PHILIP GALANES NY Times 03/14/14
There’s no hiding a rock star. So when David Byrne, the former frontman of Talking Heads, walked into Il Cantinori in Greenwich Village recently, wearing a navy twill jumpsuit and a snow-white puffer coat (and having just arrived on bicycle), the only person who held a candle to his bold chic was Cyndi Lauper, the flame-haired singer who arrived in slim black leggings and top, her hands sprinkled with silver jewelry. They came to talk about their musical pasts in 1970s and ’80s New York, and their shared theatrical presents — she as the Tony-winning composer and lyricist of the Broadway hit “Kinky Boots,” and he as the Obie-winning creator of the musical spectacle “Here Lies Love,” about the former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, which will resume its run at the Public Theater next month. Over calamari and mushroom salad (for Mr. Byrne) and pasta and arugula salad (for Ms. Lauper), they spoke with The New York Times about artistic growth, recovering from career setbacks and how music can save your life.
PG: Let’s go back to the ’80s. Did you know each other back then?
CL: When I was in [the band] Blue Angel and nothing was happening for us — we sold 12 records — I was already going to see David and the Talking Heads. You were awesome. You were our New York punk scene. You belonged to us. And you weren’t English.
DB: And whenever I heard Blue Angel, I kept saying, “What’s happening with that girl?”
PG: So, you admired each other’s work?
DB: Yes, but we didn’t exactly hang out.
CL: You can’t. You work like a dog.
DB: You can lose touch with a lot of friends, and there’s a sadness in that. But I remember a march on Washington — —
PG: For what cause?
CL: Abortion and reproductive rights.
DB: We were on the same bus. I was very quiet.
CL: And I’m sure I was a bigmouth.
DB: Cyndi had the bus mike — like a tour guide. It was really fun.
CL: Aye yi yi!
PG: Let’s talk about your most recent projects. At first, it seemed odd to a lot of people that two rock stars would turn to musical theater. But there’s always been a performance-art quality in your work. The costumes, the videos, even your distinctive voices — David’s strangulated voice and Cyndi’s Betty Boop — —
CL: Hey! I worked on that. I stop breathing when I talk sometimes. But I’ve brought the pitch down. Or should I take elocution lessons and be like Madonna? Go to England and come back with an English accent? Come on.
PG: Did you think of your musicals as big creative leaps in your career?
CL: You should ask David that. I just answered the phone. Harvey [Fierstein, the playwright and book writer of “Kinky Boots”] called me up one night when I was doing the dishes. And I was being tortured by my record company. I was so done. So when Harvey called, I said, “Absolutely.” And when I watched the movie [on which the show is based], I’m thinking: “The shoes alone! And the message: All my life I’ve been working for people to be more tolerant.” Plus, I grew up listening to Broadway musicals because that’s all my mother had — that and opera.
PG: Which musicals did you like?
CL: Whatever she had. “South Pacific.” I’d be Ezio Pinza, then I’d be Mary Martin. And I loved Bloody Mary. I would love to play Bloody Mary.
PG: I’m guessing you’re not a big fan of musical theater, David?
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DB: You’re right. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, they were pop music before the Beatles happened. But they didn’t really appeal to me. At the same time, those songs are earworms. They’re so catchy and well written, you can’t help but — —
CL: Yeah, but once the Beatles came, and the Supremes, it was like: Forget it. But when you’re little. …
PG: David, I read somewhere that you were rejected from middle-school choir because you were too shy. Talk about mean.
DB: It’s true that I was asked to leave the choir. But I don’t know if it was shyness or that my singing was off key. That’s possible, too.
CL: But look what he made because they did that.
DB: It’s true. It plants a little seed, like, ‘I’ll show them!’
PG: I guess if it took a mean choirmaster to inspire Talking Heads — —
CL: Listen, this guy is really, really brilliant. So many things you did inspired me. And when you mixed in the Brazilian music …
DB: I took some knocks for that.
PG: You did?
CL: I thought it was brilliant.
DB: But when Mr. “Psycho Killer” decides he wants to play Latin music, it’s kind of: Who are you to do this? But I just thought: Well, I’m going to do it because I love it.
