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Once in a Lifetime

[whitespace] Stop Making Sense

Fifteen years later, the Talking Heads film, 'Stop Making Sense,' strikes a timely generational chord and makes more sense than ever

By Richard von Busack

Ah, what's the matter with him?
How do you know?

THIS EXCHANGE of lyrics is key to Stop Making Sense, the greatest rock-concert film ever made. When Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry deliver the assurance that the Lord won't mind on the chorus of "Slippery People," their shout of joy overwhelms the musical tension that David Byrne and the Talking Heads have been building. Holt and Mabry's harmonies smash through the wired-up instrumentation the same way that Byrne's vocals bust out of him, as if he were fighting to keep his voice down even as he sings.

Watching Stop Making Sense anew after a decade and a half (the 1984 film receives a limited rerelease, starting May 28), it's easy to see how director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) sets up this pivotal moment.

First comes the entrance of Mabry and Holt--a pair of young beauties, dressed in gray cut-off sweats. We see them in long shot from the back seats of the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in L.A., skipping up to the mics and waving to the crowd.

Cut to percussionist Steven Scales, seated, a grimace of pleasure on his face, thumping a pair of bongos with his taped-up fingers.

Cut back to the long shot, as a scrim descends behind the band.

Cut to Byrne in close-up. Behind him, at an angle, Holt and Mabry are shaking their shoulders, vamping the audience, flashing their million-dollar smiles. Byrne, Mr. Coffee Nerves, the embodiment of the wound-up individual, is on the verge of cracking up.

The verse, as I understand it, says: Look at the slippery bastards. Do I have to name them? God help us, help us to surmise their plans, their schemes.

As the music steps up to the chorus, Byrne, shaking to the beat, turns his head to cue the backup singers, who yell out their affirmative message: Look at that bundle of nerves. He's all right. The Lord won't mind.

The moment has the twang of barbed wire that's been sundered.

No Ego Spoils

THIS FILM CAN MAKE YOU feel like you're seeing a rock concert for the first time. It embodies a perfect concert--no drunk harasses, no concessionaire gouges, no security guard intimidates and no ego spoils.

Acclaimed in its time, Stop Making Sense has been little seen in recent years. This epitome of the rock-concert film was an independent movie bankrolled by the band, which broke up in the early '90s. Though it can occasionally be found on tape, Stop Making Sense was released on laser disc only in Japan, and even that version is no longer available.

There were those (I'm not the only one) who couldn't bear to see Stop Making Sense on a small screen after seeing it on a big one. So it's a shock to encounter the film in its new version, in preparation for a DVD release. The sharp remastered soundtrack and velvety cool visuals play much more powerfully than they did in 1984--probably because one believed at the time that a band that good would just go on forever. Knowing better now, we can appreciate the Talking Heads all the more.

The cleaned-up print highlighted this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Shortly after the screening, the estranged members of the band came out to talk about the film.

There was Chris Frantz, the drummer, beefy, red-faced and looking like a Boston Irish cop. Next to him was his wife, the funk-loving bass player, Tina Weymouth, easily mistaken for a chic soccer mom. To their right stood the band's guitarist, Jerry Harrison, who lives in the Bay Area now.

(Early on, the Talking Heads had a Bay Area connection. Their first single was recorded on the East Bay label Beserkley. The since-demised company was the home of Jonathan Richman, front man for Harrison's previous band, the Modern Lovers.)

At the end of the table: 46-year-old singer and songwriter David Byrne, pensive and tense in a black and pink sports coat.

This was the Talking Heads' first public meeting after legal squabbles. Did they feel like getting back together as a band after seeing the movie?

"I haven't seen the movie yet," Harrison deadpanned.

The band outlined the history of Stop Making Sense. Demme's career was at a low ebb. "It was the worst time of his life," according to Byrne. By day, the director worked on his troubled movie Swing Shift, a project complicated by disputes with the film's star, Goldie Hawn.

"We kind of resented Jonathan moonlighting on us," Weymouth joked. (Eventually, Hawn won the battle. The movie was taken from Demme and recut. It flopped.) Stop Making Sense, Demme's underground project, was put together on a low budget. "I think it cost what a rock video would cost to make today," Weymouth noted.

Using six stationary and two handheld cameras, Demme filmed the band candidly and unobtrusively. "A lot of the time, we weren't aware we were on camera," Harrison recalled.

Demme and his cinematographer, Jordan Cronenweth, filmed the Talking Heads over the course of three nights at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Stop Making Sense, however, transcends the mere recording of a show. Demme bypassed the crowd shots and interviews that often break the spell of a concert in a film. It's the work of a director in love with the band he's recording, and yet it's never foolish love.

