The four members of the American band Talking Heads came from intact, midcentury American families, with kind and presentable parents who turned up at their gigs, or supplied a hand-me-down station wagon for touring, or fluffed the guestroom pillows when the band came through town. Chris Frantz, the drummer, was a prep school kid from Kentucky and Pittsburgh whose first memories included Christmas parties at Harvard Law School, where his father, a West Point graduate who later became an army general, was a student; later, Frantz played in the woods at Monticello, where his mother volunteered. When Frantz got to know his wife, Tina Weymouth, the band’s bassist, she was living in her parents’ carriage house on a leafy street in Providence, Rhode Island. Weymouth’s father, Ralph Weymouth, was an admiral who became a prominent antinuclear activist; her mother was from an old French family, and together they raised eight children. David Byrne’s Scottish parents, an engineer and special education teacher, had settled outside of Baltimore in a house they decorated with their son’s art projects. Jerry Harrison, the only child of an ad executive and a painter, came on board late, in 1977. Harrison, a veteran of the Boston band Modern Lovers, was working toward an architecture degree when Frantz, Weymouth, and Byrne turned up at his drafting desk at the Harvard School of Design and persuaded him to join the band.
It was an unlikely foundation for a band coming up in the punk scene of downtown New York City, but it meant that Talking Heads were destined to grapple with the meanings of family life. Here was a band led by a couple, with a strange, alienated man-child at the microphone. The Ramones, their friends and touring partners, were a family all right, but in comic-nightmare form: a feral, sniping brood, a nest of eels. Frantz, Byrne, and Weymouth, on the other hand, spruced up the dangerous commercial loft where they lived together, on Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side, with rattan furniture from Frantz’s parents’ porch.
The critic James Wolcott, who covered the band’s early shows at CBGB on the Bowery, noted these inclinations in a cover story for The Village Voice titled “A Conservative Impulse in the New Rock Underground.” Frantz played drums as though “in the next room,” like a teenager jamming in the attic; Weymouth looked like “Suzi Quatro’s sorority sister”; Byrne sang in a “little-boy-lost-at-the-zoo” voice. The band played the room at CBGB “like a television located at the end of a long dark hall.” The songs themselves seemed to fantasize, at times, about getting to redo high school with coolness added in:
I wish I could meet everyone
Meet them all over again
Bring them up to my room
Meet them all over again
Everyone’s up in my room
“Mommy, Daddy, come and look at me now/I’m a big man in a great big town,” goes the opening verse of “Pulled Up,” an early tune. The band’s name was taken from a TV Guide article. The members of Talking Heads had experienced the revolutions of the 1960s as young teenagers, on their parents’ living room TVs.
The constructed family called Talking Heads had no stable arrangement or hierarchy. Byrne, who offered himself up as a very curious human specimen onstage (“Take a look at these hands,” goes a refrain in “Born Under Punches”; a few beats later, movingly: “I’m so thin…I’m too thin”), was a shrewd and at times unscrupulous actor behind the scenes, testing what could be characterized as a fraying commitment to patience on the part of his bandmates. Frantz and Weymouth seem, even to this day, alternately peeved and charmed by how much they bit off with this prodigal oddball who was, from the beginning, one of the most gripping and passionate talents in American music.
It must have been difficult, in their early shows, to decide whether to keep your eyes on Byrne, lurching and blurting in Lacoste shirts and button-downs borrowed from Frantz, or Weymouth, whose bass set up an insinuating commentary on or alternate account, cool and sexy, of the songs that were putting Byrne through such paroxysms. Neither figure was exactly reachable. Weymouth withheld while Byrne spazzed. He not only sang the songs but acted as their protagonist: the eager yet perpetually thwarted student of modern life, straining to master its arcane orders and customs. You were rooting for him, almost the way you would a nervous child at a school recital. The music worked to soothe his body, but his mind seemed to dart and lunge from one frightening thought to another.
Wolcott saw an “uneasy alliance of composure and breakdown—between outward acceptance and inward coming-apart.” Byrne, in his brilliant 2012 memoir-slash-treatise, How Music Works, describes it this way:
Throughout the three-piece and four-piece periods, Talking Heads songs, and even the shows, were still mostly about self-examination, angst, and bafflement at the world we found ourselves in. Psychological stuff. Inward-looking clumps of words combined with my slightly removed “anthropologist from Mars” view of human relationships.
