How Music Works by David Byrne - review

by gabeatkinson / 20 December, 2012
How Music WorksI’m going to take a punt on this and venture that only one of the deluge of books in 2012 by or about rock musicians features references to 20th-century German cultural theorist Theodor Adorno – and no, it isn’t Rod Stewart’s The Autobiography. Nor is it even Pete Townshend’s Who I Am. If anyone was going to think outside the square of the music autobiography, it is former Talking Head David Byrne, and sure enough, How Music Works is a wonderfully wandering collection of essays: part general meditation, part how-to music business guide and, yes, part memoir, too.

As former Go-Between Robert Forster’s book of part-time music criticism showed – and as ought to be self-evident yet oddly isn’t – musicians are uniquely qualified to write about music, with insights that don’t occur to even the most perceptive professional critics. Of course, most musicians are also – although here not uniquely – disqualified from writing about music because they are barely able to write at all (hence it’s either ghost writers or the shambolic ramblings of Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace).

But Byrne, like Forster, is as intelligent a writer as he is a musician. He has already demonstrated this with Bicycle Diaries (2009). How Music Works also shares the eclecticism and quirkiness of Byrne’s music, traversing everything from how the venues where musicians perform influence the music they make through to ways to create a music scene (tip five: “Rent must be low – and it must stay low”).

The memoir element comes from Byrne’s personal examples. Given his career with Talking Heads and after – and given, as he half-approvingly quotes Pitchfork, he’d “collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos” – these are never less than fascinating.

And yes, he does reveal the origins of his white suit in the movie Stop Making Sense.

HOW MUSIC WORKS, by David Byrne (Canongate, $49.99).
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