Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s musical about Imelda Marcos shows corruption is the same as it ever was. By Steve Dow.

David Byrne’s musical take on the life of Imelda Marcos

Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
Credit: Supplied

Ritual fascinates and inspires David Byrne. Reading Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor, a 1978 account of Haile Selassie’s iron rule in impoverished Ethiopia, he found its descriptions of servitude beautiful. They reminded him of non-naturalistic, avant-garde contemporary performance or East Asian theatre, and his own ritualised gestures in pop performance. 

“There was an artificial reality, almost surreal,” Byrne says, seated in a conference room in Sydney, “and I thought: I’ll file that away, it could be useful at some point.” 

Kapuściński’s book comprises surviving courtiers’ recollections of the life of the diminutive Selassie, the last of the Abyssinian monarchy, until the 1974 Marxist revolution. The hand-wringing hew to the Hour of the Cashbox and the Hour of Assignments is recalled by, among others, a purse bearer, a pillow bearer for His Perspicacious Majesty’s arse, and some poor fellow whose only job was to bow on the hour. 

The elegant, deferential language of Selassie’s courtiers launders the monarchy’s abuses: political prisoners were routinely tortured and the emperor authorised public hangings. Imprisoned in his final months in the Menelik Palace above Addis Ababa, Selassie believed he still ruled Ethiopia. Yet the soldier guards had to be changed weekly, such was the deluded Selassie’s intact ability to win allies. 

Byrne was again set to thinking about the rich and powerful’s bubble world when he read an article about Imelda Marcos, the wife of Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, a regime accused of abusing human rights. The couple squirrelled billions into Swiss bank accounts. 

“This ain’t no disco,” Byrne sang on “Life During Wartime” from Talking Heads’ 1979 album Fear of Music. But now he is embracing the disco demimonde via Imelda Marcos, whom he learnt was among New York’s Studio 54 crowd, a pal of Andy Warhol and dance partner for louchely tanned actor George Hamilton – great musical potential; strong soundtrack possibilities. 

“Imelda always said, ‘I’m out there living the big life, so you, my subjects, can have something beautiful to look up to,’ ” Byrne says, laughing. 

The mirrorball refracted possibilities – he imagined part of an audience on the dancefloor, with Marcos “wranglers” in pink jumpsuits guiding them about, the story pointing to darker places. The US had poured money into the Philippines and supported the Marcos regime, not wanting to know what was going on, inspiring Byrne’s song “American Troglodyte”. Imelda had ordered her own epitaph, “Here Lies Love”, giving Byrne the perfect name for a musical.

1 . Turning to music

David Byrne is the son of a mixed marriage: Protestant-Catholic. His parents’ union had been unpopular with their families and community in his birthplace, Scotland, so when Byrne’s father is offered electrical engineering work in North America, they flee. Growing up in 1950s Ontario, Canada, then Maryland, USA, Byrne plays guitar, accordion and violin before entering high school. He makes his art in public as a way of talking to potential girlfriends and other musicians, because he is uncomfortable with chitchat.

In the late 1960s, during high school, there is the university hall, where on acoustic guitar he performs songs by The Who, Crosby Stills & Nash and The Kinks. Then Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, playing ukulele and violin after busking cross-country with a friend. In 1973, he forms a band, The Artistics, and begins writing material such as “Psycho Killer”. 

On stage, tall and lanky, Byrne favours T-shirts and skinny jeans, graduating to oversized business suits, styled like Japanese Noh musical drama costumes. Off stage, he observes social rituals like an anthropologist from Mars studying human relationships, then imitates those interactions. Years later, he diagnoses himself with mild Asperger syndrome. His career start is a spatial accident, perhaps; musical progression dictated by stumbling on a crucial few music venues. Byrne says that, had he not chanced upon any of these places, he might have opted instead for a career as a fine artist, his ambition until his mid-20s. 

Instead, in the mid-’70s, a painter offers Byrne board in New York City, in Bond Street, opposite music venue CBGB, where punk poet Patti Smith occasionally reads with Lenny Kaye accompanying her on guitar. Inspired by CB’s, he plugs his guitar into a reel-to-reel tape recorder and fills notebooks with lyrics. He and friend Chris Frantz form a second band, Talking Heads, and get a slot accompanying The Ramones. 

By day, he’s a movie usher on 34th Street. By night, despite being twitchy and awkward on that dank, cavernous East Village stage, he learns he holds an audience’s attention. Utilising drums, percussion and killer lyrical hooks, this art band, which develops live, finds international pop success. Later, Byrne co-opts Brazilian styles, and favours strings and wind instruments. 

Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”, as sung by The Byrds, taught Byrne to be open to the thoughts of others. [“Cast your dancing spell my way / I promise to go under it.”] I ask if he is conscious of his own music guiding minds. “I will occasionally get feedback. It’s really gratifying. Somebody will say, ‘Your music really inspired me’, or ‘Your music got me through high school.’ ” 

In turn, did music help him talk to girls? “I secretly hoped so. It did a little bit. Not a lot. It was a start.” He gives a boyish laugh. 

2 . ‘People loved them’

Imelda Marcos is still alive. Wearing a red satin dress, in 2014 she visited a climate-controlled mausoleum in the northern Philippines region of Ilocos Norte, where Ferdinand was born, and bent gingerly across to kiss the pane of a glass crypt. Inside lies her late husband’s body, dressed in a white jacket and ceremonial sash, like a hyper-realistic sleeping dictator sculpture by the artist Shen Shaomin. She then handed wellwishers cookie cakes with a tiny shoe on top to celebrate her 85th birthday; a nod to the 3000 or so pairs found after the Marcoses fled their palace. 

