Did Talking Head’s Founder David Byrne Fabricate a Connection with the Berrigan Brothers?

tags: David Byrne, Berrigan Brothers

Shawn F. Peters has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and currently teaches in the Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS) Program there.

David Byrne Image by Fred von Lohmann 

Do you remember anyone here? No, you don't remember anything at all. — Talking Heads, “Memories Can’t Wait” (1979)

In recent weeks, dozens of admirers have offered reflections on the life of Daniel Berrigan, the radical Catholic priest and social justice activist who died on April 30 at the age of 94. (I did this myself for The Progressive on May 6.)  Among those praising Berrigan’s life and legacy were the actor Martin Sheen and David Byrne, the musician best known as the leader of the seminal post-punk band Talking Heads.

Byrne was so moved by Berrigan’s passing that he penned an article for The Guardian entitled, “The Activist Who Saved My Life, and Other Contrarians.”  In it, Byrne recounted his very personal connection to Berrigan’s activism. The musician had spent his formative years in Lansdowne and Arbutus, small towns located near Catonsville, Maryland, the site of Berrigan’s signature protest: the seizure and burning of more than 300 draft records on May 17, 1968. Byrne wrote in The Guardian that the actions of Berrigan and his accomplices in the Catonsville Nine had in effect saved his life because one of the draft records destroyed that day had been his own.

“My records were among those burned. Were it not for Father Berrigan, the odds were very good my life would have taken a different path,” Byrne wrote. “The actions of those soon dubbed the Catonsville Nine gave me a reprieve until the draft lottery was instituted a number of years later, and my number was sufficiently high that I knew they would never get that far.”

I read Byrne’s article with great interest. First, I am a huge fan of his work with Talking Heads, an important band that enormously influenced American music in the 1970s and 1980s. His lesser-known work is compelling as well. I teach a course entitled “Remix and Appropriation in the Western Tradition” in the Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS) Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in it we spend a fair amount of time listening to and discussing My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Byrne’s brilliantly eccentric 1981 sound collage collaboration with Brian Eno.

Second, I am a native of Catonsville, Maryland, and wrote a book about the Catonsville Nine. Oxford University Press published the book a couple of years ago, but I still maintain an intense interest in the topic. My eyes grow wide whenever I read something new about the protest and its significance.

And so Byrne’s story for The Guardian took me by surprise. I had spent many years following the musician’s career and collecting stories about the Catonsville Nine, but I’d never heard anything about a possible connection between the two. I immediately felt slightly embarrassed at having somehow failed to include such a potentially juicy tidbit on my book on Dan Berrigan and his confederates.  I was supposed to know everything about the Catonsville Nine, but I apparently didn’t know that they had changed the life of the guy who sang “Psycho Killer” and “Burning Down the House.”

However, I also was slightly wary. In my many years of researching the story of the Catonsville Nine, I had heard dozens of people claim to have witnessed the protest first-hand or, as Byrne had done, assert that their draft file had been among those destroyed on that May afternoon. If all of these recollections were accurate, the Catonsville Nine would have incinerated a small mountain of draft records in front a massive throng of people -- and that simply hadn’t been the case.  (One is reminded of the millions of people who claim to have attended Woodstock, the famous 1969 music festival that drew a few hundred thousand spectators.)

So Byrne’s account of the destruction of his draft record in Catonsville was, in a strange way, both fresh and disturbingly familiar. I’d heard it many times before, but never from him.

Both intrigued and also suspicious, I did what historians do: I started digging. I didn’t care about the information that would concern most fans – Byrne’s musical influences, the formation of Talking Heads, their successes and break up, his variegated solo work -- but rather the details of his upbringing. I wound up uncovering some unexpected congruities to my own life.  I also discovered strong evidence indicating that he had offered an erroneous account in The Guardian of his connection to the Catonsville Nine.