PG: People were so in love with your Talking Heads persona: the neurotic guy in the big white suit — —
DB: But at some point, I had to grow beyond that. I had to be allowed to escape.
CL: If you kept him in a little square peg, that’s thinking like the suits. And if you think like a suit, how are you going to be an artist?
‘There were periods, later on, when I would think: Oh, I’m no longer flavor of the month. What happens now?’
PG: Was it a big struggle to move on?
DB: Oh, I was tortured over it. I went to the doctor and said, “I have these weird aches and pains.” I was totally stressed that I couldn’t experiment and try other things.
CL: Take the next step.
DB: Right. Like “Here Lies Love,” which I thought of nine years ago. I imagined it being presented in a giant warehouse disco. There were a couple of them downtown here — —
CL: On 10th Avenue.
DB: Yeah. And I had seen Track Acts in those places, where somebody like Grace Jones or Gloria Gaynor would come out, and they only had one song, but everybody loved it. So they would come out on a little stage, and everybody was dancing, and they would sing the song live, but the track was on, too. And they’d stretch it out for 10 minutes, then come back and do it again. And I thought: What if you did that with a bunch of singers and actually told a story?
PG: Why Imelda Marcos?
DB: I read somewhere that she loved going to discos. She went to Studio 54. She was hanging out with Andy Warhol and Halston and those people. She put a mirror ball in her house. How many people do that?
CL: You’ve got to put it in your bathroom and have a party getting dressed.
DB: I thought this woman lives in that world, and that means something. The fact that disco music connects with her life, how she sees herself, that’s significant. And I thought: I know that music, I like that music. Maybe I can tell a story that way.
PG: When I saw it, I didn’t stop dancing for 90 minutes.
CL: Good. Broadway needs more dancing.
PG: There’s a lot of dancing down the aisles at “Kinky Boots,” too. But it’s a more traditional show, and very touching.
CL: Hopefully, hopefully, hopefully, I used to hope that when parents left the theater at intermission, they might call their kids and just see how they’re doing.
PG: Was working on a Broadway musical more collaborative than creating an album?
CL: Yeah, because then the actors come in, and I changed the music some more.
DB: To fit the actors?
CL: Some of it.
PG: Many of your songs, even some in “Kinky Boots,” are called anthems.
CL: I make sure they are.
PG: But what is an anthem?
CL: Listen, when they came to me with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” it was obvious that a man wrote it. It was about his experience. I didn’t want to do it. But my manager asked me to think about what it could mean. So I thought about my mother, my older cousins, all these Sicilian women in my family who had been derailed and disenfranchised. So I came out with boxing gloves. But I always had to fight my way into my work. So, when I thought about an anthem, I saw a song that would speak to every kind of girl there is, every size and color, so they could all see themselves and have a joyful experience.
PG: Does David have an anthem in his repertoire?
DB: I don’t think I’m good at that. I think of anthems with a really big chorus, very catchy but not too fast because everybody has got to get into it and sing along. Like a pop version of the French anthem, with a sentiment that everybody takes to heart.
PG: Maybe anthems fit your life too, Cyndi? When I read your memoir, the first half is a nightmare. But through all the lousy jobs, the struggle and sexual abuse, you never say, “I thought about quitting.”
CL: I never thought of quitting. I thought of dying, but never quitting. I thought I was a loser. It was tough for me in the beginning — we were so broke, and even tougher around 2000, 2001. I was heartbroken about my career and thinking, Is this really my path? But I wasn’t going to give up singing. And I wasn’t going to be told what to do, either.
PG: Was there struggle at the beginning of the Talking Heads?
CL: (singing) “This ain’t no foolin’ around.”
DB: It was a slow step by step, like on a ladder, and doing tours in a station wagon.
CL: That sucks.
DB: But there was never a rejection or a sense that this is not connecting. It was always connecting to a certain group of people. That’s good. Now let’s see if we can get it to another level.
CL: I was told I sang like a rat, but I didn’t care because I felt so great when I sang. I didn’t give a damn what anyone else said.
DB: And our connection with the audience seemed real and heartfelt. They really did care about us. They weren’t going because they had been told by some advertising agency.
CL: They didn’t stand in the back yelling “Free Bird”?