"Like a lot of Jonathan Demme's movies, this one is character-driven," Byrne observed. "I was surprised--he revealed things that we weren't aware of, such as relationships and interactions onstage. He kept it simple and allowed the music to come through. More important than his staging, I think, was his character development."

Stop Making Sense
Non-Rigid Positions: Performers and Talking Heads band members play during a scene from Jonathan Demme's 1984 feature, 'Stop Making Sense.' (From left to right) Chris Frantz, David Byrne, Lynn Mabry, Tina Weymouth, Alex Weir and Steve Scales.

How Did They Get Here

THE FILM DOES have a narrative, which isn't expressed through dialogue or through lyrics. Instead the story unfolds through the spirit of the music itself. Byrne opens, solus, onstage with an acoustic guitar. The band ends as a nine-member orchestra. Behind the musicians, we can see black-clad stagehands wheeling in mobile stages. Intermittently, a screen descends as new players are plugged in and wired up. Because Demme shows us how a rock concert is put together, Stop Making Sense is the opposite of rock as theater.

Although Stop Making Sense isn't theatrical, it is dramatic. On the Talking Heads' first three albums, Byrne wore the mask of a repressed North American, either agitated in the extreme or nervously assuring the listener that he was having a good time. In many of the band's songs, Byrne snorts like a frightened horse as he describes America, a country whose next move he can't predict.

Now and then, the singer is stricken by amnesia. How did I get here? he asks in "Once in a Lifetime." In that hit from the fourth Talking Heads album, Remain in Light, Byrne describes a man whose illusions have been wiped out by one burst of enlightenment: "This is not my beautiful wife, this is not my beautiful home."

Robert Crumb once drew a cartoon about a tightly wound suit named Whiteman who had a mantra, which he uses to keep from going the way of the underclass: "I must maintain this rigid position, or all is lost!" In Stop Making Sense, Byrne acts out his own struggle with good solid North American restraint--a battle played out in the very clothes he wears. When Byrne dons the famous Big White Suit, it functions as a sign of sorts: "I am a square." Later, the Big White Suit turns buttery, floppy; it shows its soft contours as Byrne dances, gets loose, unwinds.

The title of the film, taken from verses of the song "Girlfriend Is Better," casts a vote against restraint and for looseness, craziness, slack--that combination of the spiritual and the physical that informs the best rock & roll.

Loosening up is a subject dear to director Demme's heart. Like Stop Making Sense, Demme's Something Wild (1986) tells the story of a besuited square (Jeff Daniels) getting down; last year's Beloved concerns a proud, bitter woman (Oprah Winfrey) learning to soften, to save herself. And the conversations between Dr. Lecter and agent Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) give the law-woman the necessary flexibility to find a killer.

But Stop Making Sense is more than Byrne's story. In a way, the film tells the story of how the Talking Heads jumped out of their skins as a skittish art-punk group and metamorphosed into a funk orchestra. By redoing some of their spooky, cold classics as rave-ups in the film, the band changed the message of the songs from fearfulness to delight.

The film begins with a closeup on Byrne's white shoes as he crosses the empty stage of the Pantages Theater holding a prop boombox. "Hi. I've got a tape I want to play," he tells the audience. The beat begins for the early hit "Psycho Killer." Byrne straps on his acoustic guitar and sings along.

When Byrne first came to New York from art school in Rhode Island, he lived with his fellow students Frantz and Weymouth in a Lower East Side studio. To pay the rent, he worked as an usher at a movie theater. Because Byrne was an outsider in Manhattan and conversant with movies, it's easy to imagine that "Psycho Killer" is a tribute to the film Taxi Driver, which had come out about the same time Byrne started playing music in a band.

"I've got to face up to the facts/I'm tense and nervous, and I can't relax," he sings. The song's chorus is in French, to tantalize the listener: "The things I did on that night/The things she said on that night/Realizing my hope/I threw myself towards glory." Could that be a description of Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle about to launch his rampage to avenge Iris the child whore?

Here we find the Talking Heads at their most minimal: just the thumping beat; Harrison, unseen, playing a trembling guitar; and Byrne's unique vocals--half Quickdraw McGraw, half Dennis Weaver from Touch of Evil.

"We were angular and jittery in those days," drummer Frantz said in 1999, about 1977, when the band first came to prominence. "Nobody was confident. We weren't smooth performers who could seduce an audience with their talent."

Music During Wartime

AT THE EDGY start of Stop Making Sense, the members of the band trickle in. First to arrive is the shaggy blonde, Weymouth. She's slightly pregnant and jump-suited, standing side by side with Byrne playing the heartbreaking ballad "Heaven." The song is a weary Weimar Republic-style number about the afterworld as a place where nothing ever happens, where each party repeats itself in perfection. Every kiss is repeated, the same way, the same time.

