These Memories Can't Wait
It was the most unlikely reunion -- and, perhaps, a most empty one, because it would lead to absolutely nothing at all except more hard feelings, more regret, and more pain. There they were only last April at the San Francisco Film Festival, together for the first time since their breakup a decade earlier. Ladies and gentleman, the Talking Heads: Jerry Harrison, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth ... and, yes, David Byrne. If they did not appear to be giddy at the prospect of sitting together behind a table draped in a white sheet, taking questions from the attending media, then at least it all seemed so cordial. Maybe it was something like long-lost members of a family gathering around the picnic table, struggling to talk to one another without looking away.
"It was kind of like opening up an old wound -- no, that's too much of a cliché," Frantz says, chuckling. "It was kind of a pain in the ass."
They had, for the time, put behind them all the regret, all the acrimony, and all the litigation to attend a press conference and screening of Stop Making Sense, their 1984 concert film that had been revived and restored and, finally, given the proper consideration due one of the greatest live-music movies ever made. (The restored version was released on DVD and VHS last week.) It was only appropriate, since the movie debuted at the same fest fourteen years earlier. But, as it turned out, memories can't wait: When the four members of the Heads strolled into the Castro Theatre for the premiere, with director Jonathan Demme in tow, Byrne excused himself and sat at the opposite end of the row, far from his old bandmates. Perhaps Byrne was uncomfortable with the notion that 1500 audience members would not only be watching the movie, but also watching the band watching the movie. How could he not consider the moment a little disconcerting, a little overwhelming ... and not a little creepy?
And maybe there was a little part of Frantz, Weymouth, and Harrison that understood this. Frantz acknowledges that the moment was "pretty strange," and he says it with the chuckle of understatement. Still, there were feelings hurt: How dare David separate himself from us once more, all these years later? It was not quite enough, however, to ruin the night for the three other Heads. As Frantz sat there watching a fifteen-years-younger version of himself behind the drum kit, so many things ran through his mind. He was reminded of how amazing the movie was and remains ("what a great work of art"), and of how wonderful the Talking Heads were. He listened to the songs, among them "Psycho Killer," "Girlfriend Is Better," "Take Me to the River," "Heaven," and "Slippery People"; he gazed upon the 1980s outfits and choreographed dance moves; and he was immediately back in that place. Back in 1983 when the Talking Heads were the best rock and roll and funk band in the world. Back among friends and lovers (he and Weymouth have been married for more than two decades). Back in that perfect place.
"It was intense," he says. "The feelings that came over me were pretty emotional. That band was an amazing band, and every night was a religious experience -- without exaggerating too much, I must say. We really did something. For a while there, I remember it felt like we could do no wrong, not in an egotistical way, but we were amazed. I think we surprised ourselves more than once. That chemistry was very exciting, and we made the effort to keep it that way, not to necessarily create a platform to reach a mass audience, but we sold plenty of records." He pauses. "Nothing like the Backstreet Boys, but still...."
But as the movie unspooled, he began to wonder how it had all gone so wrong, how this astonishing band, which seemed to change personalities on each record (from minimalist New Wavers to multiculti Afro-pop aggregation and back again) without sacrificing its identity, had destroyed itself just when all felt so right.
"Of course there was the feeling of, what did I do wrong that this isn't happening? What could I have done to change it, to make it continue?" Frantz says. "Then I came to the conclusion I didn't do anything wrong. There's nothing I could have done to prevent the demise of the Talking Heads. We started the band and did everything we could to keep it going. But in the end, that wasn't enough."
In some ways it's surprising that Frantz would want to talk about Stop Making Sense and the Talking Heads all these years later, because he has spent ten years trying to get over the hurt caused by the band's dissolution. He admits he hasn't even seen the movie since its release in 1984; oh, maybe the kids have popped the tape in the VCR once or twice, but he and Tina certainly haven't gone back for a nostalgic peek. There was simply no reason to go there.
This is a band that left as its legacy so many bad feelings; as it self-destructed, it left in its wake a soap opera that, to this day, continues to unfold in slow motion. Frantz will admit as much when he laments the fact that the Heads do not, in 1999, remain a much-discussed band, having taken the back seat to contemporaries such as Patti Smith, Television, Blondie, and so many other CBGB's refugees who seem to have been written larger in the history books. Sure, the Heads were famous, golden children of the New Wave revolution. But history hasn't treated them too kindly; rare are the occasions when historians mention Remain in Light or More Songs About Buildings and Food or Little Creatures. The band may have had hits, a "Burning Down the House" here or an "And She Was" there, but try to remember the last time you heard anyone talk about the band. Talk with any passion. As in: Damn, that was a great band.
"We were almost overrated during our day, but we're almost too much forgotten now," Frantz says, insisting he's thrilled by the re-release of Stop Making Sense, if only so the kids might remember who he used to be. "When you hear bands talk about influences, you hear Television and Patti Smith and the Clash, but you rarely hear these young bands say Talking Heads, which surprises me, because a lot of them sound like Talking Heads. I don't know, maybe we're just no longer chic. We are merely popular. And I think that was caused by a lot of bad vibes and a certain person burning a lot of bridges. That's what I think did it. Who wants to be identified with that kind of person?"
