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Reviews: Chris Frantz's Remain in Love

Chris Frantz's Remain in Love

The name of this memoir is Remain in Love, a dual reference to Talking Heads’ finest album, 1980’s Remain in Light, and Chris Frantz’s forty-plus years of marriage to Tina Weymouth, his bandmate in both Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. But if you’re a fan weighing the prospect of uncovering more behind-the-scenes acrimony between the rest of the band and David Byrne, the title hits differently. Will the expected vilification of Byrne soil the band’s legacy, Byrne’s legacy, or both? Is Remain in Love something you should avoid if you want to, uh, you know?

Well, yes, you should avoid Remain in Love, but not for the perceived threat to your enjoyment of the Talking Heads catalog. Remain in Love is a trying, often tedious book, and David Byrne does not come off particularly well in it, but those two aspects are not bound in the way I expected. I didn’t put the book down every couple of pages during its momentum-defying middle because I was dreading the revelation of some new misgiving from Byrne; I kept putting the book down because it was flat, uninsightful, and repetitive. I kept putting the book down because its narrative felt overtly filtered through the page-one assertion that “You could say that Tina and I were the team who made David Byrne famous,” a push to reclaim the band’s legacy from the supposed sole ownership of David Byrne. (Sorry, Jerry Harrison.) The degree to which the chip on Frantz’s shoulder—deserved or not—determined what the book would cover and how major players would be depicted, including Frantz himself, greatly limited any potential insights.

Allow me to take stock of those major players:

Jerry Harrison: The new owner of the “Most underappreciated member of Talking Heads” belt, Jerry Harrison is sidelined for most of Remain in Love. It’s understandable to an extent—he didn’t go to RISD, joined the band after they were somewhat established in NYC, and was neither married to nor an enemy of another member—but if you’re hoping to learn anything about Harrison beyond his previous tenure in the Modern Lovers, his occasional horniness, his brief depression and substance issues during the recording of Speaking in Tongues, or his taste in tour bus literature, prepare to be disappointed. Outside of the book I learned that Harrison was preparing to tour Remain in Light for its 40th anniversary with guitarist Adrian Belew and the band Turkuaz. I assume that tour, like all things, has been postponed indefinitely, but it was nice to read about his cordial relationship with David Byrne.

Johnny Ramone: If Remain in Love has a villain beyond David Byrne, it’s the Ramones guitarist, who was physically abusive with his girlfriend as he sulked his way through a European tour with Talking Heads. (Did he want to see Stonehenge? He did not.) This Frantz takedown, however, is thoroughly odd: “Johnny was still angry at us about our love of art, history, and culture. He said so as if this was ruining his life. I just looked at him and said, ‘Johnny, this tour will be over soon. Let me just say, in spite of all your bad moods, we are very happy to be here with your guys and one day you will realize that we are the best opening act you have ever had or will ever have.’” Did either side of that conversation take place?

Brian Eno: The producer of More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light starts off as a breath of fresh air and proper manners (especially in contrast to the misogynistic Phil Spector), but by the time Fear of Music’s lackluster initial mixes came back to the band, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth had begun to grow weary of his input. Aside from allegations that Eno and David Byrne conspired to re-record Weymouth’s parts on Remain in Light once she was out of the studio, the biggest gripe with Eno was how much credit—specifically financial—he should receive for that album. After the sessions, Eno asked the participants to write their proposed percentage splits on a piece of paper, thinking the averaged numbers would be fair to everyone, and was tremendously insulted by the results. Chris Frantz did not include his proposed percentages, but writes “Brian was lucky we agreed to give him anything.” If you want more Eno, I heartily recommend David Sheppard’s On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno, which is endlessly entertaining and enlightening.

The Heads: Something that goes entirely unmentioned in Remain in Love is Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison’s 1996 album No Talking, Just Head as The Heads, a Byrne-free reunion with a variety of guest vocalists ranging from Blondie’s Debbie Harry to Live’s Ed Kowalcyk. (Harrison produced Live’s super-hit Throwing Copper, hope he took the points.) The album’s release and tour were submarined by a lawsuit by David Byrne, but the lead single, “Damage I’ve Done” featuring Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, bounced around MTV for a bit. (I revisited it and nope, still not a fan.) When asked about The Heads experience by Rolling Stone, Frantz says that he “didn’t want to write about an experience that was kind of a downer for me in the end,” telling the interviewer that he canceled his RS subscription over their critical review of the album.

