David Byrne/Brian Eno

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

(Sire/Nonesuch; 1981/2006)

By Dom Sinacola | 2 June 2006

Gun to my head, I'd have to admit that David Byrne is my idol. Just look into his smoky pupils:



The guy sparks something magical in me. I would so fuck those eyes.

Few heroes are available to my generation; Salman Rushdie has that fatwa out on him so he's mostly inaccessible to me as a fan, and Jasper Johns is too old. Noam Chomsky uses too many big words. He must sit down with a Thesaurus and study it. Prince is done for.

So if Byrne means anything to me, he's that Great Ego for my demographic. Both a nerd and a playboy unstuck by humility, he's a true artist I'm okay emulating. Because I want to be lusted after: dude only wants to be liked and recognized and magnanimous, even as he sits regal atop our ever-emerging canon. Yes, Byrne's a Renaissance Man for all us young, heaving masses, but his populist tendencies make him an Idol, never too important a critical ground zero to give all his fans, young and old and miles between, exactly what they want. More importantly, Byrne's prowess spans generations, so the feat of him even simply knowing what fans young, old, and miles in between all want at any point in his thirty-year career is amazing in itself. I don't know what I’ve resisted heading this text with an (necessarily italicized) epigraph, not because I am an opponent to found/communal art — which would be pretty stupid anyway, considering my position as a critic of sorts —, or because I was unable to find any relevant quotations; the contrary, that is, the abundance of material able to be appropriately culled from interviews, reviews, Village Voice vignettes, or, even, from the text of Amos Tutuola’s 1952 novel that shares its title with this album’s, is all at hand, much of which can be found at the new Bush of Ghosts website, curiously compiled by Byrne himself. In fact, the frontman of the Talking Heads has always seemed an untiring conservationist, a figurehead of artistic openness that is constantly updating his own collections (canons?) of pop culture ephemera, of ideas and approaches informing performer/audience morality, of physical movement and noise and exotic eroticism. Perhaps we’re encouraged to follow his thread of thinking, from inception to creation, and somehow, as an audience, keep ourselves intimate with the art. That’s why Byrne’s “dancing” is so important to the Talking Heads aesthetic, why the Suit is Big, why the separation between mind and body is eliminated, because as a ritual or social event, music can lose its preciousness and still become all the more engaging.

An epigraph, in retrospect, would prove a similar fulcrum for engagement. Say I went ahead and began with a Tutuola quote; you could safely approach my text with an intuitive mash-up between reverence and hallucinatory awe. That’d be cool if it worked. Say I started with a quote from Byrne or Eno, a demurely phrased treatise on the genesis of sampling, or on their own shying away from “typical” songwriting, or on their “refreshing” development of found percussion or recontextualization of voice. That’d be something of a purist approach for an epigraph, but it could couch the following in historical foreground. Say I had on top a quote from Tina Weymouth, or Chris Frantz, or Jerry Harrison. Say this had something to say about Talking Heads, or about Remain in Light (1980), and how Eno’s and Byrne’s album plays into the band mythos, foreshadowing a confusing split between the rest of the band and its two consummate neophytes. Too late. I’m too far in to go back and falsely reorient my original line of thinking. You are without a map, and, as such, our relationship could be tenuous. I apologize.

Or perhaps, with some nudging, you can accept the preceding, both paragraphs, italics or not, as an epigraph, as a semi-lucid suggestion of theme. Of course, I’d only be quoting myself, so quotation marks would have been dumb, but I’d be motioning the audience toward tumescent self-reflection, which could work as long as I’m able to balance the textual gimmick I’m proposing with relevant critique. Or maybe that’d be a dumb idea, something a ton of authors and reviewers have already attempted, succeeded with, and labeled post-something. I’m talking the kind of invert-on-itself insularity that CMG treads so well.

Which is why, given twenty-five years and notions of acclaim as to the album’s place in canonical retellings, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’ context isn’t as compelling as it, once, could have been. Luckily or not, doing as reissues do, the album’s been further surrounded by context: extensive notes detail the harrowing complication in “sampling” before samplers become common studio mechanisms; ambient historicist David Toop attempts an explanation of Bush’s influence in and from African and African diasporic experimentation, as well as in the speckled history of musique concrete; Byrne uses a discussion of dub reinvention — “remixing” — to elucidate the serendipitous portions of the record alongside the strange choices for percussive instrumentation. The total impression, we gather, is that this was an important record, and it should be handled as such, regardless of how easily the songs could be created today. At the least, a funny implication.

