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Original Thoughts on Sin

Pop's arty David Byrne slips slyly into the role of moral philosopher.

August 07, 2001|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Was there a theologian in the house? No? OK then, how about a middle-aged art-rock star? And, for good measure, two bestselling novelists, an FBI agent and an aerospace engineer as well.

It was the kind of vaguely surreal lineup one might expect to find in a Luis Bunuel film, or at a David Byrne event. Especially one celebrating the publication of a slim but alluring volume, cryptically titled "The New Sins" (Los Nuevos Pecados) (McSweeney's Books) by the former Talking Heads front man.

On this occasion, there was no sheen of post-punk guitar to assist Byrne, no Big White Suit or painfully self-conscious, head-slapping irony. But as it happened, this tongue-in-cheek Happening had a Dadaist trick or two up its sleeve, not to mention a butt-kicking Afro-Cuban house band and, sprinkled throughout the audience, a celebrity guest here and there. Who else would you expect to find at a pseudo-symposium on morality, art and religion than Mr. Satanic Verses himself, Salman Rushdie?

Possibly the devil made Rushdie do it, or his bicoastal companion, Indian actress and model Padma Lakshmi, who was there with him. Or maybe it was just that, as Rushdie confided after the show, he's always found Byrne's globe-hopping, genre-bending antics "interesting."

That's understandable. In his 49 years on the planet, Byrne has pursued many concentric passions, including pop music, photography, performance art, curating exhibitions and scavenging compulsively danceable sounds from the Amazon to the Balinese rain forest, which he markets under his Luaka Bop record label. It's been an especially eventful year for Byrne, who last fall designed and bankrolled posters of Bush and Gore accompanied by the word "HUH?" and whose first solo album since 1997, "Look Into the Eyeball," came out in May to generally positive reviews.

Opaquely billed as "A Show," Byrne's engagement was the latest in a series of one-night culture fests at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica, mixed bags of music, art, readings and highbrow chitchat. To the curious, sold-out crowd of 250-plus that turned up Sunday night, it might've seemed that Byrne had added yet another layer to his contrapuntal personality: religious philosopher.

Double-printed in both English and Spanish, and illustrated with photos by the author, "The New Sins" appears to be an earnest, if mildly sardonic, treatise on the failings of contemporary moral behavior. Commissioned as part of a recent art biennial exhibition in Valencia, Spain, centered on the theme of "The Passions," copies of the book were originally to have been placed in Valencia hotel rooms, like Gideon Bibles. The book has a slippery tone that suggests it could be intended either as a parody of blandly ominous Wall Street-and Madison Avenue-speak; a sendup of recent neo-conservative manuals like "The Book of Virtues," by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett; or a rebuff to dour, contemporary art world group-think.

In his introduction, Byrne writes that the new sins were "accepted by an older generation as virtues," but their insidious nature is revealed in that "they pretend to be good for you--nice, sweet and cuddly. One would do well to be suspicious of all things sweet and cuddly." Byrne then goes on to list and expound on these two-faced character flaws, which he identifies as "charity," "sense of humor," "beauty," "thrift," "ambition," "hope," "intelligence/knowledge," "contentment," "sweetness," "honesty" and "cleanliness." Small enough to "fit a purse or jacket," the 190-page primer resembles a medieval prayer book and comes with its own advance critics' blurbs. "A source of faith for the feeble, doubt for the staunch, and determination for the timid," reads one.

Never one to tip his hand too early, if he tips it at all, Byrne emerged from backstage at the gallery around 7:35 p.m., while the fashionably tardy L.A. crowd was still searching for its seats. Wearing an untucked white striped shirt, dark pants and two-tone shoes, his spiky gray hair plastered down at odd angles, as if he'd been peering too closely at a jet engine, Byrne flashed a darkly agitated gaze at the stragglers. Then he tested the microphone at a podium set up on a makeshift stage, alongside a table set with three more microphones and three bottled waters, and announced the show would begin in a few more minutes.

He also asked audience members to use the marking pens and pieces of paper distributed at the door to make a sketch of a "generic human being." The reason, he explained, was that he'd tried to create a universal human symbol as a logo for his company, Todomundo, but past attempts had looked "too slick." "Please, no cheating," he instructed the tittering crowd. "Do not look at your neighbor, don't look at the person behind you, don't go on the Internet."

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