Byrne was born in Dumbarton, Scotland, in the early 1950s. His father, an electrical engineer who had served in the Royal Navy in World War II, first moved the family to Canada and then to Maryland, where he worked for Westinghouse at its Lansdowne facility. While Thomas Byrne held this position, the family lived in Lansdowne and neighboring Arbutus, hardscrabble communities located just to the southwest of downtown Baltimore. David Byrne wound up attending and graduating from Lansdowne High School before heading off to art school and fame as a musician.

My family’s story has some strikingly close parallels to Byrne’s. My father, the son of a steelworker, grew up in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio before finding a job with Westinghouse in the 1950s. Gene Peters then moved south to the Baltimore area in order to work in Westinghouse’s plant in Lansdowne. Thanks to the GI Bill, he bounced around various night schools for many years before eventually earning an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins in the mid-1960s.

My dad passed away a few years ago, so I have no way of knowing if he knew or worked with David Byrne’s father, but it seems likely that -- as electrical engineers working in the same facility at the same time -- they were at least acquainted with one another in some way.

As I looked into Byrne’s life after his father moved the family to the Baltimore area, I found some fleeting references to his draft status during the Vietnam era. David Bowman’s 2001 book on Talking Heads, This Must Be The Place, discusses Byrne’s eligibility for the draft but merely explains that he “didn’t go to Vietnam” and instead headed to the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

For me, this account was striking for what it didn’t mention. There was no reference to Byrne’s draft records being burned by the Catonsville Nine, no discussion of the reprieve from military service he had gotten as a result. That seemed like the kind of tidbit that most biographers would seize upon -- especially when discussing an artist who famously recorded a song called “Life During Wartime.”

However, none of this directly undermined Byrne’s claim that Daniel Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine had destroyed his draft record. He might have failed to mention the matter to David Bowman, or the author simply might have chosen not to include the anecdote in the book.

But Byrne’s story about the Catonsville Nine eventually did fall apart.  All it took was some simple math.


David Byrne’s date of birth is listed in numerous published accounts as May 14, 1952.  This would have made him sixteen years old -- and just barely that -- when the Catonsville Nine struck the nearby draft board on May 17, 1968. Generally speaking, young men in the Vietnam era were required to register for the draft within 30 days of their eighteenth birthdays.  But Byrne’s eighteenth birthday did not come around until May of 1970 -- almost two years after the Catonsville protest.

David Byrne was simply too young to have been saved by Daniel Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine in May of 1968, as he claimed. He didn’t yet have a draft record.

I reached out to The Guardian to see if it had any response to my suspicions about the potential inaccuracies Byrne’s story. To his credit, opinions editor David Shariatmadari responded quickly and candidly. He told me that he had contacted Byrne’s representatives and learned that the musician was “mortified that a story he has long accepted as part of his autobiographical memory may in fact not be accurate.” A correction or clarification would be forthcoming, Shariatmadari told me. (I also heard something similar from Byrne’s management team.)

As promised, Byrne quickly added a mea culpa to his story.  “I’m somewhat ashamed and embarrassed,” he wrote in a correction for The Guardian. “It has been pointed out to me that contrary to my memory and the story [I published], I could not have been called up for the draft when Daniel Berrigan burned the local draft board records; I was two years too young.”

Byrne went on to explain that he was currently “working on a neuroscience project that includes evidence of how faulty and malleable our memories are.” He had learned from experts such as Elizabeth Loftus, an authority on false memories, at “the more we recall something, the more we ‘reconstruct’ a memory, and the more inaccurate it tends to be, even as it becomes more deeply embedded.”

Ironically, Byrne himself had fallen victim to this phenomenon. “I guess I’m not an exception,” he wrote. “I erroneously actually believed being saved from Vietnam by Berrigan and his colleagues.”

I admired Byrne for his forthrightness in so quickly and so publicly admitting his mistake. We probably have to take it at face value when he says it was simply a matter of a false memory and not an intentional misrepresentation or stretch of the truth.

