David Byrne recalled how the Byrds helped him begin the journey to finding his own voice in music after he began life listening to folk artists, and how David Bowie and the Velvet Underground provided his next steps.
The future Talking Heads frontman’s family settled in Baltimore after immigrating from Scotland in the ‘50s, and during the early years of his life he relied on his parents’ record collection.
“They read The New York Times and listened to Woody Guthrie records, so you can imagine what kind of a household that was,” Byrne told Pitchfork in a new interview. “In 1962, I was still listening to my parents’ records and vaguely aware that there were other things out there. … I realized that this sounds very palatable and pretty on the surface, but there’s something darker going on underneath.”
At the age of 15 he discovered the Byrds. “The Bob Dylan song ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was like a psychedelic version of a Woody Guthrie song,” he remembered. “But then the Byrds turned it into something unlike anything my young ears had heard before. It sounded like jangly pots and pans, bells. If you’re someone who grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, the song is like a little telegraph from someplace else. Hearing that, I realized, ‘I have to get out of here, because there are people in other places. There’s a whole world out there that I don’t know anything about.’”
Byrne came up with the idea of playing “great literate rock songs in coffee houses around Baltimore” and followed that ambition for a time. “I’d do songs by the Kinks or the Who, or songs with really insightful lyrics that the folkies had never heard before,” he said. A few years afterward, he visited New York City as part of a street duet with a friend. “I played ukulele and violin, and he played accordion. … I would dress in old suits and had a long beard, and kids would come up to me and say, ‘Mister, are you one of those men who don’t drive cars?’ I was not.”
Bowie – who would influence Byrne again and later become a friend – first made an impact during that New York trip. “We’d heard about the Warhol scene at Max’s Kansas City, and so my friend and I went in there – with the full beard and everything – curious to see where the cool people were,” he recalled. “We were so out of place, and I remember David Bowie came in dressed in his full glam outfit, with the orange hair, the space suit, everything. And I just thought, ‘We don’t fit in here. We better go.’”
Inspired by that meeting and also by the Velvet Underground, Byrne found himself in Rhode Island around the age of 20. “I wrote a couple songs that stuck during that period, including ‘Psycho Killer,'” he said.
“The Velvet Underground were a big revelation. I realized, ‘Oh, look at the subject of their songs: There’s a tune and a melody, but the sound is either completely abrasive or really pretty. They swing from one extreme to the other.’ ‘White Light/White Heat’ is just this noise, and then ‘Candy Says’ is incredibly pretty but really kind of dark. As a young person, you go, ‘What is this about?’”