How Jerry Harrison Stumbled Into Talking Heads

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

He’d been part of the Modern Lovers, a Boston rock band founded and fronted 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 split, he was back to square one.

So Harrison did what most rock musicians don’t 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’d joined the Modern Lovers. His bachelor thesis had centered on painting, sculpture and drawing, and now he had effectively decided that since music hadn’t panned out, he needed to figure out a good fall-back plan.

The intent was to pursue a master’s in architecture, but that plan was postponed for a year when Harrison collaborated with Elliot Murphy on his 1976 album, Night Lights. Harrison eventually started classes and began working as a teaching assistant at Harvard, as well as a software developer. He was quite certain his fate had been settled.

“I really love architecture, and I love painting, and I love all of that stuff,” Harrison told UCR in an exclusive interview. “It’s a fascinating dilemma to me. Like, what would my life have been like had I gone down that route? I don’t know. I mean, it would have been interesting in its own right. I felt very confident about it.”

Harrison, of course, did not go down that route. Instead, what ensued was a good example of just 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 manage the Modern Lovers, along with Danny Fields. (Paul was perhaps best known for being the owner of 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 go on to manage Ramones.

Listen to the 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 waffled with signing a record deal, deciding instead to add a fourth member to help fill out their sound. Paul suggested Harrison as a possible option, thinking that Harrison might be an especially good fit given his background in visual art: David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth had all met while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.

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

As luck would have it, Harrison’s former college roommate and Modern Lovers bassist Ernie Brooks still owned the van he’d once used to haul their gear from show to show. He was then using it to move furniture and happened to be scheduled to move a family to New York. Brooks offered Harrison a lift, in exchange for a little manual labor.

There was only one problem: “When we filled the van,” Harrison recalls, “there was no longer enough room for my organ, 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 were living – a “frightening” place with a gunshot hole in the window and a flock of chickens being 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 shot anyway. “So we went out for Chinese food and came back, and we played until like, three in the morning.”

Harrison seemed to fit in naturally. “It just worked really well,” he says. The band invited him to play a show with them — “we do 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. Photos from the latter show, in which the four young musicians are set up in a living room with rusty red carpeting, were later used on the front cover of 1982’s 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. Though still not an official band member yet, Harrison took a week off from architecture school – which he admits was “really not usually a good idea when you’re in graduate school, because things move quickly.” Harrison offered up a house he had rebuilt in Ipswich, Mass., as a rehearsal space.

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

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

The timing was crucial. Talking Heads had finally signed a record deal in September 1976, but had yet to do much with it, wishing to more fully develop their sound before they got serious in a 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 tell they were on the brink of something. “I knew that they had really good press,” he recalls. “I knew we sounded great, but I also didn’t want to sort of tread water for two years.”

Finally, with the addition of Harrison, Talking Heads set to work. Their debut Talking Heads: 77 arrived seven months later, on Sept. 16, 1977. A short tour of Europe and the U.K. followed, on which Talking Heads opened for Ramones. Harrison continued playing 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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