In which I do just that
This is a story of the tightest rhythm section ever. And possibly the most successful married pop act ever. One of them is French Catholic, which I get; the other is from Kentucky and spent his youth in the KY/OH/western-PA area, which I get. Their joint life began in New England, which I really get.
I had eyes on this book from the day it was published: it entered my orbit tangibly as a Christmas present from my dad. To be fair, any book having to do with Talking Heads is going to pique my interest, but this one was more momentous than most. I read the multi-chapter sample before my copy arrived, hungry for as much as I could get.
Let the record show that I am intensely partial to the union of Christopher Frantz and Martina Weymouth. I love their love. Not as much as my own parents’, that’s like the law or something—anyway, my parents loved the Heads from the jump, so call it genetic. Reading about them felt akin to rooting for a favorite TV couple. If they weren’t gonna make it, none of us would.
But they did.
I went in knowing that Chris and I had at least one major commonality: we thought Tina was just the coolest. But where I’ve long held the opinion that Chris struck gold with Tina, it didn’t take many pages for me to see that Tina struck gold too. Chris is a person of the highest order, trying to get along with people and stay true to himself. He seems quite early on to have absorbed the philosophy of respecting everyone and whatever place they occupy in the world: the sheer number of RISD friends and acquaintances he names, not to mention the artists he mingled with upon moving to New York, impressed me, as did the affection with which he speaks of them. Clearly some of them have stayed in his orbit to this day. Even the ones with whom he had personal or professional differences he took pains to be cordial to. As much as the book is a love letter to Tina, it’s also in some ways a love letter to everyone he’s ever worked with.
And the more Chris talks about others, the better the picture you get of him. He wanted to succeed in his craft, but he never allowed ambition to corrupt him. He liked to have fun, but not mean-spirited, destructive, exploitative fun, just high times (literally) with nice people. He was quick to bestow the benefit of the doubt. He is a Good Guy. Those are hard to come by, especially in the music industry.
And he knows his reputation—he remembers being evaluated by the New York Dolls’ frontman, shortly after Talking Heads became a CBGB attraction, as too nice to have a shot at making it big. Did he ever prove that guy wrong! Turns out you can, in fact, have it all.
Now, I’ve been a serious Heads fan for only about three years: while they rapidly ascended the ranks of my favorite groups, they’ve still got some ‘setting’ to do. Ergo I learned a lot about their history that I hadn’t known or thought to know. I was aware of the collaborative effort that went into early songs like “Artists Only” and “Psycho Killer”; but Chris was more of a lyricist in those days than I ever realized. But then, no one can be blamed for believing David was the sole writer, because he billed himself as such.
Chris approaches his descriptions of David with sensitivity and caution. There’s some unresolved stuff there. I’ve concluded that if there were ever a performer whose stage ‘persona’ was their genuine personality, it’s David Byrne. He really is—or was, in the Heads era—that jittery, paranoid, awkward guy. He could just express it onstage in a way that he couldn’t offstage. Most of the time he had trouble making direct eye contact. It seems he did a lot of things that people didn’t understand, but Chris treats him with compassion and also acknowledges his substantial creative contributions.
The couple’s relationship with David of course dated back to RISD, and I guess this account finally laid to rest any notion I cherished that it was the three of them against the world. Because it wasn’t. Theirs was not a tight-knit friendship. Even once Jerry Harrison joined, it was never Chris-Tina-David-Jerry against the world. They would work together, more or less frequently, and then go off to their separate lives. It says all the more of their skill and dedication that they reached such heights, but maybe I cling too tightly to the idea that anyone at that level must be willing to do anything for their bandmates.
