Friday, December 28, 2012

This Ain't No Memoir: How to Make a Scene, According to David Byrne

I've been moving slowly through How Music Works, the colossal tome by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, over the past few months. My pace started picking up in the second half of the book; there he stops sounding like a grad student with an overreaching thesis and starts demonstrating why he's right about everything, why we should trust his understanding of music and its interplay with our world. Most of the reviews I've read complain about Byrne not telling enough stories on himself, but I think the flaw in the book is limited to those opening chapters and his attempt to be a dispassionate analyst of music rather than writing from the gut. Passion, after all, is what has always inspired him in the music he makes, consumes, enters into, enjoys. Byrne tells plenty of stories in How Music Works, but I suspect we and he would get quickly bored by a chronological regurgitation of his career. How Music Works is the title of the David Byrne book I wanted to read: not a memoir but a training of the eye and ear by someone whose authority is rooted in experience.

So, for example, I was thrilled (as are many reviewers) by the chapter "How to Make a Scene." Here Byrne revisits CBGB, the crowded, cruddy manger where punk was born and music was reinvented. CBGB, we've come to learn in hindsight, was a "scene"--a place where something new was begun. And Byrne was there for the whole of it, as this chapter demonstrates. But he doesn't tell stories about CBGB; he dissects it. Missing from the chapters are photos of the chaotic mess that so many have reveled in and, Byrne alludes, that marketers in Vegas and beyond have tried to exploit. In place of such photos are sketched blueprints of the layout; I imagine them on napkins as Byrne meets with his editor over coffee. Byrne the musicologist doesn't want to revel in his glory days but understand how what got started actually got started. His analysis is helpful for historians, for music lovers, but also for those of us who have scenes we'd like to make today.

Read the whole thing, but in the meantime here are the eight elements of a scene in the making, according to Byrne.

  • There must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present new material. CBGB was located in a cheap, rundown area, ignored by the yuppies and other commodifiers of culture. But it was also in New York City, where new cultural forms have a chance to be picked up and broadly disseminated. (Byrne overlooks this factor, which I consider essential.) It was small enough that an unknown band could sell it out, which had important implications both financial and psychological.
  • The artists should be allowed to play their own material. Byrne credits the owners of CBGB with the counterintuitive decision to let unknown bands play their own material, which meant the club wasn't just one more place to hear crappy covers of Fleetwood Mac or Donnie and Marie, but rather a place where people went to be stretched, to discover, to participate.
  • Performing musicians must get in for free on their off nights (and maybe get free beer too). CBGB was where people wanted to be, not just where they wanted to play. And by building cohesion and a family culture it allowed for generative cross-pollination and a (sometimes begrudging) mutual appreciation and support. Bands didn't pay to hear each other play, but they heard each other and came to understand and respect each other, and ultimately rely on each other.
  • There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene. Alienation has great power over us; by itself it isn't generative, but when it has a place, crazy cool stuff can happen.
  • Rent must be low--and it must stay low. Making a scene is costly--not solely in the financial sense, as CBGB clearly demonstrated. While major record labels were spending ridiculous amounts of money to pack arenas and establish the sound of the seventies, artists orbiting CBGB were cramming themselves into low-rent apartments so they could survive as they continued to practice their craft. CBGB artists sacrificed their comfort, their privacy, their financial security to do something different. In the process they reinvented pop music.
  • Bands must be paid fairly. As Saint Paul once said, "Never muzzle an ox when it's treading out the grain." If that's too artsy fartsy for you, here's what he meant: "The worker deserves his wages." A scene is an ecosystem, and there has to be a common commitment to establish equilibrium and allow for the flourishing of the whole.
  • Social transparency must be encouraged. The line between performer and consumer must be porous if the movement is to gain traction. There's no special ordination or dispensation for those who are making the music; the audience has an equally important part to play in making the scene.
  • It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary. No scene survives if it is imposed on people. A scene is a social contract, a covenant of equal partners.
CBGB gave us Talking Heads, the Ramones, Blondie and any number of other trailblazing bands that redefined music in the late-1970s and early 1980s. The gestation taking place there was subconscious, for the most part. Byrne and his fellow artists didn't know what the future held; they were totally in the moment, in the scene, and the scene allowed them to imagine a lifelong vocation involving music. Those of us who want something similar in our own vocation--whether it's the dissemination of ideas via book publishing, or the rebirthing of the church in a new age, or something entirely different--would do well to seek out places like what CBGB represented and commit ourselves wholly to the scene being made. Who knows what will come of it, but at least we'll have actually made something.

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