There, on one corner of Sixth Street and Congress Avenue, stood Ray Davies, hiding behind don't-fuck-with-me shades. Just across the street stood David Byrne, camouflaged from head to foot in khaki, his omnipresent red backpack draped across his shoulder. Davies looked larger than life, in a way--like a Rock Legend, holding his head high. He walked slowly, perhaps so passers-by who recognized him could bask in his reflected glory. The Kinks' front man seemed ageless, immortal, even in the blindingly bright springtime sun; he really had them, at least those of us who stared and glared as he made his way through downtown Austin. Byrne, on the other hand, looked as though he was trying to be the invisible man. He moved through the crosswalk and down the sidewalk as quickly as lightning; he and Davies passed each other, without exchanging so much as a nod--maybe they didn't see each other; maybe they didn't want to be seen. With Byrne, it was likely the latter: Only a few hours earlier, he had spoken at the Austin Convention Center as part of the South by Southwest Music Festival and explained, softly and eloquently, that he became a musician because he could barely speak to others without a microphone in front of him and an instrument in his hand. Rock and roll allowed him to stop being shy, a malady that one presumes has never afflicted the garrulous Ray Davies. Had he not become a musician, perhaps David Byrne would have been a full-time visual artist. Or a mime.
It's difficult to reconcile this quiet man with the one who stands onstage and plays the part of Entertainer so deftly--be he the spastic in the giant suit, the would-be Latin lover crooning in Spanish or the wannabe Philly soul man channeling Gamble and Huff. He's the ultimate contradiction, the reserved intellectual reconciled with the extroverted emotional, which is what makes him at once such a heartwarming genius and such a chore for the listener to deal with. That is, half the time you find yourself listening to his records, and half the time you find yourself listening at them; they play with your heart, but only when they're not too busy dialing up the brain. His records aren't as joyous as he thinks they are, nor are they as smart as he wants them to be. If he'd stop worrying about the latter, the former would follow--meaning, he should stop worrying about the head and concern himself more with the hips. Even his best solo offerings (Uh-Oh, Feelings) feel like rushed term papers or rough sketches fleshed out by a man who truly loves music--his label-of-love, Luaka Bop, offers the very best in global eclecticism--but doesn't seem terribly zealous about getting that across.
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Of course, he would disagree with that. Writing on his Web site of his latest multiculti offering--Look Into the Eyeball, which I've listened to a dozen times without feeling it once--Byrne insists it's the result of his desire to seduce both body and mind. "I had been wondering if there might be a way to include the warm, lyrical, beautiful, emotional sounds and associations of strings and orchestral parts with groove music and beats for the body," he writes. "I want to move people to dance and cry at the same time." But the result isn't a whole lot of fun. I'd rather listen to Tom Zé or Waldemar Bastos or Los Amigos Invisibles--all Luaka Bop recording artists--than hear their influence on the traveler who wanders through their music, gathering bits and pieces to show the white folks back home. It's not an issue of authenticity so much as it's a matter of: Byrne just ain't as fun or funky as he thinks he is. Listen only to the version of "I Zimbra" on the forthcoming Sessions at West 54th and the original on Fear of Music. The Heads' take is orgiastic, the sound of art-school tribespeople working out their ethnomusic education by bum-rushing the dance floor. Byrne's solo version is less frenzied, more withdrawn--too smart, in other words, for its own good. Musicians will tell you they don't know where the good songs come from; they just form in the heart and hope only the mind can transcribe them. With Byrne, it's the other way around, which is a shame, because the man was and could again be the master. Free your mind, Dave, and our asses will follow you anywhere.