Thursday, August 02, 2012

Wordy Rappinghood

Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem. Continuum. 141 pages. $12.95

            “I need something to change your mind,” David Byrne sings, repeatedly, on one of the most gripping tracks of Talking Heads’ 1979 album Fear of Music, and you can’t help but wonder whom he’s talking to and what he’s talking about.
Time won’t change you
Money won’t change you
I haven’t got the faintest idea
Everything seems to be up in the air at this point
I need something to change your mind
I need something to change your mind…

            The more he sings, the more fixated he sounds, as if he has locked horns with some immutable law of the universe. Not just money and time, but science and religion can’t change you either. Even I can’t change you, he sings, so what will?
            It’s not long before you figure he isn’t talking about a change of opinion, but a total reversal, a complete do-over. Maybe he’s saying “I want you to have a different brain altogether, one more like mine. Maybe that would be easier for both of us …” Lest you think he’s a complete control freak, he adds that this wish for change “comes directly from my heart to you.” I love you, and if you love me – you’ll change! Into me!

            It’s a voice we hear throughout the album, on one song after the next, at varying registers of tenderness and fear – and it could belong to a nut on the subway or the head of a conglomerate, neither of whom can force the world to work in his favor.
             The album is a masterpiece of obsession, and in Jonathan Lethem’s new book -- the latest in Continuum Publishing’s 33 1/3 series, which examines classic albums at book-length – it has found its ideal listener. The book is an extended essay not just on the album but on the nature of a middle-aged fan’s single-minded devotion to it, dating back to its arrival, when Lethem was 15. It’s been a source of much thought over the course of his last 33 years, and it’s no surprise that Lethem offers some solid insights into the album; he takes it apart song by song, and also offers a variety of approaches toward interpreting the album as a whole. It’s an often exhilarating exercise in music appreciation, and it suits the subject that it is also such a frustrating and painfully self-indulgent one as well.
            The problem is that middle-aged Jonathan is a little too in love with young Jonathan, whom he keeps dragging on to the stage; he fondly remembers the kid sitting in his bedroom, playing the album for hours on end, and he feels a responsibility to that memory.
            “That kid in his room: I’ve dragged him into the light of so many contexts he ought to be pictured by now as if blackened from head to toe with font,” he writes. ”I want to leave him alone but I can’t quite yet, need his assistance for this one last run (last – hah!) on the fortress of his vulnerability.” He can’t get to the record without accessing that kid. Fear of Music is not just a record for Lethem; it’s his Rosebud, as well as a testament to his own arrested development.
            Lethem’s particular fondness for Fear of Music also has something to do with just where it falls in the Talking Heads canon. It’s a transitional album, bridging the smart, bookish, ironic quartet of art students who made Talking Heads 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food with the ones that would embrace African music on Remain in Light and let their full-orchestra funk flag fly on Speaking in Tongues. Longtime fans, those who were there from the start, regard it with a certain proprietary affection, the way Springsteen fans cling to The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. Lethem suggests that Fear of Music is in many ways the last Talking Heads album before the band went public, filled arenas and made movies, and that the songs seem to suggest as much, that “its terminal status is disclosed throughout the album in the form of a series of small but unmistakable fissures, in the form of tiny farewells …”
            It is, also, an album that gave off a certain alienation effect, and literally wears its sense of dread on its sleeve. (Forgive me here if I speak in strictly vinyl terms, as I still prefer my own worn, skipping copy.) The cover design is all black, with vertical rows of raised right and left slash marks, suggesting tire tread or, as Lethem suggests, “a steel door or box, imprinted either for friction’s sake, or to repel graffiti or stickering.”  On the inner sleeve is a black and white thermograph of a man, possibly David Byrne, distorted beyond all recognition, his head and shoulders a series of thick, blurry lines.
            If on the surface the record promises to be droning, dull, and nihilistic, the music goes the opposite direction. Once you drop the needle, the record jumps, starting with the first track, “I Zimbra,” where a jungle rhythm propels a chant of what seem to be nonsense lyrics. The album that follows tackled despair with more liveliness than any other band since Joy Division; alienation made danceable. It proved road-worthy, too, liberated from the sterile studio space carved out by producer Brian Eno; you can hear almost every song played to a rousing, jumping crowd on the two-disc set The Name of This Band is Talking Heads.
            And yet, beneath those dense layers of sound is a lonely album about the desire and the inability to communicate. “I Zimbra” itself was a declaration of purpose, not just of where the band was headed – into world music and funk -- but where others had already been. The song was an adaptation of a 1916 “sound poem” by Hugo Ball, one of the founders of Dada, the anarchic art movement intended as an appropriately absurd response to World War I. If there was a message, perhaps it was to stop making sense. Over sixty years later, David Byrne heard and responded.
            The main single from the record was “Life During Wartime,” an alternately hilarious and haunting track where a hip young student who finds himself stuck in a war zone, where school, records, and nightclubs have no relevance. It’s a situation that in some degree is reflected in almost every track, as Byrne seems to be inhabiting someone who feels himself under fire, not just from bombs but from things in general, with song titles such as “Mind,” “Paper,” “Cities,” “Air,” “Animals,” and “Electric Guitar.” The world is full of nouns poised to attack.
            “Hold the paper up to the light! Some rays pass right through!” he sings in “Paper,” sounding as if he’s arrived at some odd realization that has no meaning to anyone but himself. In the hilarious “Animals,” he’s upset that our furry friends get to live by rules that we don’t. “Animals think … they’re pretty smart/Shit on the ground … see in the dark.” He doesn’t trust animals; he thinks they’re laughing at us – and if they heard the song, they probably would be. In “Air,” the singer could easily be talking about pollution -- but also about the possibility that he, distinct from everyone else, has realized that maybe breathing itself is lethal. “Some people say not to worry about the air, some people never had experience with air.” (Huh? And just what makes his own experience so unique?)