Though “the groove was always there” as a “body-oriented antidote” to his “nervous angsty flailing,” Byrne writes, it “never took over.” Attempting to pry some light banter from Byrne during their 1979 American Bandstand appearance, poor Dick Clark turned to Weymouth for a lifeline: “Does he bubble over like this, I mean just set the world on fire?” he asks, sarcastically. “I…guess…he’s organically shy,” she responds. Byrne’s telegenic strangeness was the band’s great opportunity, but also its biggest risk. He seemed to understand this more than anyone, which might be why he broke up the band. Byrne developed a following in the autism community, and has since diagnosed himself with Asperger’s syndrome.
Chris Frantz’s Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina is partly the story of how Frantz’s enviable temperament—friendly, game, as sunny as a Kentucky afternoon—worked in counterpoint to Byrne’s intensity. Search online for any performance by Talking Heads or Tom Tom Club, the dance band he and Weymouth spun off in a lull between Talking Heads records, and you’ll likely see Frantz, from a riser, beaming down in satisfaction at the wild scene he’s assembled onstage.
That’s roughly his narrative stance here: though he sets the beat, he’s also a bystander, starstruck even now as he retells his great stories. Frantz and his two little kids were fooling around on the beach in the Bahamas when he spied a “single, solitary figure dressed all in black walking slowly our way”:
As the figure came closer I thought, No, it can’t be, but there she was: Patti Smith, the High Priestess of Punk. I said, “Hi, Patti.” She looked at me with surprise or paranoia or perhaps both. I said, “It’s me, Chris Frantz from Talking Heads. Good to see you.” She still seemed extremely uncomfortable to be recognized in such beautiful surroundings. She said, “I’m only here for my boyfriend’s sister’s wedding.” I said, “Oh, that’s nice.” She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “I’ve gotta go,” and turned and walked away in the direction she had come from.
A 1990 meeting with Dylan went off a little better. Bob’s security men entered the green room before a benefit performance to shoo everyone out, including Bonnie Raitt, Iggy Pop, Patrick Swayze, and Emmylou Harris. Frantz, in a blue blazer, looked too square to be one of the talent, so he stayed behind and tried to blend in:
When Bob strolled in, he asked me casually, “Hey man! Where did everybody go?” I told him his people had kicked everybody out and Bob said, “Oh, shit. Even Emmylou?” “Yes,” I said. “Even Emmylou.”
There are many such stories: Frantz runs into Mick Jagger, alone at the bar of the Tin Palace on the Bowery, “high as a kite…wearing a huge, quilted pimp-style newsboy cap” and “singing along at full volume” to Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” on the jukebox and changing the lyrics to “Blowing me softly with his lips.” Frantz decides he’ll “wait until another time to introduce myself.”
For pages at a time, this memoir provides some of the pleasures of those Twitter threads in which people tell their best celebrity sighting. Celebrities themselves don’t often participate in those threads, but it would be fun if they did, and Frantz, who keeps a cheery presence on Twitter, might not hesitate. His point of view seems unchanged since he held a day job, in the early years of Talking Heads, as a stock boy at Design Research, a furniture store on 57th Street, and spied through the shop windows passersby like Liz Taylor, Paul Newman, Diana Ross, and Farah Fawcett. “Some of them were guarded,” Frantz writes, “but others would give you a smile and a wordless wink of recognition.”
The famous names in this book often yield space to the names of friends, girlfriends, teachers, cousins, long-lost bands, bars, restaurants, dances, county fairs, and dives, in Kentucky, Virginia, Pittsburgh, Providence, New York, and elsewhere, all described memorably as they pass. Frantz tends to identify everyone by first and last name: Lex Browning, Karen Achenbach, or Chris Lushington, “a Deadhead from Greenwich, Connecticut,” who had a “serious, puzzled Clint Eastwood vibe.” This weirdly touching habit makes whoever happens to turn up next, say someone named David Byrne, feel like just another part of some grand human lottery.