David Bowman: The author of the 2001 book This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the 20th Century is not mentioned by name, but when Chris Frantz says in the preface that “A number of books have been written about us, but most of them are not very good and none of them have given the reader the true inside story,” the target is clear. Remain in Love refutes several prominent stories from that book.

Adrian Belew: The guitarist whose inventive work elevated Remain in Light and Tom Tom Club’s self-titled debut is mentioned sparingly, but is the subject of one of the biggest changes in narrative. Bowman’s book claims that Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth asked Belew if he would replace David Byrne in Talking Heads, an offer which he politely declined in deference to Byrne. In Remain in Love, Frantz says “We had talked to Adrian about becoming a permanent member of Tom Tom Club as a singer and guitarist. Somehow, this was misinterpreted by Adrian […] he thought we were asking him to replace David in Talking Heads, as if we could do that.” Talking Heads without David Byrne? Who could imagine such a thing?

Tina Weymouth: I have not read David Bowman’s This Must Be the Place, but judging from reviews and this 2003 Salon piece in which Bowman asserts “she really is the Lady Macbeth of rock” (and relays a string of mortifying things she’s said about Byrne), it is not kind to Tina Weymouth. Chris Frantz makes up for that treatment and then some. During Remain in Love, she never says a negative thing to anyone who wasn’t clearly a villain (e.g. Johnny Ramone, Phil Spector). She comes off as a saint, routinely lifted up by his fawning descriptions of her innate beauty, fashion choices, stage presence, and creative impulses. Maybe she is a saint! Maybe that’s how you stay married for over forty years! But it’s a sign of the surface-level engagement in Remain in Love that Weymouth’s personality never fully blossoms. Recalling full conversations is not in Frantz’s repertoire, so he moves from event to event through extractable details, and those details aren’t treated with an analytical eye. Do I get an inside sense of what makes Tina Weymouth a fantastic bass player (and she certainly is!) aside from a natural aptitude for the instrument? No. After reading Peter Hook’s Joy Division and New Order memoirs (I’ll get back to those books in a bit) and Paul Hanley’s The Big Midweek: Life Inside The Fall, I had a greater appreciation for what they did as bassists, and what their fellow musicians were doing. Remain in Love didn’t expand my understanding of how Talking Heads worked, and that’s a disservice to all four members, but especially Weymouth.

Talking Heads audiences: If I learned anything from Chris Frantz going over nearly every Talking Heads concert up until Fear of Music, it’s that there were two different types of Talking Heads audiences in the ’70s: most were immediately and thoroughly in love with the band’s music (“I have no doubt that a certain degree of rapture was achieved by everyone in attendance”), but some required two songs before “we won them over with our energy and attitude.” There was remarkably little struggle to their ascent. The Talkin’ ’Bout the Tour section is a standard for music memoirs, but Frantz focuses on drab details, not shifting dynamics. What did they wear? What did they eat? What hotel did they stay at? How many encores did they get? What notable people did they meet? Reading these details over and over was like consuming a bottomless bowl of bran flakes.

David Byrne: In case I’m coming off as a David Byrne stan, I’ll recap the worst of his offenses discussed in Remain in Love. At RISD, he covertly reorganized an art show (that was ultimately canceled) to put his paintings up front. During the early days of Talking Heads, he made Tina Weymouth audition and re-audition to be the band’s bass player. Once the band started recording and releasing music, he secured the exclusive writing credits for many of their songs. He encouraged the addition of a second bass player for Remain in Light and the subsequent tours, diminishing Weymouth’s role. He mentioned the possibility of the band breaking up or him leaving the band in interviews without discussing it first with the other members. He was impossibly demanding during the Stop Making Sense tour and on the set of True Stories. He damaged a hotel room once. He essentially ghosted the other members after 1988’s Naked and announced that the band was over in a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times. He decided to leave his wife after the band’s 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

All valid criticisms!

I’ve read enough music memoirs and biographies to be prepared for such indiscretions. After Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements and three books on The Fall, I had to reset the bar for bad behavior and dictatorial control to account for The Mats and Mark E. Smith. (I can only laugh at the thought of Chris Frantz joining The Fall and encountering MES’s arbitrary and/or punitive assignment of songwriting credits.) The heavy drug usage and interband infidelity in Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk makes those elements seem practically quaint in any other book (respectively, they are minimized and non-existent in Remain in Love). These more extreme examples don’t serve to excuse what David Byrne did, but to explain my constant thought of “There must be something worse coming,” and being surprised when it never did.

