Spectrum Culture JULY 1, 2012 - by Josh Goller


"Music, you know, true music - not just rock 'n' roll - it chooses you." Uttered by Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of famed music journalist Lester Bangs in the fanboy indulgence Almost Famous, that nugget of artsy wisdom touches upon the ethereal quality of music, how it hangs out with us and surrounds us during the most intimate moments of our lives seemingly without our direct choice in the matter. We are drawn to the music that offers us transcendence. For Bangs, true music is "a place apart from the vast, benign lap of America." At fifteen, New Yorker Jonathan Lethem was chosen by Talking Heads.

Lethem, who peppers Bangs' name throughout his Fear Of Music installment in Continuum's 33⅓ series, acknowledges that, at fifteen, he was a quintessential fanboy. Now nearing fifty, Lethem returns to "the boy in his room" throughout his incisive analysis of Talking Heads' monolithic 1979 release, tapping into the last vestiges of the boy within the man. Through his use of this literary device, Lethem is able to capture the immediacy of the music that chose him during his impressionable years, while his analytical adult-self can philosophise, through the broader lens of experience, about the greater meaning of art. Lethem points out that he was drawn to a band that had its coming-of-age in parallel with his own. If he'd been born five years later, he points out, he may feel the same way about The Smiths.

In his short chapters, Lethem marches through the track list sequentially, splicing in ruminations on what kind of record Fear Of Music is on the whole. Is it a concept record? A science fiction record? A paranoid record? Lethem avoids much historical context (except within the broader context of how the band members' dynamic and live performances influenced their sound). Above all, Lethem takes a philosophical approach to an album he compares (with its black, anti-skid cover) to the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lethem is now (by his own admission and as shown through the abundance of his published work throughout the past fifteen years) someone who bestows cultural artefacts rather than one who is transformed by them, and this dynamic offers a perspective rich with insight.

Due to this high-minded philosophy, his analysis generates more questions than answers about what Fear Of Music means. A Brooklyn native, Lethem calls New York a city of "prideful fear," and quotes Bangs' insistence that "there is nothing past Jersey." To Lethem, Talking Heads was the definitive New York band. There's a solid philosophical argument made for the album deriving from David Byrne's alleged fear of the vast, open expanses of America. After all, Byrne is determined to "Find a city / Find myself a city to live in," and Lethem relates his own unease when he first saw an open horizon bereft of a metropolitan skyline. This proposed phobia of exposure to expanse recurs throughout the album as in "Heaven is a place / A place where nothing / Nothing ever happens" or "What is happening, to my skin / Where is the protection that I needed?" And so on.

And Lethem continually brings up Cold War paranoia about the assurance of mutual destruction that pervaded the late '70s. Cast in this light, even songs like Paper point to the fear of blankness, while "Air" (though a goofy song) can even possess an agoraphobic menace. Life During Wartime serves as a companion piece to Cities and clearly shows how a retreat into the protection of human constructs may provide the only oasis. But Fear Of Music, much like any philosophy worth its hypothetical salt, is rife with paradoxes and contradictions. In addition to vastness, fear may also stem from claustrophobia associated with the self-awareness of our Mind forever chained to the primal instincts of our bodily Animals, a condition most readily transcended through the use of Drugs.

After rising to prominence through the written word, it should come as no surprise that Lethem's analysis inordinately focuses on lyrics. At times, he reads far too much into the words themselves and their multiple interpretations, and he falls into the tendency of fanboys to mythologise their objects of affection. In fact, when Lethem makes efforts to characterise the music apart from the lyrics, his descriptions come off as forced hyperbole, such as when he claims that "Memories Can't Wait is a fucking disaster area, a black bubbling cauldron full of barking dogs and backwards masking - the dumb-scary trick of 'satanic' bands - and every other creepy sonic tape-effect Brian Eno couldn't sell to Devo."

But even when reminiscing, Lethem never reverts to outright nostalgia. He reflects on how the band influenced his youth, but he views Talking Heads through the prism of his advanced years. He elucidates how the best art is both ephemeral and corporeal. A person can experience synchronicity with a piece of music, a feeling that can never be voluntarily recaptured. But Lethem also shows that he can drop the needle on an old LP from 1979 and take shelter in the music that first chose the boy in his room.