Fear Of Music, the name of both the latest work from Jonathan Lethem and the Talking Heads album, comes as the most recent release from the 33 1/3 series. In this series, each book (30,000 to 40,000 words) investigates a single popular music album. The first, on Dusty Springfield’s album Dusty In Memphis, came out in 2003. Nine years later, more than 80 carry the 33 1/3 insignia, with more on the way.
The existing set of books leans toward work from canonical ‘60s and ‘70s white rock musicians—Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St.; Neil Young’s Harvest and albums by Led Zeppelin, The Band, Springsteen and The Who. A number of books explore albums from the giants of “indie” rock: Sonic Youth, The Replacements and Nirvana. A handful investigate soul, funk and hip-hop records, including Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On and Nas’ Illmatic. Finally, a few entries cover folk and country albums.
The 33 1/3 series aspires to a democratic and meritocratic ideal: In theory, anyone can write one of the books, so long as he or she (usually he) submits a proposal and beats out competition, which appears fierce. (According to the 33 1/3 blog, 94 proposals remain in the running of 471 received this year). Potential authors must send in a resume, a possible table of contents, a draft of an introduction and a set of ideas about how they can help market the book, among other data. If your proposal gets the nod, you get a book deal. The series attempts to open the music-writing process to better mirror the music-listening process—since anyone can listen to music, why can’t anyone write about it? A few of the writers enjoy mild fame: the musician Colin Meloy, lead singer of The Decembrists; Amanda Petrusich, who works for Pitchfork; Ben Sisario, who writes for the New York Times; Bryan Waterman and Cyrus Patell, who teach at NYU. Lethem, who primarily writes fiction (Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress Of Solitude, among others) qualifies as the biggest name to write an entry so far.
The 33 1/3 concept also constitutes an interesting—and unique—approach to music criticism. Most books about music explore the trajectory of a movement (e.g., punk), a discrete period of time (like Woodstock) or the work of a single band. An album traditionally receives a review, but here 33 1/3 addresses a single album in the format of a book.
Even so, albums aren’t like most art. Fleeting and also infinitely long-lasting through reproduction, albums exist simultaneously as one of the most ephemeral art forms and one of the most durable. For vinyl records in the 33 1/3 catalogue, the act of listening corresponds to an act of destruction, since an album slightly degrades every time you put it on. Yet when you wear out the grooves of your favorite record, scratch the CD to pieces or lose the digital files in a hard drive crash, another copy can be readily obtained, and it sounds identical to the first one (except for the most esoteric selections, out-of-print records being an extreme case). One definition of success for an artist lies in creating work that just keeps selling, the marketplace forcing infinite reproduction.
So the experience of an album is endlessly repeatable—and, to the true fan, endlessly repeated. While few people return to a book or painting hundreds of times in the course of their lives, repetition stands as very mechanism by which people hear music—records and CDs spin round and round, and even the hard drive on some iPods rotates. Listeners return to their favorite recordings weekly, daily, nightly, like an addict seeking a fix. Through repeated experience, intense familiarity and, many times, memorization, a favorite album in a way belongs to a listener. Few other creative works “belong” to their entire audience.
A book works against a record’s fragility by attempting to preserve its impact in another medium, and authors for 33 1/3 take a number of approaches. Some attempt the (often unattainable or unknowable) completely objective and factual story of the album— who wrote the songs, what inspired them, when and where they were written, who played what instrument in what tuning, with whom band members slept, how songs developed during recording, how the public received the release. On the other end of the spectrum, the album serves as an entry point to a type of autobiography; the album becomes less relevant and less interesting to the author than the act of experiencing and responding to it.
The objective angle seems a pretty safe bet. The audience for a 33 1/3 book probably self-selects—why would you pick up the volume on Prince’s Sign Of The Times if you don’t like Prince? Plus, devoted fans live primed to learn more about the makings of their favorite albums.
Books that lean towards autobiography enter riskier territory. A zealous fan with a different experience or response might not appreciate a lengthy recounting of a writer’s self-portrait as listener. The listener has his or her own approach to the music; the author has his. What they share lies in the music, not in the personal details. The author who does not find a balance between his own experience and the music itself (at least one book in the series ended up almost entirely about the author as a young man, with hardly any information on the album in question) risks alienating the reader. And let’s face it—a zealous pop fan wanting to read about a favorite album ranks high on the list of people you least want to alienate.
