In “The Beards,” an essay collected in 2005’s The Disappointment Artist, Jonathan Lethem wrote that “each of my novels ... is fueled by loss.” His mother died in 1978, when he was 14. “I find myself speaking about my mother’s death everywhere I go in this world.”
Lethem’s latest book, Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, is in many ways another meditation on the subject—in this case the band that partly defined him in the aftermath of his mother’s death. (Fittingly, the album cover is completely black, resembling a dark diamond-plate metal floor.) For Lethem, becoming a Talking Heads fan “was synced to the year my life cracked in half.”
We’re talking via Skype, and Lethem is in his office at Pomona College in California, where he teaches creative writing in the post formerly held by David Foster Wallace. Though he primarily sees himself as a novelist—most famously for Fortress of Solitude, Chronic City, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Lethem has, over the course of numerous essays (many featured in The Ecstasy of Influence), explored “how much—how overwhelmingly much—certain artists and their work has meant to me, and how complicated that’s gotten as an ongoing relationship.”
Lethem encountered Talking Heads early in their career, as the quartet of David Byrne (guitar, vocals), Chris Frantz (drums), Jerry Harrison (guitar, keyboard), and Tina Weymouth (bass) were gaining traction with their cover of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River,” off their 1978 album More Songs About Buildings and Food. Fear of Music would be that album’s follow-up.
“I grew up listening to great records—my parents were hip—but I needed my own thing, and Talking Heads was it. When Fear of Music was released in August of ’79, I was there the first day, in a record store. It was almost destined to define my life—I would’ve been forced to overrate Fear of Music even if it had been terrible. But it was great! It sounded as new as could be. I thought, this album wiped the slate clean.”
He laughs at that, as now his more experienced ear hears the sticky prints of influences like The Zombies and ? and the Mysterians all over Fear of Music. “It stands on the shoulders of all the records in my parents’ collection, goddamn it!”
Lethem analyzes each of the songs in his book, alternating between close readings of lyrics, song structure, and meditations on the album as a whole. “Cities” is imagined as a “metropolis on wheels,” “Memories Can’t Wait” becomes “a dreadnought of a song, [wearing] an exoskeleton of reverb and sonic crud as it grinds grimly uphill.” His prose is as sharp as ever, and his visual evocations demand accompaniment by the tracks themselves. As he puts it in the epigraph, “turn it up, for f--k’s sake.”
A theory underlines it all—or, perhaps, more aptly for this master storyteller, a narrative: the seeds of Talking Heads’ eventual breakup in the early-’90s lie planted on Fear of Music, despite it preceding the band’s greatest successes. Remain in Light, recorded in 1980, with producer Brian Eno acting as a fifth band member, and with a variety of other instrumentalists in the mix (including the explosive Adrian Belew), would mark the band’s critical peak, while Speaking in Tongues, made in 1983 without Eno but with a similarly large line-up of musicians, would become their biggest commercial hit. Lethem prefers Fear of Music, and argues it’s the band’s most interesting work.
“I like Talking Heads better when they’re still a unit of four in a very strict and intense relationship to the idea of being a rock band, as opposed to, on Remain in Light, exploding that idea completely, and when they’re chewing over material, even if part of what Fear of Music says with “I Zimbra” [which takes its lyrics from a nonsense poem by Dadaist Hugo Ball] is that they want to be abstract and impersonal, and quit caring what the words say. As much as I grew up loving a lot of things that were nonsensical, like Lewis Carroll, or abstract, like abstract paintings, I’m more deeply committed to the gestures artists make just short of nonsense or abstraction, when they’re still immersed in a relationship to topicality.”
Though the band’s shift to nonsense lyrics and a larger lineup was Byrne’s way of taking himself out of the limelight, the lead singer became ever more controlling of their image and direction. Today he’s not on speaking terms with the two original members, Frantz and Weymouth, the latter of whom said Byrne is “a man incapable of returning friendship.”
Lethem’s analysis often play the rhythm section against the melody and guitars, a tension he says wouldn’t have made its way into the book had it not interested him. “You can’t care a lot about this form, and read about it, without running into the archetypes of what the bass and drum is trying to do, and how everyone finds their lead singer kind of pretentious and annoying. It’s the esoteric enactment of language and the preening, performing, Mick Jagger–y kind of stuff versus ‘authenticity’—like Keith Richards is ‘real’ and Mick Jagger is ‘fake.’ They’re artists who made something together, but they’re always being slotted into these weird archetypal relationships.”
Lethem notes that Jonathan Demme’s concert film, Stop Making Sense, captures the band’s fracturing foursome even as it celebrates their expanded sound. “There’s an ambivalence in the displacement of the original band which the film is very transparent about. There’s sort of a rapture that’s come over them, but something else is being dissolved and lost. There’s [sic] songs where Weymouth doesn’t play bass, where the better bass player takes over. There’s something very naked about her on stage hitting a tambourine, I think.”
These concerts, and the albums they promoted, thrilled Lethem but also troubled him. “I wanted Chris and Jerry and Tina to stay important. Then I heard Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues, and I could hear this description of a problem—Are we a band? Does the original central quartet matter, or not? You have on the one hand Byrne’s increasingly esoteric collaborations with Twyla Tharp and Eno, and on the other the, ‘oh, wait, let’s get back to what we do with Little Creatures’—but it’s not really the same. I wanted Little Creatures to be a satisfying recapitulation of the mystery and tension of the band, but it wasn’t for me. It was like they were pretending to be the Talking Heads that we all were sentimental about.”
In a way, his book on Fear of Music is a letter to his former love, celebrating its many strengths while seeing, more clearly now in retrospect, how the whole relationship—Lethem’s to the band, the band members with one another—was bound to fall apart. The tensions these songs map—of paranoia, torment, and, as the album states right up front, fear—are unsustainable. The band itself didn’t want to remain in this intense, darkly artistic mode, though that very intensity and commitment to darkness made the album great.
“It’s pointless to project such a high-stakes emotional narrative onto your relationship with artistic careers,” Lethem admits. “The point is, they made work that was nourishing to you, and if they ever do that, you’re so far in their debt that to hold anything against them is a kind of insanity.”