However, as an historian, I found myself feeling – somewhat guiltily, given how quickly and publicly he had confessed his error – unsatisfied by Byrne’s explanation. For one thing, we live in an age where public figures do in fact knowingly fib about or inflate their experiences in order to enhance their stature. Journalists concoct stories about having reported from war zones; men lie about their military service; college coaches claim to possess degrees that they never earned. Even comedians get into the act: one falsely claimed to have narrowly escaped with his life from the World Trade Center on 9/11.  David Byrne certainly would not have been the first celebrity to knowingly tell a tall tale about this past.

And then there was Byrne’s explanation. He seemed to be saying that his confusion over his connection to the Catonsville Nine was just a garden-variety example of how everyone’s memories get tangled up over time – neuroscience gone wrong, if you will. We all rely on imperfect and ever-shifting recollections in order to create coherent narratives and thereby make meaning of past events. And yet those foundations can be extremely shaky. In this case, Byrne’s brain, like everyone’s, simply had failed him.

I was curious to know why this particular memory – one that tied Byrne to one of the most famous antiwar demonstrations in American history – had become so distorted. Why had he mistakenly linked himself to this especially dramatic and compelling story, and not another, more prosaic one?  

In his original piece for The Guardian, Byrne mentioned his late mother, who had been an indomitable peace activist in her later years. In a remembrance written on the occasion of her death in 2014, Byrne and his sister noted Emma Byrne’s “work in the community for peace and social justice. Her activism never ceased – she was one strong-willed, protesting granny.” Such was her commitment to these activities that she once had been assaulted at a demonstration protesting the run-up to the war Iraq.  At the time, she was carrying a sign proclaiming, “War is not the Answer.”

Given Emma Byrne’s passionate commitment to peace and social justice, one can imagine the pull that the Catonsville Nine story must have had on her son. And, likewise, it’s easy to understand why he did not mention his father’s work for Westinghouse in his encomium for Daniel Berrigan. For me, this turned out to be the most interesting part of the story -- not the falsehood that was published in The Guardian, but the complicated and perhaps uncomfortable truth that was left out.

Most of us now think of Westinghouse as a producer of innocuous home appliances, but in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s it was a vital cog in the American military-industrial complex. Throughout the Cold War, it employed a small army of engineers and technicians to supply sophisticated electronics to the Pentagon.  Westinghouse was deeply involved in the weapons business.

As a 1991 article in The Baltimore Sun noted, “In the past 50 years, Westinghouse has grown into Maryland's largest manufacturing employer with more than 15,000 workers. And while the products have changed, the customer has remained essentially the same: the Department of Defense.” In 1968, the year that Daniel Berrigan and his friends struck against militarism in Catonsville, Westinghouse’s aerospace and defense equipment sales totaled a staggering $561 million (almost $4 billion in today’s dollars).

My brother Mike memorably told me that the men employed in Westinghouse’s defense work  -- including Byrne’s father and our own -- worked for a company “that made guidance systems and radars for torpedoes, missiles and jet fighters and bombers and other weapons of unjust war, oppression and death (not to put too fine a point on it).”  Among the pieces of military hardware developed by Westinghouse engineers in the Baltimore area was the AWACS command and control aircraft, which my brother described as “the granddaddy of worldwide electronic surveillance hardware.”

AWACS epitomized Westinghouse’s global reach. The Pentagon bought the aircraft (a Boeing 707 outfitted with state-of-the-art electronic surveillance equipment) by the dozen and then resold many of them to American client states, including the infamously repressive regime of the Shah of Iran. The Carter administration, after a contentious debate in Congress, sold seven AWACS planes to the Shah in 1977. (They evidently did the Shah little good: just two years later, Islamic revolutionaries overthrew him.)

