At 65, the phenomenally creative David Byrne is still rock’s renaissance man. As he launches his first solo album in 14 years, he reveals why he’s started collecting reasons to be cheerful
Last modified on Sun 4 Mar 2018
Byrne’s songwriting perspective is summed up on his new single, : “We’re only tourists in this life / Only tourists but the view is nice.” Even when he wasn’t singing in character – a psychopath, a televangelist, a domestic terrorist – he had a knack for making the familiar strange and unnerving. Animals, vehicles, buildings, TV, weather, haircuts… everything was seen with alien eyes. It’s no surprise to learn that his one attempt at writing a short story (“really not my thing”) was science fiction. “I’m not just going to take the received technique,” he remembers thinking when the band started. “I have to start from scratch and see what comes out. I thought there’s no rule that says you can’t do this, so let’s try writing about something that nobody’s written about before.”
Global reasons to be cheerful
By David Byrne
1. Healing the divide
Georgetown is one of Texas’s most conservative suburbs, but gets all its electricity from renewable sources. Its mayor, Dale Ross, a Republican in what is considered oil country, made a decision in 2015. He ignored party orthodoxy and did what was best for his constituents. That folks can think rationally and ignore partisan dogmas, on both sides, is hugely encouraging.
2. Norway prison reform
Most countries’ prison systems are failures – the rate of recidivism is abysmal. But Norway seems to have figured out a successful solution. Their incarceration rate is 75 per 100,000 people, compared to 707 per 100,000 in the US. The crime rate is lower, but part of the reason it’s lower is because they focus on genuine reform, not just punishment. The rate at which inmates end up back in prison is 20% in Norway, versus 76.6% in the US. At Halden Prison there are no bars on the windows, they have full kitchens (knives included) and lots of job and vocational training. There’s even a recording studio. So whatever they’re doing, it’s working.
3. Bike sharing has conquered the world
Not only does it feel good to ride, but cycling relieves automobile congestion, it’s good for business, it doesn’t pollute, it’s healthy and it expands the mental maps of residents… and I’ve found it’s often the fastest way to get around. Cities all over the world have adopted similar systems to the French Vélib system, and now some Chinese companies are introducing stationless systems.
4. Knock-on effects of culture
We in the arts and humanities often complain that our work is undervalued, at least in terms of being beneficial to society compared to the Stem disciplines. Finally we have some proof, and the effects are somewhat unexpected. A recent study by the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania showed that when libraries and other cultural institutions are placed in the boroughs around New York, there are surprising knock-on effects:
a. The kids’ test scores go up
b. Spousal abuse goes down
c. Obesity goes down
d. The crime rate goes down
Things that might seem to be unrelated are actually connected. To lower crime, maybe we don’t need more prisons or stiffer sentencing; part of the solution might be to build a library.
5. Successfully dealing with drug addiction
Fifteen years ago Portugal had a drug problem. Rather than declare a ‘war on drugs’ as the US and other places did, they took a bold and radical step, and it was hugely successful. Here’s what they did. They decriminalised all drugs and began a major health campaign. They viewed drug use and addiction as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Last year there were 64,000 overdose deaths in the US. Among Portuguese adults there were only 30 drug- overdose deaths – which is 1/50th of the US overdose rate. Looks like they won the war on drugs by not joining it.
David Byrne’s new album, American Utopia, is released on 9 March by Nonesuch Records. He tours the UK in June