100 years of new york music

Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads on Opening for the Ramones, CBGB, and Working With David Byrne

UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: CBGB'S Photo of David BYRNE and TALKING HEADS and Tina WEYMOUTH and Chris FRANTZ, L-R. Jerry Harrison, David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth (Photo by Roberta Bayley/Redferns)
The Talking Heads at CBGB, 1977 Photo: Roberta Bayley/Redferns

As told to Jennifer Vineyard

Chris: Our first show was opening for the Ramones at CBGB. We had been going to CBGB from pretty much the first night we moved to New York. One weekend Patti Smith performed, and she didn’t really have a band together. It was just Patti and Lenny Kaye on guitar, and it was really exciting. Totally a beatnik thing, which I loved. Lenny was just playing out of a little tiny amplifier, and Patti was doing versions of the songs from her first album, but they were kinda raw. And then I went back the following weekend, and the Ramones played. And the Ramones were also in their formative stages, and they would stop and argue with each other in the middle of a song! But when they were playing, it was so great. To my way of thinking, it was really advanced artistically, even though a lot of people said that they were moronic and that they couldn’t really play and all that. There was an artistry to what they were doing that was beyond typical rock-and-roll bands.

Tina: Dee Dee wrote most of the songs. But the one who always took authority was Johnny, because Johnny had gone to military school. It was kind of funny to us, because Chris and I also had parents in the military, so it was weird to us that Johnny was like that, because we weren’t! We were the opposite! Johnny was always very weird, but in our last 20 years of our career, we shared the same business manager, and he used to say, “Oh, Johnny’s such a great businessman!” He found out that he had won an award, a gold record, so he went to the office on his bike, and he just strapped the gold record to the back of his bicycle. So he was very frugal that way! Totally conservative. Republican.

Chris: I would say reactionary. But anyway, when it came time for us to make our debut, our audition at CBGB, I spoke to Hilly Kristal about it and he recognized me from being a regular patron there. I said, “We have a band and I think we’re ready to do a show here.” And he said, “Okay, but you have to audition.” And I said, “Okay, when should we audition?” And he said, “Well, I could put you on with the Ramones.” Hilly or Danny [Fields] said, “Is it okay if the Talking Heads open for you?” and Johnny said, “Oh yeah, they’re going to suck, so it’s no problem. They can open for us.” And then fast-forward two years, and we were asked to open for the Ramones on their first time to Europe, spring of ’77.

Tina: So we went on tour with them.

Chris: We went on tour with the Ramones, and we were the support act. And every show was sold out! We were advertised as “bands from New York,” and this was big with the kids in Europe. It was a huge success. We got brilliant reviews wherever we went. But life on the bus … it wasn’t a regular rock-and-roll tour bus, with bunks and everything, it was just like a tourist bus, with seats. So the Ramones would sit in their assigned seats, and we would sit pretty much wherever we wanted to, and in fact we would change seats from time to time, which really upset Johnny, because he liked everybody to be in the same seat each day. One of the famous episodes was the first show we went to, we went straight from the plane to the sound check in Zurich, Switzerland, and it was a place, a nice theater, and it had a restaurant connected to it, and we were allowed to have dinner at the restaurant. So we went down there, and they started us off with a beautiful salad, nice, leafy green lettuce, and Johnny said, “What the fuck is this?!”

Tina: He wanted iceberg lettuce. He would hate kale. He would hate everything like that.

Chris: It was my first time going to Europe, and I just loved it. It was totally exciting. And you wouldn’t think that the Ramones and Talking Heads would be such a good double bill because the bands were so different, but in fact, it really was! We really got the audience going for them, and when they came out, they just killed it.

