Punks in the Hall

The Ramones and Talking Heads Battle Their Way From CBGB to Cleveland

Gary Kurfirst, the longtime manager of Talking Heads, illustrates just how irreverent the band was when they started touring in the mid '70s. "They were in Boston," recalls Kurfirst. "It must've been around '77, and we were in a nasty fight with the headlining band—they didn't want to let us use their stage lights. Finally David [Byrne] walks up and says, 'Screw it!' They played the whole show with the house lights on!"

Ask Kurfirst the name of the bullies, though, and he gets suspiciously quiet. Turns out he so impressed the headliners with his tenacity that he wound up managing them, too.

That band was The Ramones.

Left to right: Johnny, Marky, Joey and Dee Dee
photo: Sire/Warner Bros. Records
Left to right: Johnny, Marky, Joey and Dee Dee

Come Monday, Talking heads and The Ramones—along with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Isaac Hayes, Brenda Lee, and Gene Pitney—will have gilded rocking chairs reserved in the giant, industry-approved Cleveland pantheon that is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But for New Yorkers who consider the heyday of CBGB as much a part of the city's fabric as Central Park or the Yankees, it's all about a motley crew of solvent huffers from Forest Hills and a few preppy RISD transplants.

The Ramones and Heads were written off as weirdos by a music industry dominated by singer-songwriters and prog rock in the mid '70s; now the ultimate industry establishment is offering validation. The induction ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria, with its $2500-a-seat prices and tables full of record executives, is anything but punk. But as Heads drummer Chris Frantz says, "If they're handing out honors, I guess we'll take them."

So Talking Heads are reuniting. The key syllable here is "nite," as in only one. Don't hold your breath for the follow-up tour. "We're talking about playing a couple of songs for the thing," says David Byrne, fidgeting with a CD in the downtown office of his Luaka Bop record label. "It'll be fun." He doesn't sound convincing.

The reunion was not a foregone conclusion. When Salon.com asked Byrne in '99 about the specific possibility of playing at the Hall of Fame ceremony, his response was a terse "I don't think so." As late as February, matters were undecided. Even as husband-wife team Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth excitedly ticked off songs they might play at a reunion (" 'Psycho Killer' was always a hit to me," says Frantz. "It would be great to play something unexpected, like 'I Zimbra' "), Byrne was touring the Eastern Hemisphere, solo, and in no rush to decide.

It's been 14 years since the band performed together. Byrne, Frantz, Weymouth, and keyboardist Jerry Harrison have all remained busy since the band broke up in '91. Weymouth and Frantz are constantly on tour as the Tom Tom Club, and contributed a track on the Gorillaz' breakthrough album. Harrison established a platinum production career with Live's Throwing Copper, and worked on No Doubt's latest. Byrne just finished 12 months on tour supporting the dadaist-ages-gracefully classic Look Into the Eyeball; he's been singing some Heads classics regularly, so, as he says with a maniacal laugh, he "knows the words." Still, the four haven't been in the same room since '99, when they were promoting the reissue of their concert film Stop Making Sense. In '96, Byrne went to court to stop Weymouth, Frantz, and Harrison from releasing the ill-conceived No Talking Just Head project (they eventually settled out of court and the album was released). Just weeks ago, Byrne characterized the Heads' relationship as "better than Israel and Palestine."

Talking Heads' first gig had them opening for the Ramones at CBGB, and in '77 the two would take their first proper tour of Europe together. To hear Johnny Ramone talk, you might think the notorious hardass has gone all soft. "We always knew the Talking Heads were good," he says. "But we looked at them as this college, intellectual band. To me rock and roll was always supposed to be rebellious punks." Danny Fields, the Ramones' first manager, from '75 to '80, remembers it another way: "Johnny said, 'They really suck, they can open.' "

"We were going for the preppy look," says Byrne. "We just wanted to turn the rock iconography on its head. We wanted to see if we could get away with establishing that as an alternative. I don't think it really worked." Weezer probably begs to differ, but certainly there were many—particularly those outside the major metropolitan areas—who didn't care to have their iconographies flipped. "Isn't it strange," asks Weymouth, "to think that the first song that happened for us was 'Take Me to the River'? That's when people finally understood the band. 'Cause, oh, when you mix up your sex and your gospel, they say 'Oh, now I know where you're coming from. You're as fucked up as I am!' "

The Heads' imprint on modern groups is so obvious (Radiohead even took their name from a track on True Stories) that it's worth remembering that before there was an alternative rock circuit, Byrne and co. had to blaze trails through folk clubs in Nashville and pizza parlors in Pittsburgh. ("Our opening act was a fire-breathing clown," recalls Byrne. "He was drunk by our second set.")

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