David Byrne and the Beauty of Failure

I spent a lot of years thinking that the first song that David Byrne wrote, “Psycho Killer”, was the result of his inability to successfully imitate Alice Cooper.  Something so quirky and original was , in my mind at least, the end result of the failure to not be original.

Blair Jackson, writing in Mix magazine in late 2002, wrote an article about the creative process that the songwriter went through when he was writing the song.  I’ll include the whole quote because it helped me understand that David Byrne probably had a good notion of what he was doing.

Byrne noted many years ago, “‘Psycho Killer’ was written as an exercise with someone else’s approach in mind. I had been listening to Alice Cooper — Billion Dollar Babies, I think — and I thought it was really funny stuff. I thought, ‘Hey, I can do this!’ It was sort of an experiment to see if I could write something.

“I thought I would write a song about a very dramatic subject the way [Alice Cooper] does, but from inside the person, playing down the drama. Rather than making it theatrical the way Alice Cooper would, I’d go for what’s going on inside the killer’s mind, what I imagined he might be thinking.

“I wanted it to be like Randy Newman doing Alice Cooper. One way of telling the story would be to describe everything that happens — ‘he walks across the room, he takes so many steps, he’s wearing such-and-such.’ That tells you everything that’s going on, on one level, but it doesn’t involve you emotionally. The other extreme is to describe it all as a series of sensations. I think that sometimes has more power and affects people a little stronger. It seemed a natural delusion that a psychotic killer would imagine himself as very refined and use a foreign language to talk to himself.”

So…maybe it was the inability to write an Alice Cooper song that brought us “Psycho Killer”…maybe it was a much more conscious thing.  The original quote made me think that it was only his attempt to write an Alice Cooper song…more naive and less self aware than the introspective quote above would have me believe.  I kind of like the thought of it being a “happy accident” a little more than the idea that he knew what he was doing the whole time.

I tend to gravitate towards the artists who can’t help but be originals.  Whether it’s the visual arts or music or any of the other ways people express themselves, it’s the people who are so quirky and outside the expected that capture my interest.  I wonder how many of these people are never noticed or give up on their talents because they “can’t sing like Rihanna…can’t write like Bon Jovi…can’t paint like Leroy Neiman” …negative self talk because they can’t measure up to a standard that doesn’t have any need of being repeated? The “you sound JUST LIKE” compliment is really kind of the kiss of death if you look at it in that light.

On the other hand…the wishy washy other hand…a lot of artists start out with imitation and then move in to a different place when their ability catches up with their creativity.  There was a quote that was featured in an old book I love called On the Loose…”After the First Artist only the Copyist” that really puts it in perspective for me… being “creative” is different than being “the Creator“.  Our ego puffs us up…and brings us down…but it’s all just the work when you come down to it. Like Joan Armatrading said, “some days the bear will eat you…some days you eat the bear”.

We all copy…I think I read that Picasso said something like “good artists borrow, great artists steal”…it’s just that some people, either through skill or “naive savant-ness”, seem to copy with transcendent results. I’ve read a lot about people who were trying to approach a certain style, to write or paint just like their “hero”… who failed in the attempt to imitate but came up with something beautiful and fresh “by accident”.

In the end it seems to be just the “doing“…the “chop wood, carry water” approach that let’s the real creativity flow.  Waving our empty hands in the air until a bird flies into them…putting in the mileage until we win the race.

About Peter Rorvig

I'm a non-practicing artist, a mailman, a husband, a father...not listed in order of importance. I believe that things can always get better....and that things are usually better than we think.

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