Making Sense of David Byrne through Catharsis

Design by Iris Tsouris

He moves like the most intricate marionette. Every joint seems attached to its own string, operated by some manipulator who often becomes so sucked into the act of playing with one set of joints that it forgets about the others. It would perhaps explain why his movements are jerking, yet pattern-oriented—he begins a sequence of repeating the same movement over and over, then swaps without fluidity to another. Both knees bent, he raises one, then the other, then the first, then the second; this occurs a dozen times, long enough to infect the other band members as they begin again. Yet they’re playing catch-up; once they get into the rhythm of this upright crab-walk, he (or his operator) has moved on, now to snapping his head back from the microphone, eyes wide with shock. There’s an impossible rapidity to this transition, and to the next, where he is on the ground, convulsing. The camera has the mind to find his face, so that we may see his eyes, wide with the joy and awe of realization. It’s as though he’s seeing his puppet-master for the first time.

I do not know who this puppeteer is, but the puppet does. On stage, we see the body of David Byrne, frontman of the new wave band Talking Heads. But he knows there’s another force at work, another being who overtakes the body for its own radical, loose-moving, musically-brilliant means. If you have seen Talking Heads either live (oh, what envy!) or in Stop Making Sense, the excellent concert film from their 1983 “Speaking in Tongues” tour which A24 re-released this September, you both are lucky and know absolutely how dexterous Byrne is, not just in limbs and joints but expression. In the film, his face moves from shock to awe to fear to power with such immediacy I assumed something must have happened in the edit. But his vocals are continuous, at least to a degree—along with his face and body, his voice shifts so drastically, from the deep, ballad-befitting smoothness of “Heaven” to the parodius, storytelling deviousness of “Swamp” to the clarity and trembling of “Psycho Killer.” But it all is his. All these voices pop out from between the same lips, beneath those awe-filled and intense eyes.

Maybe that being—that perhaps-god, that puppeteer—who lies behind his eyes is, in fact, just himself, but the self who is the musician, the art-creator. This self-separation, the idea of the artist and the person as distinct, has a tradition of scholarship: in a lecture titled “Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double,” Margaret Atwood writes at length about this phenomenon in literature, positing that when in the act of writing, the writer becomes a different person. She compares the tension between these identities to various and wide-ranging narratives, from Jekyll and Hyde to Dorian Gray and his portrait to Alice and her reflection in the Looking Glass. In each of these cases, one self is a funhouse mirror to the other, with some qualities shared, others in direct opposition. 

Say art is an expression of the person who creates it. This would mean great art must come from people of greatness; artistic genius, then, from geniuses. Atwood addresses this, writing that a man who creates a work of genius must then be “a genius while shaving, a genius while eating his lunch, a genius in poverty and in affluence, in sickness and in health—this is heavy luggage to cart around.” Luggage so heavy, in fact, no one can carry it, for to live as a constant genius is improbable. Instead, there must be a second state, into which an artist may enter to create. Writers may do this behind the thick veil of the page. Actors must do this behind the curtain, off-camera or in the wings of a theatre (if they do not, their art is made worse). 

Live musicians have a more difficult case—their audience often is present not only to consume their art but to consume them. Thus, they are obliged to provide for their spectators and to cart the heavy luggage of always-genius around. Even if they do create a distinction, as an actor might, their audience may not perceive this, blurring the line between the performing self and the human self, the Alice of reality and of reflection. This is the case of David Byrne.

His performance persona is one of complete and utter charisma, creating a prophetlike magnetism which attracts and holds tight to anyone around him. Off the stage, however, the human self of David Byrne is quiet, socially uncertain. According to Medium:

Byrne was often described as cripplingly nervous, fidgety, withdrawn, or just plain weird. He went off on tangents in interviews, rarely managing eye contact more than a couple seconds, his thought process hard to follow. Conversations seemed nearly physically painful to carry out for him. 

In his 2012 memoir, How Music Works, he confirmed to be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a term now falling under the  wider umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder.  He told the BBC that, “I couldn’t talk to people face to face, so I got on stage and started screaming and squealing and twitching.” And this is the beautiful twist of David Byrne: he takes the inevitable reality of performance—the separation of the artist self and human self—and uses it to his advantage. By the inherent persona-creation of onstage performance, he becomes a version of himself who can communicate in the manner he best is able; his lyrics, full of observations which in conversation may seem jarring (e.g.: “And I’d pretend / That I was a billboard / … / I fell in love / With a beautiful highway,” from “(Nothing But) Flowers”), are delightful, poetic, even cult-inspiring in song when paired with his persona. 

