On Fear of Music

On Jonathan Lethem’s Fear of Music:

At my wedding the DJ played Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place” during the dinner portion of the reception. The best man came up to me at the sweethearts table and said, “I know a guy that is obsessed with the Talking Heads.”

“I’m kind of obsessed with the Talking Heads,” I replied.

“You’re who I meant.”

And it’s true. Case in point: In preparation for reading Jonathem Lethem’s contribution to the 33 1/3 book series on The Talking Heads album Fear of Music, I listened to the album daily for a few weeks. It wasn’t that I had never heard it before, but I have always been more of a Remain in the Light guy, and my favorite version of “Life During Wartime” is the full band live version from Stop Making Sense (love the version of “Heaven” on there, too). I just needed to make sure I had listened closely and knew it well before I allowed Lethem to influence me too much.

And then while I read it, I made sure to listen to the song each chapter was about before reading, on repeat during reading, and then again after reading, which meant that over the time I was reading what is a brief book, I listened to each song 3 to 6 times through. When I was finished with the book, I listened all the way through again.

The book is pretty fantastic. Simultaneously reverent and doubting of the source material. Loyal to the obsession of the 15-year old version of Lethem that first heard the record and willing to deflate that nostalgia when necessary. Zappa may have said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but fuck Frank Zappa – Lethem does as good a job as one could possibly hope for in exploring Fear of Music for not only what is in there, but what it may say about the trajectory of the Talking Heads and David Byrne. He also does a fantastic job of mining his own childhood for ways to understand the earnest self-consciousness of growing up. Fear of Music is too wound up in that adolescence for him to try to write something uninfluenced by it.

As he (brilliantly) writes:

[The 15-year old version of Lethem] “arranged himself in a posture of such abject identification with Fear of Music that he no longer can imagine who he’d be had he never heard it. Fear of Music wrote the boy, in other words. Which I suppose means that what you hold in your hands is a book Fear of Music  wrote about itself.”

But still most of the book is not about Lethem, or only about him in the sense that the listener can never be separated from the active interpretive practice of listening – and each section dealing with a song seems to crack it open revealing a multi-faceted core that belies the driving simplicity of these songs with an unearthed complexity of sound and meaning.

Between the song chapters are chapters that ask questions of the album itself – “Is Fear of Music a Talking Heads record?”, “Is Fear of Music a Paranoid record?”, “Is Fear of Music a Text?”, etc. . . so at the micro and macro levels, Lethem has the album covered.

If you love the Talking Heads, read this book. If you are interested in smart music writing that eschews being overly-academic, but does not over-simplify or talk down to you, read it. If you love Lethem’s writing (which I generally do), read it.

Maybe I should give this five stars. Fuck it, I will.

One thought on “On Fear of Music

  1. a voice into the void on a decade-old post…
    One of my favourite books.
    Re Zappa: I’d like to offer a reading that he may not have intended. Dancing about architecture is often where dancing happens. This offers us a useful way of seeing criticism – as something in the vicinity of its subject matter: “about” as temporal and spatial proximity. All the best writing on the subject of something finds its place here, Lethem’s Fear of Music included. It’s a book about a Talking Heads record, in that it and the author occupied similar thematic and physical time-spaces. In the room with the lp. In the city with the band. In the headspace of the time(s).

    Dance about architecture. Write about music. Paint about landscape. Dine about friends.


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