Pitchfork MAY 29, 2012 - by Jayson Greene


Author Jonathan Lethem on his 33⅓ book about the Talking Heads' third LP.

Fear Of Music is celebrated Brooklyn novelist Jonathan Lethem's agonized love letter to an inanimate object: Talking Heads' inscrutable, cruelly brilliant third record and second with Brian Eno. Lethem's installment in Continuum's 33⅓ series - which dedicates each volume to a classic album - is one of the few not written by a music critic, though the author's essays and fiction both brim with musical arcana and characters who lovingly, hopelessly spout it. As you might expect, Lethem brings X-ray scrutiny to bear on both the album in question and his own love, and the result is unusually perceptive - not just about Fear Of Music but about the furtive needs lying behind the critical impulse itself. In his poignant, rueful telling, Fear Of Music swept over the fifteen-year-old Lethem like a UFO passing over a cornfield, and he's been trying to recount the exact particulars of the encounter ever since.

Pitchfork: Your approach to Fear Of Music is decidedly personal. Did you instantly know that was the way you wanted to approach this project?

Jonathan Lethem: I dithered for a while, and inserted other projects, because I didn't know how to contend with it. I just lived with the intention without figuring out an approach for a really long time. And that's because it was hard; writing about music is really hard!

At some point, I figured out that the key to my interest in Fear Of Music was in the space between my expectations, my projections, my memories, and the actual presence of the physical record. As much as I care about historical context - I'm very eager to read a really great historical account, like the recent 33⅓ book on Marquee Moon - I wasn't gonna do that. I lived in New York in those years. I definitely care about how the concept of New York punk was constructed, and why it mattered. But I wasn't gonna do that. Partly because I'm not a great journalist, but also because this album seemed to me to exist in a slightly more timeless and esoteric space, and I wanted to puzzle out the ways it ruptured its own context. It didn't tell you only about who the people in the band were, or when it was made, or the history of rock'n'roll. It also had something to tell you about deeper, weirder questions.

You treat every song on this album like an impenetrable riddle to be sounded out. Which of those songs was the hardest for you to crack?

As a kid, if you're impressed with a rock band, you take anything they do as, like, monolithic. I was most geared up for the more esoteric songs, which were the ones that mattered the most to me already - a song like Memories Can't Wait always mystified and compelled me. But the ones that were harder were the ones that seemed like they broke the compact by being imperfect or inconsequential. Electric Guitar was a total pitfall for my approach, because it thumbed its nose at my deep feelings. It didn't seem to give a shit that I thought the record was great. It was playfully half-assed, kind of like playing tennis with someone who's barely bothering to hit the ball back across the net.

That's one of the more poignant aspects of the book - being fascinated by something that won't give you exactly what you need from it. You even compare your fingers stroking the cover to the "petitioning ape" that touches the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It won't acknowledge your finger-tipped impressions on itself, but it does change you. It plopped into your planet for a reason. It's there to do something to you. It's just really hard to make any impression in return.

This gets into the really ticklish area of the difference between me as the fifteen, or nineteen, or twenty-three-year-old fan, and me as the strange amalgam of fan and cultural artifact-maker that I've become at nearly fifty. Oddly enough, I can now identify with the position of the person who plops the monolith onto the planet. There are all sorts of ways in which that is a really complicated situation. As its maker, you sometimes want to pretend to impassivity, but the truth is that when I make a book, and someone has these intense feelings about it, I both am and am not the monolith. I'm all wound up in that relationship, but it's also really displaced for me in place and time. I'm not there when they're experiencing the book. I'm nowhere near the scene when those feelings happen.

When I think of that, I suddenly think about David Byrne singing in fifteen-year-old Jonathan Lethem's bedroom. He's not there. He's not located at site of my worship; he's like the women who pose for Playboy. The artist freezes himself into these weird postures that are meant to be impressive and involving, then he flings them out into the world like Polaroids, and then he moves on. And I'm stuck in this intense relationship to the Polaroid.

I sort of wrote a whole book about this before, which was lucky for me; I had no idea that The Disappointment Artist was a pathway to what I would do with Fear Of Music, but in a way, it's like a long last chapter to that project. I'm triangulating between the fan, the object, and the expectations and emotions that occur in that space. I'm realizing that it's really a rich and treacherous area for me. In my life, I've tended to be ready to be betrayed by things.

What was fifteen-year-old you's relationship to Talking Heads before you heard Fear Of Music?

The connection with this record was so pivotal for me, that I'm actually left guessing about whatever I knew before. There can be no question that I heard Psycho Killer and Take Me To The River on the radio. I guess I thought about them. It was probably dawning on me, just from the name of the band, that they might be really interesting. I don't know.

I do know that it became so important to me to fill in the missing information after Fear Of Music that I immediately acquired the earlier two records. I remember unwrapping More Songs About Buildings And Food as my Christmas present that year, 1979. My dad managed to do what he didn't always, which was follow my instructions when I asked for something, and he got me the LP. I played that album right in the wake of the first flush of my relationship to Fear Of Music. I wanted to act immediately as if I knew their whole catalog, but I really wonder if I'd heard more than the two singles on the radio.

You wrote about how you didn't know who Al Green was when you heard Take Me To The River, but then "tucked a throb of embarrassment under a rapidly constructed tinfoil hat of knowingness." That speaks to anyone who writes about music, for sure.

