David Byrne Offers Advice on How to Enjoy Music

What is it about place that makes music special? The rock star dissects what he enjoys about what he hears, from opera to jazz to radio hits

David Byrne, shown in his New York City office in 2009. (© Jason Nocito / Corbis Outline)

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I was interested because this was the kind of fringe of jazz that was more experimental. But I realized it was also on a borderline, because it was also kind of popular: It was playing at a ballroom; he wasn’t playing at the symphony hall or some kind of pristine supper club. Not at the Blue Note or anything like that—not that they wouldn’t have him. Then I would see other acts when I was young – like Duke Ellington was playing Carnegie Hall – and you realize that as much as you might like some of the music, you had no experience of him playing on a bandstand with people dancing. That was not something I ever experienced. You only saw this person who was now revered as this deity. …

And so you go somewhere else. I remember going to a club in New Orleans and hearing Dirty Dozen playing just for hours, and people just dancing. Of course it’s New Orleans, they’re dancing all the time, and its people are loving the band but they’re not like sitting there reverentially paying attention to the band. And so I started to realize: Oh, this is what jazz used to be like. And whether it was a survival instinct or whatever else – it has now, for most of us, become something else. I thought: ooh, my perception of what the music means – how you enjoy it, how you perceive it physically as well as intellectually—is being completely skewed by the context that we hear the music in, not by the music itself. Anyway, I realized: Oh, that must happen with other kinds of music too.

You lament a bit how the nostalgia industry eventually eclipsed what happened in those early years of the American punk movement, at CBGBs. But that was, as you note, a place where a lot of different artistic practices were being made newly accessible to a young audience. Talking Heads included

There was a little bit of a spike in the idea that anybody who could figure out to do something—they didn’t have to have hardly any musical skills whatsoever—but if they could do something and work it out, that could have value. It came out of a cultural moment of people being ignored and not listened to and being alienated. And financially, you know, the economy was in terrible shape, as it is now, but all those factors helped push people into feeling like then we’re going to make, if no one else is doing it, music for ourselves anyway.

But I don’t think it was a unique moment. I think it happens a lot.

Still, you do lament the contemporary rise of the commercial radio conglomerate Clear Channel, which you basically blame for turning the mass airwaves into pablum. What affect do you think that has had on musical adventurousness?

People can find their way out of that walled-in thing. But it just makes it harder. You have to really go looking and make a decision that you’re walking away from that. Which is not just walking away from a radio station, it’s walking away from a social network. All your friends know those songs, and everybody hears this new song when it comes out. And if you’re walking away from that to go somewhere else, it’s kind of like you’re not sharing the values of your friends anymore.

That’s more difficult than just being curious, I think. The big kind of corporate cultural things kind of prey on that we’ll all be happy when we all like exactly the same things. [Laughs]

You mention in the book that the best-kept secret in the New York cultural scene is the bounty of fantastic Latin-American music here, which is hard to argue with.

It’s incredible. You know some of the best musicians of that style in the world are all here. But there’s this willful ignorance of all that; we don’t want to hear about that. There’s just this incredible richness of music, great popular stuff and great kind of sophisticated stuff. So I find there’s a kind of boundary there, [and] I crossed that boundary some years ago. And I alienated a lot of fans. But oh, whatever! [Laughs]


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