This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the 20th Century
by David Bowman
By Michaelangelo Matos
Bad rock biographies are so commonplace that they’re hard to get angry about. Few people expect to find great writing when they pick up straight-to-paperback volumes like Martin James’s Moby: Replay or the pocket-size sketches of Beck, Tom Waits, and Elvis Costello in the “Kill Your Idols Series.” Pop fans buy books about their favorite musicians to immerse themselves in the artist’s glow; all they ask is a decent spread of facts, presented in the correct chronological order and spiced with a little backstage intrigue. People don’t read Stephen Davis’s Led Zeppelin bio Hammer of the Gods for its prose, insights, or critical acumen (this guy thinks the band’s best record is Presence, for Christ’s sake). They read it to find out about the Shark Incident. (If you have to ask: it was a snapper, a groupie was involved, and she didn’t mind.)
Rare and beautiful is the rock biography that transcends its role as a mere reference book, that paints a vivid picture of its subject, that succeeds as literature (the best example being Stanley Booth’s harrowing The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, a chronicle of the band’s 1969 tour, which culminated in the chaos at Altamont Speedway). This Must Be the Place, David Bowman’s new biography of Talking Heads, does none of these things, and its tone is so unbearably precious that the book distinguishes itself at the other end of the spectrum: it’s the rare bad rock biography that’s actually worth getting angry about.
Bowman’s narrative traces the conflict between bassist Tina Weymouth and singer-guitarist David Byrne. Weymouth and her husband, drummer Chris Frantz, formed Talking Heads with Byrne in the mid-70s and soon added guitarist-keyboardist Jerry Harrison. Byrne and Weymouth, the band’s two largest egos, have been feuding for years (though Byrne generally deflects questions about her in the press, which infuriates her even further), and Bowman’s focus on her rancor becomes suffocating even before the band begins to fracture.
But one can hardly take seriously any book so riddled with errors. In his treatment of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981), a collaboration between Byrne and Brian Eno, Bowman states, “More than one writer has credited Bush of Ghosts as the inspiration for industrial, house, even rap and hip-hop music.” Unfortunately, except for house, all of these were acknowledged genres by the time the album was released. Zapp’s vocoder-driven dance hit “More Bounce to the Ounce” is credited to James Brown; krautrockers Can are gratuitously misidentified as “Cann”; and Kurtis Blow’s 12-inch single “The Breaks” becomes an LP called These Are the Breaks.
Such sloppiness is symptomatic of the book’s overriding arrogance. Bowman has interviewed musicians for Spin, Salon, and the New York Times Magazine, but he’s best known as a novelist (Let the Dog Drive, Bunny Modern), and he writes like he’s slumming, like he’s too hip for the room. He seems to think he’s Norman Mailer writing about Marilyn Monroe, a figure of high culture blessing a plebeian subject with his masterly touch. He has an annoying stylistic habit. Of breaking up sentences. To give them more power. Yet they tend to look stupid. Smug.
Not to mention the single-sentence paragraphs.
Equally annoying is Bowman’s vague exposition of salient facts, which is supposed to be artful but comes off as coy instead. He refers to a rumor that the band’s 1977 European tour was derailed when “David did something shocking involving a little American flag at the Portobello Hotel in London,” but he never reveals what that something might have been. According to a quickie Talking Heads bio written by a pseudonymous author in 1986, Byrne allegedly shat on his hotel mattress and stuck a flag in it for the maid to find. Both a minor point and a minor legend–but why bring it up at all if you’re not going to follow through? That’s what made Talking Heads a great band: they lived up to their pretensions. What makes This Must Be the Place a terrible book is that it doesn’t.