How Jerry Harrison stumbled into Talking Heads

There have been many moments in rock ‘n’ roll history that can best be described as kismet. Jerry Harrison’s arrival as guitarist and keyboardist for Talking Heads is one of them.

He had been part of the Modern Lovers, a Boston rock band founded and led by Jonathan Richman that broke up in February 1974 after only four years together. Harrison joined in 1971 after being introduced to Richman by manager and publicist Danny Fields. When they broke up, he was back to square one.

So Harrison did what most rock musicians do does not do: He went back to school, at Harvard, no less. Harrison had already graduated from the Ivy League institution Magna Cum Laude in visual and environmental studies in 1972 – a year after he had joined the Modern Lovers. His bachelor’s thesis had centered on painting, sculpture and drawing, and now he had effectively decided that since music had not caught on, he needed to find a good fallback plan.

The intention was to pursue a master’s in architecture, but that plan was put on hold for a year when Harrison collaborated with Elliot Murphy on his 1976 album, Night light. Eventually, Harrison started teaching and began working as a teaching assistant at Harvard as well as a software developer. He was pretty sure his fate was sealed.

“I really love architecture and I love painting and I love all those things,” Harrison told UCR in an exclusive interview. “It’s a fascinating dilemma for me. Like, what would my life have been like if I had gone down that path? I don’t know. I mean, that would have been interesting in itself. I felt very confident about that. “

Harrison, of course, didn’t go that route. Instead, what followed was a prime example of how closely connected the burgeoning proto-punk/new wave music scene was at the time.

A man named Steve Paul had once been in the running to lead the Modern Lovers with Danny Fields. (Paul was perhaps best known for owning the Scene, a wildly popular New York City club that operated from 1964 to 1970 and hosted the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.) Paul got the Modern Lovers job, while Fields would later direct Ramones.

Listen to Modern Lovers’ ‘Roadrunner’

Around this time, Paul ran into Talking Heads, who were then just beginning to chart their course as a performing band. They had balked at signing a record deal and instead decided to add a fourth member to help flesh out their sound. Paul suggested Harrison as a possible option, believing that Harrison might be a particularly good fit given his background in visual arts: David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth had all met while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.

There have been various accounts over the years of how Harrison officially became a member of Talking Heads. As he recalls it, the next thing that happened was a phone call from Frantz, who asked if Harrison would travel down to New York to try and rehearse with them. Harrison was honest with Frantz: “I said, ‘I’m kind of broke. I’ve got to figure out how to get to New York.'”

As luck would have it, Harrison’s former studio mate and Modern Lovers bassist Ernie Brooks still owned the van he had once used to transport their equipment from show to show. He used it to move furniture and happened to be moving a family to New York. Brooks offered Harrison a lift in exchange for some manual labor.

There was just one problem: “When we filled the van,” Harrison recalls, “there wasn’t enough room for my organ anymore, let alone my electric piano or anything. So I just took a guitar.”

When he arrived at the Lower East Side apartment where Byrne, Frantz and Weymouth lived—a “scary” place with a bullet hole in the window and a flock of chickens raised on the roof—his future bandmates were puzzled. “We thought you were a keyboard player,” Harrison remembers them saying, but they decided to give it a try anyway. “So we went out and had Chinese food and came back and we played until about three in the morning.”

Harrison seemed like a natural fit. “It just worked really well,” he says. The band invited him to play a show with them—”we want you to play keyboards,” they told him—so he returned to New York for more rehearsals and the gig at the Manhattan Ocean Club. Another show in New Jersey followed. Images from the latter show, in which the four young musicians are set up in a living room with rusty red carpets, were later used on the cover of the 1982s The name of this band is Talking Heads.

Listen to Talking Heads’ ‘Love Goes to Building on Fire’

Talking Heads then traveled up the coast to play shows in Cambridge, Boston and Providence. Although he’s still not an official band member yet, Harrison took a week off from architecture school—which he admits “wasn’t really usually a good idea when you’re in graduate school, because things move fast.” Harrison offered a house he had rebuilt in Ipswich, Massachusetts, as a rehearsal space.

The group ended up rehearsing while a blizzard raged outside. “It just shows how committed they were,” says Harrison, “because we had to move all the stuff through the snow, carry it through the snow right into the house, and the heat wasn’t working very well.”

It was at this point that Harrison asked to officially join the band, requesting that he do so once his one (and only) graduate semester was complete. “Luckily,” he says, “they thought it was okay.”

The timing was crucial. Talking Heads had finally signed a record deal in September 1976, but hadn’t yet done much with it, wanting to develop their sound more fully before getting serious in the studio. Their first single, “Love goes to Building on Fire,” was released in March 1977, right around the time Harrison joined the group.

He could see that they were on the verge of something. “I knew they had a really good press,” he recalls. “I knew we sounded good, but I also didn’t want to tread water for two years.”

Finally, with the addition of Harrison, Talking Heads took off. Their debut Talking Heads: 77 arrived seven months later, on Sept. 16, 1977. A short tour of Europe and the UK followed, with Talking Heads opening for the Ramones. Harrison continued to play both keyboards and guitar in the band.

Within three years, Harrison’s life had taken two unexpected turns, the breakup of the Modern Lovers followed by his introduction to Talking Heads. A few simple twists of fate that worked out in the long run, he concludes: “It was pretty wonderful.”

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