The liner notes imply that the album’s project, begun during the recording of Remain In Light and completed after Light’s conclusion, was originally meant to be a selection of “traditional” songs from a make-believe tribe. Based on experimental trumpeter Jon Hassell’s idea of “coffee-colored” music, which in turn influenced Eno’s “Fourth World” vision, the “tribe” would be a mash-up of sharp industry and organic anachronism. The conceit, discarded after Hassell left the project, seemed to fit Byrne’s and Eno’s methods perfectly; found dialogue (television preachers, radio orators, middle eastern chanting, nationalistic bombast) became wholly transformed when pickled inside Eno’s almost a-musical production and engineer Dave Jerden’s believable consolidation of similarly “found” percussion. In this vein, Remain In Light became a primer of sorts for the duo, informing their collaboration as a constant retooling, perhaps even as, given their arrogance and egos, a competition. They built and rebuilt, layer over layer between layer, trusting in a virginal, never truly forced, symbiosis between samples and rhythm tracks, between studio proliferation and a true sense of artistic performance. Byrne mentions, rightly I’d say, that it seemed as if sometimes the “singers” were reacting directly to the music, and vice versa. At the least, the tracks sound deep. Real deep.

But this story is an old one, literally, a well-documented time of “revolution” in technique and incredible foresight. Not to mention: Eno’s fervent, willed lack of actual trained musical ability; his infuriating insularity; his elitism; his hypocrisy, contempt, and contradiction. So, I won’t.

It’s easier — and, really, more fun — to consider David Byrne, the exoticist. Since Remain In Light, perhaps, even, since the Dada spirit of “I Zimbra,” Byrne’s releases have tended towards a learned pastiche of non-Western (be so bold as to say non-white?) culture. His first solo record, Rei Momo (1989), is a cultural orgy of Latin and South American roots. The tour that followed, a fourteen-member act of various dances and influences, furthered Byrne’s role as assimilating leader. Earlier that year, Byrne premiered his documentary Ile Aiye, visually chronicling Bahian adventures in voudoun culture. The Forest (1991), his score to a Robert Wilson theatrical piece, explores Japanese and Middle Eastern structures. His internet radio show, Radio DavidByrne, thematically wanders through everything Other, from Brazilian pagode to Missy Elliot. Luaka Bop, Byrne’s label, is for all vague purposes, a “world music” outfit. Even in Caetano Veloso’s beautiful 2002 book, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil, David Byrne takes a prominent place in the dedications.

And myself? Recently. Fucking fascinated with Tropicalia. Want to learn Portuguese. I once even attempted to forge a class of hip-hop and spoken word during my undergrad. I’m also white. I’m from the Midwest. Am I guilty of a chameleonic “white-on-brown” assimilation of cultures I’m only doomed to really experience academically? Probably. Is the exotic interesting? Of course. Should it be an impetus of creation? Why not. Is America a dunderheaded conglomeration of mighty kitsch and capitalism? That’s taking it a bit far.

In no way can I possibly imagine chastising Byrne, the self-didact, for opening himself to the influences, emotions, and mores of many, many other cultures besides his own. He demonstrates a respect and appetite that, no doubt, took Talking Heads, at least, into places of unassailable brilliance. And in Hip-hop there can be universal ecstasy, universal outcries and anger and subversion. In Tropicalia there can be a universal beat, downbeat, up again, a universal swivel, shuffle, dance. In Americana, or folk, a universal, leaden decay. In electronica, in ambient, a universal mood; we can all shudder together, even if we’re ignorant of the world’s axis, the one on a woman’s hips. But context preexists all this, and Context unifies it. Byrne is ever mindful of a genre’s or a piece of music’s or a locale’s context, sometimes to the detriment of his own.

I’m particularly concerned with My Life In The Bush Of Ghost’s still-absent track, “Qu’ran.” Little more than its absence has been mentioned in popular press, and there’s really no telling how the arms of industries and artists prickled then plucked at the trouble in including the cut past its presence on the 1981 vinyl. What I mean is that, ya know, maybe Byrne and Eno pushed for its reinclusion, but Nonesuch suits maintained a “no” in the face of, say, those cartoons. Hard to say. Still, its absence is telling. Easy to find, the song, essentially an archetype of the album, pairs spastic bottlecap upbeats with a rudimentary bass and flat snare, overlaying this tinkling rococo shimmy with Malaysian chanters reciting passages from, well, the Qu’ran. A brassy warble spices and breaks the high end. Synth strings eventually fall in step with the drumkit march. And you won’t hear this on the release, as, we can assume, it could marshal a volatile return. What’s more, when placed against the reissue’s bonus tracks (“Pitch” to “Foil”), the song is definitely more in line with the album, and more enjoyable, than tracks like “Vocal Outtakes,” a superfluous ditty as both behind the scenes and “Secret Life” retread. Sure, “New Feet” uses the same wailing warble as “Qu’ran,” but where was “Feet,” with its showy, superior twig-snapping beat, in the original release? All signs point to political and religious respect. Or safety.

