citybeat (2007-40)

Wellâ"How Did I Get Here?

City Beat

David Byrne finds a nice salad at Trio on Market Square

David Byrne, the famously eccentric musician and composer, spent an evening in Knoxville week before last. Itâ’s not surprising that his description of downtown on his blog, widely disseminated on local discussion forums, has caused some consternation.

Once best known as lead singer/songwriter for the Talking Heads, Byrne has since scored ballets, operas, and movies. Most recently, heâ’s been at work with Fatboy Slim on a â“disco operaâ” based on the life of Imelda Marcos, which debuted at Carnegie Hall earlier this year. At 55, Byrne still has a dependably offbeat take on things, and maintains an appalled fascination with suburban America. He is, to a generation of post-hippie bohemians, a defining icon. A popular local tribute band, Same As It Ever Was, plays only Talking Heads songs.

Last month, he and his teenage daughter Malu were driving from the DC area to Los Angeles, mostly via I-40. His travel essay, â“On the Road,â” described East Tennessee in more detail than any other part of the trip. At Dollywood he contemplated the Dolly feminist-vamp paradox and took in a bird show. That evening, from the sound of it, they arrived via Chapman Highway (â“past surplus stores and honky tonksâ”). Approaching Knoxville, he free-associates:

â“The early Goth country classic â‘Knoxville Girlâ’ comes to mind, the song where the singer murders a young girl out in the woods by beating her with a stick and then drags her round and round by the hair as her blood soaks the ground around his feet.... The song prefigures Cormack [sic] McCarthyâ’s Child of God, and Flannery Oâ’Connerâ’s stories of minds bent by Jesus or by introspection and isolation.â” Byrne doesnâ’t mention it, but Child of God, McCarthyâ’s famous novel about a necrophiliac, is also set hereabouts.

â“At the Holiday Inn in Knoxville, I saw a sign for the historic town center. Thinking it might contain some character and restaurants, we head there in search of dinner,â” continues the intrepid Byrne, without referencing the fact that he had been to downtown Knoxville at least once before, a Bijou show in 1997. â“Thereâ’s no one on the streetsâ"not metaphorically, but literally not a single soul is out and itâ’s not even 8:00.â”

As weâ’ve noted in these pages since a team of city-hired consultants pointed it out to us in 1999, the three-block stretch of Clinch Avenue into downtown from the Worldâ’s Fair Park, including the Holiday Inn, is a bleak entry to downtown, past parking garages, a permit-only parking lot, and businesses with little street-front appeal. Thereâ’s no trace of restaurants, coffee houses, bars, or retail stores, and hence often few pedestrians except the occasional befuddled rock star.

â“Eventually, we reach Market Square where we see people sitting at some outdoor seats. There are [a] few restaurants, so weâ’re in luck. They serve me wine in a tiny plastic airplane bottle and we share a nice salad and some salmon. We wonder, where is everyone? Do they come to town to work, some of them, and then go home and stay in at night? Or do they go to restaurants and bars in suburban strip malls?â”

His acknowledgment of human beings on Market Square was not enough to stop his wondering where everybody is. Though some downtown boosters are frustrated that he didnâ’t come on a night when downtownâ’s life was more obvious, his assumptions about Knoxvilliansâ’â"and Americansâ’â"weeknight habits may be accurate.

A couple of places on the Square serve salmon and salad, but only one also serves wine in tiny bottles. If anyone spotted the pair, a tall, lean guy with an air of distracted alienation and a crazy shock of white hair, and his fairly gorgeous daughter, dining at Trio, we havenâ’t found them.

It was a slow Tuesday, sure enough, but some things were afoot that night. Across the Square at the Grotto, Athens-based rock band the Pendletons were performing, after local opener Random Panties. We might have suggested touring Italian-Canadian-Japanese art-rock band Blond Redhead, playing that night at the Bijou. Or New York-based Japanese comic-punk band Peelander-Z, later on at the Pilot Light.

â“On the way back to the hotel I grab a free copy of a local hip tabloid-sized mag called Skirt, and I suggest to Malu that this might give us a clue what people do around here.â”

OK, David Byrne comes to town, and he walks past Metro Pulse, Knoxville Voice, EvaMag, and the Shopper Newsâ"and he picks up Skirt, a chain womenâ’s magazine based in South Carolina and published in conjunction with the News-Sentinel (and edited by Janet Testerman). But David Byrne seems to like it. Most of what he says about Knoxville is what he says about :

â“Inside the well-designed and hip-looking magazine there are numerous editorial exhortations directed towards their women readershipâ"The Goddess Manifesto, Light Up The Universe, Be the One Who Makes the Rules, Miss Congeniality or Ms. President?

â“But interspersed with this are ads for plastic surgeons; Laser Vaginal Rejuvenation (get those feelings back again!)...and my favorite, an ad for a Brookhaven Retreat, a countryside rehab clinic that looks like an exquisite spa hotel (â‘no judgment, no shame â" for women with emotional or drug addiction challengesâ’).

â“Wow, so THATâ’S what everyone is up to! How does one reconcile the empowerment rhetoric with the insecurity implied by the plastic surgery.... Do I believe what I hear (the self-boosting) or what I see (degradation and insecurity)?â”

Byrne once mentioned Memphis (â“home of Elvis and the ancient Greeksâ”) in a song; if he mentions Knoxville, it may be as a place to find provocative womenâ’s magazines, and nice salads. â" Jack Neely

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