Wired MAY 4, 2012 - by Geeta Dayal


In his new book Fear Of Music, Jonathan Lethem delivers an impassioned, hilarious and unabashedly personal take on the classic Talking Heads album of the same name.

"Fear Of Music took me at an age when I had very few defenses," Lethem said in an interview with Wired.

He first encountered the album when it was released in 1979 and he was a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, New York. In Lethem's view, the Talking Heads were "able to encompass the different meanings of the city - the dirty and dangerous parts of it, its allure, its pretensions, its sheer smartness and arrogance."

The album proves to be an interesting topic for Lethem, who's known for his best-selling novels Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress Of Solitude and Chronic City. Film and comic books have also figured heavily into his career: In a 2007 collaboration with Marvel Comics, Lethem revived the character Omega The Unknown in a ten-issue series; in 2010, he wrote a short book based on the classic John Carpenter sci-fi horror movie They Live.

The Talking Heads album Lethem tackles in Fear Of Music was so important to him, for so many decades, that he felt a sort of paralysis. It took six solid months of writing - and nearly four years of not writing - to finish the slender volume, which is the latest installment in the Continuum 33⅓ series of music books.

"It's just hard to write about music - you know the feeling, I'm sure," Lethem said. "It's much harder for me than writing about a book or a film... They're much more accessible to my normal set of tools - a narrative, characters, dialog and scenes."

In Lethem's book, Brian Eno - who worked closely with the Talking Heads, and was credited as producer on Fear Of Music - is a spectral presence who makes brief, mysterious cameo appearances. (I wrote the 33⅓ book on Eno's 1975 album, Another Green World.)

Lethem chose not to take a journalistic approach with Fear Of Music; there are no interviews with the band members, Eno or anyone else involved in the album's creation. "I didn't want this to be a kind of post-mortem reconstruction," Lethem said. "I wanted the entire record to spring from my encounter with it - the tangle of ideas that continued to stick from that experience."

The core characters in Lethem's book are the band's four members. "What I was arguing for was the sanctity of the foursome," Lethem said. "The collaborative unit of more or less equal parts."

Fear Of Music, Lethem said, turned out to be "really slippery" as a subject. The album seemed to raise more questions than it answered.

"Is it the band? Is it Eno? Is it David Byrne? Is it 1979? Is it punk?" Lethem said. "I'm still really interested in unearthing, excavating in that book the feeling of that band, and what they signified. Even the dress and the haircuts and the weird clarity of the song titles, and the arty minimalism of their album designs - all of this seemed to be saying something."

Lethem's passion for the group comes through forcefully in his writing. "Talking Heads were the definitive New York rock band," Lethem declares in the book. "Manhattan band, if you want to give the outer boroughs to The Ramones." Later, he writes, "The violence of my identification with Fear Of Music remains durably interesting to me even after I debunk it by shifting into this bland generational perspective, even after I admit it really isn't violence, except in a there's a war in my mind kind of way."

For his book on They Live, Lethem took a more meticulous approach, spending a lot of time reading up on director John Carpenter.

"I sort of studied to write that book," Lethem said. "I realized I didn't want to study with Fear Of Music... I was going to let myself go into a more subjective and poetical lexicon, basically. It was almost like I got my scholarship jones taken care of with They Live and I could be an unembarrassed non-scholar for Talking Heads - which is a more personal item for me, just because of when it enters my life."

Lethem's fascination with Talking Heads front man David Byrne, in particular, becomes increasingly clear as the book unfolds.

"You start to see the level at which the subjects in the early song lyrics, the first three records, seem like a series of really exciting, really vibrant coping mechanisms for a fearful and conflicted personality," Lethem said. "He's able to make fun of that, make it into a characte... I find it very arresting, and something I could identify with. It also seems very versatile, like a set of glasses you can put on and not only look through, but think through."

Lethem said he had run into Byrne a few times at parties, but had never thought of interviewing him or the other band members. "Generally, I have typical novelists' enthrallment with my own version of every story," Lethem joked. "I think I liked best the idea that I was going to write about the album, and to a lesser extent the band that made the album - but those people don't exist anymore."

The concept of a cohesive album doesn't really exist in the same way it did then, either.

"In 1979, you had an album - a very discrete, definite artistic statement," Lethem noted, almost wistfully. "This number of tracks, with no bonus tracks. Two sides. A cover. It really was an artifact, which had very definite artistic choices that were required. That weren't elastic, or just an option. They were a form that people worked within, like a sonnet or something. That was something that the Talking Heads seemed extremely engaged with... It was a project, at every level."