David Byrne: Another Talented Individual with Autism

David Byrne

Courtesy: Fred von Lohmann

One of my favorite bands of all time is Talking Heads, the American New Wave band formed in 1974 in New York City and active until 1991. David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison comprised the band that fused elements of punk, art rock, avant-garde, pop, funk, world music and Americana. Frontman and songwriter David Byrne contributed singular style to the group with his cerebral, yet whimsical lyrics and performances that were multimedia experiences, not to mention his signature oversized suit.

Renowned New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael once described him in this manner:

"…Byrne himself is the parodist, and he commands the stage by his hollow-eyed, frosty verve. Byrne’s voice isn’t a singer’s voice—it doesn’t have the resonance. It’s more like a shouter’s or chanter’s voice, with an emotional carryover—a faintly metallic wail—and you might expect it to get strained or tired. But his voice never seems to crack or weaken, and he’s always in motion—jiggling, aerobic walking, jumping, dancing. (They shade into each other.) Byrne has a withdrawn, disembodied, sci-fi quality, and though there’s something unknowable and almost autistic about him, he makes autism

Pauline Kael was on to something. Seven years later, in 2003, Tina Weymouth told the world that David Byrne had Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). Tina and David had a testy relationship and the announcement actually came in the form of an accusation. In 2009, David himself acknowledged that he in fact had Asperger’s and somewhat misguidedly believed that he was able to work it out through his music and as a result, subsequently no longer has it. 

Dr. Tony Attwood, the world’s authority on Asperger’s Syndrome, has referenced that functionality can improve in an individual with AS to the point where it becomes a personality trait rather than a disorder, but there is still no cure. Obviously, David is on the best case end of the autism spectrum. 

After Talking Head’s 2002 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, speculation of at least a reunion tour was rampant, but it never materialized. The enduring influence of the group has lead to recent calls for them to re-unite. This very month, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (now of the Tom Tom Club) unhappily conceded that this just isn’t going to happen because David refuses, a fact they seem to blame on his autism. 

I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment. A visit to David’s website
reveals that he is still active musically and is wildly creative in a variety of media. He even seems to have a special interest in bicycles. 

David Byrne is yet another example of the gifts that autism bestows upon individuals. The world is blessed when these people are given the chance to share their unique gifts with us.

This is my favorite Talking Heads piece, and one of my favorite songs of all-time: