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Noted author sounds out on early Talking Heads music

When Jonathan Lethem was 15, a
record grabbed him by the aural
lapels and shook him to his core.
Talking Heads’ third studio album, “Fear of
Music.”
Fusing disco rhythms with David Byrne’s cries of
urban alienation and angst, it would be named best album
of 1979 by the New Musical Express and the Los Angeles
Times and spend the next couple of years in near-constant
rotation on Mr. Lethem’s stereo.
Thirty-three years later, Mr. Lethem—now a noted
novelist, essayist and short story writer as well as the Roy
E. Disney Professor in Creative Writing at Pomona College—
has released a book called Fear of Music. Part of
the acclaimed 33 1/3 series, the book delves into the
album of the same name, song by song, note by note and
question by question.
Nylon magazine has dubbed the 33 1/3 series, which
has previously explored albums ranging from The Beach
Boys’ Pet Sounds to The Pixies’ Doolittle, “passionate,
obsessive and smart.” The same words can be used to
describe Mr. Lethem, who recently sat down with the
COURIER to talk about his latest book.
When the Continuum publishing company approached
him, Mr. Lethem, who has followed the series
for years, was intrigued. The author of novels like
Motherless Brooklyn, which won a national Book
Critics Circle Award, and the New York Times Best
Seller The Fortress of Solitude, came to the attention
of Continuum through Rolling Stone articles on James
Brown and Bob Dylan and his 2002 guest editorship of
“The Year’s Best Music Writing.”
Impressed with his rock ‘n roll credentials, they
asked Mr. Lethem if he had an album he’d like to write
about. He didn’t have to think about it for long. Clearly,
he would write about Fear of Music.
“I see it as such a watershed.”
Mr. Lethem’s initial enthusiasm was replaced by a conundrum:
How would he approach the project? It was a
question he mulled over for 3 years.
“I stalled a long time,” he says.
Mr. Lethem is aware you can really only tell your own
story. Even his novels melding the science fiction and
noir-style detective genres are rife with autobiography.
Ultimately, he opted to embrace the “helplessly subjective”
tone that characterizes any fan’s relationship with a
piece of music and which infuses much of his work.
The resulting series of chapters and essays starts with a
love story. Mr. Lethem’s discovery of Fear of Music and
the way he, an intellectually precocious teen with bohemian
parents growing up in a New York brownstone,
found a sonic soul mate in the 11-song Sire records release.
Mr. Lethem liked the way David Byrne, in his delivery
and in live performances, had “a willingness to
seem awkward or uptight.” Talking Heads were a New
York-based band, and the protagonist of Fear of Music
seemed absolutely undone by the fast, crowded and occasionally
violent atmosphere of urban modernity.
“Air” tells the story of a man so overwrought, he
feels pain at contact with the very atmosphere. “Love
During Wartime” is an exercise in paranoia, in which
the singer—who, like Mr. Lethem, has “lived in a
brownstone, lived in the ghetto [and] lived all over this
town”—hunkers down to subsist while an anonymous
armed conflict brews all around him. Even those who
have had minimal exposure to the Talking Heads have
likely heard Byrne’s urgent declaration. “This ain’t no
party, this ain’t no disco/This ain’t no fooling around.”
Even the album cover, a black, minimalist affair reliefembossed
with a pattern mimicking the appearance and
feel of diamond plate metal flooring, appealed to him.
“There was a bookish quality to the band. The group,
as a whole, were working on this album design,” Mr.
Lethem said. “My dad was a painter, [so I grew up exposed]
to the world of gallery art. They seemed very familiar
with it and attracted to it.”
Once Mr. Lethem settled down to write Music, the
process took about 6 months. He equipped himself with
a few books about Talking Heads, mainly to check dates
and facts, and then turned on the album. He listened to
it again and again as he wrote, using the songs to inform
his writing and as a vehicle to revisit the “awe and
innocence” of his music-addled teenage self.
“Sometimes, as I set out on this work, I find my present
self slackening into passivity. Suddenly the keyboard
is entirely in that kid’s hands.”
The resulting book—140 pages and nearly pocketsized—
is relatively insubstantial. There’s a lot crammed
in there, however.
There are only 2 ways to describe a song: press play
or employ metaphor. In the chapters on each of the
album’s tracks, Mr. Letham does the latter with
panache. Describing the Star Trekkie female back-up
vocals on the song “Air,” he notes: “Their disembodied,
wavering quality is the vocal equivalent of a Theremin,
the official sonic effect of science fiction.”
The food for thought is plentiful.
“No book is a complete account of its own making or
it would look more like a warehouse,” he said, noting
that the book reflects “practically 35 years of listening.”
Mr. Lethem says the book about an album is in many
ways an account of his own life. “It’s an awfully short
book for that.”
Every kid is destined to grow up, and every musical
obsession is destined to slacken at least a little. Fear of
Music ends with the inevitable: “Breaking Up with
Fear of Music.”
There’s a real sense of the ephemeral in this book. Mr.
Lethem says he has followed the career of
David Byrne and Talking Heads with interest,
but never had the same visceral reaction to later
releases by the band, which included mainstream
hits like “Burning Down the House” and
“Road to Nowhere.”
“It was a different band by that time. I was a
different listener,” he said.
Mr. Lethem celebrated the release of Fear of Music
with an April 19 book-signing at Rhino Records. He read
from the book, followed by a performance of Talking
Heads covers by Big Mess. As of press time, there were
still signed copies of the book available at Rhino Records
(235 Yale Ave.) The book is also available at most comprehensive
bookstores and through Amazon.com
Mr. Lethem is enjoying the sense of completion for a
very personal and very unexpected accomplishment, saying
it’s “a fun annex” to his wide-ranging career.
“It’s a little bit of a pendant—an extra,” he said.
Extra or no, critics are treating Fear of Music as a legitimate
achievement. Writing for The Atlantic, Brian
Gresko has high praise for the book.
“[Mr. Lethem’s] achievement in Fear of Music is to
let his personal passion for the album inform his
thoughts on it with a vital urgency, without ever allowing
those feelings to run rampant and obscure the work
at hand. And make no doubt, this is a book written for
fans, people who find it compelling to read about the
various versions of the song ‘Drugs,’ or want to know at
what point in the track the sounds of birdsong fade from
the mix. But it’s also a powerful piece of scholarship on
a band that deserves, and whose work holds up to, close
examination of the serious kind Lethem does here.”
If you’re interested in Fear of Music, you’ll need to
listen to the Talking Heads album of the same name
while you read.
In the book’s introduction, Mr. Lethem offers some
advice to the reader/listener. Don’t listen to the album
on “those crappy little speakers built into your computer.
And turn it up, for f—’s sake!” —Sarah Torribio

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