Having returned to the Philippines in 1991, she was elected to the House of Representatives for Ilocos Norte in 2010, and hopes for a 2016 return to the palace if her son, Ferdinand jnr, is elected president.

“There’s a lot of cronyism, and they have a lot of loyalists who denied a lot of things that went on,” says Byrne, in Australia to oversee casting of a forthcoming Here Lies Love production. “They did a lot of good things: built arts centres, clinics, roads, bridges. People loved them for that. We who got a lot of the nastier stuff, which made international news, we go: ‘How can they possibly have those people back in government?’ Well,” he laughs, “I could say the same thing in the United States: how could we elect the very people who got us into the economic mess and into Iraq, those guys who totally screwed us over?”

At 62, Byrne is looking fit, courtesy of his love of bicycle riding, being among successful campaigners for bike paths in New York. Dressed in a blue, short-sleeve shirt, his dark brown eyes offset by his white hair, he looks taller than his 183 centimetres. He’s engaged with expanding the Here Lies Love project in Sydney, fresh from smaller London and New York productions, and will also curate the Meltdown festival at London’s Southbank Centre this August. 

Now and again he’ll give a short answer, a snorty exhale, and laugh while his shoulders bounce up, darting a charming sideways look, like a boy having a good time contemplating worldly weirdness. There’s certainly no world-weariness, even a day earlier when the New South Wales regional tourism minister at the press announcement twice misnames the musical Here Lives Love, inexplicably throwing in a State of Origin reference and calling Byrne’s work a “masterpiece” based on briefing notes.

Here Lies Love had been intended to be the centrepiece of Sydney’s Vivid Festival this year, to be staged in a makeshift theatre built from shipping containers at the Barangaroo development. But the production was postponed due to “unforeseen acoustical engineering issues”. New dates for the show “are expected to be announced around mid-2015”.

Will the intimacy of the production be maintained when scaling it up to 500 seats, from 200 or 300? “We hope so. That’s going to be a big question. We realise that’s essential to the show; the fact the actors are right next to you. The smaller capacity places, they’re great, but they don’t really make any money. So we have to just scale it up – not too big – to see if it can pay for itself.” 

Featuring Imelda in her prime, recycling many of her phrases, the musical reveals that she once dated Benigno Aquino, a future political challenger to Ferdinand Marcos, but Aquino broke off the relationship because Imelda was too tall. In 1983, during the Marcos period, Aquino, known by the diminutive “Ninoy”, was led off a plane at Manila airport and assassinated. 

Eschewing the camp, over-told story of Imelda’s shoes as being too obvious, Byrne’s real narrative discovery is Estrella Cumpas, the destitute woman who raised Imelda, but whom Imelda, having risen to First Lady, refused to see or help. Estrella wrote a biography about their shared lives, which prompted the Marcoses to ban her from communicating with the press. 

Without the poignant story of Estrella, who looks up to Imelda but loses faith, Byrne wouldn’t have written the musical, needing an additional narrator to provide another perspective on Imelda. “I tried to track Estrella down. She may have passed away. I couldn’t find her.” 

Imelda hasn’t seen the musical, as far as Byrne knows, but a Philippines-born cast member gave her a soundtrack album (featuring, among others, Florence Welch, Sia, Cyndi Lauper and Sharon Jones) and a journalist played her some tracks. Byrne doesn’t know if Imelda expressed any reaction. He’s never met her. “I’ve heard that she’s very charismatic. Whether she learnt how to walk into a room, I don’t know.”

US administrations supported the Marcoses without question, and Byrne agrees there is a deeper malaise, a disengagement of its people with world politics. “Oh yeah, very much. There’s sometimes a completely different narrative that gets accepted because it’s what everyone wants to hear. Sometimes it’s really surprising – the whole narrative of al-Qaeda being connected with Iraq was completely made up. Even the so-called liberal media all went along with it.” 

Is he hoping Here Lies Love will lead audiences to critical political thought? Byrne snorts slightly, laughs, then takes a long pause. “Wow. I don’t know. This one has certainly imparted a lot of information and story to people, but that’s not something you can take and apply to your life. I’m not sure.”

He insists his musical career has been a happy accident. It’s hard to believe, given his multi-instrumental teenage years and prodigious and creative output ever since. “I thought music was hugely enjoyable,” he says, “but I always thought, ‘Oh, the people who do this for a living, who make pop and rock songs, they’re much better players or singers or writers than I am.’ I thought: ‘There’s no way I can do that.’ But by not having those ambitions, I could indulge myself and have a lot of fun.”

He recalls the fine art career he originally planned. “I had some pretty wacky ideas; I don’t know if I would have succeeded,” he says. “I’d written this idea for a rating system where galleries and collectors could tick the boxes of the qualities of art they liked, and what they wanted, and then the artist would do a similar thing with what they felt inclined to do, and then I would perform the service of matching the two.” He bursts into laughter. “A very different kind of art broker: ‘Oh, you like square pictures with a lot of yellow in them and a face somewhere? We’ll find somebody who does that.’ ”

Surprisingly, writing on his blog and in his 2012 book How Music Works about diagnosing himself with mild Asperger syndrome didn’t open the floodgates to other people’s similar experiences. “You’d have thought people would have said: ‘Oh yeah, I have the same issues.’ Not so much.” He laughs richly. “No, the reaction was, ‘Oh, you were way more fucked up than I thought you were.’ ” 

Byrne says while he coped by observing social rituals, “at the same time, I was aware I was observing, so I could write songs from that point of view – as an observer.” The detachment helped him as an artist? “I thought so. I thought it worked fine.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2015 as "Pop making sense".

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Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.

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