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Happy Birthday, David Byrne! Here's to Icons of Imagery

Born May 14, 1952, David Byrne would have made a totally significant mark in the world of music even if he'd only remained at the helm of Talking Heads. As singer and songwriter for one of the most innovative outfits involved in New York's punk/new wave scene from the mid '70s onward into the '80s, he's been a legend. One of the bands that sprung from CBGBs, Talking Heads established a jittery and yet still insistent sound that not only distinguished them from their like-minded contemporaries, but helped the movement broaden its reach into more avant-garde leanings.

Byrne was born in Scotland, raised in Canada, and would eventually settle in New York City. In middle school, Byrne was rejected by the choir because his teachers considered him "off-key and too withdrawn." 

In the recent DVD release Talking Heads Chronology, there's a segment that captures Byrne and the Talking Heads on Dick Clark's American Bandstand in 1979. He barely manages more than one or two word answers in response to the host's persistent questioning. Clark's pronouncement that he was painfully shy was more or less on the money. In his own journals, he owned up to his peculiarity, describing himself as "borderline Asperger's," a condition that might have contributed to his odd stage persona later on.

Byrne first pursued his musical interests in an otherwise orthodox ensemble called Bizadi, which covered such pedestrian songs as "April Showers," "96 Tears," "Dancing on the Ceiling," and various selections by Frank Sinatra. His next group was formed after dropping out of art school and meeting fellow RISD student Chris Frantz, with whom he formed The Artistics. The band was short-lived, prompting the duo to relocate to New York where they recruited Frantz's girlfriend Tina Weymouth to play bass and later, an ex-member of the Modern Lovers, Jerry Harrison, to fill in on keyboards and guitar, forming Talking Heads in 1975. The band lasted approximately 15 years, producing eight albums, and reuniting briefly in 2002 when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

Byrne's solo ambitions resulted in a series of disparate efforts, beginning with the experimental collaboration with Brian Eno entitled My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and later, after his departure from Talking Heads, his 1989 album Rei Momo, which brought him into world music realms courtesy of its mesh of Afro-Cuban, African, and Brazilian song styles. 

Uh-Oh, released in 1992, featured an emphasis on brass, but also showing a return to a more pop oriented approach, culminating in davidenrych, an effort was more rock reliant. Four more albums have followed since then - Feelings, Look into the Eyeball, Grown Backwards, and Everything That Happens Will Happen Today on which he worked again with Eno. The two subsequently began touring together. 

Byrne's restless artistic muse has made him successful in other areas as well, including music for theater, film, opera, and dance, the latter of which included a collaboration with choreographer Twyla Tharp on the ballet The Catherine Wheel, which was later featured on Broadway. His work garnered him the most prestigious awards each of those disciplines have to offer, including a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Golden Globe. For his 1986 pseudo-documentary True Stories, he composed the music and also directed and starred in a perplexing analysis of American music at its most surreal. At the same time, he's continued to explore world music through his Luaka Bop label, which he founded in 1990 to foster the work of other artists. 

His more recent work has included a 2005 disco opera project with Fatboy Slim about Imelda Marcos entitled Here Lies Love, as well as a soundtrack to the television show Big Love called Big Love: Hymnal and the 2010 film score for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which found him reuniting with Eno yet again. 

Byrne's also written a book on biking Bicycle Diaries. He's returned to his roots and worked on several successful art installations and exhibitions. Nevertheless, the image which lingers longest in our collective minds is that of Byrne in his big box suits with the squared off-shoulders, moving helter-skelter and somewhat spasmodically, his hair slicked back and eyes staring blankly straight-ahead like some futuristic malformed robot. It's one of the most singular stage personas in all of rock 'n' roll, one which exists alongside some other icons who became known as much for their garb and get-ups as for the music they mainlined. These include: 

Elvis Presley: Tight jeans and glittery jackets don't seem too shocking these days, but in the mid '50s, Elvis' twist of his hips, that curl of his lips and those long jet-black sideburns practically defined the new age of teenage rebellion. 

Little Richard: Richard became a poster boy for flamboyance long before most people even knew its meaning. With his mile-high pompadour and outrageously colorful stage garb, he gave rock 'n' roll its first hint of outrage and intrigue. 

David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust simulated an alien invasion, his flaming orange hair, transgender expression and futuristic get-up signaled that something ominous and otherworldly had unexpectedly arrived. 

Madonna: This babe was all about bondage - at least that's the impression she gave with that kinky corset and super-spiked bra. She's still a formidable presence these many years later. 

Boy George: This Boy practically defined the whole notion of androgyny. Do we really want to hurt him? Maybe. 

Devo: The flower-pot helmets and futuristic work suits made the whole "We Are Devo" mantra somewhat scary. 

Elton John: With his oversized sunglasses, feather boas and platform shoes, the former Reg Dwight became one of the more stunning examples of overstated silliness in the 1970s. 

Lady Gaga: Gag me, Gaga! Anyone that can put together an outfit made of raw meat automatically wins our award for best faux fashionista.

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Lee Zimmerman

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