No one at his junior high would have guessed guitar-playing David Byrne would turn out to be a rock star, as well as a founder of the Takling Heads.

ROCK SOLID

October 11, 1997|By J.D. CONSIDINE | J.D. CONSIDINE,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK -- David Byrne would never have been voted "Most Likely to Become a Rock Star" in his junior high school yearbook.

Sure, he had aspirations. Even back in the mid-'60s, when the future Talking Head was a student at Arbutus Junior High in Baltimore County, he played guitar and was in a band. But rock-star material? No way.

In fact, Byrne says that when his band played a "battle of the

bands" at the school, "We had the plug pulled on us. By a rival band, I think." He laughs. "We weren't even that good. There was nothing to fear."

As he recalls, neither he nor any of his band mates was particularly gifted. "I think we were just doing whatever we were able to do," he says, dispelling any notions of early rock stardom on his part.

A former classmate concurs. "I remember Joey Sappington more than anybody else in that band, I guess because he was the most appealing and had the most winsome stage manner," says Michael Yockel, an Arbutus Junior High alum who is now executive associate editor for the New Times news-weekly chain. Yockel adds that it wasn't another band that pulled the plug, but a bad-boy seventh grader. "He was protected by his older brother, who was someone you didn't mess with," he says. "I remember that distinctly."

These days, of course, Byrne is a bona fide rock star, a man whose videos have been on MTV and whose face has been on everything from Rolling Stone to the cover of Time. Even so, he has held on to the same principle he applied when standing in the shadow of Joey Sappington -- just do what you're able to do.

"There was an art-school truism, saying 'less is more' or something," Byrne says. "I remember thinking that I didn't have to be Eric Clapton or whatever. If I could play the right three notes, or an interesting set of three notes, that could be more effective than playing a hundred notes.

"So I found a way out of that problem. If I realized what my limitations are, if I worked within that, then I could make something ... just as powerful as [music by] somebody who has real chops."

That Byrne took his inspiration from an "art school truism" should hardly come as a surprise, given his background. Byrne met Talking Heads co-founder Chris Frantz while the two were students at the Rhode Island School of Design. Byrne then dropped out of R.I.S.D., attended the Maryland Institute, College of Art, for a while, and eventually wandered back to Providence, R.I., where he and Frantz finally got around to forming a band.

"I thought of him as an artist for the longest time," says Yockel, who roomed with Byrne when the fledgling rocker was at the institute. "Then he began playing [guitar] more and more, and he began to perform solo occasionally."

Byrne says that he went to art school because it seemed "more fun" than music school. "Somehow it seemed that the music I was interested in, whether it was rock and roll or Stockhausen, wasn't what you learned if you went to music school," he says. "That's not the stuff I heard coming out of the Peabody. I thought: 'I hear what they're doing. They're practicing their scales. I don't want to do that.' "

As he was finishing up at Landsdowne Senior High (he was class of '70), Byrne toyed with the idea of studying science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. His dad was an electrical engineer who had moved the family from Scotland to take a job at Westinghouse, and Byrne grew up familiar with and fascinated by scientific research. "I had this romantic idea that studying pure science of some sort would be as equally creative a pursuit as rock and roll or art," he says.

"But the art schools just seemed to be wilder and more fun, and had lots of graffiti written all over them. It just seemed like, 'Well, this is going to be a fun place to plug into right away.' "

Thanks to his art school grounding, Byrne was very much aware of aesthetic theories and had no problem applying them to the discipline of songwriting. "I remember at some point thinking that every part should be interesting and have some integrity of its own, and yet they should all fit together to make a whole that's greater than the sum of the parts," he says. "Which meant no conventional solos or that sort of thing."

Playing C.B.G.B.'s

By this point, Talking Heads -- Byrne, Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth -- had moved to New York. There, the band found a small circle of like-minded musicians, all of whom were playing the same bar in the Bowery, a place called C.B.G.B.'s.

"It was sort of in the air," he says of the stylistic shift that would become punk rock. "You heard it in other bands -- Blondie, the Ramones -- that came out of the same scene, though in a different way. Television, the band Television, would be the exception." He laughs. "Somehow we forgave them the fact that they did guitar solos."

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