            The multi-personae Byrne forges on this album brings to mind the mentally disturbed young man in Nabokov’s great short story, “Signs and Symbols,” who suffers from “referential mania,” a kind of psychotic solipsism where “the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.”

Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful ways messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.

The fear is internal as well, not just in the afore-mentioned “Mind,” but in “Memories Can’t Wait,” where the singer is stuck inside his own world with the walls closing in, attending a party in his mind because he doesn’t want to face painful memories that are closing in.  By the time you get to the last track, “Drugs,” with Byrne singing “Pull down the shade and it’s all right/ It’ll be over in a minute or two,” you don’t know if he’s talking about a passing migraine, murder or suicide.
                        What I liked about Lethem’s book is that he’s intent, in keeping with the wishes of his teenage self, to keep the record unanswerable: “an array of stones facing one another in an endless circle, each amplifying a cumulative mystery with their own.” To his credit, Lethem doesn’t always try to make perfect sense of the album, because it occasionally skirts the rational. The song “Paper,” for example: “The harder you try to parse the lyrics, the more they resemble a vortex of notes – pages flying off a calendar, or perhaps a refrigerator daubed with Post-Its, proposals for possible songs about paper that never quite got around to being written.”
            Fascinatingly, he also considers at one point whether it’s just possible that this album, which has such a totemic significance to his past, succeeds in spite of itself, that the band and producer Brian Eno were able to make scraps of ideas simply work in their favor, that the songs resemble haiku.
            He subjects it to a number of different angles, not just as an expression of paranoia, but also maybe of Asperger’s Syndrome, or as a New York album “by the definitive New York rock band,” a band more at home at CBGB’s or the Mudd Club than it ever could be in Houston, Detroit or Pittsburgh, PA.
            It may also be an attempt at biography. Lethem suggests that deep within the grooves may be David Byrne’s own identity crisis as the band he created became more of a commodity: “Could Talking Heads be the mind the singer’s afraid he can’t change? How do you change a mind you’re in, one that dreamed you up in the first place?” Lethem further sees in the album an attempt by Byrne, in the song “Cities,” to come to terms with the same Middle America he spurned on “The Big Country” from More Songs – “a snapshot of an in-progress negotiation with the ineradicable fact of other places.” And he tosses off a not-bad suggestion that “Life During Wartime” could be a veiled reference to touring: “Overloaded vans, dubious transmissions (bad sound check?), the struggle to organize passports and visas, etc.”
            Lethem leaves no stray thought behind, however, and seems unaware when he’s just  grasping at straws. Is there really some significance to the fact that two of the titles have the same number of characters? Also, his prose can be so self-involved and self-amused that he’s either painful to read – such as when he describes a bass line on one song as being like a frog that escaped from another song – or just damned hard to follow. Passages like the following, amidst his discussion of “Life During Wartime,” flew way over my head: “The song contains fear, and while the world as we know it is a very large container, it’s nevertheless smaller than some other things. Like being itself, or world-and-self. It’s a `situation.’ And situations can get better.” [Italics his, all his.]
            His thoughts can often go on like this, wandering so far from the song that you wonder if he couldn’t just as well be talking about “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” He uses twisted, tortured metaphors to drill through layers of abstraction, often sounding as if he’s trying to match wits with the record by way of his own clanky, atonal, off-putting prose style.
            If, in the end, Lethem seems to imagine as much meaning as he finds, what he finds is interesting. He doesn’t want to change your mind; he wants to give your mind something to work against, and he more than achieves that goal in this loony, illuminating book.

P.S. I think this is one of those cases where the amateur Amazon critics were a lot more on the money than the critics. The standard news outlets – the New York Times, Slate, etc. -- were simply too in love with the idea of Jonathan Lethem, major novelist and Macarthur Grant recipient, writing a book about Talking Heads to pay much attention to the results. They were all “Ooooooh, cool, that Jonathan, what a true Renaissance man, he has graced the lowly Continuum series with his lordly presence.”

The Amazon readers were fans of the record or the 33 1/3 series, not the author. His reputation meant nothing; they were strictly interested in what he brought to the table, and the majority thought he came up short.

  • “One of the worst in the series. No insight into the making of the music. Simply the author's masturbatory ramblings and self-satisfying hyperbole.”

  • “If you want an in depth look at the album track by track by a celebrated author that sheds no light on the music that hasn't already been shed then this is for you.”

  • “This is a book about a teenaged boy in his bedroom, and it reads like what most teenaged boys do when they are alone in their bedrooms.”

  • “Some authors of this series prefer to talk solely about their relationship with the record, and this is one of them. There's a lot of `boy in the room’ drivel. There's a lot of discussion about stuff which is at best tangential to the record. Very very few interesting factoids are slipped in.”

  • “… pretentiously overwrought and painfully self-referential"

  • “It is the view of a super fan, and lacks insight into the band.”

I had a decidedly mixed to negative take on the book, but I’m with these guys in spirit.

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