You do get a sense of just how huge they became. One thing that I believe distinguished the Heads from their new-wave/punk-adjacent compatriots and propelled them to Big Success is that they embraced dance music. In contrast to the anti-disco reaction among many of their fellow groups, they were interested in disco. They didn’t limit their range of influences. As a result, they had a tendency toward irresistible grooves (a series of jam sessions generated the songs on Fear of Music) which appealed to a cross-section of audiences and made for a fantastic live show. Speaking in Tongues, which appeared in 1983 and featured very prominently on the Stop Making Sense tour, wouldn’t be out of place in any club. It’s a bop and a half.
Chris and Tina were directly responsible for much of this wide-ranging embrace. I had no idea how their side project Tom Tom Club came together, and then I come to find out there’s a reason for that. It’s essentially a non-story. They were hanging around Compass Point Studios in Nassau with its founder, Chris Blackwell—who was a friend of Brian Eno’s, who had produced the Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music—and decided to make a record with the ‘session cats’ they had befriended through a mutual enthusiasm for a swath of styles. Hip-hop, for instance. These two suburban white kids got in on the ground floor as fans of the hip-hop movement and suddenly found themselves doing “Genius of Love,” now one of the most sampled tracks of all time.
Before they knew it, the side thing they’d started out of boredom while waiting for David and Eno to finish a solo record had a gold record of its own. Ta-da.
(A friend of mine who is a few years older told me that she once saw Tom Tom Club in London. They were awesome, because of course they were. I was gobsmacked. “You saw Chris and Tina? iN pErSoN?”)
Oh, and while it’s still a missed opportunity that they didn’t call the group ChrisTina, I now understand both the immediate inspiration for the name—the house they rented in Nassau—and the ethos behind it. It wasn’t about them, it was about the collective.
All of this artistic productivity notwithstanding, Chris struggled with a cocaine habit. Which surprised me a little but not that much—the amount of coke available to musicians in the ‘80s was bottomless. But he had it under control until just after Stop Making Sense, at which point Tina told him to shape up or ship out. And he chose the former. This must have taken considerable strength and willpower on his part, though he credits his wife entirely.
As a storyteller, he doesn’t romanticize the hard parts. He shares the gritty details of the first loft he, Tina, and David shared on the Bowery’s Chrystie Street without going all La Bohème. It wasn’t a ramshackle aesthetic for struggling artists—it was a dump in an often frightening neighborhood, and they were all relieved when they got to move out. No wonder 77 sounds so nervous, if it was largely conceived and written in a place where a stray bullet once shattered the window while they were watching TV.
Time and again I was struck by the narrative thread of Chris’s loyalty. He isn’t bragging, it’s just self-evident. He stuck by people even who didn’t always stick by him, from fellow musicians to producers to friends. Most of all, he stuck by his woman. His constant refrain is some variation of “and then I looked over to the side of the stage and Tina was playing so well and she was so gorgeous,” and it made me smile every time. A lot of partners claim to be best friends, but Chris and Tina actually are best friends. Their bond is exceptional.
I think it’s rare and difficult to combine multiple types of closeness and collaboration into one relationship. On the flip side of that coin, these two demonstrate that this sort of love can come into anyone’s life under the right circumstances. And that you can attract it if you keep loving yourself and loving what you do.
While touring Europe as the Ramones’ opening act (and there are a lot of priceless anecdotes about the Ramones), they played a gig in Geneva which Chris recalls thusly: “The audience was pleasantly challenged to figure us out.” This may be the single most succinct summary of what Talking Heads were. Their music is joyful, and accessible enough, but not without making your brain work a little to earn it. Judging by Remain in Love, that’s how their creative process was too. I thank all four of them for bringing this element into pop music, and thank Chris specifically for putting it on paper.
I’m perpetually drawn to the Heads’ origin story—it’s one of the best in the biz, academic and nerdy and wonderful. The connection between Chris and Tina was a major catalyst for it. They were, are, and will always be a couple of art-school weirdos. A reader can tell it would have been a legendary love story no matter what path it took. I’m just glad so much of the evidence is on vinyl.
Dedicated to Kathryn, Jonathan, Alan, Hannah, and all the other cool kids.