It also makes these people and places retrievable, with a few quick actions on Google. The rock memoir seems especially suited to the way we read now, with the Internet standing by. You can find Talking Heads’s entire Rome concert from 1980 online. This book helps you see the lives adjacent to the famous life, the role of chance in their stories. In Berkeley in 1977, a band called Leila and the Snakes opened for Talking Heads. Their lead singer, Jane Dornacker, according to Frantz,
moved to New York City, where she had great success as a weather and traffic reporter until the day her chopper plunged into the Hudson River and she was tragically killed while broadcasting live on the air.
The recording can be found on YouTube.
The big arc of Frantz’s life and career is here, though it becomes at times hard to trace, what with all those fascinating little arcs that intersect it. A memoir by definition knows what happens next; this is its narrative advantage over actual life—which presents, in the moment, an array of possible storylines and outcomes. But it is in every other way a profound disadvantage, since in its purest form a memoir’s vision of life removes the element of contingency and surprise, the late-night revelations and impulsive swerves, that gives experience its actual feel. Frantz often sets out on the popcorn trail of his life, only to stop and munch the popcorn. This method or anti-method captures the branching logic of unfolding time: “Way leads on to way,” as Frost put it.
Here are two paragraphs about the night Frantz met his RISD freshman roommate:
My roommate, Hugh Roberts, finally showed up with a great excuse for his lateness. He had broken his leg and wore a plaster cast from his knee down to his toes. He said his friends called him Huey. He was well over six feet tall with a shag haircut. I helped him with his luggage and stuff. It turned out that we had some similarities in our background. We were WASPs and we’d both attended prep school for boys. Both of our fathers were lawyers. We liked to make art and get high, and we were hoping to break the mold we felt we had been expected to fill. We loved James Brown yet we also dug the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Terry Riley, and Moondog. I could tell we were going to get along just fine.
Later that night, in our room after a joint and a few glasses of red Almaden wine, Huey told me about a terrible thing that had recently happened to him. His mother had committed suicide. She’d been missing for some time when investigators found bits of charred bone and the steel shanks of her high heels in the old basement incinerator. They said she had opened the little door and crawled into the flames fully clothed. Foul play was not suspected. Had she left a note? I didn’t ask. I remember feeling how strange and heavy this must be for any young guy and I felt bad about this, but Huey seemed emotionally strong and resilient.
I found Roberts’s 2010 obituary online; he settled in Brattleboro, Vermont, and opened the Windham Gallery, which I remember visiting in the 1990s. This vignette is true to the little interpersonal advances and setbacks that happen in the moment: first Hugh becomes Huey, then the wine and the joint kick in, and then the revelation about Huey’s mother draws the two guys closer even as it sets up a barrier that can’t and won’t be crossed: “I didn’t ask.” Frantz isn’t an investigator.
In some ways the roommate story heralds the arrival, a few pages later, of David Byrne:
One beautiful September day, my friend Marc Kehoe, who knew I played the drums, asked me if I would help him create some music for a student film he was making about his girlfriend being run over by a car. I told him I would love to and asked him to meet me over at Tina’s place. He said he was going to bring another friend, a guy who played guitar.
There’s more I’d like to know about the “girlfriend being run over by a car,” but, like the mother in the incinerator and countless other “heavy” events in Frantz’s memoir—his own substance addiction and recovery, for example—it passes without much elaboration.
Probably the way to herald Byrne’s arrival in this story would be to make him, and not the car accident, the announced subject of our curiosity. But there’s nothing about David Byrne that repays direct treatment or straightforward engagement, as Dick Clark found out.
Reading this book I began to keep track of all the tragic and frightening things that happened to women. Besides Huey’s mother’s almost certain murder, the girl who was run over by a car, and Jane Dornacker’s fatal helicopter crash, there are still other examples: a restaurant owner in Providence who’d moved from New York because his wife had been assaulted; a brush with Phil Spector, women on both arms, who later murdered the actress Lana Clarkson. The dangers of being a woman in the rock world, both in New York and on tour, are suggested by how avidly Tina Weymouth was watched and pursued, even when the attention was flattering. In Brazil, Frantz meets the Scorpions, the German heavy metal band, at a bar. “They were great guys,” he writes, “but all they wanted to know was, ‘Where’s Tina?’” Given the number of enormous nights out that Frantz describes, and the presence of the couple’s two young children, born in 1982 and 1986, you have to wonder how often Weymouth asked the inverse question: “Where’s Chris?”
