Book Byrning: Books by and about David Byrne

Though I am unlikely to be alone in this, I have a confession to make. There is a group of artists whom I tend to romanticize because I missed a certain time their careers. I will always wonder what it must’ve been like to see Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson, David Gilmour, David Bowie, David Byrne, or Brian Eno in the early-to-mid-80s. I’m old enough to remember buying Talking Heads records in junior-high and high school and to have seen their odd videos, but not old enough to have grasped the historical and cultural context from which those records sprang. Regardless, Byrne has remained an ever-present, ever-relevant influence since.

Song and Circumstance: The Work of David Byrne (Continuum, 2010) by Sytze Steenstra goes a long way to resolving my historical ignorance. His academic approach to the subject of David Byrne and his work reveals heretofore unconnected links in the man’s music, thinking, and artistic path.

For instance, Byrne had been reading a lot of systems theory and cybernetics literature before meeting and collaborating with Brian Eno. Eno’s production style was informed by much of the same work: command and control systems, feedback loops, etc. This coincidence explains at least part of why the two work together so seemlessly on Talking Heads’ and their own records and have gotten on so well ever since.

I wouldn’t be surprised if poetry — poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs — is how the world works. The world isn’t logical, it’s a song.
— David Byrne

To wit, below is a spread from Jennifer New’s Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005) showing two pages of David Byrne’s many journals: The left is a flowchart of a song and the right is his sketch of the legendary Big Suit from Stop Making Sense (1985).

Byrne truly attempted to apply cybernetic and systems thinking to his art and music, constructing such flowcharts, diagrams, and algorithms for everything from goal setting to formulating innovation and success. Steenstra’s book covers the science of Byrne’s art, as well as the usual musical biography fodder (e.g., humble art-school beginnings, the onset of success, the infighting, the band’s break up, etc.), but it’s the former that sets this book apart.

If you know me, you know that one of the only things I love as much as music is bicycles. Well, David Byrne’s own Bicycle Diaries (Viking, 2010) explores and explains why they’re so seductive in ways I never could.

This book was written almost by accident. That is, Byrne’s fascination with bicycles and writing about seeing the world from behind handlebars was unintentional. He first started riding them in New York in the early 80s, finding it easier to get around by bike than by cab or subway. Then came the feeling of freedom that riding bicycles affords. Later in his career, Byrne discovered über-portable folding bikes and started taking them with him on tour. He writes,

That same sense of liberation I experienced in New York recurred as I pedaled around many of the world’s  principle cities. I felt more connected to the life on the streets than I would have inside a car or in some form of public transport: I could stop whenever I wanted to; it was often (very often) faster than a car or taxi fro getting from point A to point B; and I didn’t have to follow any set route. The same exhilaration, as the air and street life whizzed by, happened again in each town. It was, for me, addictive (p. 2).

Though his bicycle is the enabling mechanism for this book and the urban environment is the backdrop, Byrne’s observations and insights are only half about bicycles or cities. In these entries, he discusses everything from economics and diversity to the semiotics of cell phone ring tones. It’s a ride as inspiring as it is fascinating.


One of the many bike-related things Byrne writes about in Bicycle Diaries is his bike rack designs. Below is a Wall Street Journal video showing the making of them [runtime: 3:00], as well as David Byrne and one of his bikes.


Nubile Noir: Veronica Mars

One writer described Veronica Mars during her pre-fandom days as “outrageous,” writing that the writing was “clunky,” the one-liners too “crisp,” and the teens too “clever and in charge.” The show was saved in her book when someone called it “camp.” That made it all click for her. I only take issue with that designation because I have a narrower definition of camp (I immediately think John Waters), but by her estimate, if Veronica Mars is camp then so are the Scream movies. The thing she’s referring to is the over-the-top, in-your-face stance of the show. It’s not as if Andrew WK wrote the dialog, but you know everything is not this well-scripted IRL, and dramatic events don’t self-organize into perfect act breaks. Well, that’s probably because… It’s a fucking TV show!

With that said, it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever indulged in. Kristen Bell’s depiction of Veronica Mars is more than enough to carry this show, but the inimitable Enrico Colantoni (Just Shoot Me and Flashpoint; as her dad Keith Mars), Percy Daggs III (as Veronica’s sidekick Wallace), Jason Dohring (as complex pretty boy Logan Echolls), and Francis Capra (as bad boy Weevil) as well as minor characters like Tina Majorino (Napoleon Dynamite; as the aptly named computer wiz Mac) all do major heavy lifting.

