David Byrne is an enigmatic character, one which very few artists could ever dream of holding a candle up to. However, one person that even the former Talking Heads singer would concede creative defeat to would be the late David Bowie. Byrne, never shy to discuss is admiration for the Starmnam has openly discussed how Bowie has been a constant source of inspiration throughout his career and how the great man has inspired him to improve his own artistry.
The respect that Byrne has for Bowie certainly did not fall on deaf ears. Bowie was also a huge admirer of his work, so much so that when The Starman was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 1996, he gave Byrne the call to induct him. Held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of 1996 was an illustrious one. Featuring counter-culture royals Jefferson Airplane, Little Willie John, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Bowie’s prog-rock friends Pink Floyd, ’60s stars the Shirelles, the iconic the Velvet Underground, Pete Seeger, Tom Donahue, and, of course, David Bowie.
“Hello!” he begins his speech, “When David Bowie came along, rock and roll needed a shot in the arm, and when I first saw him it was a shock and very familiar, it was very necessary, it was something that was needed,” he said, passionately delivering the words straight from his heart.
Byrne continues to deliver a plethora of words and ideas, attributing them to Bowie: “It was visionary, it was tasteless, it was glamorous, it was perverse,” he said. “It was liberation, it was genocide, it was a dream and it was a nightmare, it was about sex and drugs,” And on and on. It showed off the giant influence Bowie had on Byrne and countless like him across the globe.
Not only did he deliver an iconic induction of Bowie into the most illustrious, exclusive club in music, but he has spoken about how The Thin White Duke’s album Low provided him with a life-changing moment at a pivotal point in his life following him moving to New York City and forming Talking Heads. In a feature with Pitchfork from a number of years ago, Byrne went through his life via the records that meant the most to him at that given time with Bowie soundtracking arguably the most important era of his life.
“Now I’m in New York, in a band with Chris Frantz and his girlfriend, Tina [Weymouth], and we didn’t have a super-duper plan,” Byrne notes. “I had ambitions to be a fine artist and show in galleries, but I was also writing songs. This club, CBGB, had opened around the corner, and there were bands like Television playing, and Patti Smith was doing poetry readings. We thought, If we learn some songs, we can play there,” he added.
Byrne was working in the day as a self-described ‘stat man’ for a company that designed Revlon counter displays during this period, but music was his dream. He would work alone, in a dark room where his colleagues would leave him to do his work and his only company was a radio, an addition which would make his job just about tolerable.
“Bowie was on the radio a little bit, and he was a huge influence for a lot of people,” Byrne continued. “I was aware of all the Ziggy Stardust stuff, and then him moving onto the Berlin stuff. Somewhere around this time, in the late ’70s, after we made our first record, we met Brian Eno, who had worked with him on Low, and that was very cool for us.
“In 1980, I went with Toni Basil to see Bowie in The Elephant Man,” the former Talking Heads singer fondly recalled. “He was reading the collected speeches of Fidel Castro at the time, and he gave me the book and said, ‘You might enjoy this.’ I dutifully read it. Castro could really ramble on. Really ramble on,” Byrne reminisced.
A character like David Byrne feels wholly original and a unique, one-off talent but Bowie was the pioneering visionary who made it even possible for an act like Talking Heads to be successful in the world as well as providing with the courage to go ahead and chase their dream. That’s why it’ll almost be impossible for the world to ever witness another mercurial talent on the level of Bowie because, after all, he smashed down all the barriers that were there to be brought down and, for that, we will always be thankful.