When he agreed to perform in the talent-show sequence of David Byrne’s first feature film, True Stories, Charles Connour, a 51-year-old Dallas auctioneer, wondered if he had made a mistake. Here was Byrne, New York City slicker and wellspring of the pace-setting pop band Talking Heads, peering through his director’s loupe at the oddball talents of ordinary people. “I was worried,” Connour admits. “Our only information was that it was going to be ‘some story about Texas.’ ”
In Connour’s scene, he and another auctioneer approach each other from opposite sides of a stage while rattling off their trademark patter. As their duel reaches center stage a yodeling cowboy adds his warble to the mix and encircles the auctioneers and himself with a climactic spin of his lasso. When the auctioneers shake hands and smile at the audience, the humor of the moment seems shared, not inflicted. Like the movie as a whole, the scene is both offbeat and upbeat.
Connour left the set with no regrets, but you couldn’t have blamed him for being nervous. Snickering at the foibles of what used to be called the Silent Majority is one of the avant-garde’s smug traditions. “I’ve run up against the preconceived notion that I’m going to be cynical because I am a New Yorker, that I’m going to make fun of other people,” Byrne says. But the idiosyncratic types who populate True Stories—the yo-yo champions and the parading men of the Piano, Texas Lawn Mower Brigade, as well as characters like Ramon (Tito Larriva), who reads friends’ psychic “tones” by grasping their noses—are not exhibits in a freak show. “I think [True Stories] is funny,” Byrne says, “but I don’t think it makes fun of people.”
Instead, it takes heart from small-town whimsy and flakiness, which is something new in the annals of hipness. When performance artist Laurie Anderson flashes her multimedia images of subway doors slamming and clothes tumbling in a dryer, she makes the world seem strange and chilling. When Byrne, as True Stories’ narrator, motors across the surreal Texas landscape in his red Chrysler convertible and pulls in to visit the folks in the fictional town of Virgil, he also finds it strange, but wonderfully so.
Which is not to say that Byrne is just a hip Norman Rockwell. He’s a cool customer, a detached observer. Commenting on the outlandish architecture of the new Dallas Infomart in the companion book to True Stories, he writes, “You feel like you’re laughing at it and admiring it at the same time. It’s a great feeling. Kind of cheers you up.” That’s the Byrne sensibility in a nutshell.
Despite its ambiguities, loosely episodic plot and lack of marquee-able stars, Byrne’s film isn’t aimed solely at the SoHo sophisticate. “I think it’s a mistake to consider it an art film,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing that could be accepted by anyone. Art films have the reputation of being difficult, but I don’t think you have to work to enjoy this.”
Combining the sting of the avant-garde with the accessibility of mass culture has been a goal of Byrne’s since he cofounded the Talking Heads at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1975. Until Byrne learned how to sing and discovered that his rail-thin physique could command the stage, he sounded like a squawking chicken and moved as if electrodes were fastened to his feet. But within the weirdness were brilliant, danceable rhythm and catchy, if angular, melody, inspired by James Brown, Booker T and the MGs and the other pop groups the Heads had grown up with. Byrne’s lyrics were sometimes dismissed as little more than a transcribed anxiety attack. But the subject matter was not far from that of True Stories: What makes people feel good about themselves; why do people behave the way they do; should the yearning for a sense of community be resisted or surrendered to?
Byrne, 34, seems comfortable as both outsider and insider. Born in Scotland, he moved to Baltimore with his parents when he was 7. His sister, Celia, recalls that as a boy, “David just didn’t fit in with the mainstream. He always seemed to have friends, but his interests set him apart.” At art school in the ’70s Byrne accelerated into the burgeoning avant-garde. By 1975 the fledgling Heads hit New York; punk and New Wave were in flower and downtown artists of all stripes were commingling. Byrne had discovered his element.
The Heads began as a cult attraction, but earned six gold albums in their first decade, reinventing themselves stylistically several times. “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco/ This ain’t no fooling around,” Byrne shouted in the band’s 1980 hit, Life During Wartime. He seemed to mean it beyond the context of the song. Branching out, he composed scores for choreographer Twyla Tharp and theater theoretician Robert Wilson, and began to direct the Heads’ videos.
Like Woody Allen, who long ago proved he was much more than a stand-up comic, Byrne has shown he is much more than a rock ‘n’ roll savant. While he may stare at the ground and speak in near whispers, he doesn’t think of himself as strange. “Strange implies that I am disturbed or unhappy or alienated,” he says, “and I don’t feel much of that at all.” Byrne’s jittery space cadet, like Allen’s old nebbish character, was part defense, the disguise of a shy and philosophical soul. Where Allen’s style is literary, Byrne’s is visual. People are always complaining that Allen isn’t funny anymore. As Byrne keeps looking at the world, others may lament that he isn’t nervous and distracted anymore. As with Allen, that will mean Byrne is simply closing in on what really interests him.