I'm a serial deconstructor of my own authority in certain areas. Maybe I think it's some kind of important ethical gesture, like, "I loved this when I was totally full of shit about it, and I might still be full of shit about it - I certainly didn't have all these weird facts that I'm flinging at you to construct my authority." I made it very much my business to be able to bore any other teenager on the subject of who Brian Eno was within a few months of hearing Fear Of Music, but in fact I had no idea at all when I first laid eyes on his name.

As a fiction writer, you have an interesting relationship to criticism. You've done both, sometimes as the same act, within the same work. Did you feel like you were wearing a particular hat when you wrote this book?

Honestly, I felt that I was wearing my Jonathan Lethem hat. I've constructed this version of me, who I use occasionally. I wrote that essay about Star Wars, and that's the point of origin for the Jonathan Lethem Hat I put on for this book. He's a little nerdier than I am.

That guy's a dork!

I have no one to blame for the construction for myself, of course, but I'm always surprised and slightly sulky when I realize people are buying the whole thing. Like, "Oh, that poor little dweeb, Jonathan Lethem." I wanna say, "It's a really good stance to write from, but I thought you guys knew I had a little bit of ironic distance in there!" This is like a little playlet that I know how to put on now: Look at poor Lethem crouching with nothing to cover his nakedness but Fear Of Music.

Did you have any music critics in mind when you wrote this?

I was a voracious consumer of what you'd call Founding Father rock writing. Paul Williams, [Robert] Christgau, Greg Shaw, obviously Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis - that stuff mattered enormously to me. Not just because it was articulating stuff I was really, really eager to see people talking seriously about, but because there was a tradition of the "Invention of the Voice" in the first-generation writers. The way they claimed authority about stuff that people thought was dispensable or ephemeral - that intensity and commitment - was really important to me. It seemed to say something about writing from a margin, about risking being accused of over-thinking about marginalized stuff. You can see that in the mix in a book like Motherless Brooklyn or The Fortress Of Solitude.

So when I started getting chances to do some of it myself, it was like a badge I ordered myself by accident. Because I made the main character in The Fortress Of Solitude into a music writer, everyone thought I already was one! To the literal extent that when Rolling Stone handed me this crazy assignment to go be in the recording studio with James Brown, they had the misapprehension that I'd written for them a lot already just because I claimed my character had. It was this strange sleight of hand. I'd go on a book tour and people would want to give me the secret handshake of a graduate from Stuyvesant High School, because my character had gone there. "I'm sorry, that wasn't my high school."

So I obliged. I took the music-writing assignments very seriously and tried to invent a way to do it. And I found out that by reading this stuff voraciously for all those years, I could find my way to some authority. But it wasn't in my plan.

You mentioned the Marquee Moon 33⅓ book, were there any others from the series that you admired?

I've read a bunch of them. I probably own at least half. It caught my attention right away, and a good friend of mine, Andrew Hultkrans, wrote one of the best early ones on Forever Changes. I'm not too embarrassed to say I'm the definition of the target audience. This is my generation, the one of exalting music in album form. It's a brief moment that's maybe passing now, but 33⅓ freezes it, for me. Some of us need it frozen to say, "There was this art form." That seems to be one of the crucial things about it.

It's why I didn't have any great difficulty in picking the record I wanted to do, I knew right away that if I was choosing from a few that I loved, I would have picked something exactly like Fear Of Music, in a sense that it's an album as album. It has album-ness. It's an album that was built. And that seems to me what's so beautiful about the proportion of the 33⅓ project; with the essays or the monographs, the ratio feels about an album to me. That was the thing they got right with the very first one, and it continues to go on pleasing me to see it happen again and again. I have a few extreme favorites, Douglas Wolk's James Brown book, and even though I can't follow all the musicological notations, Franklin Bruno's Armed Forces [by Elvis Costello & The Attractions] book absolutely won me over. I love that book. Like the whole world, I love Carl Wilson's Celine Dion book and a number of others, like John Darnielle's [book on Black Sabbath's Master Of Reality].

Do you generally listen to music when you write?

Always. This is going to sound very Fear Of Music, but I have a horror of silence while I'm writing. It's like the universe is howling at me if I don't have it. Nowadays it's pretty much iTunes on shuffle. I'm not planning what I listen to, except when I think the music can guide me to some emotional place I want to be reminded of.

Did you listen to Fear Of Music on loop when you wrote this book?

Yeah, it drove my family totally insane, but I had to do it. There were times when I was also just figuring stuff out, so I'd be listening to a fifteen-second sequence. When it got to songs with a lot of sound effects in them like Memories Can't Wait or Drugs, I would just have one tiny stretch of the song looping, while I worked out what it sounded like to me. I'd make up files where I had fifteen versions of Air - different live versions, or if a song had an alternate mix. My Cities file was thirty versions long. I actually had an all-Fear Of Music iPod. There were just versions from the eleven songs from the record. No other songs allowed.

That also feels like something vaguely Talking Heads-y somehow.

I suppose it is, yeah. I haven't quite wanted to wreck it by using it for other things.

After you finished the book, did you put the album back on?

Yeah. The strange thing is, it's become dear to me in a different way. I resolved my anxieties about loving it, and now it just sounds sort of delicious. I play it, and I'm loving everything, which means I've gotten my comeuppance. I'm waiting; I'm probably going to put it on someday soon, and it'll sound like a hideous confrontation with all sorts of unresolved feelings that will make me feel that the book is totally inadequate and a failure and that all my closure about this record is completely bogus. But at this moment, I'm enjoying it.