How Robert Rauschenberg Met Talking Heads, and Ended Up Designing The “Speaking in Tongues” Album Cover

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In 1983, legendary artist Robert Rauschenberg designed the album cover for Talking Heads’ fifth studio album, Speaking in Tongues.  Rauschenberg’s cover, with three spinning plastic discs and a clear vinyl LP, all packed in a vacu-form clamshell, was too costly for regular copies of the album; so the album was issued with a conventional (David Byrne designed) cover and a limited edition Rauschenberg version.  In 1984 Rauschenberg won a well deserved Best Album Cover Grammy Award for his cover.

Today a collector wrote to ask if I ever had copies of the Rauschenberg designed poster for the album, sending me a link to an article in Artsy titled The Story behind Robert Rauschenberg’s Iconic Talking Heads Album Cover.

I read the article with interest, as I played a small, but critical, part in the Rauschenberg /Talking Heads alliance.  I’ve never written about it before, as it’s not much more than a good anecdote.  But I wrote a note to article’s author, Abigail Cain, thinking she might enjoy the story, and am posting it here.

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Dear Abigail,

Someone just sent me a link to your Robert Rauschenberg/Talking Heads article, and I though you might enjoy the REAL story about how Talking Heads met Rauschenberg, and the cover came about.

On August 12, 1982, Talking Heads played Perkins Palace in Pasadena, CA.  At the time I was the assistant to A&M Records president Gil Friesen, and among other things, was executive producing the soundtrack for an upcoming James Bridges film, Mike’s Murder.  Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Head had their own band, Tom Tom Club, who’d had a few hits, and I wanted to see if I could get them to do something for the film, so I arranged a screening for them while they were in town to do some shows.

The day before the Pasadena show, Gil got a call from Ace Gallery owner Doug Christmas.  He told Gil his friend Bob Rauschenberg was coming to town and wanted to see Talking Heads, and asked Gil if he might be able to get them tickets.  Gil and I had seen the band a few days before at the Greek Theatre, and were both excited at the prospect of meeting Rauschenberg and seeing the band again, so Gil invited Bob and Doug (and me), and arranged for tickets.

The night of the show, Gil’s girlfriend was stuck on a delayed flight from New York, so I ended up taking Bob, his assistant Terry Van Brunt and Doug to see the show.  We were in a stretch limo, and Bob drank not a little bourbon on the way.  He was wonderful company and sat next to me during the show, whooping it up.  At one point he clapped me on my back and said about David Byrne “he looks just like E.T!” (in a reference to the size of Byrne’s head).

After the show, I took everybody backstage to meet the band (I had probably gotten passes through Chris and Tina, who demurred on doing anything for Mike’s Murder; Joe Jackson ended up doing the soundtrack.)  I introduced  them to Bob, and eventually some of the other band members, who I hadn’t yet met, came over.  I introduced myself, Bob and the others.  Bob said, enthusiastically, “who’s doing your next album cover.”  A few of them said, pretty much in unison “YOU ARE!”
And so it came to be.

Jeff Gold

February 2017

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