So far, Byrne's performance has trafficked in isolation and despair. Now the band reminds the audience that they are not alone, preaching the democratic punk message of doing it yourself and persuading the listener that anyone could do what they were doing. "With a little practice, you can walk, you can talk, just like me!" Byrne exults against Harrison's bluegrass licks in "Thank You for Sending Me an Angel."

During the interviews for the reissue of Stop Making Sense, Byrne, Weymouth, Frantz and Harrison all stressed the one thing they liked most about performing. Early on, they never felt there was any barrier between them and the audience. When they were a novice band, playing pizza parlors and bars, fans would invite them home, show them around their towns.

One important difference between the Talking Heads and previous bands that urged audiences to join forces with them: the Talking Heads were dedicated urbanites. They didn't pretend that there was a magical bucolic world to which one could escape.

In the group's first albums--Talking Heads '77, More Songs About Buildings and Food (1978) and the thorny Fear of Music (1979)--you can feel an undercurrent of political trouble brewing in the Talking Heads' home base of New York. A gap was beginning to open between the lower and upper classes. The Cold War was still raging. Ronald Reagan had ascended to the height of his popularity. ("The president's crazy! Did you hear what he said?" Byrne sings in "Making Flippy Floppy," the eighth song in Stop Making Sense.)

The ruthless song "Life During Wartime" paints a picture of a state of siege, with rules for underground living spelled out: stash food, change identities, keep a low profile. "We dress like students/We dress like housewives," Byrne intones.

Heard in 1999, the 20-year-old Fear of Music reminds you of frightening times. Often on the album, Byrne's vocals are gasping, out of breath. He's a winded messenger just arriving with the bad news. In "Life During Wartime," Byrne poses a question: All societies burn sometimes, why not yours? ("Why go to college? Why stay in night school?/Is it going to be different this time?") The "touch monkeys"--lovers--that the croaking fascist vocalist sneers at in the song "Swamp," in Stop Making Sense, are also living in a fool's paradise.

When "Life During Wartime" is performed in the film,, the song still features the rattling, raspy keyboards from the chilling original version of Fear of Music, but the performance is otherwise bouncy, playful, a rave-up. This live version is about as shadowy as a football cheer. The new treatment tells the audience that they have the numbers--repression and greed won't stop them.

At this point, as the show draws to its finale, the Talking Heads start to contemplate the infinite. On the closing number, "Take Me to the River," Byrne's vocals, stripped at last of the urban tension that wired him up, rise to a honking yell. The song is filmed with a burst of right-on-the-mark cutting by Demme, the last big rocket in a fireworks display.

The Talking Heads version of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" (from More Songs About Buildings and Food) was one of four different covers of that strange song in 1978. Foghat, Levon Helm and Bryan Ferry also took a whack at it.

Here's what makes the song strange. In the verse, Green sings about the fickleness of a mooching, conniving 16-year-old girlfriend. Then, in the chorus, he longs to be sanctified, to be taken to the great river Jordan and to have his sins washed away. How do these two different concerns connect? Will the girl's sex transfigure the singer, get him in touch with the eternal? Does he need to escape from her sinful ways? If so, why is he calling to her, begging to be held?

The Talking Heads' studio version was produced by Brian Eno, who fills the background with his trademark pocks, thumps and sighs--the almost inaudible noises you'd hear if you were sleepless on a spaceship. The warm sound of an organ marches in, as juicy with vibrato as a ballpark Wurlitzer. But the echo of the organ, played by Jerry Harrison, has been treated: each note is cut off bluntly; there's no fade.

Against this mix of the earthy and unearthly, Weymouth's bass spells out the pattern. Now, Byrne's voice speaks up, quiet, tender, remote: "I don't know why I love you like I do. All those changes that you put me through."

This masterpiece of isolation epitomizes the '80s New Wave. So many of the performers in that musical legion were artists who looked at the future--quite rightly, as it turned out--as a place of conformity, panic and the artificial. Using rock beats and rock instruments, these same musicians were trying to find the soul, the humanity in the cyberland to come.

The Stop Making Sense version of "Take Me to the River" offers an alternative to the song's combination of menace and loss. Mabry and Holt chant out the title as the band revels in salvation. Demme's camera takes in the sweat and the fury of the show in its closing moments. The mourning tone of the studio version becomes a celebration. The cheating girl, just another slippery person, is reduced to insignificance. The singer and the audience have found heaven on their own accord.

Stop Making Sense Remain in Light: David Byrne stands tall in his legendary Big White Suit, which starts out looking as rigid as a straightjacket, but turns buttery and floppy as Byrne metamorphoses into a man whose illusions have been destroyed.