It’s not a secret that David Byrne is a strange guy—his off-kilter lyrical perspectives are a big part of Talking Heads’ appeal—and the discussion of his borderline case of Asperger’s syndrome in his 2012 How Music Works book offers some context for that behavior. Neither Byrne nor his bandmates knew about or understood his placement on the autism spectrum during Talking Heads’ run (“Watch out for the autism,” Tina Weymouth is quoted as saying in the 2003 Bowman article, turning the diagnosis into an epithet), but many of Byrne’s quirks make more sense given that context. Before Chris Frantz even met Byrne, he knew of him as an anti-social, heavily bearded guy floating around their RISD dorm. And yet he chose to be in a band with Byrne (The Artistics) and then move to NYC to form a different band with Byrne, while living in a decrepit loft space with both Byrne and Weymouth. The aforementioned indiscretions aside, there’s remarkably little conflict in their relationship, despite living and touring together. (Contrast these accounts with the oil-and-water mix of Blake Schwarzenbach and Chris Bauermeister as documented in Don’t Break Down: A Film about Jawbreaker.) Many of Frantz’s petty jabs target Byrne’s atypical behaviors—on multiple occasions, Frantz insists Byrne’s interest in cybernetics is mere posturing to appear smarter; there’s a judgmental description of Byrne standing by himself at a party, unable or unwilling to socialize, that hits very close to home—often in contrast with the extreme comfort that Frantz and Weymouth found in social situations.

Either in spite of or due to Chris Frantz depicting both himself and Tina Weymouth as largely faultless, eminently social human beings and David Byrne as an inexplicable and sporadically cunning weirdo, I found myself feeling for Byrne. Frantz never wonders how the band’s rapid, ever-escalating success affected someone who was, by Frantz’s own account, simultaneously drawn to and uncomfortable in the spotlight. It’s Frantz’s expectation that Byrne would suddenly change, that he would normalize and process emotions and friendships the same way Frantz and Weymouth did, that baffles me. Weymouth’s prior criticisms that Byrne is “a man incapable of returning friendship” who doesn’t “love” his former bandmates is echoed in several places by Frantz, most notably in a reprovement of Byrne for “the sin of omission” because he was incapable of giving credit or compliments to his bandmates. Did he express his appreciation or fondness in different ways? It’s unclear. It never seemed easy to be Byrne’s artistic collaborator, let alone friend, but Frantz’s rancor often surpasses the described behavior.

Chris Frantz: I’ll step back for a second to discuss a pair of books with a similar gambit. By the time Peter Hook published Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division and Substance: Inside New Order, he was out of New Order on acrimonious terms. By the time I read those books, Hook had toured on the back catalogs of both bands, a decision I had viewed as questionable, if not desperate. It wasn’t that I viewed Hook as an inessential part of either band—his bass lines are their defining musical feature—but it was odd, if not unprecedented, that someone who was (barring a few cuts on Movement) not the singer of the band would go out and sing those songs.

After reading Unknown Pleasures and Substance, I will readily admit that I was wrong. Peter Hook has an equal claim to those bands’ legacies and every right to tour that material. Not only did those books delve into his specific contributions to classic songs (which, in the case of New Order, often went beyond the bass part), he’s a convincing narrator. There’s a “let me tell you about my life while I have a pint at the pub” quality to Hook’s writing that’s steadfastly appealing; to embrace the cliché, you feel like you were there. He’s brutally honest about the band’s faults and especially his own faults. He has plenty of regrets—personal, professional, romantic—and never hesitates to reveal his darkest, least flattering moments. Does he discuss Bernard Sumner’s bad actions during their power struggles? He sure does. But he also establishes why he loved being in a band with Sumner, what unique elements Sumner contributed to those bands, and why he misses their former bond. He paints the whole picture, warts and all.

I thought about Peter Hook’s memoirs often during Chris Frantz’s Remain in Love, initially because of that similar legacy-wrangling gambit. Would I be swayed to Team Frantz? But after I got through the initial section on Frantz’s youth, I kept getting tripped up by the absence of critical self-analysis. There’s no humility to Remain in Love, just a series of big wins. The mistakes and regrets that made Hook approachably human are never mentioned or acknowledged. Frantz discusses his relationship with Andi Shapiro, which lasted at least a year at RISD, but once he saw Tina Weymouth, he was in love with her. Both Frantz and Weymouth were in relationships when Frantz made a late-night visit to Weymouth’s apartment and asked to sleep with her (she politely declined), but Frantz doesn’t remember this action as a questionable move on his part, but an encouraging sign of a future with Weymouth. There’s no acknowledgment of a breakup with Andi—the following school year she’s still with him and sharing a studio space, then he’s suddenly in a relationship with Weymouth—but she’s mentioned a couple of times later in the book as a dear friend. At the very least, it should have prompted an editorial note.

