The easy solution would have been to record a 45-minute album full of radio-friendly pop tunes. But that is not how David Byrne works. Instead, he has teamed up with Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook to create a double-disco-concept album about the former First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, with the vocals being handled by no less than twenty different singers. Don’t claim that the world of music has lost its ambitions.
The first time the world became familiar with Byrne and Cook’s ambitious project, which bears the title Here Lies Love, was at a theatrical performance, which took place in March of 2006 in the Australian city of Adelaide. Only three different singers were part of this performance, which means that the world is being introduced to a quite different version of this grand work.
The story of Imelda Marcos is quite complex, which is why Byrne meticulously explains the individual songs in the material that accompanies the album. He has chosen to focus on the relationship Imelda had with one of her servants, Estrella Cumpas, who appears at several significant points in her life. The following is merely a basic introduction to Imelda’s story, allowing everyone to make sense of the exchange with Byrne that follows.
In 1929, Imelda was born into a relatively poor, Roman-Catholic family, but her surroundings revealed very clearly exactly how fortunate one could become in this world. In her youth she focused a lot on singing and also became a beauty queen, and in 1953 she met her future husband, Ferdinand Marcos, who at this time was a member of the Philippine congress.
After they got married, Ferdinand demanded that Imelda took on the role of supporting him politically, which led to a nervous breakdown. After a trip to New York, however, she returned completely transformed and ready to support her husband. She lived an extravagant life, which she defended in part by claiming that she served as an inspiration to the poor.
In 1972, the Marcoses declared martial law and thereby ensured that they could hold on to the presidency indefinitely. The period that followed was characterized by intense corruption, embezzlement, imprisoning of political enemies and censorship of the press, all the while Imelda became a real estate magnate, establishing several culture and medical centers on the Philippines, while also purchasing several buildings on Manhattan. Additionally, she also acquired over 3,000 pairs of shoes – the most well-known story about Imelda, which Byrne has intentionally left out of his version of the story.
In 1986, the couple was driven into exile in connection with large political riots, and no less than 9,0001 lawsuits were filed against them. Ferdinand died three years later, and in 1991 Imelda could return to her home country, where she resumed her political career, which she is still engaged in today.
An attempt to understand Mr. and Mrs. Marcos
This exchange took place in London, where Byrne, with a mix of high enthusiasm and plentiful roars of laughter, discussed all kinds of questions regarding the story behind the Here Lies Love, working on the album and his view of the Marcoses.
Do you remember when you heard about Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos for the very first time?
– I barely remember. There might have been a vague memory of them from when they were young and glamorous. The US press and Life Magazine had photo spreads about “the handsome Marcoses”, and their family was a bit like the Kennedys. And then I remember later on, when I was in college – when you were hearing about all the riots and explosions and Marshall law and all this stuff. It wasn’t exactly clear, but it just made it sound like everything was a complete mess. Then, as I got older, I could follow the fall of the Marcoses, and I remember that part very well.
You've said that the aspect of the Imelda Marcos story you were most interested in was what drives a powerful person – “what makes them tick”. Now that you've been absorbed in the story for years, have you come up with an answer for that question?
– A little bit, a little bit. I think quite a lot of it is psychological stuff that happens in our childhood and adolescence. It’s a cliché, and we’ve seen it in a million movies, but there’s a certain truth to it. The demons that we bring with us are what drives us to do stuff later on. In the case of the Marcoses, Marshall law was declared, the press was censored, and they could lock up their enemies. And it’s almost as if there were no rules. They had absolute power. And it seems like when anyone is given absolute power, they inevitably misuse it. That’s not a psychological fault of hers. It’s just human nature – that if you tell people they can do almost anything, and they have life-and-death power over people, bad things will happen.
To what extent are you sympathetic towards the Marcoses?
