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David Byrne: Inspired By A Dictator's Wife, Minus The Shoes

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David Byrne: Inspired By A Dictator's Wife, Minus The Shoes

David Byrne: Inspired By A Dictator's Wife, Minus The Shoes

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  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

David Byrne, former frontman for the Talking Heads, has been busy lately. He's written a book, "Bicycle Diaries," and he's designed a bunch of sculpted bike racks that appear around New York. Now, he's also recorded a sort of pop song cycle. It's called "Here Lies Love" and it's about Imelda Marcos, the infamous wife of the infamous Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Jeff Lunden has our story.

JEFF LUNDEN: David Byrne says he's long been interested in the theatrical trappings of powerful leaders. Then he came across an intriguing fact about Imelda Marcos.

Mr. DAVID BYRNE (Former Lead Singer, The Talking Heads, Author, "Bicycle Diaries"): When I heard some years ago that Imelda Marcos really loved going to discos and that she had a mirror ball in her New York townhouse and turned the roof of the palace in Manila into a disco, I thought, well, here's a powerful person who lives in that kind of a bubble, but also brings her own soundtrack to it. Let me see if there's a story here.

(Soundbite of song, "Here Lies Love")

Ms. FLORENCE WELCH (Singer): (Singing) Just say here I lie, here I lie, here I lie...

Mr. BYRNE: Then I started thinking, wow, what if you could do an evening in a club that was also a theatrical event - and that never materialized but this did.

(Soundbite of song, "Here Lies Love")

Ms. WELCH: (Singing) Here I lie...

LUNDEN: What this is is a two-CD song cycle, with a DVD of several music videos featuring footage of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos. It's all packaged in a book, written and designed by Byrne. He collaborated with English DJ and beat architect Fatboy Slim on 22 songs that look both at the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, as well as the tragic journey of her childhood maid, Estrella Cumpos. Byrne says writing songs for specific characters was liberating.

Mr. BYRNE: I could write things that, if I was writing it myself for myself, I might feel like, oh, that's too cliche or that's too hooky, or that's too kind of obviously poppy or something like that. But in this case, I didn't have to worry about that. I had the excuse of saying no, this is what they would deem to be appropriate for that particular moment.

(Soundbite of song, "Eleven Days")

Ms. CYNDI LAUPER (Singer): (Singing) Here so fast, tell me what's his name. It was only a moment that I don't feel the same...

LUNDEN: Byrne invited an eclectic group of pop stars to sing on the album -from Tori Amos to Natalie Merchant to Steve Earle to Cyndi Lauper, who sings this song, "Eleven Days." In it, she plays the young Imelda in the thrall of an up-and-coming senator named Ferdinand Marcos.

Ms. LAUPER: I don't know that Imelda Marcos was ever a sweet young thing. I'm sure she was a sweet young thing but I'm sure she was never sweet.

(Soundbite of song, "Eleven Days")

Ms. LAUPER: (Singing) ...I would ever forget. And (unintelligible) that he gives. I haven't seen him in 11 days.

LUNDEN: And "Here Lies Love" contains a lot of glittery pop songs to reflect Marcos' glittery life, like "Dancing Together," sung by Sharon Jones, as Imelda Marcos discovers the heady world beyond the Philippines.

(Soundbite of song, "Dancing Together")

Ms. SHARON JONES (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible) and you were hoping (unintelligible)...

LUNDEN: But Byrne doesn't ignore the flip side - the poverty of the Philippines or Ferdinand Marcos' grab for power. Natalie Merchant, as the impoverished maid, sings a song that deals with both.

Ms. NATALIE MERCHANT (Singer): The piece that he had me sing, "Order 1081," is a really somber piece about the institution of martial law and it is very sobering.

(Soundbite of song, "Order 1081")

Ms. MERCHANT: (Singing) A bomb went off this morning, raining bodies on TV. They are blaming the insurgence. They are blocking off the streets. But the smoke is rising slowly from the barrel of the gun. The solution to disruption, order 1081.

LUNDEN: One well-known aspect of Imelda Marcos' life is nowhere to be found in "Here Lies Love": the shoes - thousands of pairs, which were discovered at the palace after the couple fled the country.

Mr. BYRNE: For me, the story's over before the shoes are discovered, which I thought was lucky for me, because I thought the shoes are what everybody knows and it turns her into kind of a one-joke character. But I thought, oh, this way, I can legitimately avoid the shoes and kind of deal with how it got to that point.

LUNDEN: But even if it's not mentioned, Cyndi Lauper says she thought about it as she recorded the final song on the album, "Why Don't You Love Me?"

(Soundbite of song, "Why Don't You Love Me?")

Ms. LAUPER: (Singing) Why don't you love me?

They didn't say, we love you Imelda; they said, where's our money, you rat sideswiper? You have all these damn shoes. I mean, she was a little too high and mighty and when they left, they took everything.

(Soundbite of song, "Why Don't You Love Me?")

Ms. LAUPER: (Singing) I gave you my life. I gave you my time...

LUNDEN: David Byrne says he's genuinely curious how people will receive the album.

Mr. BYRNE: When I performed it a couple of times, there was some rumblings about it being too apologetic in a way to Imelda's behavior, almost excusing it, which I can understand because I don't get overtly critical about her. I feel like that's the baggage that the audience already brings to it. My job is to explain how that happened.

LUNDEN: And his job may continue. New York's Public Theater has expressed interest in developing "Here Lies Love" into a full-length musical.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

RAZ: You can hear more music from David Byrne's "Here Lies Love" at

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening and have a great night.

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