I purport something of an impossibility: giving equal criticism of one’s own culture to that of Others’. Complaints of imperialist threads in Byrne’s work have already been levied at the artist many times, especially in regards to his ethereal documentary, and not without warrant. As David Bowman’s commented, “It’s unlikely any of the voodooites were soliciting money on television like Tammy Faye, but David’s blatant acceptance of tropical religion and visions of God put him in the same trap that he observed in the Sex Pistols’ phenomenon: The other is always more holy than the known.” Then again, could someone growing up under the glow of broadcast evangelical pandering be able to criticize the opiate in “tropical religions” as sufficiently as the continuous loop of TV’s cross? The question is rhetorical because America’s still waiting.

As a political statement, My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts is neither burdened by the prescience of a Reaganomic landscape, nor particularly concerned with a focused statement. As a pop album, it’s conspicuously not a pop album. As a child of “world music,” it’s all over the map. Even with the album’s introduction as a bombastic kind of progenitor for industrial, house, ambient, rap, or any sample-based music, the relevance of the “found” sounds in today’s sonic attitude is as uninteresting as it could be laughable. This does not discredit the meticulous originality of the duo’s vision. It does not, as some may attest, posit a poaching of African music, or of Muslim music, or of non-Western religion. Simply put, in 2006, My Life is a timeless evaluation of Assimilation, sometimes harmless, sometimes bleak, but consistently absorbing.

Most revealing of My Life In The Bush Of Ghost’s continuing vision is Nonesuch’s, Byrne’s, and Eno’s participation in the Creative Commons licensing project. Working under current copyright law, Creative Commons offers an extremely accessible and apparent way of sharing creative content over the web. The artist places Commons-monitored legal restrictions on the use of their stuff, an open community of creative sharing essentially emerges, and the possibility of exploitation or legal shenanigans is reduced. Bush-of-ghosts.com allows download of specific tracks from the album’s songs, under Creatve Commons agreements, and provides an extended list of fans’ remixes. The result, minus enormous social and technological impact, is an open pool of endless re-context and funnels of assimilation.

David Byrne’s written that all of the vocal samples spliced throughout the album share a palpable “passion” in delivery. In other words, the fact that one sample comes from a radio preacher and one from a grainy Arabic Otherworld has no real affect on how the music should be experienced. Mutilated and multi-tracked, the vocals lose context, retaining only what the listener can divine, which, in turn, is based simply on the listener’s own contextual background. Then, swarmed with half-eaten polyrhythm, funk bass, ambient moss, aleatoric nonsense, peppered by percussive oddities like the Irish tension-controlled bodhran or the Caribbean bata or the domestic lampshade, the music becomes, literally, world music.

Following the arteries of influence would be moot, I think, (and very time-consuming) especially when acknowledging the album’s resistance to dissection. You scrutinize the details, the individual layers, you may find its compositional logic baffling. Or just randomly annoying. Here’s why, twenty five years later, “Mea Culpa’s” jittery orgy of a sampled opening still sounds as alien and as refreshing as ever. Why “America Is Waiting’s” first two “measures” elastically explode and leave a vacuum behind. And, Jesus, does “Help Me Somebody” — one moment a tropical frenzy with Steve Scales’ congas and an apocalyptic exercise video the next — sound gorgeous in the reissue’s new, clear mix. This stuff is, vagueness intended, an exhausting and lulling experience. It works best as a thing for the body. It’s best as a whole, as a participation devoid of context.

That said, the bonus tracks do throw off the balance of an album whose tracklist has already been toyed with enough. Some tracks are redundant. But the new package provides a taste of Byrne at the height of his powers, exercising an arrogant innocence without the self-important dare for eclecticity. Dastardly chameleon or not, he and Eno worked no imperialistic motives here. Absolutely everything’s game. It’s something for America to wait for, and maybe that’s a political statement in itself. Our cultural melting pot should aim for some jumbalaya, maybe.

I resist using an epigraph because I have no idea just how important this album is, where the sampling manifested itself first and best in a vast musical environment, or how well Ghosts conveys a solid blend of cultural practice while still respecting cultural difference and identity. I wouldn’t want to enforce a fallible line of thought or an incomplete perception. But, can I keep going and recommend David Byrne’s recent Grown Backwards? Its production is deceptively clean, its packaging deceptively simple, his supporting tour deceptively straightforward. Stuff of the gut. And it lacks pretension. Really. Which is why I’ll take Bush of Ghosts purely. they want, but he knows what I want.

