HOW MUSIC WORKS by David Byrne (McSweeneys, 2012)

how-music-works-david-byrne“What is we’re talking about here?” David Byrne asks rhetorically on page 220 (out of 358) in a section headed ‘What is music?’

It is as though he is oblivious to the fact that this is what many would expect the whole of this book to be about.

To those expecting to find  straightforward answers to either of these two questions, all I can say is :  you don’t know David Byrne.

It is not that he is deliberately obtuse or willfully obscure, but he has never been an artist who puts much stock in simplifying complex ideas. The subtext is that the creative process itself is a mystery and it doesn’t do to be over analytical about it.

This ain't no disco! Talking Heads - publicity shot for Little Creatures (1985)

This ain’t no disco! Talking Heads – publicity shot for Little Creatures (1985)

This is the nearest thing we’re likely to get to a Byrne autobiography. He gives some interesting insights into the early days of Talking Heads at CBGBs and beyond but nothing about the band’s split which,by all accounts, was a fairly acrimonious affair. Descriptions of his solo career are patchy at best but show him to be a restless individual with a morbid fear of being fenced in or pigeon-holed.

The idea for the book came after Byrne sent Dave Eggers some journal entries written on the road. Eggers thought these merited publication as they would shed light on the life of a touring musician.

Chapters like ‘My Life In Performance’ are clearly drawn from these sources but the project snowballed to the point that the finished volume covers all aspects of the music-making process. As well as gigging, there are chapters about the nature of music as a business, how to create a music scene and his thoughts on the state of the industry in the internet age.

Unlike Steve Albini, he doesn’t have  many positive things to say about MP3s and the download culture.  He does, however, concede that the nuts and bolts of music production are now in the hands of the many, not the few. He sees this as a double-edged sword, however, and is fairly pessimistic about the future prospects for up and coming artists.

Whether you agree with him or not (and I don’t), he argues his case articulately and writes from the heart in a manner which is refreshingly free of jargon or pretentiousness.

Like Bicycle Diaries, the book consists of what look like expanded blog entries but it all flows together in a logical and highly readable manner.

Although he is superficially expansive and open, he is also careful not to give much information about his private life. This means that David Byrne, the man, remains something of an enigma.  I for one wouldn’t want it any other way.