When I was barely in 9th grade, I first encountered the music of Talking Heads. It was the summer of 1983, and Speaking in Tounges was on heavy rotation on my Sony Walkman as I sat on a rusting, red Wheel Horse tractor cutting acres of grass for my house and my neighbor’s.
Hours of idle passes over a baseball-sized swath of backyard were filled with sounds I’d never heard. Drums from foreign lands, rhythms that challenged the common tempos of rock music, and a heavy funk that would lead me straight into Parliament and the mysteries of that genre’s dank goodness.
But more than anything, that summer began my life-long love of Talking Heads and their enigmatic frontman, David Byrne. It wasn’t long before the brilliance of Stop Making Sense assailed the ears and eyes, and I was convinced that if I never saw this band live I would die.
College brought deeper dives into the entire discography. From their early work in the mid-’70s, to a pilgrimage to CBGB’s, from Byrne’s solo work with the dancer Twyla Tharp to the seminal samplings of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts...if it was related to the Heads, I was in on it.
Several years later, after the band broke up, I followed David’s work as he explored more deeply the rhythms of Latin America. Rei Momo‘s cadences still fill my house. And even the dark atmospheres of Byrne’s The Forest lurk in the recesses of my playlists.
This is not a paean to the band or to Bryne, who continues to make music and inspire younger bands. Rather, this is a peek into why, when we think about INNOVATION we must look to artists. Admittedly, there is no genius in that insight. And yet, in the rush of businesses to innovate, they often look solely to the gurus, the keynote speakers, the entrepreneurs with the swagger.
But artists had it figured out long ago. They have tapped the wellsprings of creativity for self-expression, and, like those waters, are infinitely adept at reinventing themselves and extending their art beyond the limitations of genres. And while the business world has certainly attempted to appropriate even those most sacred of human waters, the real reason to look at the lives of people like David Byrne is that they never stop inventing and innovating (see image to left or this great interview on CBS Sunday Morning). We people who seek to bring the fresh, the vibrant, the new to whatever space–education, corporate America, or our own homes–we need not do so in a frantic chase of some elusive “it”–the next big video game, the next great sneaker. Rather, we ought to seek out the mindsets and actions that help us experience our lives in new ways, and those are most prominent in our artists. (This is, obviously, not a new idea.)
Others have written better and with more academic acumen about David Byrne’s aesthetic. Even I, years ago, wrote a senior thesis for a film class at Temple University on the topic. Seek those out if you desire a more academic view…some sense of the gestalt that is David Bryne. Here, I simply recognize that Byrne is still pushing boundaries (Playing the Building), still crossing genres (How Music Works), still making us all think more about how innovating even within the fields to which we have devoted our lives, to which our own muses call us, is “never for money, always for love” (to quote Byrne’s own lyrics on “This Must Be the Place”). Don’t believe me? Look at this innovative riff by some NYC public school students. Or this choir in Detroit, Michigan. Oh, sure, in the economic ring of corporate America, innovation is about the profit margin. But personally, socially…? Innovation is about the joy of living well and in a way that spreads joy and well-being to others, in a way that recognizes, as one of my 7th-grade students once commented, that “Joy is like all WOW inside!”
It is impossible for me to watch David Byrne today and not think of the work we’re doing in our inNOVAtion Lab. For most of my students, the engagement level is rising. What’s more, I can hear in their interactions the kind of prosperous, collaborative discussion that only grows out of meaningful, purposeful, creative work. These are the kinds of discussions the students engaged in during our trip to the B.Phl Innovation Festival. They are the discussions born of curious humans pursuing their interests.
What I love about David Byrne is how he never stops working. As well, unlike many artists who try to capitalize on what is popular, changing their shape and color like so many flavors of pop-tarts, Byrne is working out of a consistent weltanschauung, iterating and innovating out of a deep intelligence about music itself, and doing so with a professionalism and reverence for the creative process that is matched by very few performers today.
What I love about inNOVAtion Lab as a class is similar. There is a growing respect for the rituals of the space and the time we have together, and for the understanding that we “make it up as we go along.” (I can quote Talking Heads all day.) This respect is reflected in the professionalism I sense building in these students and the belief that they have the ability to act upon their creative agency to make the world a better place. In that, perhaps, they’ve come to respect themselves as artists, for there is an art to learning this way.
Few classes have felt so right to me in 27 years of teaching, and I seem to know that inNOVAtion Lab will be a home for my mind and countless others for years to come.
Put simply, after 27 years in the classroom, “This Must Be The Place.”