The Geek Who Came in from the Cold

Jonathan Lethem is best-known for his novels, as any 48-year-old who's published eight of them deserves to be. But he's equally major as a critic, and not just on the strength of last year's The Ecstasy of Influence. Nine essays welded into an intellectual memoir, his 2005 The Disappointment Artist is exegesis-with-a-timeline to vie with Dave Hickey's Air Guitar, and 2010's They Live, his miniature monograph on the John Carpenter B flick of that name, loves imperfection while mocking imperfection while respecting imperfection while unearthing the treasures imperfection's fissures conceal. Lethem has even been known to say that in another lifetime he could have been a rock critic. The best proof yet is another miniature monograph, about Talking Heads' Fear of Music.

 

This is the 86th of pocket-sized, 150-page album studies Continuum publishes under the series title "33 1/3." In part because 33 1/3s don't pay much for the work they ought to require, too many of them are by authors of dubious gifts. But plenty are not. My favorite is Douglas Wolk on James Brown's "Live" at the Apollo, which until RJ Smith's The One came along was the best writing on Brown I knew, with one exception ‑- Lethem's long Rolling Stone profile. Authors in this series often seize the opportunity to let loose formally, and most drop in some autobiography. Lethem is no different except that you never doubt he knows what he's doing ‑- because he strays only briefly from his mission of establishing how monumental this beloved album is, and because his well-mapped forays into side issues yield so much content.

 

Fear of Music begins with a 15-year-old boy hearing an ad for the new Talking Heads LP in his New York City bedroom in 1979. The boy, of course, is Lethem, who when he was 15 committed that LP to memory, and the book is written with the 48-year-old looking over the 15-year-old's shoulder and vice versa. Meditations on the mysteries of memory usually prove forgettable fast, but this one sustains both a nice sweetness and a useful depth. Lethem is embarrassed neither by his fallible young self nor the insights the intervening 33 years have afforded ‑- insights that bare not only the 15-year-old's misconceptions but habits of thought that still dog the adult he turned into. But there's another age disparity Lethem declines to address ‑- the fact that a mere 27-year-old was turning the 15-year-old's aesthetic life upside down.

 

In 1979, those 12 years meant one was a man and one was a boy; in 2012, Jonathan Lethem and David Byrne flank the same adult cohort at 48 and 60. Given the trajectory of their reputations, however, the younger man now has the upper hand ‑- and the power as a critic to turn the 60-year-old's aesthetic life inside out. This opportunity he also declines to address, but I can't be so temperate. For in the same year that the prolific Lethem published Fear of Music, the prolific Byrne brought forth not only two albums ‑- collaborations with post-samba master Caetano Veloso and new-prog ingénue St. Vincent ‑- but also a book hopefully entitled How Music Works.

 

In 1986, which looks from here like the fulcrum of Byrne's career, Time magazine dubbed cover boy Byrne "rock's renaissance man." This was the headline writer's fault; Byrne has always been too shrewd for such immodest claims. But his creative output does extend well beyond music, which doesn't just mean albums of songs in any case ‑- there's lots of scoring on his resume. The Rhode Island School of Design dropout is a filmmaker and active gallery and installation artist, and How Music Works is far from his first book. Granted, only 2009's Bicycle Diaries seems so written, but he can definitely write. When I edited Da Capo's Best Music Writing in 2007, his blog post on the metal minimalists Sunn0))) was one of the 32 finishers.

 

One way Byrne explains how music works is by analyzing his own, and he knows very well he'd look like a weasel if he left out the group he's famous for. So his oblique strategy is to make room for Talking Heads without revealing much about them. Some of what Byrne recounts ‑- the funk usages they always pursued, the wittingness of their preppy nerd shtick from the beginning, and how the two gradually evolved and fused ‑- is clear enough in David Bowman's authoritative if snide Talking Heads biography This Must Be the Place. But Byrne's explanations are fuller, most notably in "Music Writes the Words," about piecing together lyrics for the pieced-together groove classic Remain in Light. Sadly, the lyrical origins of Fear of Music and the two even geekier albums that preceded it remain unrevealed -- and the thorough disquisitions on his many solo albums were as lost on me as the albums themselves.

 

The prose style Byrne favors is so pellucid it sometimes threatens to disappear altogether, and he can do the on-the-other-hand shuffle till you're dizzy ‑- fatal in the dilettantish Bicycle Diaries, this tic is annoying enough in, for instance, his ruminations on the plusses and minuses of digital sound. But given the unlikelihood that Byrne will ever come clean on the Talking Heads perplex, How Music Works ain't bad for a rockstar tome. I especially appreciated the discussion of pop-music economics he illustrates with hard numbers from his own career, the rabble-rousing sermon on a high culture that's staged as many comebacks as Friday the 13th, and the history of recording cribbed largely from Greg Milner's (lengthy, credited) Perfect Sound Forever.

 

All positives acknowledged, however, the grandly presented if casually constructed How Music Works is marginal in a way Lethem's miniature is not. His 33 1/3 is not only a testament to an obsession, it's an argument for the magnificence of Talking Heads, without which nothing else Byrne has created would have gained its portion of public attention. Although Lethem slips in dazzled bows to Remain in Light, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and "Take Me to the River," he stays on topic, and convinces me that this album I've always admired was considerably richer than I'd thought. "I Zimbra" and "Cities" everyone likes, "Life During Wartime" and the even scarier "Heaven" everyone loves. But I'd forgotten "Memories Can't Wait" and never given much thought to "Mind," both of which Lethem unpacks with complex panache. I've even gotten to where I can improve his case for its worst song, "Electric Guitar," a murky-sounding, paradox-bedeviled theme statement in which rock's signature ax is declared something to fear, maybe as an enemy of "the state" ‑- Byrne uses the term, three times ‑- or maybe as an instrument of the state. Song by song, with tangential inquiries entitled "Is Fear of Music a . . ." ‑- Talking Heads Record?/David Byrne Record?/Text?/New York Album?/Science Fiction Record?/Asperger's Record?/Paranoid Record? ‑- Lethem helps us understand why the 15-year-old believed his favorite album might also be the greatest of all time.

