True Stories marks the beginning of the end for the Talking Heads.
True Stories marks the beginning of the end for the Talking Heads, a situation that fomented due to the twitchy genius of the band’s front man, David Byrne. With the Jonathan Demme directed concert film Stop Making Sense a critical and box office darling, Byrne sought an opportunity to create outside the parameters of the band. The world of art house films beckoned and Byrne had some material in mind for his directorial debut. The result was True Stories the film and the album. Both were released in October of 1986.
The title comes from the source material that inspired what Byrne hoped to be an experiment in multimedia. A lover of the sensational and a man who spent a great deal of time on the road, it stands to reason that David Byrne is the type of guy who has a scrapbook of weird tabloid stories collected from across America. Along the way, the state of Texas had lured him with its reputation for rugged individuality and became his muse.
“I guess a lot of people here seem to be kind of proud of what they are,” he explained to the Chicago Tribune in 1985 while filming True Stories. “They are what they are and that’s okay; they’re not going to try and hide it. What’s nice is they’re more tolerant of people’s individuality.”
So smitten, Byrne and his co-writers Beth Henley and Stephen Tobolowsky created the town of Virgil, Texas and populated it with characters and situations based on the true stories Byrne collected. Due to this effort and the many other hats Byrne wore in his professional life, Time magazine would dub him “Rock’s Renaissance Man” before his opus opened.
The album was not meant to be what it was. The actors in True Stories – the most famous among them John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz and Spalding Gray – sing most of the songs in the film in spontaneous musical moments. It’s a languorous 90 minutes of screen time that Roger Ebert likened to a science fiction film in his review: “Everyone on screen looks so normal and behaves so oddly, they could be pod people.” Byrne wanders through the film as its narrator, clad in a suit, cowboy boots, bola tie and massive cowboy hat. His presence in the film will test your tolerance for Byrne’s monotone speaking voice.
The one thing that stands out most among all the artifice and oddball qualities of True Stories is the big fat Warner Brothers logo that precedes Byrne’s artistic vision. It is the same logo that preceded Richard Donner’s Superman seven years before and would usher in Tim Burton’s Batman three years later. While every major studio ventured into the burgeoning independent/art house film market in the 80s, they did not do so without demands. Byrne originally wanted the album accompanying his film to be filled with the cast recordings, but, smelling a flop, the executives at Warner wanted some sense that their budgetary investment might be recouped. With that in mind they demanded that the album True Stories be a Talking Heads album.
The bands that last and inspire with their abilities to change the sense of what is possible in music are held to a higher standard. The conversation around their every effort often revolves around the question of “have they sold out?” The reactions to True Stories upon its release seem to be a continuation of the critiques of its predecessor, Little Creatures. The word “accessible” is bandied about in reviews and the lack of disengagement in Byrne’s lyrics is often made noteworthy. Mark Coleman of Rolling Stone dubbed it “neither Talking Heads’ platinum sellout nor their masterpiece.” It’s a good album, a noble effort.
Spanning nine original songs, it is indeed accessible if accessible is synonymous with joyous and rocking. Chris Frantz (drums), Jerry Harrison (keyboards and guitar) and Tina Weymouth (bass) attack the material with a determination that comes from being invited late to the project. They power through the tracks as if to prove that this album should have always been under their purview.
While Byrne is not singing about paranoia, buildings or food, his affection for his oddball characters and narrators imbues every vocal. He’s still investigating serious themes like consumerist culture, loneliness and spiritual stagnation, but does so within the trappings of R&B structures, Tex-Mex melodies, reggae appropriations and midtempo pop arrangements. “Puzzling Evidence,” “Radiohead,” the sumptuous “Dream Operator” and MTV Video Awards winner “Wild, Wild Life” are the standouts on the album.
With the film and its publicity, David Byrne was eclipsing Talking Heads. A mad, restless creative soul, his interests began drawing him away from his band mates. Jerry Harrison complained to Rolling Stone that “David’s had so much press now that he’s beginning to take on a larger-than-life image. If people have an inflated view of you they listen to your next creation and ask ‘Is this great?’ That sometimes gets in the way.”
At the same time Tina Weymouth relayed a nightmare in which the band stood on stage before a packed venue and didn’t play a note. The audience waited and waited and finally trickled out. The next morning all the papers raved about Byrne and his genius.
“Even in my dreams David could do no wrong.”
The acrimony was building, but there was one last album to make.