There is still more than a trace of bitterness in Frantz's voice; the animosity lingers like stale smoke trapped in old clothes. This, despite Frantz's insistence that all is forgiven, if not exactly forgotten. Frantz and Weymouth, whose Tom Tom Club will release a new record on the couple's own label next year, remain close friends with Harrison. They've toured and recorded various times during the past ten years, even going on the road as the Shrunken Heads at the beginning of the 1990s, with Harrison capably filling in for Byrne on lead vocals. But the three have not had much communication with Byrne since he abruptly busted up the band after 1988's Naked, a brilliant last hurrah, even if the Heads did not yet know they were recording their farewell.
Frantz says he has communicated with Byrne through e-mail. And even then it's only when absolutely necessary, usually about business matters, such as a greatest-hits collection issued a few years back or the re-release of Stop Making Sense, both the film and its accompanying soundtrack, which Warner Bros. reissued a few weeks ago in the correct sequence, with several songs added to the disc.
Then there were those pesky legal issues when Frantz, Weymouth, and Harrison reconvened as The Heads in 1996, releasing a record with various guests standing in for Byrne. Byrne need not have worried, since the album No Talking Just Head stiffed and the scheduled tour fell apart when Concrete Blonde singer Johnette Napolitano backed out at the last minute. "She freaked on us; what can I say?" Frantz recalls. "I wish that would have gone better." If nothing else The Heads helped the three bandmates put to rest a little of the unfinished business they all thought was left over when Byrne walked away without warning, without saying goodbye after nearly sixteen years of friendship. Frantz likes to insist he holds no grudge, that he is, at best, merely disappointed, which is a huge improvement over how he once felt, gravely depressed.
"There are some good memories; we did have some good times," the drummer admits. "I look at the screen, and we're having a good time with our lives. But it took us a long time to get over the fact Talking Heads was over. It was something we should have seen coming. Or maybe we did see it coming, but we were in denial and hoping it wouldn't end. But it did, and unfortunately it's out of our control. I wish it was, because we'd still be together."
Throughout this conversation he throws out sharp, snide asides that still bear the sting of a scorned lover. After all, the band was as much his as it was Byrne's. The two founded the Heads (then called The Artistics) in 1974, when they were attending the Rhode Island School of Design. Early on their repertoire consisted of everything from the 1910 Fruitgum Company's "1-2-3 Red Light" to songs that eventually would make their way on to the Heads' set list, namely "Warning Sign" and "Psycho Killer." But Byrne emerged as the frontman; it is his body shown on the cover of Stop Making Sense, and it was his face and his misshapen voice with which the band came to be identified. By the end surely there were those in the Heads' audience who thought of it as David Byrne and his back-up band. That never did sit well with Frantz, Weymouth, and Harrison, the last of whom joined the band after a stint with The Modern Lovers.
Even now, when talking about how glorious it is to see Stop Making Sense in its restored form -- with songs added, colors touched up, sound remixed -- Frantz can't help but mention how it's really Byrne's film, in a way. The film, after all, was his concept, from the way the band members stroll out one by one during the opening songs to the oversize suit Byrne wears. He was its star -- the vocalist as Lead Character -- with the other group members as his supporting cast.
Frantz says Demme(who would go on to direct films such as Married to the Mob and Silence of the Lambs) had originally proposed re-releasing the film in 1996. But Frantz, Weymouth, and Harrison were about to put out No Talking Just Head and thought the timing might be a little awkward, at best. Three years later, Chris Blackwell (the founder of Island Records, which funded Stop Making Sense) approached the band about touring a restored version of the film, under the auspices of his new company, Palm Pictures. Surprisingly the musicians agreed, none quicker than Byrne.
"Why not?" Frantz says. "The movie makes him look fantastic, and he needs that. Wouldn't you agree? That was the idea, his and Jonathan Demme's, from the very beginning. I'm not knocking David's performance, but it's all directed to make him look good. Still, he's no Ricky Martin...." He trails off, laughing slightly. See, there he goes again, still holding that grudge. One would think that would all be water under the bridge, if not water long evaporated, by now. Frantz and Weymouth may not have thrived in the post-Heads era, but they haven't suffered, either; indeed Mariah Carey's use of the Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" in her top-of-the-pops song "Fantasy" has been worth a fistful of nice royalty checks. ("Genius of Love" and its sequel, "Pleasure of Love," rank among the most sampled of songs, appearing in tracks by LL Cool J, Ziggy Marley, and, of course, Puff Daddy.) And Harrison has carved out a rather lucrative career as a producer for bands such as Live, The Verve Pipe, Rusted Root; he also operates his own Website, www.garageband.com, which is sort of an Internet battle-of-the-bands venue.
But maybe good memories die hard. Maybe it's just impossible sometimes to let go of a brilliant yesterday, when the world was full of possibilities, and the music seemed to offer something mysterious and remarkable every time the four of them stepped into a room together. For that who can blame Chris Frantz? For him, the day the Heads died was the day he lost a little bit of himself.
Yet -- and here's the strange part -- even now he holds out a bit of hope that, some day the band will get together one more time. Maybe it will happen at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies; the hall recently called and asked, if so honored, whether the Talking Heads would appear and perform. Frantz and Weymouth said they would love to: "We'll play 'Psycho Killer,' whatever," Frantz says. But on the same day as this interview, Byrne appeared on salon.com quashing such talk. "Once I would probably do it," he said. "But now, I don't think so." Byrne compares a reunion to a couple getting back together only so others can relive their pain.
There is something in Frantz's voice that says he would not mind a little extra hurt. It's better than nothing at all.
Get the Music Newsletter