By Iain Shedden
25 February 2006
You'd better believe it. David Byrne has made a disco musical about Imelda Marcos that examines the monster in all of us.
So David Byrne calls Fatboy Slim and says: "Here's an idea. Imelda Marcos, OK? Wife of a dictator. Liked to go to discos in her younger days. Could make a good musical. What do you think?" Those may not have been his exact words, but Byrne did make the call and it says something about his stature in the music and art world that Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook) didn't slam down the phone and have a good laugh. What he did was agree to collaborate with the former leader of Talking Heads in a project that will have its world premiere at the Adelaide Festival on March 9.
Here Lies Love - A Song Cycle is a multimedia musical experience devised and written mostly by Byrne and with musical contributions from Cook, based on the life of Marcos, the former first lady of The Philippines.
The musical tracks Marcos from her childhood as one of the country's poor to her exorbitant lifestyle as the wife of president Ferdinand Marcos, which included her many visits to New York's exclusive Studio 54 nightclub. She enjoyed the dance floor there so much that she had one built at the family's lavish palace in Manila.
It is, by any stretch of the imagination, an unusual idea to set to music, particularly so when the show contains no dialogue and relies on music and video to drive the story.
You can tell Byrne, speaking from his New York office, is aware of this subject matter's initial shock value, and he admits to being a little nervous about its upcoming debut.
"I'm not overconfident but I feel really good about the songs," he says. "Emotionally they work for each thing that is being conveyed."
There's a lot to convey. While one could reach the conclusion, based on the synopsis, that Here Lies Love is no more than musical farce, the work is meant to be a multilayered device, on one level telling the story of Imelda's upbringing and excesses, on another using music as a metaphor for the unchallenged power that exists in a dictatorship.
Byrne, 53, started working on Here Lies Love not long after his visit to Australia three years ago, when he toured to promote his solo album Look Into the Eyeball and his art book The New Sins. He was here again early last year on his My Backwards Life tour.
"The trigger goes way, way back," he says. "I read a book called The Emperor by a Polish writer [Ryszard Kapuscinski]. He was in Ethiopia at the end of Haile Selassie's reign and he interviewed the members of his court about what it was like. He painted this fascinating portrait of what it was like inside the court of a dictator: backstabbing and fawning behaviour and the headiness of power.
"I saw some beautiful, theatrical images in that, but it didn't go anywhere. Then I saw something about Imelda frequenting Studio 54 and having a disco in her palace in Manila."
The piece is a long way from the work Byrne was doing when he started out. He emerged from the new-wave clubs of New York with Talking Heads in the late 1970s alongside some of the most significant names of the punk era, such as Blondie, the Ramones and Television.
Talking Heads went on to become one of the most innovative art-rock bands of their generation, producing landmark albums including Remain in Light and More Songs About Buildings and Food, with Byrne the outstandingly original and nervous-looking frontman, captured in Jonathan Demme's classic film of the band in concert, Stop Making Sense.
While Talking Heads existed somewhere outside the punk ethos of the Ramones and English bands such as the Clash and Sex Pistols, Byrne breathed the same air.
"I felt very much in common with the feeling that we were going to overthrow the crap music that was all over the radio and that was all around us," he says of that pivotal period.
"We were actually going to make music that had meaning for us, whatever style that happened to be.
"I felt very much that to some degree that was part of our motivation. Very quickly a lot of that became part of fashion which, in retrospect, I guess was kind of inevitable, but there was enough of a healthy kind of do-it-yourself attitude that had a very wide-ranging effect."
Perhaps surprisingly, Byrne found himself recalling those punk days when he went to work with Cook at the English DJ's home in Brighton last week. Cook, who started his music career playing bass guitar in pop band the Housemartins, and his mates were all keen to tell their New York guest that punk was responsible for them getting involved in music - albeit dance music.
"They were saying that it was the punk movement that made them realise that anybody could make music," he says. "And it's true. Whatever you wanted to do and however you wanted to do it, you could. You didn't have to record at Abbey Road or have a big company.
