing a song about buildings and civil servants. It was Charles playing “Don’t Worry About the Government” on the day it came out. A life changing 18 months later I returned to New York, where no station would play this music. Now it’s nostalgia. Thank you, Charles. That song opens “American Utopia.” I thought of you as I hummed along.