A Cargo Cult

Jonathan Lethem, Fear of Music

Continuum, 131pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781441121004

reviewed by Lena Friesen

The story of an album can best be told in one of two ways: it can be a kind of blow-by-blow account of how it came into being; or it can be an inner examination, the kind where outer knowledge and mere facts (beyond the songs themselves) actually get in the way of writing about the album in particular, so strong is the effect of the music and the cover and the whole aura of the thing. This recent book in Continuum’s ‘33 1/3’ series on albums is the latter; a chance for obsession, not technical details, to take over. This is a fan’s book, as the 33 1/3 books invariably are, but with a difference – there are no interviews, no ‘fresh’ material per se. The relationship here is pure – between the listener and the album itself.

Jonathan Lethem takes us back to where and who he was – a fifteen-year-old living in Brooklyn – when he became obsessed, from the radio ad for the album onwards, with Talkings Heads’ third studio album, Fear of Music, released in August 1979. That fifteen-year-old self, by Lethem’s admission, takes over the book at times. Nothing escapes his notice: what does the title mean? What does the cover imply? Lethem obsesses and worries in that myopic, peculiarly adolescent way which renders anyone else’s ideas and notions or opinions about Talking Heads, songwriter David Byrne, producer Brian Eno et al. pointless. And so he burrows into himself, conversing with that teenager-still-within, who must have urged him to write about Fear of Music – the most difficult, most prickly, most New York of Talking Heads’ albums – in the first place.

And he likes its difficulties, likes its generic song titles, the sense that the Talking Heads loved and were unnerved in turn by New York City. Their Fear of Music splays out into Lethem’s bedroom to ultimately become a fear of everything, a fear that takes over the album. Lethem attacks each song musically and lyrically like a man returning to a battlefield years after the war, insisting – you get the sense arguing with him would be of no use, he knows these songs and this band too well – that ultimately the fear had to be expressed before it could be tossed aside, that the album’s black steely cover is a prison of sorts for these uncomfortable songs, and for the author’s teenage self as well.

Some of the questions are interesting – how much of its brilliance is the producer’s doing, as opposed to the band’s? How could these songs be performed live? Is Fear of Music an Asperger’s record? (Or rather, does David Byrne have Asperger’s syndrome? Lethem is not willing to say yes or no outright.) Lethem considers how ‘Fear of Music, if you wore it like a mask over your usual head, could be kind of machine for coping.’

‘At the peak, in 1980 or 1981, my identification was so complete that I might have wished to wear the album
Fear of Music in place of my head so as to be more clearly seen by those around me.’

Other questions seem more obviously answered: to a fifteen-year-old sci-fi fan, of course this album, concerned with ‘dissolving authority and control’ is going to be part of the sci-fi landscape. Lethem is sharp and joyous by turns, turning this dark and nervous album over and over, trying to decipher it; and his recognition that he is part of a ‘cargo cult’ that was equally obsessed by it is charming. Here, at long last, Lethem gets to say and think and communicate so much about an album that makes the most sense, ultimately, in not making any sense at all. Lethem acknowledges that Talking Heads’ later, more commercially successful albums struck an altogether more positive note; and yet this is the one that belongs to him, that is his mirror image: ‘the false reflection displayed to me a self that was just enough off-register to be completely revealing.’

Once that knowledge is understood, once the boy grows up, all of the other albums to come are in some way obvious and yet lacking. Lethem’s Fear of Music - and by the end, it is almost as if he, not the band, had recorded the album – is a steel-plated capsule of himself, his fears and concerns. An enthusiastic and expressive blend of impressions and obsessions, Lethem’s book is a fitting tribute to the album’s mysterious and relentless energy.
Lena Friesen is a graduate of Ryerson University, Toronto, and writes the blog Music Sounds Better With Two. She is based in London.