 

As Lethem sees it, Fear of Music is a Talking Heads record with a David Byrne record hidden inside. It intimates Talking Heads' mortality by switching its first-person from an exceptionally singular "I" to a plural "we" that signifies not Tina Weymouth, Chris Frantz, and Jerry Harrison ‑- nor Brian Eno, who produced Fear of Music and Remain in Light as well as co-creating My Life in the Bush of Ghosts ‑- but a cultural entity: the audience this art band's unexpected commercial success entitled Byrne to speak for. Persona-wise, and also biographically a little, the leader of that art band was anxious in the extreme ‑- a scaredy-cat, you might say. So the change from first-person singular to first-person plural means that the title Fear of Music denies, as Lethem puts it, any "individual limit to the band's paranoiac worldview." It also suggests fear of a daring bunch of song topics: "Mind," "Paper," "Cities," "Air," "Heaven," "Animals," "Electric Guitar," "Drugs." And then there's fear of the Talking Heads to come, which many believe won't make Talking Heads music at all as the quartet takes on not just Brian Eno but the African-American funk squad Jonathan Demme committed to memory in the groundbreaking concert film Stop Making Sense.

 

It's plausible enough to see Fear of Music as the beginning of Talking Heads' end. But that end lasted longer than their beginning. After two years of woodshedding at CBGB, they released an album a year between 1977 and 1979, with Fear of Music presaging the expansive Remain in Light mostly in retrospect. However excited one had gotten about the dada-derived pseudo-Africana of "I Zimbra," Remain in Light was a startling up: a pan-humanist, pro-technological funk every bit as original as the nerd-funk that engendered it. Between 1981 and 1985, the original quartet were much less cohesive personally and professionally ‑- all recorded full-length side projects, two in Byrne's case, although Tina and Chris's first Tom Tom Club album was the hit. But in addition to Speaking in Tongues in 1983 and then Little Creatures in 1985, the band released live albums in 1982 and 1984, which seemed excessive only at the time, and then True Stories in 1986 and Naked in 1988.

 

Listening back to all this music, I found it decidedly less timebound than I'd feared. Maybe this very good band was actually a great one ‑- a silly distinction only if it's silly to hope and now suspect that Talking Heads will outlast aging 15-year-olds' nostalgia like Little Richard and Buddy Holly before them. What struck me about them, however, was not the band identity many original fans lament ‑- not Tina Weymouth getting funky from an absolute zero where Byrne was her first bass teacher. That band identity is a loss ‑- the quartet's high-humored return to basics on Little Creatures in 1985 is proof of that. But it was Byrne's continuing evolution that did Talking Heads in.

 

Byrne was an experienced performer pre-Talking Heads‑-he'd been a street busker, which takes guts (and poise). But the nervous front man he conceived for the band, while clearly expressing his Asperger's side, spoke for a whole everypunk subgenus ‑- all of us, and I include both the 15-year-old and my overage self, who thought punk's cartoon toughness was cool but were neither brave nor stupid enough to emulate it. The durability of the geek act Byrne substituted for cartoon toughness on the '70s albums is especially dramatic on the first disc of 1982's live The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads, where it amps both humor and anger and suggests fresh takes on such musical desiderata as percussive punch, yearning lyricism, and eerie vocalese.

 

Much as I love "Once in a Lifetime"'s impossible amalgam of existential anxiety and spiritual peace, I've always thought the key line on Remain in Light was "The world moves on a woman's hips." Although Bowman reports that the album preceded Byrne's affairs with choreographers Toni Basil and Twyla Tharp, I like to imagine that some sainted art groupie had already softened him up. The guy fronting 1980-85 Talking Heads is a geek who's getting laid. No longer "the kid who held his farts in" or "a seagull talking to its shrink," to give it up to Richard Goldstein's fondly remembered 1976 show review, he remains hyper and insecure, but at the same time he's high on pheromones and hope. And for as long as he contains those contradictions ‑- which includes his songful score for Tharp's The Catherine Wheel but not, in my Africana-inflected judgment, the dilettantish, all too influential electro-pastiche of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts ‑- his music is even more visionary than it was at the beginning.

 

But because his hopes are realistic, he can't contain the contradictions forever, and doesn't want to, not one little bit. True Stories and Naked are nominally Talking Heads albums, but the geek has flown the coop, replaced by the guy who wrote True Stories' songs for his own fillum of that name and used Naked to begin his exploration of Latin rhythms and vocal stylings. These have inflected his song sense for a quarter century now. On the evidence of the two dispensable-as-usual new albums, his voice is starting to roughen slightly, but for decades it's been suaver than anyone dreamed possible in 1976. The geek is now a handsome, well-connected, hard-working, politically progressive cultural fixture ‑- a good guy as far as this Manhattan bicyclist is concerned. And the most important thing he's done post-Talking Heads is revive the career of the Brazilian avant-sambist Tom Zé, who has survived as a spiky and beguiling eccentric for far longer than the smooth operator who made his survival possible.

About the Columnist
Robert Christgau is a critic at All Things Considered, writes for the National Arts Journalism Program's ARTicles blog, teaches in NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, and has published five books. His highly searchable website is robertchristgau.com.

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