I relayed that part to a friend, who dismissed it as a non-issue: “That’s art school for you.” But for the rest of the book, it made me wonder “What isn’t Chris Frantz mentioning?” Remain in Love has an unspoken focus on the good times—note again the absence of The Heads’ No Talking, Just Head—and at points, that works to its favor. The best chapters are separate from the central conflict: without having to worry about keeping score with David Byrne, he relaxes when talking about Tom Tom Club, Weymouth and his production duties for Happy Mondays and Ziggy Marley, and (for the most part) his appreciation of the B-52s. (He still revels in how disagreements over David Byrne’s production of Mesopotamia led it to be curtailed to a commercially unsuccessful EP.) It’s fair that he’d prefer to bask in the glow of “Genius of Love” than mention Tom Tom Club’s three albums after 1988’s Boom Boom Chi Boom Boom, and even great biographies, like the previously recommended On Some Faraway Beach, spend far more time on beloved records than forgotten ones. But it’s hard not to notice how much Frantz massages both his and Byrne’s resumes to serve his agenda. While Frantz’s greatest successes are heightened, David Byrne’s artistic contributions are minimized (his lyrics are barely mentioned; he dismisses the choreography of Stop Making Sense as a rip-off of theater director Robert Wilson, who Frantz fails to mention would later collaborate with Byrne on The Knee Plays) and his failures are emphasized (schadenfreude abounds when The Catherine Wheel sells a hundredth of Tom Tom Club and when True Stories fizzles at the box office).

There’s only one moment when Frantz discusses a major personal failing and it is absolutely buried in Remain in Love. After a few brief mentions of his cocaine habit following the success of the Tom Tom Club’s first album, a stray paragraph in the penultimate chapter (which is mostly about yachting in the Bahamas and running into famous friends) reveals how Weymouth gave him an ultimatum in 1984 to clean up his act or their marriage was over. To the best of my memory, it’s the only marital strife Frantz recalls, amidst an endless stream of flowery assertions that their love was never stronger than in that current moment. Peter Hook would have dwelled in that moment, sweating over the health of his relationship, but Frantz rushes through it so he can mention encountering Patti Smith dressed in all black on a beach in the Bahamas.

I’m left with an incomplete picture of the author. Chris Frantz seems very nice, and it’s entirely possible that he is. I don’t know! Remain in Love is a book-length version of “My greatest weakness is caring too much.” From the best that I can tell, both Frantz and Tina Weymouth are friendly people and superlative musicians who suffer from an enormous complex regarding their personal and professional relationship with David Byrne. On one hand, I get it. There’s no denying that the rhythm section of Talking Heads was foundational to the band’s success, that Talking Heads would not have been Talking Heads without them. Harboring continued resentment over David Byrne securing sole songwriting credits for many songs and choosing when the band was over is understandable. It was their livelihood too. Seeing Byrne monetize the band’s back catalog with the American Utopia Broadway show while being disinterested in reuniting the band must be frustrating. But Remain in Love is so committed to serving its “Isn’t David Byrne the worst?” agenda that a fundamental conundrum is never addressed. If you hate him so much, why do you want so badly to perform with him again? If his contributions are so overrated, why are they necessary? Frantz concludes Remain in Love by contrasting Byrne’s anti-reunion statement that “it’s time to move on” with his own assertion that “When speaking about my family, my friends, and my band, I am not a person who ‘moves on.’ I remain—and I remain in love.” Maybe that’s commendable loyalty. Or maybe it’s stubbornness, and his unwillingness to move on, to reassess, to change perspectives makes Remain in Love an infuriating book, forever stuck in a grudge.

Talking Heads: Remain in Love certainly didn’t give me a greater appreciation of or affection for the music of Talking Heads, but thankfully, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment either. One of Chris Frantz’s best decisions is talking about their 1980 concert in Rome during the opening chapter, a high point for the band and its expanded, Remain in Light-era lineup. That performance is available in full in YouTube, and rather than suffer through this book, spend your time watching that set. Pull out one of their classic records or put on the Stop Making Sense movie. Their music remains cerebral and physical, challenging and fun, serious and playful, familiar and new. Their interpersonal fissures may never close, but what they achieved together rises above the infighting.