Byrne Zone

DAVID BYRNE was born in Scotland and raised in Canada. He's not an American citizen. This may be the reason for both his interest in Americana and his aloofness from it. The Talking Heads have always appealed to people who felt like strangers in middle America. Byrne's conflicted feelings for the U.S. are explored in the movie True Stories (1986), in which Byrne, playing himself, imagines a Texas town of "specialness," where eccentrics are welcomed.

Sometimes he imagines the home waiting for him: from More Songs About Buildings and Food, "Don't Worry About the Government," about a foolishly happy apartment dweller; on Stop Making Sense, "Naive Melody (This Must Be the Place)," about that perfect home that somehow doesn't exist. As he sings "Naive Melody," Byrne does a dance with a homely oversized standing lamp (a prop; no lamp was the right size or would stand up to his weight). Slides of beautiful North American houses in the twilight shine behind him. "Home is where I want to be," he sings.

Byrne's best song abut his conflicted feelings is "The Big Country" from More Songs About Buildings and Food. The singer is looking at the continent from the God's-eye perspective of a jet liner. (Harrison's slow-handed, stretched-out slide guitar is a distant echo of the country music being played miles below.) Green with envy, the singer sees it all: the baseball diamonds, nice weather down there, maybe the smoke from some barbecues.

Then he snaps out of his romantic reveries. There's no room for his kind. "I wouldn't live there if you paid me to," he shrugs, the taste of sour grapes in his mouth.

Actually, it's a miracle that a band so profoundly uninterested in demographics survived as long as the Talking Heads did. Today, all four of the band members shared scant optimism about the music business. Weymouth: "No band can get a deal. It's all the same people who were standing in our way when we were trying to break through. If this band did anything good, it opened the doors for music that's off the beaten track. But those doors are closed again."

Looking for signs of hope, Weymouth pointed to the band Phish, which survives through heavy touring and producing its own albums, which is the old punk-rock survival plan. (Mock the Grateful Dead if you will, but they knew enough to follow that route.)

Weymouth and Frantz are still playing music, planning a rerelease of their own spin-off project, the Tom Tom Club. (Frantz and Weymouth's Tom Tom Club appears in Stop Making Sense, playing their modest hit "Genius of Love." It's one of those awkward moments every great movie needs to keep from being too perfect to watch. It's also just at the right spot for a trip to the lobby. Frantz admitted that the sequence of the Tom Tom Club was included to give Byrne a chance to change into his Big White Suit.)

The Talking Heads fell victim to the usual creative skirmishes, and the yearning for peace and quiet that shivers the timbers of so many dreamboat bands. Byrne's interest shifted to salsa and African pop. He abandoned that fascination with rock that all members of a rock band must share, or else split up.

After Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads went on to parenthood and coziness. Reagan was gone, taking the sting out of their music. Tina and Chris went to nest in George Bush's own Connecticut. And why not? (As if I wouldn't live there if you paid me to.)

But when I heard Byrne singing "Cute, cute, little baby" on the infant-ogling song "Stay Up Late" on the album Little Creatures (1985), it was the last straw. Too smug. Too sweet. What are they trying to be, Raffi?

Pity, because by giving up on Talking Heads, I missed "(Nothing but) Flowers" on the group's last album, Naked (1988). As if cued by an invisible hand, the song came up on my car's tape deck a couple of days ago. I was slinking into the parking lot of a brand-new Goliathplex theater to catch a movie.

This theater, this abomination, a barn without the hay, had just been thrown up in a roadside gladiolus farm that would be blooming right about now if it hadn't been bulldozed. In "(Nothing but) Flowers," Byrne sings from the point of view of a post-apocalyptic guy remembering all the dead malls that are nothing but wildflower patches now. Listening to the song and looking at this brand-new monstrosity, I was cheered that the flowers wouldn't be gone for long.

Nothing's more transient than a rock concert, and Stop Making Sense preserves the look of a moment of musical brilliance that would have evaporated otherwise. Personally, reseeing Stop Making Sense reconciled me to the way that rock bands go the way of all flesh. The too-fond fan thinks that a band's parting of the ways undoes everything that went before.

The breakup seems to prove that a singer wasn't really a nice guy, that there wasn't really a rapport between him and the guitarist--that everything was staged, phony. Probably we feel that way because of those raw, adolescent emotions touched by rock.

An unenlightened kid will view a divorce that same way, supposing that divorce means that true love was never there in the first place. Wrong, isn't it? Watching Stop Making Sense is like watching evidence of the rapport and the togetherness. Yes, there was love and partnership. They were there, they were for real, they were the real thing. Thanks to this movie, they still are.

Stop Making Sense (1984), a concert film directed by Jonathan Demme with the Talking Heads, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the May 27-June 2, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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