As the lynchpin of the corporation’s underseas defense unit, the Westinghouse plant in Lansdowne was front and center in these defense efforts. The Sun, in a 1970 headline, referred to it bluntly as an “arms plant.” In his years there with Westinghouse, my father worked on myriad pieces of military hardware. (He eventually focused his efforts above the water line and chipped in on AWACS and various aerospace projects, too) In 1963, for instance, he and a colleague earned a patent for improvements in electrical contactors in torpedoes. This kind of work -- aimed at making more effective weapons that could be marketed around the world -- was his professional bread and butter for many years.

And he was proud of it. My father would bring home torpedo-shaped tie clips and stickers cartoonishly depicting various armaments destroying America’s Cold War foes. The stickers were so gruesomely comical that my brother and I avidly collected them. One showed an animated F-4 aircraft with a Russian jet clenched in its jaws. The lifeless Russian plane was dripping oil, as if it was bleeding to death.

David Byrne hasn’t said or written much publicly about the specifics of his father’s work for Westinghouse, and it’s certainly possible that he never knew or cared much about it. There are, however, some hints in the public record suggesting that Tom Byrne was engaged in the same kind of defense work that occupied my father.

For instance, in the fall of 1986, when his film True Stories was released, David Byrne landed on the cover of Time magazine. Its lengthy profile said of his father, “Tom Byrne seemed to . . . be just the kind of mildly eccentric technowhiz who really could, as family legend insists, have once fixed a submarine with a coat hanger.” It’s hard to believe that the elder Byrne, a veteran of World War II, gained such a mythical reputation for fixing submarines by doing anything other than defense work.

I also should note that my father’s defense work did not necessarily shape his overall political and social outlook. His loyalties cemented by direct impact of the New Deal on his family (his father found work for the WPA during the Depression), he was a life-long Democrat. He famously forced us to watch the Watergate hearings during a rainy vacation in 1973, and he thought the saber-rattling Ronald Reagan was a buffoon. (Ditto for George H.W. Bush and his son.) I never got the impression that he was a “hawk” on defense.

Tom Byrne was, if anything, even more politically liberal than my father.  After he and his wife Emma moved to Columbia, Maryland, in 1970 -- around the time that David left home and the Westinghouse facility in Lansdowne was closed down -- they began attending the Sandy Spring Friends Meeting. They were drawn in part by the Quakers’ long and commendable history of pacifism and peace-making. I suppose that he, like my like my father, compartmentalized, distinguishing his work for Westinghouse from his broader view of the world and America’s role in it.

Of course, from the relative safety of the ivory tower, it is easy for me to lament the explosive growth of the American military-industrial complex since World War II, and I’ve done so many times. But the uncomfortable truth is that this expansion made it possible for my family to gain a foothold in the middle class in the 1960s and 1970s. My father -- a man who was born a month after the stock market crash in 1929 and then grew up poor in the Great Depression – probably could not have supported our family so comfortably if Westinghouse hadn’t been so deeply involved in defense contracting. Those AWACS planes that were sold to the Shah?  I hate to admit it, but the proceeds helped to pay for my college education.

Which brings us back to David Byrne, another child of the Cold War military-industrial complex. Whatever his links (real or imagined) to the peace-making activities of the Catonsville Nine, he probably also has -- if his father’s work at Westinghouse was anything like my dad’s -- an enduring connection to the devastating and global war-making activities of the American military.

In academic and artistic circles, there is little glory in admitting this dimension one’s autobiography. It’s far better to claim a link to radical crusaders for peace and social justice like the Catonsville Nine, as both David Byrne and I have done. In my book on the Nine, I made a point of mentioning that I was from Catonsville and had attended a Catholic school located just around the corner from the site of their protest. None of this necessarily made me an authority on the event (which occurred when I was a toddler), but I thought that it established a kind of closeness to who they were and what they stood for. 
But am I really like Daniel Berrigan, an iconoclastic Jesuit priest who wrote poetry, selflessly tended to AIDS patients, and spent time in prison for protesting war and inhumanity? Not so much, really. I’m far more like my father, whose life profoundly shaped my own. The same probably could be said of David Byrne.

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