David Byrne’s Gray Suits, from “Stop Making Sense” to “American Utopia”

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 Rachel SymeOctober 20, 2020

The New Yorker

Culture Desk

David Byrne’s Gray Suits, from “Stop Making Sense” to “American Utopia”

By Rachel SymeOctober 20, 2020

People gray wearing suits in David Byrne's American Utopia.
In David Byrne’s new show turned film, “American Utopia,” the suits telegraph a rare kind of harmony, and a lack of hierarchy, within the group performance.Photograph by David Lee / HBO

Sometime in the mid-nineteen-seventies, David Byrne bought a cheap gray polyester suit at a discount outlet in downtown Manhattan. Talking Heads had just started playing regularly at CBGB, and Byrne was having trouble figuring out what his “look” should be. What he wanted, he writes in his book “How Music Works,” from 2012, was to find a way to “start from scratch, sartorially,” to strip the band’s clothing down to the basics so all that would be left was the sound. At first, he tried wearing polo shirts, he writes, but the garment “set us apart and branded us as preppies . . . we were accused of being dilettantes, and of not being ‘serious’ (read: authentic or pure).” Then, walking through the city, he realized that most New York businessmen were wearing nondescript suits, and he began to see it as a kind of brutalist anti-fashion statement. “This was a kind of uniform that intentionally eliminated (or at least intended to eliminate) the possibility of clothing as a statement,” he writes. So Byrne decided that he would become a Suit Guy, or what he calls “Mr. Man On The Street,” but the phase did not last long. He found that the polyester made him sweat profusely onstage; when he put the suit in the washer-dryer, it shrunk to the point that it became unwearable. The band went back to wearing polo shirts and button-up oxfords with rolled-up sleeves, items whose Waspy connotations Byrne continued to grapple with throughout his early career performing amongst punks and the leather jacket crowd. “I soon realized when it comes to clothing,” he writes, “it is next to impossible to find something completely neutral. Every outfit carries some cultural baggage of some kind.”

Byrne has always been intensely interested in the minute details of pop performance. He saw Talking Heads not so much as a band but as a conceptual performance group. In 2014, when discussing “Stop Making Sense,” Talking Heads’ concert film, which was directed by Jonathan Demme and released in 1984, Byrne said in Time that the goal was to show that “a pop concert could be a kind of theatre—not in the pretentious sense, but in the sense that it could be visually and even sort of dramatically sophisticated, and yet you could still dance to it.” Demme, who died in 2017, claims that all he had to do to make “Stop Making Sense” was show up and roll camera; Byrne had already planned out each beat to an almost obsessive degree. It was Byrne’s idea to build the show piece by piece, beginning with him standing alone onstage with a tape player performing “Psycho Killer,” then bringing on one band member at a time to show, explicitly, how the musical sausage gets made. In the film, the band’s many roadies are visible and essential: they wheel on drum kits and synthesizers (all painted black, by the way, to allow the band to stand out from the background). As one emblematic story goes, Byrne was so upset that one of his backup singers, the legendary Edna Holt, had changed her hair the day before filming that he paid for her to get a weave. “Hair-whipping was a big part of the show,” he explained

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