David Byrne's lyrics, especially in his early days with Talking Heads, put even the most mundane human behavior underneath a magnifying glass to reveal all its wonder and strangeness.
He was the "anthropologist from Mars," instantly staking out a place with his band in the rising punk scene at a mid-'70s dive called CBGB on New York's downtrodden Lower East Side. In one of Byrne's most famous songs, the anthropologist blurts, "Well, how did I get here?"
The singer asks a similar question in "How Music Works," as he tries to make sense of the massive shift over the last few decades in the way music is made, manufactured, distributed and consumed. But his prose can be a little dry — anthropological, if you will — when rehashing the evolution of recording technology or breaking down how music evolves in relation to the environment in which it is performed. In textbook mode, Byrne's writing only fitfully transcends his careful research.
Byrne's most at home when he dives into his own musical experiences, and these sections alone (roughly half the book) make it a worthwhile read. The Rhode Island art-school student that Byrne once was had no ambitions to be a pop star, but found in music a way to communicate with the world. He says that only later in life did he realize that his social ineptitude might have been a byproduct of "a mild form of Asperger's syndrome."
While in college, he plays in an art-folk duo, looking positively Amish in his beard and dark, thrift-store suit. At one performance, his partner plays accordion and a woman holds up cue cards in Russian while Byrne shears off the beard.
"I didn't have a mirror and couldn't manage the razor very well," he writes, "so there was a fair amount of blood."
With Talking Heads in New York, Byrne and his bandmates again carefully shaped not only the music but how best to visually represent it onstage. In an era defined by the excesses of progressive rock and glam, the Heads stripped everything back to its barest minimum: preppy street clothes, white light, minimal songs. It all came with a twist — Byrne embodied a pencil-necked geek onstage with a thousand-mile stare. His strained voice sounded as if he were squeezing it out through an extremely narrow passageway. And yet, his spastic movements and abstract guitar lines combined with a fluid rhythm section to move the music toward funk and R&B. In a small community of excellent bands that included the Ramones, Television, Blondie and the Patti Smith Group, the Heads figured out that "the most subversive thing was to look totally normal" — and you could dance to them.
Those who have obsessed about questions such as why and how the Heads broke up and whether they'll ever reunite will have to look elsewhere for insight. Byrne doesn't engage in any smack talk or gossip. He's more interested in methodology, the process of figuring out what makes a band distinctive. He acknowledges that leaving the Heads and working with Latin musicians on his 1989 "Rei Momo" solo album wasn't the best career move. "Much of my audience soon abandoned me." But he doesn't look back.
Along the way, he experiments with different methods of recording and releasing albums, and — unlike, say, certain political candidates — opens up his financial records to reveal what he paid and how much he made on a couple of key late-career albums. A 2008 collaboration with Brian Eno, "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today," released without the help of a traditional record label, ends up netting him more than $300,000.
"Here finally was the future," he exults.
But he doesn't entirely buy into an all-digital future. He laments the poor sound quality of many digital files. Early MP3s, he says, were a form of "zombie music."
"We are often offered and gladly accept convenient mediums that are 'good enough' rather than ones that are actually better," he writes.
Byrne has no grand vision about where all this disruption will eventually lead. But "How Music Works" suggests that Byrne will be among those in front of the pack, trying to figure out how to get there.
Greg Kot is a music critic for the Chicago Tribune.
How Music Works
By David Byrne, McSweeney's, 332 pages, $32