Is David Byrne the American/Scottish David Bowie?
Two things happened in March 2018. PCTV choose David Byrne’s new release, “American Utopia” for its March Whiteboard Sessions and the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition “David Bowie Is” opened. I attended the very crowded Bowie exhibition which included over 400 objects from Bowie’s own personal archives, and let me say upfront I was disappointed. Especially with the exhibition quality. A poorly lit, poorly (dis)organized chronology of Bowie’s life. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the exhibition, Bowie’s genius burst forth despite what I perceived as the exhibitions shortcomings.
Byrne and Bowie or Bowie and Byrne, two creative artists whose music I like, appreciate and can hum. Their creative process is worthy of a few words and that is what I am setting out to do in this article. Each is an artist with periodic reinventions in their music, their art, and their personas. Each has bold collaborations and bold expressions of their art that challenges us on how we see and hear music. Each inspire their audiences to shape their own ways of being while challenging the social norms and the world around them.
By no means am I a natural musicologist. I have to do a fair amount of google searching to make sure I have these respective artists’ discography correct. I found an interesting shortcut to my usual research and it is the Toronto based choral group Choir Choir Choir or “C!C!C!”.
This group, created and led by Daveed and Nobu (AKA DaBu), of everyday people in an everyday choir in everyday places cover the best known songs of the greatest icons of music in the past 60 years. Their infectious joy and enrollment can be seen on their top 10 best choral playlist on YouTube. Started as a weekly drop-in singing event in 2011 this feel great group is prima facie proof of why singing and music is the antidote to life’s trials and tribulations.
I recommend their cover of Bowie’s Heroes with David Byrne himself singing the lead vocals. And no playlist would be complete without Bowie’s A Space Oddity (three times) and Starman. They also perform Byrne’s Burning Down the House (twice) and Psycho Killer (twice). Their incredible playlist can be found here.
Apologies for the detour from Bowie and Byrne but when I find a gem I share it. So ground control I will get back on track. Bowie was born in Brixton London and Byrne in Dumbarton, Scotland.
Funny thing, Bowie was a very diminutive figure. At the Brooklyn exhibit there were tailoring measurements for some of his costumes with a 26” waist – His bespoke clothing or costumes show what a slender man in physical stature he was. The Thin White Duke indeed.
Compare this to the point guard height of Byrne at 6’0 (Bowie is listed at 5’10”) but his slender build is an example of how powerful of a live performer he was on stage. In one of his glorious costumes designed by Kansai Yamamoto he appears like a giant. Byrne had his own sartorial style – in his latest it’s blue suits and bare feet. Byrne embodies a more hipster style, Bowie a more commedia d’arte costume style – only in his later life did Bowie dress more conservatively – his career changed styles in his music and his clothing. Byrne is somewhat more consistent in both genres.
Byrne’s lyrics provoke and toy with context and the perspectives of the modern age. The lyrics and the music are deeply personal, Byrne is not rallying the troops. His vision of utopia is about himself, and he advocates for positive ways of viewing the grim reality of these days, including the scary stuff. Byrne’s music is always memorable, his melodies, rhythms and sounds surprise and leaves the listener wanting more.
Bowie is, like Byrne, a provocateur in his lyrics and melodies – his music style appears always slightly ahead of the now. He is eclectic and appears to take on a new style of music without rhyme nor reason but always incredibly accomplished. Recent HBO and Netflix videos on Bowie have one constant, his musical collaborators, from Eno to Niles to Reed to Lennon, always are blown away by Bowie’s genius. His talent and thoughtfulness without parallel. Bowie’s music touches more styles of artists than Byrne, that’s my assertion.
How else do you explain Bowie’s anthems getting covered by the widest range of performers, from Motorhead to Peter Gabriel, two names you don’t readily think of in the same thought?
In closing, I am going to stop writing and get back to listening to these two outstanding singer-songwriters. Listening is better than reading and for these two artists I am going to Spotify and the internet to find their musical offerings. And for Bowie there are a few films he starred in that deserve watching – The Hunger and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. Do the same won’t you?