– (thinks for a long time) I’m trying to understand how all this happens – without endorsing them. It’s a little bit of a fine line to empathize with someone and to try and see how they got to be what they are and made the decisions they did. It can sound like I’m endorsing her, or sympathizing. But I hope not. I hope I’m just letting us hear her side of things – what she was thinking and what drove her.
Reading up on the story of Imelda Marcos, one thing that struck me was how her beauty and singing capabilities seemed to repeatedly sway people around her. Good looks and good vocal cords aren't proper skills according to the workman's ethic – yet in her case they seemed to make all the difference. Would you agree with that?
– Yes, especially when she was younger. She was pretty amazing looking and very charming and outgoing. Her singing voice may be… an acquired taste. I’ve heard some recordings of her, and it’s unfair to say, but she probably wouldn’t have been one of my first choices for this album! (laughs)
“There must have been some kind of pills involved”
As a child, Imelda was relatively poor, but her immediate surroundings revealed the wealth of others. Is that an aspect you can relate to? Perhaps not directly, but the feeling of being an on-looker to lives you wish were your own.
– Oh yeah. I can definitely identify with feeling like an outsider. Not on financial or class terms – I don’t think I cared much about that. But I can identify with the feeling of not quite fitting in – “is there something wrong with me, and how can I prove myself?”. In her case, it wasn’t just about her. There’s a class system in the Philippines, which can be incredibly strong. There are powerful and influential families, and there’s also a racial hierarchy. You have to have lighter skin. It’s better. So there’s a lot of sales of skin-lightening creams.
The line that stuck out for me in “Walk Like A Woman” was “if you loved me on the day we met, then why must I be someone else?”. What is your take on the transformation she undergoes after her nervous breakdown?
– To me, it seems incredibly fast. She had this breakdown, and she went to New York Presbyterian and was seen by a doctor. It might have been a month or so – and then she was back. And there were no problems after that. For an incredibly big psychological transformation, it’s so fast. There must have been some kind of pills involved here. This couldn’t have been just psychotherapy.
You've said that going to therapy – from your personal experience – was like having a lobotomy, because “you get all your edges shaved off”.
– (big laugh) Well, you could look at hers in the same way, I guess! She used to have some pretty wild edges sticking out. But she did then throw herself headfirst and full-on into being a political wife, campaigning for her husband, being what he wanted her to be. A charming hostess, dressing the part that she was supposed to dress. She seemed to have no problems with it after that. Which to me is shocking.
“Dancing Together” deals with Imelda's expensive habits and her “need to be beautiful for the people”. She has said that it was her “duty” to be “some kind of light” and provide “guidelines” to the poor. Do you think there is such a mechanism – that poor or ordinary people look to the rich and famous for inspiration – or is it just an excuse for one's own extravagant life?
– I think both. People use it as an excuse to justify their extravagant life, as she did. I’ve noticed it in the United States. Why did all these poor people vote for Bush? He’s gonna give the tax cuts to the rich. Not to the poor. The poor are gonna get poorer, or they are gonna stay poor. They are not gonna get rich under his policies. But I think they voted for him, because, in a certain way, they identified with him. “I wanna be like him, and if I vote for him, somehow that’s me endorsing my wish and desire to be like that.” It’s a kind of psychological vote, as opposed to a pragmatic or realistic vote.
A mixed but still cohesive solution
What is the main difference between Norman Cook and other people you have worked with over the years?
– Norman definitely brings his own taste in loops and samples and drum sounds and all that stuff. Even though he has a really wide range of interests, almost all of the latin cha-cha-cha-type songs came from Norman’s stuff. That was something he had in his archive, so we worked on that.
I read in a journal entry of yours that he is more groove-based, while you are more based on harmonies and basically used more chords.
– Yeah, over the years I’ve learned a few more chords! (laughs) I don’t know if it was always appropriate, but sometimes I would go, “oh, this would be more interesting if I’d add some more chords and take the melody over here”. That’s much harder to do on a groove-based thing where there’s maybe only one or two chords and it just kind of grooves along. But each one has their advantages.
