April 8, 2010 – 11:28 am

For some, pushing a new album is nothing but a press junket but for David Byrne and Here Lies Love, it’s a reflective process where he considers the Marcoses’ human rights and financial abuses; their nefarious behavior; the human capability for evil and the future of the record industry.

I’ve just finished a press tour of London, Paris, Hamburg and Milano talking about the Here Lies Love project. It comes out in about a week over here. Norman (Fatboy Slim), my collaborator, would have joined me but he and his wife Zoe have just had a baby and have taken a holiday.

A tour like this consists of day after day of one interview after another. I was told that Ry Cooder once fell asleep in the middle of a phone interview. To be fair, in addition to fulfilling a publicity function, I also find out how the work is being perceived - if it’s confusing or if one aspect I hadn’t noticed seems important to people.

For example, in this piece thus far, I don’t detail the Marcoses’ human rights and financial abuses. I allude to their nefarious behavior, but don’t list their nasty habits one by one. I often brought up this omission to the interviewers myself - saying I chose to intentionally focus on the psychological issues that drove Imelda… issues which, as I see them, manifested in more influential and sometimes tragic behavior later on - decisions that affected their whole nation.

I wrote in the Here Lies Love (HLL) book that this whole project originated when I became fascinated reading the late Kapuscinski’s (now questionable) account of the court of Haile Selassie, and how theatrical it seemed to me. It was a theater of the absurd, stylized and in no way naturalistic - absolutely stagey, with proscribed movement and gesture, dialogue and ceremonial dress.

I just now stumbled upon the phrase “political theater” in a book by Chris Hedges, in reference to contemporary TV reporters - they who often debate whether a pseudo event was convincing or not. Perfect. It’s already theater, I just needed to make it explicit.

I also mentioned that the piece might be an allegory for the human capability for evil. We see Imelda’s extravagant, ruthless and decadent behavior, which became especially prevalent after martial law was declared in the Philippines, becoming increasingly bold and widespread, as reporting of said behavior didn’t filter back much due to a censored press. When Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, all opposition papers and TV were shut down; the populace only heard what the government wanted them to hear. (Hello, China and Italy!)

In the most inexcusable behavior I saw a manifestation of a common human trait - that when all restraints are removed, we tend to lose our moral compasses. I think it could happen to any of us. In the interviews I noted that, for example, I don’t think the soldiers at Abu Ghraib were particularly bad apples as was claimed, but that they were put in a situation where they were handed absolute power - and that kind of ultimate power corrupts absolutely. In a way, there are no evil people, but situations and contexts that allow the evil in all (or many) of us to come out. See the famous Milgram test regarding our capacity to inflict harm.

Granted, not every soldier at Abu Ghraib engaged in torture and disgusting behavior, but let’s put it this way - the leaked pictures that were proudly circulated were the whistleblowers, not the soldiers. The few bad apples rationale put forward by the administration acted in effect as an excuse for them, the higher ups - and let the poor grunts be the fall guys.

Lastly, I stated that the project is about understanding that the Marcos era is perceived, especially in the Philippines, in shades of gray, not as black and white, good vs. evil as we outsiders might tend to assume. While both Ferdinand and his wife brutally suppressed dissent and opposition, and sunk their country heavily in debt, there is in the Philippines a common perception that they, at least before martial law was declared, did some good too.

When Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, all opposition papers and TV were shut down; the populace only heard what the government wanted them to hear. (Hello, China and Italy!)

They built rural schools and clinics, roads and higher education facilities that everyone there is proud of. Later, there were vast, expensive art centers built that were meant to impress foreigners and the elite, and self-commissioned monuments to the Marcos glory. Also, in the early days of their era, as a handsome couple, they represented their country on the world stage - flattering photo essays in LIFE magazine, etc.

This was all something that hadn’t happened before. Of course, the good does not excuse the bad, but it makes any absolute judgment more complicated. One wishes that in this and other cases the bad could be fixed or dealt with in some way, though the most obvious - revenge and punishment - doesn’t really get us anywhere.

Looking for other gray examples, I asked a friend in London, “Did Margaret Thatcher do anything good?” Needless to say I’m no friend of Thatcherism. The answer was yes - one thing she did was to allow people living in public housing to buy their own dwellings. Developers and speculators weren’t allowed to do this, only the residents. So, eventually you had people, some of whom might have been living in squalid housing estates (projects, as they’re called in the US), beginning to take an interest in their homes, surroundings and neighborhoods.

Does this mitigate the other stuff Thatcher did? (With an understanding that not everyone might agree that this housing policy was good.) Well, it humanizes the Iron Lady just a little bit; it adds a tiny diamond to the pile of brutal nastiness.

Maybe the South African Truth and Reconciliation system is a model for dealing with past crimes? If the perp comes clean, absolutely, and admits to every wrongdoing, then forgiveness can be granted in some cases, and healing begins. But if there is an insistence on excuses and an attempt to justify offense, and the plea is refused, it gets them a court prosecution.

Maybe this is better than The Hague, which the US set up as a sort of legalized vengeance institution. In this process it seems it’s not about healing, it’s about punishment. But throwing one man in jail for slaughtering hundreds, or hanging another, doesn’t soothe the pain - it merely makes the object of hatred vanish.

A lot of the interviewers zeroed in on the statement in my written introduction in which I proposed that this package - with its thematically linked songs, DVD, 120-page book and 2 CDs - might be a response to the “death of the album.” I guess there are some record collectors out there who will miss that format.

All, however, agreed that CDs, especially in their plastic jewel boxes with tiny booklets, are ugly. Most had trouble imagining what might happen in the near future. I suggested that multimedia packages (with links, text, video and images) might be perfect for smart phones and other new devices; they might be better than CDs in some ways, which have gotten increasingly stingy in their packaging and content, offering the consumer less and less for their buck.

Mega pop artists might, for example, just release a few singles and attention grabbing videos of those songs. Many more millions might be willing to spring for a couple of songs (or video downloads) than for a whole album from artists who typically fill out their CDs with less than stellar tunes.

Others will have to find some other format, which is only regrettable in the sense that there is an economy of scale in selling bundles of 12 tunes. It doesn’t cost a whole lot more to market a CD that contains 12 tunes than a single - but the income from the 12 song bundle is 10 times as much, or more. So, while mainstream pop artists might sell many more singles, the lower ends of that bell curve - the artists whose output will never sell millions of singles but does have an loyal audience - won’t find that model very sustainable.

Much of the personnel of the local Warner branch have been laid off not too long ago. Some actually got their notices very recently, and the day I arrived was their last day on the job. The woman who represents Italian artists to the world was let go. I saw her vanish down a hallway - she resembles the fashion mistress in The Incredibles.

I wonder who and what will be left of these regional offices in the next few years. Not much, I fear. I heard a story that one executive felt the obligation to visit Tori Amos and her husband at their home studio complex in Cornwall to assess or hear a record of hers. It’s a good four hours from London by train and car (I know because I went there to record her vocals on this project), so the exec took a helicopter. Those days are over.

Note: David Byrne is a singer-songwriter and a former Talking Head. Read the rest of the article at

Click on the link to order Here Lies Love.

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