The Kaleidoscopic Genius of David Byrne

The creative genius named David Byrne was born on May 14, 1952, in Dumbarton, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, and raised by his electrical engineer father and schoolteacher mother. By grade school, Byrne had moved to America. Rejected by his middle school choir for being off-key and withdrawn, he went on to learn to play the guitar, accordion, and violin. Byrne graduated from Lansdowne High School in southwest Baltimore. He was one half of a musical duo named Bizadi with Marc Kehoe. After dropping out of RISD, he formed a band called the Artistics with fellow RISD student Chris Franz. By 1974 the band had broken up, and Byrne moved to New York City.

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS: JUNE 01: Talking Heads posed in Amsterdam, Netherlands in June 1977. L-R Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, David Byrne, Jerry Harrison (Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns)

David Byrne is best known as the frontman for The Talking Heads punk band. Along with Artistics bandmate Chris Franz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison. The Talking Heads was a prolific and productive band for sixteen years, producing global hits including Psycho Killer, Once in a Lifetime, and Burning Down the House.

photo: Roger Gordy

Throughout the lifetime of Talking Heads, Byrne collaborated on other projects with musician Brian Eno and choreographer Twyla Tharp. He wrote the Dirty Dozen Brass-Band-inspired score for Music for “The Knee Plays” for Robert Wilson‘s five-act opera The Civil Wars: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down.

Photo: Richard Feldman

In 1983 Byrne commented that “as long as I have an outlet for the other things I want to do, usually I am really happy to work within the band form.” The Talking Heads separated in 1991 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, where they performed together for the first time since breaking up.

Byrne wrote, directed, and starred in True Stories, a musical collage of discordant Americana in 1986. The early 2000s saw him collaborate with many artists, including Fat Boy Slim, Brian Eno, and Wim Vandekeybus’s dance company Ultima Vez. As an avid cyclist, Byrne expressed his artistic side by designing a series of bicycle parking racks in 2008 with shapes corresponding to the neighborhood in which they were located. Wall Street had a dollar sign-shaped rack, whereas Williamsburg, Brooklyn was host to an electric guitar-shaped holder. He worked with a manufacturer to construct them in exchange for selling them as art. The racks remained throughout the city for approximately a year.

David Byrne bike rack designs

As of late, Byrne has come to the attention of the masses with his current shows in New York City. The Broadway production of American Utopia is Byrne’s brainchild based on his 2018 album by the same name. He performs alongside Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Chris Giarmo, Tim Keiper, Tendayi Kuumba, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Stéphane San Juan, Angie Swan, and Bobby Wooten III. Byrne went on to collaborate with Spike Lee for HBO Max’s version of the New York performance. In 2021, Byrne was presented with a Special Tony Award for the production.

HBO Max production of American Utopia

In addition to the American Utopia production, Pace Gallery in New York features How I Learned About Non-Rational Logic, a selection of drawings created by the artist and musician over the past twenty years. The show includes his Dingbats series, drawings that he made during the Covid pandemic. The artist admitted that he would frequently wake and ask himself, “what am I doing today… and why?” The ink drawings are humorous and thought-provoking, possibly hinting at his state of mind while quarantined. Explaining the range of subjects, Byrne said that they are not necessarily about the pandemic or being lonely, “but that’s the undercurrent. Doing something creative like this becomes a kind of therapy, where your fears and anxieties come out.” The tree drawings included in the Pace show present expansive branches and roots that the artist labels with signifiers – as “faux science, automatic writing, self-analysis, satire and maybe even a serious attempt at finding connections where none were thought to exist.” And Byrne admits, “an excuse to draw plant-like forms and diagrams.” The show at Pace runs through March 19, 2022. 

David Byrne, Heard Immunity
David Byrne, That’s How it Feels Sometimes

Both of his New York creative endeavors will come to an end by early April. Byrne will then focus on Theater of the Mind, an interactive journey that takes visitors inside how we see and create our worlds. The endeavor was co-created with writer Mala Gaonkar. The immersive exhibit tells us that it’s all inside our heads but asks if any of it is real? With a cautionary warning that “the brain may wander. Side effects may include distrusting your own senses, disorientation of self, and a mild to severely good time. You may not be who you think you are. But we’re all in it together.” 

Created in 15,000 square foot warehouse, the installation will guide you through a series of environments with sixteen fellow audience members. Participants will engage in a narrative and try sensory experiments while answering questions about beliefs, memories, and identity. Theater of the Mind will run from August 31 – December 18, 2022, at York Street Yards in Denver, Colorado.

David Byrne is an inspiration to the creative process. Forever examining the world through an imaginative and cheerful-looking glass. In 2018 Byrne created the online magazine Reasons to Be Cheerful, which collaborates with his Arbutus Foundation. Both entities serve to produce goodness in the world. The Arbutus website states its mission as being a place to come together, a place of shade, shelter, and laughter. I have no doubt that David Byrne will continue to produce, design, and surprise us with something new.

Tamara White is a visual activist, artist, and optimist who cannot help but dance when listening to the American Utopia soundtrack.

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