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 Byrne has a withdrawn, disembodied, sci-fi quality, and though there’s something unknowable and almost autistic about him, he makes autism fun."
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:

14 Responses to David Byrne: Another Talented Individual with Autism

  1. Landschip says:

    Just thanks for this post! (From an autist).

  2. Susan says:

    You are most welcome!


  3. RTV says:

    The title of this article is misleading. David Byrne doesn’t have autism. He himself has acknowledged that he probably had a mild form of Aspergers, something he’s largely overcome. If those terms are synonymous, then the title of the article is OK.

    How long is Chris Frantz going to continue to publicly blame his own creative bankruptcy on David Byrne? He was lucky to have gotten on David Byrne’s train during the Talking Heads years. Mr. Byrne has rightfully likened a Talking Heads reunion (which Frantz wants to do for only one reason: $$$$) to putting on the pants he wore in 4th grade. Since David Byrne created Talking Heads and long after, it’s crystal clear who was, and continues to be the creative force among its former members and who isn’t. Not to criticize Tom Tom Club, but unlike Mr. Byrne, who keeps putting out a flood of art (not only music), we’ve seen nothing from Frantz & Co. in nearly 30 years.

  4. Susan says:

    Asperger’s is now considered an autism spectrum disorder.

    I totally agree with your assessment of the situation and I respect David Byrne for passing on the whole reunion idea.

    Thanks for writing…SM

  5. Susan says:

    That says it all…

  6. Very informative blog.Really thank you! Really Cool.

  7. Susan says:

    You’re most welcome. Thank you for writing!

  8. Terry says:

    Saw the Talking Heads twice, both times in Atlanta. The first concert was simply the best, most powerful I have ever seen in my life. The second concert was an unmitigated disaster and Byrne knew it. It was around the time he was performing with what I remember as lamp pole, as from Robert Altman’s film Popeye. But by the second concert, the show seemed to be all about Byrne, and he failed miserably on stage. He gestured to the audience more than once, as though to say, What can I do to please you. Leaving the concert, people spoke about how the Talking Heads had become the David Byrne Show, and that the band was being damaged by it. He has truly been very, very busy in the years since, but the quality of that work is questionable and reclusive in its appeal. From afar, he does not seem to have the gift of forming great or lasting friendships.

  9. Susan says:

    Sounds like he couldn’t sustain being in the public eye. Reminds me of Craig Nicholls of The Vines.

  10. Medina Krause says:

    Lately, I’ve been reading about David Byrne’s supposed AS self-diagnosis. In my opinion, whether or not he has it is questionable. I read that he’d referred to himself as “a peculiar child,” due to his so-called shyness and withdrawn personality. I was labeled that way myself when I was growing up, even well into adulthood. That doesn’t automatically mean that one is autistic, or has AS. When I was a teenager, I’d heard my mother say to my psychologist that, when I was a small child, a child psychiatrist had suspected that, due to my so-called shyness and nontalkativeness, I had autism when I was about pre-school age. Looking back, my take on that is that I was just a child who’d had very little to say. To be honest, as a teenager, and even today, as a 34-year-old adult, I still don’t have a lot to say to people, or I prefer not to say much. Anyway, I was never offically diagnosed as autistic. Therefore, this “expert” had failed to comfirm his beliefs. In my opinion, he didn’t know me well enough to say anything about me. Mental health “experts” are just people. They don’t know everything. As for David Byrne, I don’t think he’s peculiar. He’s just David, and as a fan of his music, and his writings, I hope he keeps doing what he’s doing.

  11. Sheila Ambalavanar says:

    I am a huge David Byrne fan (also Talking Heads). I love his post Talking Heads work and have been fortunate indeed to see him 3 times as a solo artist, first in Switzerland, then in Leicester and London. Absolutely brilliant. I have long thought that David Byrne is autistic before this was ever in the media either from a band member or his own admission. Many people are autistic but never have a formal diagnosis so to some extent that is irrelevant. I have worked for 15 years with foster children who have autism/aspergers and I recognise traits of the spectrum. I believe that autism is developmental – children with mild autism and aspergers tend to be high functioning but have to learn how to be sociable in the same way as they learn academic subjects. Once learnt, they do not forget so their functionality increases through their lifetime. When you have great talent and a heightened ability to focus, the results are joyous and beautiful – just listen to “Heaven” or “Like Humans Do” or any number of Byrne compositions and you will hear what I mean.

  12. Susan Moffitt says:

    Yes, I agree. Talking Heads had a huge influence on other bands as well. My son tells me that Radiohead is named after a line from one of their songs.

  13. dave says:

    first, two critical things to say: While I have raised a son with AS, I have learned never assume I know the exact struggles people with AS go through. Also have been a big and long time T.Heads fan, I watch Byrne “assert” his ego with each progressive album. Regardless how prolific the various members have become in their own right, Byrne’s AS most definitely had a negative impact on his relationships with others around him. Also being in the legal profession, I find the main reason why I am hired is not because I know the law better than any one who can read statutes, but rather people hire me to take legal action against another because they do not have the communication ability to work things out themselves. This is exactly what I observed with Byrne’s actions as well. Life goes on nonetheless.

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