In Lethem’s case, his personal story and the story of this album cannot be separated—the traditional historical approach to his book never exists as an option. He makes this clear on page one, warning, “Contents under pressure of interpretation. User may suffer unwanted effects vis-à-vis a cherished cultural token—possibly including sensations of demystification, or its opposite, mystification.” Three pages later, Lethem shows he’s aware of the possible issues that arise with the autobiographical approach: “. . . what about the boy [young Lethem] in his bedroom? Can’t we leave him where we found him? Need we contend with the burden or his awe and innocence, or may we hit eject?”
Lethem explains further:
He’s essential to me, not only because he knows what it’s like never to have heard of Fear Of Music and then to have heard if for the first time, but because he thereupon 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.
For Lethem, the music cannot be disentangled from his very being. The spectrum between objective and autobiographical does not exist; he could no more separate himself from the details of experiencing the album than he could be unborn. He listened to it so obsessively in his “definite-brownstone in a maybe-ghetto” in New York City that he wanted to wear the album cover around in place of his head. To compensate for alienating differences in the listening experience, Lethem inserts asides addressed to the reader, like the warning that opened the book, or this interjection: “Well, I hear you say. . .” These asides make it easier to come along for Lethem’s personal ride, and they also offer a neat commentary on the relationship between the art, the listener, the critic, and the reader.
The mind making retrospective sense of the artwork is a liar. . . unspooling expertise and arcana, the critic spins a web of knowingness that veils its manufacturer, a spider shy of the light. Now here you come, whistling down the bookstore aisle – “Always liked that record; wonder what he’s got to say about it?” – to be enmeshed in the web of expertise. Before you blink, the spider’s remade you as his double. . . Better retreat quick, friend.
Lethem writes this book, in part, as a confession of his personal relationship to the album but also takes care to note that his book may change the way you experience the album: “Do you care to recall what it was like to hear ‘I Zimbra’ [the first song on the album] before. . . I got my words all over (and embedded inside) it?” He suggests the reader “retreat” if this presents a potential problem.
In Fear Of Music, Lethem doesn’t give much background on Talking Heads, though bits and pieces pop up. Some 33 1/3 authors choose to include more information about a band’s previous work, but since the books aim at devotees and aficionados, a quick outline of the band’s trajectory may be unnecessary … even offensive. As Lethem puts it, he’s working with “selfipedia.”
If your selfipedia differs from Lethem’s, the three founding members of Talking Heads— David Byrne, who sang and played guitar; Chris Frantz, who played drums; and Tina Weymouth, the bass player—met at the Rhode Island School of Design. They moved to New York in the mid-’70s and worked their way into the famed CBGB scene associated with the development of punk and New Wave. Soon, they added a fourth member, Jerry Harrison, who had played in Jonathan Richman’s deadpan proto-punk band The Modern Lovers. Talking Heads recorded its first album in 1977, entitled Talking Heads: 77.
Most of the band’s colleagues and competitors—Blondie, Television, Richard Hell & the Voidoids, The Ramones, Patti Smith, etc.—broke up, lost core members, disappeared from music for long periods of time, or struggled to find cultural relevance after the ‘70s. The central four members of Talking Heads stayed together until 1988, and they consistently found commercial and critical success most of that time. Though the band seemed punk or New Wave when it began, already on Talking Heads: 77 the group showed more variety than many others on the scene. The first song on its debut rode an easy soul bass line, and the choppy drive of guitars approached the hard bite of funk. Over the course of its career, Talking Heads often changed sound and approach, working with the famously experimental producer Brian Eno for three albums (Fear Of Music second in the three-part Eno collaboration). The band incorporated rhythms from African funk, expanded the lineup for more players and instruments, then contracted it again.
The first two albums carried a similar sound. Byrne’s weird voice evoked a startlingly self-aware maniac. The guitars were scratchy, circular and propulsive; the sound strange and thin. The last two songs on the second album pointed towards a possible change in direction, and Fear Of Music made good on it, announcing difference right at the start: “I Zimbra” came as a blast of near-gibberish lyrics and African rhythm. Near the end of the album’s side one appears “Life During Wartime,” among the most forceful and danceable songs the band ever released. After that comes “Memories Can’t Wait,” which Lethem describes as “solid rock – never has this band gone further afield from its disco-funk liaison. . .” “Heaven” functions as an off-beat ballad, with a chorus that sounds pretty in an almost conventional way for a band that ignored so many conventions. The final song, “Drugs,” stretched into something long, woozy, and punishing, without much singing. Fear Of Music just sounded different.