Did you consciously mix them up?– Yeah, on the title song. There was a Norm groove which happened to have a bass line in it, but I kind of ignored the fact that the bass line never changed, and I changed all these chords and everything, which meant that the bass line had to be fixed at some point. But it gave the song this momentum. It became kind of trance-like and relentless, and that’s the dance experience. And that was nice to bring out.
Much more than other albums with different singers on each song, this album feels very much like a whole – to the extent where you often don't notice that it's a new person singing.
– Wow. Maybe there’s enough similarity in the songwriting for it to carry through. I thought about that aspect then I started all these singers to sing. I think I started out with four different vocals, just as a test. To hear if it would sound completely all-over-the-place – like the songs didn’t relate to one another. It would be a problem if people immediately started thinking, “well, whose point of view is this? We’re completely lost among all these different voices that are coming at us!”. That didn’t seem to happen. I’d play it for friends and the folks at the label, and I asked them if they thought it would work, or if it would be completely confusing. The album requires enough explanation as it is!
Did any of the singers surprise you? By being exceptionally good, or simply by being different from what you expected?
– Um, well, okay… (big laugh) There’s one person, who’s not on there, who came in and sang in a very, very affected voice. It was completely unlike anything I’d ever heard her do on her own records. She didn’t even make it until the end of the first take. I just said, “this is not gonna work, this is not gonna work”. Other than that, the surprises were really pleasant. Some singers did some things I wouldn’t have thought of to do. Not just vocally. For instance, Cyndi Lauper was very analytical – “what’s she feeling in this verse? Is she feeling a little anger here, or excitement? How does is progress? Is it more intense, or is she a little wistful?” – really breaking it down, the way an actress would break down lines in a script. Trying to figure out how to approach each one, and then just go for it.
Trusts that people will understand the album
I listened to the album both before and after I dug into the history behind it, and although it was good at the first listen, it became a completely different experience as soon as I was “in” on the story. Are you in any way worried about people’s attention span in terms of grasping an album like this? Conceptually, it's quite a bit more complex than most albums.
– (laughs) I know! And it’s 22 songs, which you can’t really listen to – unless you’re going for a long car ride or something!
Or you could play it at a party.
– Yeah, that’d be perfect!
But aren’t you worried that people won’t get it? That they’ll simply write it off has “David Byrne has gone disco”?
– (laughs and pauses for a while) No. I mean, I might be wrong, but I’m not worried about that. Because the singers did great, and I think the songs are really catchy, and that will deal with that issue. I think the issue will be more political. I think it will be about, “why didn’t you write about the embezzling and the human rights abuses?” and things like that.
Do you feel songwriters and musicians in general make their art too much according to the various formulas? Because obviously this is a formula-twisting album.
– Well, yeah, some do. Sometimes you’ll hear the new record somebody who’s a great writer or a great singer, and you’ll hear their record, and it just sounds like they just stuck with the formula didn’t stretch themselves anywhere – or maybe they were talked into it. But there is also a lot happening musically, and there’s a lot of stuff I’ve been hearing lately that is really inspiring for me. It’s innovative, and it comes from a different place, and I think that’s exciting.
Having Steve Earle sing the part of Ferdinand Marcos in “A Perfect Hand” creates a very interesting atmosphere (big laughter from Byrne). What were your thoughts on choosing Earle for that song?
– Given his voice, I thought that he could pull off the kind of swagger that was necessary. And knowing him and his politics, he’d find this an amusing project as well – and he’d understand where I was going with it. Him singing from the point of view of Ferdinand Marcos doesn’t mean that he was exactly endorsing him!
Imelda wanted “Here Lies Love” inscribed on her grave. What would you like your tombstone to say?
– All I can think of are those funny tombstones. There’s one that had the guy’s name, and then it said, “I told you I was sick!” (laughs)
I have one for you: ”No longer tense and nervous – finally I can relax”.
– (big laugh (fortunately)) That’s a good one!