Annoy, little blond one! Annoy like the wind! — Logan Echolls

Rob Thomas (not to be confused with that lame Matchbox 20 dude) put this show together during a five-year dry spell in what had been a flood of good fortune in Hollywood. According to Neptune Noir (Benbella, 2007), the critical essay collection he edited, it saved his career and his soul.

The series so far (I wanted to wait until I watched the whole thing to write this, but I’m only on the second season, and I’m convinced. I also wanted to wait until I finished the book, but the book keeps spoiling the series!) mixes elements of Heathers (snarky, dark humor), Twin Peaks (the haunting of the show by Lily Kane, just as Laura Palmer did in Twin Peaks), 21 Jump Street (whip-smart whippersnapper detectives), American Beauty (stereotypes on the surface, crazies underneath), and several other teen dramas and comedies. The writing is razor sharp, the plot twists are white-knuckled, and the characters are as multidimensional as they are memorable. It’s everything I want from a TV show or a movie.

And speaking of, the way we watch hath changed. If it weren’t for the streaming of TV online, I wouldn’t know the first thing about this show. This is important for a show like Veronica Mars, which is available on Netflix Instant, or other cult favorites like Twin Peaks: The ratings don’t matter online. A show that critics loved but mass audiences barely got can thrive in the minds of millions through internet-enabled rediscovery. In the case of Veronica Mars, this is good.

So, while I’ve never owned a television, I do love the medium done brave and done well. And Veronica Mars is a prime example of that. I am hereby recommending it to you.


Here’s a fan-made trailer for season one [run time 2:16]:


Rappin’ is My Radio: New Books on Rap Poetics

One of my favorite Hip-hop studio tales is from the recording of “Brooklyn’s Finest.” The story goes that Jay-Z and Biggie were sitting in legendary D&D studios in New York City listening to Clark Kent’s beat, a pen and a pad on the table between them. “They’re both looking at the pad like, Go ahead, you take it. No, you take it,” says Roc-A-Fella co-founder Biggs, “That’s when they found out that both of them don’t write.” That is, neither of these emcees write any of their rhymes down. They write, edit, and recite straight off the dome. Their method isn’t freestyling per se, but it’s still quite amazing.

Insight like this into the creative processes of Hip-hop is rare, but becoming more prevalent as the culture is recognized for what it is: the last salient, significant musical and cultural movement in history — and one that is now global in scale (Omoniyi, 2009). A few years back, Brian Coleman‘s book Check the Technique (Villard, 2007; née Rakim Told Me, WaxFacts, 2005) set out to fix this by providing liner notes to classic albums. “…it’s about talking to the artists themselves about their work as musicians, as creators.” he explains. “It seems to me that when you talk about music a lot of times, people tend to view the image of a group or at least the end product of their art, an album, as the most important thing. I think that the process of making them what they are as a group is as, if not more, important.” No question.

The books assembled here focus on language use, a tack that is often taken for granted in studies of Hip-hop (Alim, 2009), but one that is central to the culture and the music. Michael Eric Dyson (2004) puts it thusly:

Rap is a profound musical, cultural, and social creativity. It expresses the desire of young black people to reclaim their history, reactivate forms of black radicalism, and contest the powers of despair and economic depression that presently besiege the black community. Besides being the most powerful form of black musical expression today, rap projects a style of self into the world that generates forms of cultural resistance and transforms the ugly terrain of ghetto existence into a searing portrait of life as it must be lived by millions of voiceless people. For that reason alone, rap deserves attention and should be taken seriously (p. 67-68).

Enter How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC (Chicago Review Press, 2009) by Paul Edwards. This book is a collection of discussions with hundreds of emcees of all stripes about inspiration, techniques, writing, freestyling, flow, content, style, subject matter, etc. More specific topics like rhyme schemes, metaphors, rhythm, delivery, and collaboration are covered, and with a chapter each on working in the studio and performing live, contextual considerations are given due time as well. Comments, advice, and insight on all of the above from nearly everyone in Hip-hop who matters (including our dude Cage Kennylz) from every school and era that matters. Is your favorite emcee in here? Mine is. Here’s Sean Price on the art of flow:

Like Bruce Lee said, if the water is in the jug, it becomes that jug. If the water is in that bowl, it becomes that bowl. That’s how I approach it (p. 64).