Lethem devotes a short chapter to each of the album’s 11 songs, spending little time on the sound, preferring to focus on lyrics. He defends this decision in a chapter titled “Is Fear Of Music a text?” Lethem acknowledges that “the act of analyzing lyrics” can be partially self-congratulatory, “the writer drawn to the writerly aspect of his subject matter.” But he also notes that “interest in language, in names, categories, and concepts, is more than a writer’s tropism—it’s a human one.” This language, these names and categories, he says, explain “nothing less than our inner and outer experiences to ourselves.”
Between song chapters come shorter chapters related to the album as a whole. Most bear titles like “Is Fear Of Music [blank]?” These big-picture chapters explore different ways to think about the album—a product of the full band? Of the lead-singer? Of a New York zeitgeist? Chapters can provide new theories or comparisons, especially about the relationships between Byrne and the band, or Byrne and Eno. An example: Lethem thinks Byrne’s work after Fear Of Music (with Talking Heads and as an artist in other media) shows he might have been working to avoid becoming “the nerd Mick Jagger”—a funny image—“seen as somehow both apart from, and utterly incomplete without, his musical collaborators, even as the potential meaning of the Rolling Stones’ music became more and more a product and symptom of Jagger’s projected persona.”
Some of Lethem’s interpretive explorations don’t connect. The chapter “Is Fear Of Music Science Fiction?” stems from his youthful interest in science-fiction. Lethem ends the chapter, “Is Fear Of Music science fiction? Sure, but only because Kafka is too, and the entire twentieth century. And no, not at all, since . . . it barely glances at the iconography, the kit of endearing devices and ingrown references.” It’s nice of Lethem to let the reader in close, but readers little interested in science fiction won’t see much in this.
The writing can be funny but also difficult to parse. Lethem says of the song “Memories Can’t Wait”: “The only thing African about this track is that you’re probably not comfortable there.” It’s amusing … and telling about his expected readership.
Lethem can also write a mouthful like, “A fan’s romance with the notion of a band as a gestalt creative entity weirdly both extends and reverses the Romantic-Modernist ideal of the individual creator as a possessor of a Promethean imperative.” Or, “These arrows pointing outward: are they for real, or are they from Zeno’s quiver, therefore never to reach their goal? Or perhaps they’re like the Worm Oroborous, destined to bend with the curvature of the universe until they find they’re nibbling their own feathery tails.” Music writing always walks a line between careful and insightful analysis of a work and sucking the life out of vibrant, visceral material. Lethem somehow does both.
The book draws on various sources. Lethem makes many Bob Dylan comparisons and a handful involving James Brown. Kafka appears often. So does Star Trek. He quotes from the movie Cool Hand Luke and mentions North By Northwest. He refers to Freud, Kaz Ishiguro, Phillip K. Dick and a New Yorker cover. If you don’t remember your New Yorker covers, or you only watched the most recent Star Trek movie because you think Chris Pine qualifies as a hunk, some of Lethem’s comparisons may not be evocative or informative.
Lethem sees Fear Of Music as a transitional album for the band, but also as something more. It’s the last album Talking Heads put out before expanding its lineup. Lethem sees it as a “paranoid” album with themes of “self-dissolution,” “disassociation,” “collective apprehension,” “distrust” and “stress.” For Lethem, it signals things to come. A song like the album’s hit, “Life During Wartime,” presages the band’s move towards sonic “thickness.” The song “Drugs,” created when Byrne and Eno removed and re-recorded almost all the parts of a demo put together by the whole band, shows Byrne’s increasing level of control and foreshadows the group’s eventual demise.
Fear Of Music may not be the best Talking Heads album—that distinction usually goes to their next album, Remain In Light—but to Lethem it represents the purest distillation of what the band meant to him: New York (Lethem refers to Talking Heads as the New York band), “anxiety, claustrophobia, and dread, but also the fascination, the solipsistic delight, all bound within a suite of internal self-references.” Byrne struggled at the time “with the format of ‘rock band,’ and with the (implicitly confessional) role of ‘lead singer.’” These battles gave the resulting art work a certain kind of desperate power that Lethem does not find in later Talking Heads’ albums.
Some moments, Lethem’s personal life overwhelms the album as the centerpiece of the text. Usually, though, he knows when to stop. (His short, manageable sections help.) Fans of Lethem’s fiction may not know much about Talking Heads; if they pick up this book because they enjoyed Motherless Brooklyn, it may prove tough going.
Still, Lethem has a pretty good idea of what fellow Talking Heads fans like. They will forgive the book’s faults … or ignore them … as they relive their own encounters with the classic album.
Elias Leight will be starting a Ph.D. program in politics at Princeton in the fall. He is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and writes about music at signothetimesblog.