This persona-creation is evident from the concert’s narrative, too. At its onset, Byrne appears like an everyman—wearing clothes slightly unbefitting, hair messy on his forehead—and alone, singing “Psycho Killer,” a song fueled by anxiety. For a few songs, he does not stop singing, each song shifting without pause to the next; in theatrical terms, this first act is our introduction to David Byrne, the man. He sprints around the stage as the band plays, then he briefly exits. When he returns, he seems like a different person: his hair is slicked back, his suit is slightly larger, and the nerves in his eyes have been replaced by an intensity, a confidence. The pattern continues: a sequence of songs with this new persona, then an exit. His bandmembers play a song as their side project, the Tom-Tom Club, but the audience feels restless, a bit disengaged, as if they were just waiting for Byrne to return. He makes this suspense worthwhile, and returns first in shadow, a massive, wide-shouldered shade upon the backstage wall. As he emerges, baroque lighting sets in, sheaths of light striking across first his face with hair re-slicked, then onto The Big Suit, that icon of Stop Making Sense

This is the transformation: throughout the concert, by non-stop performance, David Byrne has shifted before our eyes; he morphs from his human-self to his artist-self onstage, privvying the audience to this duality. He steps, Alicelike, through the Looking Glass before our eyes, seemingly learning how to express himself in a way he cannot otherwise. As he said about his film, True Story, “It’s a whole catharsis thing.” 

* * *

The only time my eyes left Byrne’s were the few times I saw a flicker of white in the periphery to my right, between the seats and the wall. I knew it couldn’t have been a fellow moviegoer; there were only ten others, two of whom sat beside me, two in front, and the rest behind. I must admit it crossed my mind that somehow, something in the Talking Heads world was entering mine. If the lights and sound of Stop Making Sense so overwhelmed the screen they could not help but burst out in flicks and flashes, I would not have been surprised. 

Perhaps it was a reflection of my venue, the nearly-empty Theater 3 of the Bow Tie Criterion Cinema on Temple Street, a fixture of the city for the past 19 years as the only cinema in downtown New Haven. There’s a kitschiness to the building and its decor, not unlike a shopping mall or a bowling alley—there’s something specific and perhaps undefinable about those locales of social capitalism, spaces intended for consumption but used more interaction, for friends or families or budding lovers to meet and do something together. We think of the bowling alley as the place of children’s parties and the home of The Dude. Malls are for wandering and window-staring, not buying. Cinemas, of course, are for watching films, but for doing so with a date, with your family, or, more broadly, just with a group; and that feeling, that collective experience of becoming individually enveloped an art form we believe to be real, is irreplicable anywhere else. It’s what enabled me to see Byrne’s movements as only pixels and from 40 years hence but nonetheless become infected by his message, his delivery, his so-urgent joy. I felt myself pulling apart, my eyes and mind distending from my body. 

This is the audience experience inherent to watching a film in a theater: in a pitch-dark room, the moving pictures become the only reality, depicting a world so like our own, with narratives and emotions we recognize (regardless of the film’s setting; even sci-fi must be grounded in human emotions, as it was written by someone experiencing them), that we feel as though we transcend beyond corporeality, that the screen becomes our world. It’s why the walk back into the yellow-lit hallway after a movie is so disorienting—sure, you are re-adjusting to light, but also to reality as you know it. And we opt into this. We buy our movie ticket, exchanging the fruit of labor for the ability to enter another world. It’s not so much stepping through the Looking Glass but allowing it to collapse upon us. 

It’s an experience of catharsis in its own right. The word derives from the Greek katharsis, which itself is from both kathairein, “cleanse,” and katharos, “pure;” this is Byrne’s experience of it: by cognizantly performing as his artist-self, he expresses himself purely. In the modern sense, however, catharsis is understood more as the process of vicariously experiencing emotions we would not, could not by ourselves. This is the audience’s experience watching Talking Heads—or, at least, my experience with Stop Making Sense. I received the joy and freedom of Byrne, and felt it myself. Duality and catharsis walk hand-in-hand; the artist and audience may live in both, for art-creation and art-consumption are equally enveloping.Thus, I mourn the loss of the Bow Tie, whose doors closed on after the final screening on October 12th. That screening was at 8:00pm, of Stop Making Sense. It is, of course, fitting: not only do I mourn the loss of a cinema in New Haven, but also of catharsis. Yale students are privileged with screenings hosted by the Film Archives and other departments, but for the greater New Haven population, the tens of thousands of citizens who create the city most of us are merely visitors of, close and easy access to a cinema is now naught, gone to history, a true relic of the past. That collective experience of individual envelopment is gone; the ability to take part in mass, national  cultural events like Barbenheimer or the Stop Making Sense re-release is gone. And cinematic catharsis, that entirely unique and beautiful manner of becoming outside ourselves, of the Looking Glass collapsing into us with the aid of actors and directors and artists like David Byrne, is gone as well. Now the glass has shattered, and the ghost in my periphery is lost; we must remain as only one self, incomplete.

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