As an ultimate, ageless stud, he's bound to come up short at some point: He writes blogs and hosts web radio shows and makes installation art and scores and curates and collects and manages and for each of these occupations he sustains a sagacious rigor. At times his pursuits seem obligatory, but only at the mercy of an already obligatory market, like when he became involved with Creative Commons for the release of the My Life in the Bush of Ghosts reissue (2006), offering up single tracks from a few songs to illustrate, partly, how easy us electronic mixers have it nowadays compared to back-when, and then to assert that Our Man Byrne knows exactly where the music industry's headed even though that shock of gray hair could portend otherwise. In other words, we can cut him a break for a few sidesteps. Good thing, because Live From Austin TX, the inevitable release of a 2001 show hyping Byrne's then ubiquitous Look Into the Eyeball, is lackluster and mildly pedantic, mostly because it doesn't subvert or raise any expectations for the performer. It just sort of pleasantly exists.

David Byrne has participated in two great live albums (with Talking Heads) and one pretty great live DVD (solo, for Nonesuch, culled from the Grown Backwards [2004] tour) and what each of those releases documented was a musician at a certain height in his or her powers, a thick studio presence reborn as a mighty, visceral entity, a performer entirely in control of the moment as the performer simultaneously assures the listener that the performer would be in control in many similar moments. So Live From Austin TX is not a great live album, only a decent one, because the tour following the release of Look Into the Eyeball did not demonstrate a David Byrne at the height of his David Byrne Powers. In fact, Look Into the Eyeball is not even a great David Byrne studio album, just a consolidation of influences -- of the "world" moniker so beaten to a pulp in Byrne's fastidious shadow -- more comfortable than anything prodigal in genre coverage. Gone was the sense of excitement in discovery from albums like Rei Momo (1989) or Lead us Not Into Temptation (2003), both of which expressed everything idolatrous about Byrne: everything exoticist, ambitious, and arrogant released commercially.

Austin does seem shallow by most Byrne standards. It's packaged stupidly and setlisted with a mouse-brain creativity, mixed thinly with Byrne's vocals and the occasional strange drum tic slapped at the front, and paraded onto shelves with a few paragraphs that basically describe what you already know: Mr. David Byrnes imbues "a variety of styles and influences, from Philly soul to a D.C. go-go inspired groove" even though you know that whatever touchstones are mentioned, it'll all eventually get filed under "World Music" so words don't matter anyway. And I bought it for something like nineteen bucks. What is this live album even attempting to catalogue if four of its thirteen cuts are from a mediocre David Byrne album, six tracks are Talking Heads covers (diction intended), and one's a cover? Live From Austin TX is cataloguing a TV show, that's all, soundtracking an episode of Austin City Limits sans all the verve and splendor of Byrne's actual show. It sounds filtered through a dusty Toshiba 36". I demand that you give me my money back, PBS. After all, I own you.

Fortunately, a few excellent tracks keep the disc from settling into utter shame. Backed by a disarmingly lithe string section care of Austin's own Tosca Strings, Byrne's reimagining of "This Must Be the Place" attains sugary highs in the coda alone. Similarly, "Life During Wartime" is bloated to candied extremes, allowed to manifest as epically as it deserves but never could in its original guise, and then "Desconocido Soy" takes another route, losing a couple fingers of its industrial fuzz and roar (yeah, it had those things) to getaway with something wholly bittersweet and worried to the bone. And "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" is just so fucking dopey, so sincere, that the plangent bongos, overbearing string section, and immutable Byrne warble seem to prelate and encapsulate everything mystifying and infuriating about Whitney Houston, including her crack-addled contemporary self.

Mostly, though, Live From Austin TX admits that a solo David Byrne owes a non-solo David Byrne to his fans and goes far enough to reproduce his hits with nothing besides quirky vocal inflections and a hardier riff or drum or violin fill to discern the young from the old. The unforgivable offender is "Once in a Lifetime"; how many versions of this have you heard? This is probably the worst, despite it being the same song as it ever was, replete with the most obnoxious David Byrne "voice" ever put to tape, somewhere between Kermit the Frog and Pat from Saturday Night Live, and, as always (sorry, Mr. Belew, my heart still longs for your embrace), topped by a wanky, screeching guitar solo that could have leaked out of CC DeVille's closet. At this point, the tracklist goes from kinda boring to pitifully drafted.

Because Live From Austin TX or no Live From Austin TX, Byrne'll reveal another empirical scheme, another clever something in the near future, and this reasonably good collection of live tunes will blow amicably away, as they may have done already. For sure, you don't need me writing a review to remind you of what to expect out of David Byrne. And you probably don't need this album to do that either. David Byrne already knows what you expect out of David Byrne, so for David Byrne to expect that David Byrne fans want something so thoroughly underachieving and unflattering as far as live David Byrne goes, he's got to have another thing coming.