The former Talking Heads frontman pushes his much-needed initiative “Reasons to Be Cheerful” at the New School in New York
David Byrne, former Talking Heads frontman, longtime bicycling enthusiast, and Jack of a Great Many Trades brought his Reasons to Be Cheerful initiative to the New School’s Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall on January 8, admitting early on that his growing collection of ‘Case Studies of Things That Work’ got started as a way of personally countering a seemingly unstoppable avalanche of bad news.
“It seems like maybe an odd thing to be saying these days,” Byrne said. “But that’s the way things go. When we need to have self-therapy, when we need to help ourselves, we look for reasons to be cheerful.”
Reasons to Be Cheerful – the title, if not the concept – was taken from a 1979 single by Ian Dury & the Blockheads, essentially a list of things that make life worth living, name-checking Woody Allen, who’d opened his film Manhattan earlier that year with a similarly styled, but significantly less funky monologue. “Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3” played on a loop for the 45-minutes or so the venerable hall was open to the public before the program began, and it’s a song that lends itself to repeat listens, especially if, as I do, you enjoy an almost wholly impenetrable Cockney accent riffing over disco rhythms.
Ian Dury & the Blockheads’ great song:
Music was also one of many areas Byrne touched on during his hour-long lecture, one that ended with the announcement of his forthcoming solo album, American Utopia, which sees him working with frequent collaborator Brian Eno on the sprightly lead single, “Everybody’s Coming to My House.” The album, Byrne said, was conceived during his immersion in the ongoing Reasons to Be Cheerful project, and as such will be imbued with its sense of collective optimism and connection. And you should also be able to shake your ass to it.The idea behind Reasons to Be Cheerful is not to tune the shitty stuff out, but rather to also find the good. It’s not easy, as even Byrne admits.
“I can’t make (the dread) go away,” he said in response to a question during a Q&A session after the talk. “I read the papers too. I’m not stupid. I realize that climate change and so many other things, there are so many reasons to dread. But just for my own sanity, I thought if that’s all I’m going to live with I’m going to lose my mind and I’m going to walk into the Poconos…maybe further…and live in a little cabin. Me and the Unabomber.”
The criteria for making Byrne’s ever-growing list of Reasons to Be Cheerful are simple: An idea begins somewhere locally, but it can grow and be adapted globally, regardless of culture or nationality. They can’t just be isolated human interest stories, like the philanthropy of a billionaire, and they can’t just be good ideas: They have to actually be proven a success.
“Ideas, they’re a dime-a-dozen,” Byrne said. “Even good ideas are a dime-a-dozen. But to take a good idea and execute it, and then say, ‘Look, I tested it and it works.’…That’s what this is.”
Byrne stuck his examples in several categories, including Transportation, Climate/Energy, Social, Education, Civic Engagement, Culture, Health, Science/Tech, Economics, and Art/Music. He added that many of those blend together from project-to-project, and the interconnectivity of everything is important to understand. But if you’ve seen the latest Star Wars flick, you already knew that from Luke Skywalker’s Force-spiel.
One example of Reasons to Be Cheerful, Byrne said, is Portugal’s decriminalization of drugs, which went into effect in July 2001. By removing the stigma and giving junkies open needle exchanges, he said, the numbers show that it’s working. Overdose deaths per million in the US in 2017: 147. Overdose deaths per million in the UK in 2017: 44.6. Overdose deaths in Portugal in 2017: Three.
“Drug use is not a criminal issue, it’s a health issue,” Byrne said. “If we treat it as a health issue, we decriminalize this, we are going to save lives, we’re going to lower the crime rate, we take the money away from the Mafia and the cartels. It has a huge effect. It brings in income that would have gone to cartels and other places, and it puts it in the hands of locals business and state taxes.”
As he readily admits they do in his own life, bicycles loomed large in Byrne’s lecture, with stories from Vancouver to Bogota of cycling emerging as a means not only to keep healthy, but also expand people’s horizons by moving them out of their comfort zones. And as with other transportation-themed Reasons to Be Cheerful, it involves the decluttering of city streets and the streamlining of public transportation.
The talk served as something of a travelogue of places Byrne has been, places where he has if not exactly investigated then at least seen up close Reasons to be Cheerful. But there were also noble failures – progressive candidates who were not elected but still managed to change the dialogue – and even moments of layered optimism with a dash of pessimism.
“Musicians, such as myself, and artists, theater people and writers, whatever, we would like to think…I could write a song that would make you change your mind about some issue, or make you change your mind about the way you think about…race or economics, or foreign trade,” he said, pausing before laughing at the very notion. “That doesn’t sound like a very good song…I have my doubts whether the arts actually can affect us in those kinds of specific ways. I’m a little skeptical about that. But it turns out there’s actually real proof that the arts do affect our lives in other ways…Crime goes down, education goes up. It has that kind of effect.”
During the Q&A session, a guy who grew up in a Colorado family deeply divided by politics and social issues countered the idea, citing the 2010 romantic comedy Our Family Wedding – which he himself called “pedestrian” and which has a 13% “ROTTEN” score on film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes – as changing his racist uncle’s mind on biracial marriage.
“That’s a good example,” said Byrne. “Point taken.”The Q&A was a fascinating end to the talk, as Byrne sought to distance himself as an expert and instead position himself as more of a seeker of optimism. The questions from the crowd – miraculously none along the lines of WHEN THE HELL ARE YOU GOING TO REUNITE TALKING HEADS ALREADY?!?!? – were focused on the basic tenets of Reasons to Be Cheerful, how to choose how to get involved in one’s own community, and how to combat the sense of helplessness or dread one feels when going down the rabbit hole of terrible news. Oh, and someone asked Byrne to run for mayor, which after a protracted bout of uncomfortable laughter was rejected. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be involved.
“A takeaway for me from this whole project is, well, everything is connected,” Byrne said. “Something happens in one area…If you want to lower the crime rate, maybe the best idea is not more police, or increasing the lockup rates, or whatever else. Maybe the best thing is to put a library in the neighborhood. And you realize, yeah, there’s other ways of thinking about this. And in some places it’s actually happening…There’s an abundance of reasons to be cheerful. We – I – may not think so, these days we may think you’ve got to be kidding. But there are a lot.”
As someone who’s spent the better part of a year actively avoiding social media for long stretches of time, Reasons to Be Cheerful was an undeniably uplifting experience, and proved difficult to be cynical about. Later, I bounded down the stairs of the West 4th Street subway station to catch a C train and deftly avoided stepping into a massive mound of human shit. One more reason to be cheerful.
American Utopia is due on Nonesuch Records on March 9, and Byrne will embark on a world tour in support, including an appearance at both weekends of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in April.
You can view David Byrne’s full “Reasons To Be Cheerful” lecture here: