Talking Heads Found Their Voice on New York’s Lower East Side

‘New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock’ Book Excerpt

Frank Mastropolo
The Riff

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Courtesy Tony Lee

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The core members of Talking Heads — singer-songwriter and guitarist David Byrne, drummer Chris Franz, and bassist Tina Weymouth — met at the Rhode Island School of Design. Guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison joined in 1977. The band pioneered new wave music in early performances at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City.

Byrne, Franz, and Weymouth formed Talking Heads in 1975 and lived together in a loft at 195 Chrystie Street on New York’s now-gentrified Lower East Side. “It was like a hellhole, but it was our hellhole,” Franz explained in Hollywood Soapbox. “It was a neighborhood where I could play loud music. We could play loud music into the wee hours of the morning. Nobody would stop us because there was nobody around. For three kids who grew up in very pleasant suburban homes, this was a real challenge.”

“I moved to New York in the mid-1970s because it was a center of cultural ferment,” Byrne wrote in The Guardian. “New York was legendary. It was where things happened, on the East Coast, anyway. One knew in advance that life in New York would not be easy, but there were cheap rents in cold-water lofts without heat, and the excitement of being here made up for those hardships.”

Franz recalled in the Quietus that “it was a crazy time but it was so artistically fruitful, there was so much going on in downtown New York then despite the danger and the filth. I can remember a day during a garbage strike during the summer when it was really hot and when it gets hot in New York the kids open up the fire hydrants. I walked out of our building and there were piles of flaming garbage floating down the street that the kids had set on fire and I immediately thought, ‘Am I losing my mind, where am I!?’”

The Chrystie Street loft was in an ideal spot as the band performed at nearby CBGB. “The Bowery was very motivating because living in that environment made us want to do something great so we could get the hell out of there,” said Franz. “CBGB was a dump but there were great people working there, particularly Hilly [Kristal] the boss. By 1976 we could make our month’s rent playing one weekend at CBGB, which felt like quite an accomplishment: our rent was $289.”

“That bar stayed pretty vibrant for a really long time — longer than most places,” Byrne said in Fader. “There were some other good scenes to spring from that place in later years — particularly the anti-folk stuff — but most emerging music had long since started to happen elsewhere. It remained a good place to get cheap beer right until the end, but it hadn’t supported a vibrant, emerging music scene in a long time.”

“Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads

Talking Heads’ 1977 debut album, Talking Heads: 77, includes the single “Psycho Killer.” Their biggest success was 1983’s Speaking in Tongues. Its single, “Burning Down the House,” was their only Top 10 hit. The band broke up in 1991 and pursued solo careers. Franz and Weymouth married in 1977 and formed the Tom Tom Club as a side project to Talking Heads. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

Frank Mastropolo is the author of New York Groove: An Inside Look at the Stars, Shows, and Songs That Make NYC Rock and the 200 Greatest Rock Songs series.

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Frank Mastropolo
The Riff

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