"You could do it all with your own record label and get it out there. A lot of what these guys, DJs, do is miles apart from that, but they thought it all came from punk, which was nice."
Talking Heads' reign came to an end in the late '80s but by then Byrne was already experimenting with other ideas in music, theatre and art. He released the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with Brian Eno. He wrote film scores (winning an Oscar for The Last Emperor), theatre pieces with renowned New York writer and director Robert Wilson, and he recorded a succession of solo albums that embraced all sorts of musical genres, from Latin and soul to rock.
He also founded his own record label, Luaka Bop, in 1988 and released albums by a variety of American, African and South American acts. His involvement with the label now is minimal, he says, mainly because he wasn't cut out to be a record company executive.
"The business end of things was taking up half the day every day," he says. "I figured that wasn't really playing to my strengths, so I let that part go. I always thought that I had enough of a head for business to keep myself afloat, but I don't think I have enough to run a business day to day."
His CV runs to several pages ("mainly because I'm old", he says modestly) and it seems that age is no barrier to his extensive and eclectic output.
Is there anything left for him to do?
"There probably is but I think I'm already doing it," he says. "I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing. I'm very lucky that way, or maybe I just restrict my imagination to what is realistically possible. I'm still kind of driven. I don't know why. I enjoy it, I guess."
Although there is nothing booked after Adelaide, Byrne plans to take Here Lies Love on the road this year. "Once it's all up and rehearsed, that wouldn't be too hard," he says. "It doesn't have huge sets and it doesn't require a massive number of people."
An album of the music that he and Cook are still working on will be released early next year. Although coming from different musical perspectives, Byrne says working with Cook has been a rewarding experience.
"Any collaboration has its bumps," he says, "but it has been pretty good so far. I just came back from his place in Brighton and we've made quite good progress. Knowing the stuff he had done ... and him having been a musician at one point, he has a connection to what a song structure is."
Cook won't be part of the new show, but Byrne is coming to Adelaide for the premiere and will act as narrator. This is contrary to his original plan for the piece, which in its completed form will rely solely on the songs, performed by two actors playing Imelda and the woman who raised her, Estrella, plus the video footage. Unfortunately, Byrne has been unable to secure copyright clearance for all of the video material in time for the Adelaide performances.
"I'll talk between songs so that the historical context is clear," he says. "It's not cheating, but I'll try and keep it as brief as I can. There will be video for about half of it."
Byrne is no stranger to dance music. Three years ago he told Review about his teenage years in New York discos, dancing to the likes of the Detroit Spinners and Disco Tex and His Sexolettes. He laughs when I suggest that setting Here Lies Love in a dance club - and one in which the audience can be part of the action - is in some way an attempt to recapture his youth.
"There is a lot of different music in this project, a whole range of dance styles," he says. "Although I tend to call it disco music, I guess it's referred to today as dance music. And it's not all retro. It's not meant to be set in a particular time."
The setting is meant to convey, through the music, the power that exists in a dictatorship, such as the Marcos years in The Philippines.
"Club dance beats are akin to the kind of feeling you have when subjected to that kind of power," Byrne argues. He also believes it is important for the two actor-singers, Dana Diaz-Tutaan (Imelda) and Ganda Suthivarakom (Estrella), to be involved with the audience.
"Maybe this in some way expresses what these people are feeling in that situation ... told from their perspective, with the audience involved. If you want the audience to feel what it feels like to be a dictator, you don't want them to be looking at it through a window. You want them to be immersed in it."
And is there any one impression he would like the audience to leave with after the Adelaide performances?
"It would be good to feel a little of the excitement, the headiness of power and being able to turn personal whim into national policy," he says. "It's something ... maybe there's a bit of that in all of us. Sometimes those who appear to be freaks and monsters, maybe there's some of that in all of us, too."
Talking of freaks and monsters, perhaps there are parallels to be drawn between dictators and rock stars as well. "Except that most of us don't run secret prisons," Byrne concludes. "We would if we could."