Tina: That’s when we were a really nice alternative to rock. If you wanted to see or hear good music, you’d go out to see or hear it. I came to New York with my boyfriend, but we didn’t make obvious displays of affection in public. David [Byrne] wanted me to cut my hair. He basically wanted me to be neutered. And he wanted me to wear his shrunken clothes, things like that. Which I didn’t. They were still too big! His day job was as an usher at a movie theater, and he ate a lot of candy bars and got kind of pudgy. So I really couldn’t wear his clothes! And we were starving anyway, so we were kind of skinny. I was about 101 pounds. But I did get hit on by one interesting person—that was Richard Hell. I’d been playing bass for eight or nine months. We shared something in common, we were both kind of punk novices at bass playing, but we had a background, a cultural background in literature and cultural arts. So he said, “You know, me and you, we’d be a really good team.” And I didn’t really want him and Chris to start fighting over me or anything like that, so I didn’t even mention Chris. I just said, “Well, you know, Richard, I really think actually in truth we’d mix about as well as oil and water.” And so he stopped, when we went down the back alley, he stopped, and he said, “Wait a minute, wait here, I got to take a piss,” and so he stood way off the wall, and splattered the wall, to show me just how really virile he was. [Laughs] And then we resumed our walk around the block, and we remained friends ever after.

For us, Chris and I, we weren’t doing drugs. I think this is the saving grace of Talking Heads, that we were so broke and so poor. We lived in a loft with no heat, no shower, no bathroom, no toilet. We would have to go to friends’ houses to take a shower. There was a work sink, and there was daytime heat, but it would be turned off at 4 p.m. Of course in the summer, it was hell. But in a way being that hungry and being that poor was a real motivator. And Talking Heads, we worked every single day. Even when we had day jobs, we rehearsed and wrote every single day. Seven days a week. And we would change tunes. So Hilly was wonderful in saying, “You have to change up your songs,” and eventually that led Chris to looking for other people. One person he asked to be our singer was Debbie Harry. She said, “Well, I already have a band, but you can buy me a drink.”

Then Lenny Kaye was really helpful, and he was a producer, and was very knowledgeable. Patti’s thing was that she was really doing poetry, talking, and then it became music. And then gradually, gradually added people into the band, wonderful people, and it became even more powerful

Chris: She did a residency at CBGB, where she would play three nights a week for a month. That was very inspiring. And also her opening act would be the band Television, and there was something about Television that was awesome as well.

Tina: I couldn’t explain to the record-label people why David’s behavior could be so incredibly odd. He had a freak-out on our first television appearance, on Dick Clark, on American Bandstand. David sort of froze, and Dick Clark sort of whirled around, and hands the microphone to me. And there were other things going on, too. I don’t think any person is one thing, or defined by a condition that they might have.

Chris: In the beginning, we didn’t know exactly what it was. But much later, we started reading about this Asperger’s thing, and we realized.

Tina: It was always a shock and a surprise to us that David would turn on his heel and suddenly say that the band was broken up, when it hadn’t. And then not return our phone calls. We would call his assistant working in his office, and say, “Can’t we talk to David? We haven’t broken up.” So it was a very hard time, and it wasn’t made easier by the press, because the press made it into an ugly thing. I thought it was really detrimental, to turn the words in our mouths, to change them. It was just not right.

Chris: There were a lot of really highly perceptive people in the scene, at CBGB, but there were also some real douche-nozzles. [Laughs]

Tina: And there were a lot of people where you couldn’t even say, “I’ve been to college.” They would just say, “Ewww!” I mean, even Patti Smith, she once said to Chris, “I would have gone to art school if I had the money.” You know? That sort of thing. It’s just a bitterness, it’s not something you really want to live with, when you’re living with people every day. So you want to make yourself more invisible. And for us, it really was about our music. And we had really high hopes, and incredibly high ideals about what our music could accomplish, and how we could make a little cosmos, for Chris and me anyway, and we thought, we believed at the time that Jerry and David shared our feelings. For us, it was like we were a little model for how the world could get along and do wonderful things together. And so it was a very idealistic endeavor. And all the more heartbreaking when it devolved in the press into some sort of hatred.

*This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth on the ’70s, CBGB