Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison: ‘We’re Thinking…We’re Going to Jail in Yugoslavia

Jerry Harrison takes us back to a wild week in Europe, performing behind the Iron Curtain on the Speaking in Tongues Tour in 1983
Talking Heads: L-R: David Byrne, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, and Jerry Harrison (Credit: Echoes/Redferns)

Musician and producer Jerry Harrison joined Talking Heads in 1974 after several years with the Modern Lovers. 

Here he shares what he calls “the craziest” week on tour.

As told to SPIN Managing Editor Liza Lentini.

Jerry Harrison (Credit: Roberta Bayley/Redferns)

There were two shows in Italy with Talking Heads. One, we were playing in Bologna. At that time, bands had not been going to Italy because rival promoters would disrupt the concerts. Eventually there was a truce with the promoter who represented the Communist Party, our promoter, and we were playing Bologna, which is fairly leftist city, which has wonderful things like free public transportation and stuff like that, as well as, among the best food in Italy.

We set up in this field and we have no idea how many people are coming. By the time we went on stage, there were, oh, I don’t know, 10,000, maybe 15,000 people there. People threw things at us a little bit. The guitar player, Alex Weir, got hit in the head with a full beer of can which hurt, and you’d be dodging a little bit. We said, “We got to get the hell out of here.”

We turn around and there are 5,000 people backstage. We get to the bus, and we’re starting to pull out and our roadies come back to us and say, “You’re not leaving, are you? If you don’t do an encore, don’t expect us to save your equipment. This audience will come up on the stage and destroy everything.”

We dutifully marched back on stage and played quite a long encore so that the audience felt completely satisfied and left.

The next day we went to Milan where once again, even though the tickets were very inexpensive, I think the equivalent of $10, many people thought that everything should be free. Once again, it was a lot of people and thousands of people broke down the fence and started joining the audience — at which point the police started firing tear gas. You could see the tear gas bouncing off where the mixing tower was, but it was also landing next to us on stage. Steve Scales, our percussionist, who had been in Vietnam, and I who had been in anti-Vietnam protests, were being teargassed! Everybody else thought, “What’s that weird bug repellent? My eyes are killing me!”

 

December 1977 in Hollywood, California. (Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

We had decided that we wanted to play more interesting places, so the next day we went to Sicily and we were playing in the middle of a soccer field. There was a guy who had a plug that connected all of the amplifiers and everything on the stage. There was this little two-foot plug that connected it to the house power. It’s Italy, they have a lunch break from, what, noon ‘til three? At noon, he unplugs everything, takes the cable and walks up and goes to lunch.

Now we’re just sitting around. We arrive at this show, they have locked everybody in behind an iron fence with those curved bar things, because they don’t want anyone going out on the soccer pitch. We had 200 of the Carabinieri, the national police under the stands, where there’s a bar, so they’re all drinking with their rifles on their backs. They go out in formation in between the audience and us, and we play this concert. That was one of the least intimate shows we played.

We went behind the Iron Curtain and played first in Budapest, which went pretty well. Tom Tom Club was opening for us and they had to differentiate themselves from us because there was some overlap in the players. They had hired Tyrone Downey who had been in Bob Marley’s band, who had actually been there when he was shot. Unfortunately, he had quite a coke addiction. When we got behind the Iron Curtain, suddenly of course this was not available. When we got to Zagreb, in Croatia, he was really, really getting worked up.

The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, London,  January 1978.  (Credit: Gus Stewart/Redferns)

There was someone who wanted to interview us. I went out with Tyrone who was starting to talk slightly crazier and crazier, talking about LSD experiences and stuff. We got back to the hotel and the woman who was interviewing me said, “Well, can we take your picture?”

I’m like, “Sure.”

“Do you mind if we have this attractive young lady in the picture, just makes for a more fun picture for our magazine?”

“Okay.”

“Can we have one here? Oh, could we have one here next to the elevator?”

Now I’m suddenly going, Oh, wait a moment. They’re going to create a storyline of the degenerate Westerners coming to corrupt the youth of Yugoslavia. It was still under [Former Communist President] Tito at this time. I said, “I see what you’re doing, interview’s over.”

I went back to talk to everybody else. I said, “Did they take these pictures that if you put them in an order, they could look like a compromising situation?”

Everyone went, “Oh my God, yes, they did.” We go and play the show, which went great.

The next day we were flying out of Yugoslavia. Tyrone just lost it and basically started pissing all over the airport. We were thinking: We’re going to go to jail in Yugoslavia.

Fortunately, the inter-tourist guy was on our side because he didn’t want to have a blemish on his record. I went to Gary, our manager and said, “We need to get him on the next flight out of here, anywhere.”

Gary goes over to Tyrone. He goes, “Tyrone, you look like you’re missing Jamaica. Do you want to go back to Jamaica?”

He goes, “Yes, man.” He got on, what ended up being an extremely long flight because I think it went Zagreb to, I don’t know, Berlin to Paris to Bermuda… it was multi-stop.

Bologna, Italy, 1982 (Credit: Luciano Viti/Getty Images)

There was one final thing, we played in Athens and the Tom Tom Club had a really difficult time. We were locked in because once again, they didn’t want anybody on the soccer pitch.

They led us down to a stage where the only thing that separated the audience and us was a piece of rope with Persian rugs on top of it, tied between the two lighting towers. Well, you can imagine how long that lasted.

Basically it was just like a very steep American football stadium. Steep wooden seats, just going straight up with the audience almost around us. People were tossing plastic cups that’d end up bouncing and coming down to the stage. We went on and it’s like, “They better like the show because the police have locked us in with the audience and there’s no place to go and they’re on top of us.”

Fortunately, they loved it. That week was the craziest, because we had decided to go behind the Iron Curtain which had its own weirdness, to all these places in Italy that bands never played. It was funny.

We got back to Germany and it went seamlessly, and it’s like, “It’s boring. The adrenaline’s not flowing the way it was the last week.”

 

Harrison will be performing material from the Talking Heads’ seminal album ‘Remain In Light’ with fellow member Adrian Belew at The Wiltern in Los Angeles this Thursday, September 29th. Click here for more info.

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