It’s not all koans and riddles though. For instance, here’s Clipse’s Pusha-T on Jay-Z and writing in your head:

Anything that you’ve ever heard of anybody saying about seeing Jay-Z in the studio, what does he do? He mumbles to himself, he walks around, he mumbles to himself, he walks around, he mumbles to himself, then he’s like OK, I got it. It’s not like, stroll into the booth and [record immediately]–he plays with the idea. Paper and pen is nothing but comfort, to me it’s nothing but being comfortable and being able to look at it, digest it, and say OK, this is how it’s supposed to [go]. But if you can train your mind to do it without that, that’s dope (p. 144).

The next few pages go on to explain the reasons one might want to learn to write in one’s head, and techniques for doing so. How to Rap covers every technique in this way. Weighing in at over 300 pages and introduced by a Kool G. Rap-penned foreword, this is seriously the handbook emcees have been waiting for.

Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-hop (Basic Civitas, 2008) breaks down emceeing in a different, but just as useful and intriguing manner. He digs deep into the meter, rhyme, and rhythm of rap in search of its poetics. “In the hands of unskilled poets and MCs alike,” writes Bradley, “rhyme can be an impediment, and awkward thing that leads to unnatural sounds and unintended meanings. But rhyme well used makes for powerful expression; it at once taps into the most primal pleasure centers of the human brain, those of sound patterning, and maintains an elevated, ceremonial distance from regular speech” (p. 57). Emcees must stay elevated, maintain that distance, but not drift too far away.

Since rap is a battle-borne art form, emcees must continually add on with their contributions while maintaining the culture’s heritage. That is, a practitioner must make something new while still adhering to the rules. Thomas Kuhn (1977) described an essential tension in science between innovation and tradition: Too innovative and the theory is untestable, too traditional and it’s not useful. The same tension can be said to exist in Hip-hop, as if one “innovates” without regard to “tradition,” one is no longer doing Hip-hop. Where lyrical interpolations are concerned, one must not adhere too closely to the original source lest one be accused of biting. “What separates ‘biting’ and ‘enlightening’ is the difference between repetition and repetition with a difference,” Bradley writes (2008, p. 150) It’s a delicate balance to be sure, but one of which a violation is not difficult to discern.

Bradley, along with Andrew DuBois, continues his exploration of rap’s poetics with The Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press, 2010). This giant tome compiles over three hundred lyrics from over thirty years of Hip-hop. The editors shot here for diversity rather than inclusion, thereby showing rap’s poetic and stylistic breadth rather than just its sheer quantity, though the book does weigh in at just under 900 pages. It also sports an foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., afterwords by Chuck D and Common, and essays that contextualize each major era of rap music. The four eras according to the editors are The Old School (1978-1984), The Golden Age (1985-1992), Rap Goes Mainstream (1993-1999), and New Millennium Rap (2000-2010). Among the undisputed legends and usual suspects, other monsters on the mic include Jay Electronica, Ras Kass, Edan, Eyedea (R.I.P., Mikey), O.C., Big L, Pharoahe Monch, Black Sheep, Brother Ali, and the homies Aesop Rock and Chino XL, among many, many others. Bradley points out in Book of Rhymes that lyrics are to be taken and judged differently when spoken as when on the page, and The Anthology of Rap gives one a chance to do the latter. It is comprehensive, definitive, and essential to be sure.

And if you don’t think people care about lyrics anymore, these are Sean Price‘s final words in Paul Edward’s How to Rap book:

I think it’s going to get back to lyrics, man, and that’s good. I’m ready for that, I can rhyme. Redman, he can rhyme, Jadakiss, he can rhyme–it’s going to get back to them [MCs] who can spit real hard-body lyrics, lyrics that count—Talib Kweli and all of them, they spit bodies. I like those dudes (p. 312).

Word is bond.


Here’s the book trailer for The Anthology of Rap [runtime: 3:12]:




Alim, H. S. (2009). Straight outta Compton, straight aus Munchen: Global linguistic flows, and the politics of language in a global hip-hop nation. In H. S. Alim, A. Ibrahim, & A. Pennycook (Eds.), Global linguistic flows: Hip-hop cultures, youth identities, and the politics of language (pp. 1-23). New York: Routledge.