DB: Yes, they did that, too. But I think about what Cyndi was saying, there were periods, later on, when I would think: Oh, I’m no longer flavor of the month. What happens now? I think I’m still writing good songs, maybe even better songs. I’m more in control of my voice, it’s not that strangled squeak anymore. And I was willing to accept that people might go, “You sing good now, but we liked it when you sang bad.”
‘When they came to me with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” it was obvious that a man wrote it. It was about his experience. I didn’t want to do it.’
PG: Both of you have been quoted as saying, “Music saved my life.” What does that mean?
DB: Certain songs, certain artists, certain music at a certain point in your life, they let you know you’re not alone.
PG: Whose music has done that for you?
DB: Regular stuff. In junior high, it was the Temptations — —
CL: Come on, that’s not regular. That’s awesome.
DB: You know what I mean, it was nothing obscure. The Temptations and the Rolling Stones, the Beatles. And then later on, you start finding other things, like Velvet Underground or David Bowie and all that Philadelphia soul. And those things would have a similar effect.
CL: Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. The Beatles.
PG: But how did they save your life?
CL: They comforted me. Joan Baez and Judy Collins, that high female voice.
PG: Joni Mitchell?
CL: Joni Mitchell became like a beacon of light. She’s a woman who wrote her own material, who sang it. She made her own clothes, and that appealed to me because you know Italians, we’re always sewing.
PG: So you started with the folkies.
CL: I started with Motown and the Beatles. I would be John Lennon, and my sister was Paul McCartney. I would have liked to be Paul, but my sister was, and you can’t have two, so I was John, and I learned harmony. But I didn’t like the way my voice sounded singing guy’s songs, so then I got onto Joni Mitchell.
PG: You’ve also both diagnosed yourself publicly. Cyndi wrote, “I probably have A.D.D.” And David said, “I was probably borderline Asperger’s.” Do you know how great it is when the people we look up to say things like that?
CL: Yeah, but then a lot of drug companies sent me — —
DB: Oh, really? They started sending you drugs? “Honey, just take some of this.”
CL: Yeah, and you’ll never write again.
PG: But you’ve also got a platform to help people who are struggling.
DB: Talking Heads got a thanks at the Oscars. The Italian director who won for best foreign picture thanked Talking Heads for getting him through his adolescence.
PG: Do you think about Asperger’s now?
DB: My understanding is that it’s a spectrum, and I was lucky to be on the lower end of it. But I also feel that music and performing was my way of getting through that, and it healed me in some ways. You perform in front of people and get your feelings out, and then you can retreat again and be your private person.
PG: Was there an emotional connection between that shy middle-school boy and your Talking Heads persona?
DB: Yeah, look who I am, look what I feel, look what I’m thinking about. Then: God, that was enough. But in the early time, singing was like a compulsion. It was not always enjoyable. But I learned to enjoy it.
PG: How about the A.D.D.?
CL: When I sing, I hear all the instruments in my head, where they should go and what they should play. It’s just part of how my head works. I don’t know why, but that’s what I hear.
PG: When you’re performing now, does it annoy you when people scream out “Psycho Killer” or “Time After Time”? Other artists don’t have to revisit every phase of their careers when they present new work. But for some reason, we expect musicians to.
CL: Listen, how am I going to leave without singing “True Colors” or “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”? These things meant a lot to them. It’s a healing thing. And there are three generations out there.
DB: After a while, you realize you’ve got to mix it up and give them the songs that mean a lot to them and then give them something new. But I’ve thought, Come on, Robert De Niro doesn’t have to do Travis Bickle in every movie. It’s not like the audience is going: “We love that guy. We want to see that guy again.”
CL: When was the last time you got up and said, “You talkin’ to me”?
PG: So, what’s up next?
DB: I don’t want to talk about it, but I’m working on another show.
DB: Yeah, “Here Lies Love” was immensely satisfying, emotionally and creatively satisfying. Cyndi, are you going to try to do another one?
CL: Yeah, I’m looking at a couple of things, but I want to find the right one. I don’t want to jinx anything.
PG: And aren’t you touring?
CL: Yeah, I’m going on tour with Cher. She was a good egg to me, and I want to be there for her.