Given his druthers, Jerry Harrison would have spent the year as a Talking Head.
Instead, he is whiling away summer evenings on stage with a band that could be dubbed "not quite the Talking Heads."
"I was hoping (Talking Heads) would do either an album, a tour, or both, but my ideas did not prevail," said Harrison, the keyboards player and guitarist who has always been the Head with the lowest public profile.
With singer David Byrne off delving into Brazilian music, Talking Heads has been on one of its frequent, long-lasting hiatuses. And Harrison, who spoke over the phone recently while he lounged by a hotel swimming pool in Houston, said that there are "no plans now" for any work by his primary band.
So Harrison, 41, and two of the three other Talking Heads--the husband-and-wife team of drummer Chris Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth--looked to other options. Harrison took care of his recording urge with the recent release of "Walk on Water," his second album with the loosely knit ensemble he calls the Casual Gods.
As for performing live--something Talking Heads hasn't done as a unit since the 1983 tour documented in the film "Stop Making Sense"--Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz have signed on with the "Escape From New York" tour, an extravaganza of mid-'70s new-wave veterans that also includes the Ramones and Deborah Harry. The tour comes to Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Friday night.
The three Heads, supported by five other players, divide their hourlong segment between material from Frantz and Weymouth's dance-rock band, the Tom Tom Club and songs from Harrison's Casual Gods albums, tossing in the occasional Talking Heads nugget.
"It's more like a mini-festival than a normal package tour," Harrison said. "Everyone basically gets the same length set and the same access to the lights and sound system. So often, the headliner (on a multi-act bill) wants to be the grandest of all." But the New York escapees get around that ego problem by taking turns in the opening, middle and headlining slots.
The tour is founded on a business link--all three acts record for Sire Records and share the same manager--and a historical connection. The Ramones, Talking Heads and Harry's old band, Blondie, all came out of the New York underground/new-wave rock scene that rose in the mid-1970s around CBGB, a dark, narrow club located on the Bowery, lower Manhattan's flophouse and panhandler district.
While the Ramones, Blondie and the initial three-member Talking Heads lineup were paying their dues on the CBGB scene, Harrison was living in Boston, where he divided his time between studies at Harvard University, working for a computer company, and backing Elliott Murphy, one of the many '70s folk-rockers who became saddled with the "new Dylan" tag.
Harrison already had made his mark in the rock underground playing organ in Modern Lovers, the Boston band that, along with the Patti Smith Group, helped keep alive through the early '70s the darkly intense, off-center brand of rock that the Velvet Underground had spawned in the 1960s.
Harrison recalled that he got his first glimpse of the CBGB scene before the Ramones, Blondie or Talking Heads had become house bands there. The occasion was an early rehearsal by Television, one of the first and best acts associated with CBGB. Harrison went to lend moral support to his friend and fellow Modern Lovers alumnus Ernie Brooks, who was auditioning for the bassist's slot in Television.
Brooks didn't get the job, Harrison recalled with a chuckle--in no small part because Brooks found fault with Television leader Tom Verlaine's song lyrics. Harrison's own 1976 tryout gigs with Talking Heads worked out better--in 1977, he gave up graduate studies at Harvard's school of architecture to join Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth as the fourth Head.
While Talking Heads brought him mass-audience success, Harrison is quick to point to the continuing impact of Modern Lovers on his solo albums. Brooks, his old band mate and college roommate, co-wrote much of the material on the two Casual Gods albums. And Harrison says he strove for expectation-defying twists in his songs, a device he learned from his Modern Lovers days.
"We would play these juvenile-delinquent, 'Blackboard Jungle'-type high schools, and (the teen-agers) would really react . . . because of the aggressive sound." But underneath that sonic aggression, Harrison noted, Modern Lovers songwriter Jonathan Richman would be singing words that denounced the typical live-fast, on-the-edge ethos of aggressive, teen-oriented rock 'n' roll.
"That was one of my favorite aspects of the Modern Lovers. It was always something I thought was a good thing to do when writing songs."
The Modern Lovers high-water mark was "Roadrunner," one of the best, least conventional rock 'n' roll car songs (one of its many splendors is Harrison's tremendous, tension-building organ break).
Harrison's recent albums show that he still harbors a keen interest in songs about conveyances. "Rev It Up," an alternative radio hit from the 1988 "Casual Gods" album, and "Kick Start" and "Flying Under Radar," from "Walk on Water," all clothe sexual urges in automotive or aeronautic imagery.
It's the oldest trick in the rock songwriter's book, Harrison acknowledges. "I have a little bit of a fascination with writing songs that are new versions of the ideas of people like Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry," he said. "A good deal of the history of rock 'n' roll has been songs about cars and girls, with a kind of tongue-in-cheek quality about it."
For contrast, and to lend one of those lyrical twists he enjoyed in the Modern Lovers, Harrison comes up with songs such as "Cherokee Chief," from the 1988 album. The song's protagonist is in love with his all-terrain vehicle but this is no innocent ode to piston-driven bliss. The protagonist, as it turns out, rides his Cherokee Chief on his rounds as a political hit man with one of El Salvador's death squads.
"This thing that we think of as four-wheeling fun in the United States is an agent of death down there."
With "Walk on Water," Harrison has added a third musical dimension to go with danceable songs about lust, and darker ruminations about mankind's capacity for cruelty and self-destruction. He points with special satisfaction to "Sleep Angel" and "If the Rains Return," bookend songs about the final embers and first spark of a relationship. Both show that Harrison can weave dreamy, delicate moods along with the aggressive funk that dominates most of his songs.
Harrison said blues influences he has had since his high school days in Milwaukee have served him well in developing a vocal identity well apart from Byrne's singing style.
"But lyrics are something I felt self-conscious about," he said. "The one place I deliberately try not to be like David is in the lyrics. He's very adept at using things that are close to non sequiturs--the buildup of sensibility by using things that don't have a logical pattern."
Consequently, most of Harrison's songs take a more plain-spoken lyrical approach that requires little deciphering.
Harder to decode is Talking Heads' future. The band has periodic meetings to determine whether the members have the time and inclination to work collectively, Harrison said. Most likely, he said, he will do more stage and studio work as a Casual God before another opportunity arises to function as a Talking Head.