Bradley, A. (2008). Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-hop. New York: Basic Civitas.

Bradley, A. & DuBois, A. (2010). The Anthology of Rap. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Coleman, B. (2007). Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. New York: Villard.

Dyson, M. E. (2004). The culture of hip-hop. In M. Forman & M. A. Neal (Eds.),That’s the joint: The hip-hop studies reader (pp. 61-68). New York: Routledge.

Edwards, P. (2009). How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Erwin, J., Malcolm, S. A., Duncan-Mao, A., Matthews, A., Monroe, J., Samuel, A., & Satten, V. (2006, August). “Told You So: The Making of Reasonable Doubt.XXL Magazine, 10, 7, pp. 89-102.

Kuhn, T. (1977). The Essential Tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Onimiyi, T. (2009). “So I choose to do Am Naija style” Hip-hop, language, and postcolonial identities. In H. S. Alim, A. Ibrahim, & A. Pennycook (Eds.), Global linguistic flows: Hip-hop cultures, youth identities, and the politics of language (pp. 113-138). New York: Routledge.


Apologies to Aesop Rock for ganking his “No Jumper Cables” lyric for the title of this piece (“Rappin’ is my radio, graffiti is my TV, B-boys keep them windmills breezy”).

[Top photo of Ras Kass by B+. Photocopy treatment by royc.]

A False Sense of Obscurity: Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage

Self-identifying as a Rush fan has often felt like admitting that I used to play Dungeons & Dragons or, as I recently proclaimed to the folks at Geekend 2010, that I used to solve the Rubik’s Cube… competitively. Well, I’m coming out of the nerd closet: Rush is one of my all-time favorite bands, and Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010) finally tells their story.

Contrary to what some might tell you, Rush is not a legacy band. Sure, they have some old, dusty hits that people still want to hear when they see them play live (e.g., “Tom Sawyer”), but they’ve maintained the same high level of craftpersonship throughout their thirty-plus years together. With that said, most Rush fans have a favorite era. Some like the really early Zepplin-inspired proto-Rush of the the late 60s-early 70s. Some like the epic, über-prog late-70s Rush. Most like the shorter, airwave-friendly prog of the Permanent Waves (1980) / Moving Pictures (1981) era and hate the keyboard-riddled period just after that (the rest of the 80s). As Geddy Lee puts it in the movie, “There are certain periods of Rush that are more universal than other periods.” I can honestly say that my favorite Rush songs span their four decades.

Growing up, my uncle Lynn had made me aware of Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, and prog rock in general, so though I was always aware of Rush, I didn’t become a fan in earnest until my first record store job. My boss there, Jay Cobb, played them incessantly. Not only was his rabid fandom contagious and the music intricate and interesting, but it made me think as well. Like my favorite band at that time (Oingo Boingo), Neil Peart’s lyrics challenged me like few bands did. Presto (1989) had just come out, and it was a return to form for a band whose previous several years had left them without a formidable part of their edge and a noticeable part of their fan-base. Presto sidestepped the synths and brought Alex Lifeson’s guitars back to center stage. It remains one of my most listened-to Rush records.

Beyond the Lighted Stage was directed by Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn, both devout Rush nerds, and it shows. Through original interviews, archival footage and photos, and special guests, their documentary follows the band from their upbringing, through their chronic obscurity and flirtations with the mainstream, to their current goings-on. The special guests include celebrity fans — everyone from the willfully annoying Jack Black, Tim Commerford, and Jason McGerr, to the always articulate Trent Reznor, Gene Simmons, Kirk Hammett, and Les Claypool, as well as the surprisingly brilliant Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin, and Sebastian Bach. The latter of whom says he was inspired to read by 2112 (1976). “I was into the story,” Bach says, “I read the back and it was dedicated to The Fountainhead, the book, and I went right out and bought The Fountainhead and read it. Not too many bands make a twelve-year-old go out and buy The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand! Goddammit, this rock band’s got me all fired-up about literature!” And so it goes with Rush and Rush fans.

I finally saw Rush on the 2003 Vapor Trails tour in Las Vegas, and yes, their career-spanning setlist included “Tom Sawyer.” It was when I told my friends about seeing the “world’s most popular cult band” (as Geddy put it) that I realized how nerdy it is to like Rush. It’s not quite like admitting that you solved the Rubik’s Cube competitively, but it’s not far off either.