The first original song Byrne, Frantz, and Weymouth worked on together was “Psycho Killer,” before Weymouth had ever picked up a bass. It was inspired partly by Hitchcock’s Norman Bates; Byrne said he thought of it as an Alice Cooper number. Byrne showed up with one verse. He wanted the bridge to be in Japanese; Weymouth suggested French and wrote a verse that won her great admiration from various French speakers who cropped up in her career. Frantz wrote two verses, one of which was cut. But Byrne instantiated the character and sang with what felt like authentic menace lyrics that many women could imagine being directed at them:
You start a conversation, you can’t even finish it
You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed
Say something once, why say it again?
A few years later Weymouth, now a member of Talking Heads, adapted the score of Hitchcock’s shower scene—those screechy violin stabs—for the infectious bass line. Time and again on these songs, it’s Weymouth’s playing that answers—nearly duets with—Byrne’s lyrics. Weymouth often drove the tune, which forced the other players to scramble their own musical calculations: as Frantz has observed, Byrne used his lead guitar or vocals to create the rhythm while the bass more or less sang. In “Psycho Killer,” he does it with staccato shouts, barks, and nonsense syllables. As is common in Talking Heads songs, the refrains seem to mark phases of an escalating panic attack. The Psycho Killer’s crisis crests, but the bass stays cool. The song itself has cornered him. Weymouth’s suave playing is his comeuppance.
The tensions that drive “Psycho Killer” and are resolved by it were not entirely staged: Byrne once tried to have Weymouth fired on the premise that her bass couldn’t keep up with him. A later song, one of their loveliest, calls a truce: “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” was named for the sweet, credulous cooperation of Weymouth’s bass and Byrne’s guitar on a simplistic, reiterated musical phrase. “Home is where I want to be/But I guess I’m already there,” goes one of its lines.
The story of the band’s genesis and evolution, as well as the intimation of its demise, is told in the great Jonathan Demme film that captured the band’s 1984 tour, Stop Making Sense. Byrne appears first, all alone, “so white he’s almost mock-white,” according to Pauline Kael, carrying his guitar and a boombox which he places at his feet. When he presses play, we hear a simple percussion track, and Byrne launches into a skeletal version of “Psycho Killer” without the bass. For the next tune, “Heaven,” only Weymouth joins him on stage, her bass held high and turned up loud. Then an early song, “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” with the band as the original trio; then “Found a Job,” joined by Harrison.
What happens next is maybe the greatest moment in their career, and also a harbinger of their end. The stage fills with musicians, nine in all: the core members plus the “big band” required for their expanded sound. Talking Heads were now a multiracial group, after years of absorbing the influence of Black music, from gospel to Nigerian pop to early rap. Bernie Worrell, one of the founders of Parliament-Funkadelic, played keyboard. Weymouth now shared the stage with other women: the extraordinary backing singers Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry.
The film shows the group navigating an impossible paradox. They were at once a party band and an art project. Byrne, who designed the sets and costumes—including the famous “big suit” that is one of the most distinctive costumes in rock history—had a path forward from Stop Making Sense; so did the band, which had become a collective. Some of the best music Talking Heads made after Stop Making Sense was made apart, by Tom Tom Club and in David Byrne’s solo projects. Byrne broke up the band in 1991. Talking Heads reunited for three songs in 2002, when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They looked wary of one another but sounded tight, and I have watched the clips approximately one billion times.
In his 2019 Broadway show, American Utopia, Byrne, who is now somehow much less odd and looks like Senator William Butler Yeats, sings with great curiosity and passion. Around half of the songs he performs, backed by an intricately choreographed troupe that gestures back to the Stop Making Sense ensemble, are Talking Heads numbers. In interviews, Byrne clings to the idea that reuniting would be an empty act of nostalgia, a form of creative suicide. But that’s not, to borrow the title of his book, “how music works.” On the evidence of Frantz’s memoir, the old tensions remain, disembodied, waiting upon their hosts, and so does the love.