22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2012
I hate to be critical of this author, because I consider him to be one of our greatest working novelists. Fortress of Solitude is probably my favorite novel of the past 20 years, at least. But he should not write music criticism. There are hardly any good ideas in this book, and it is groan-inducingly bad in many places. I would never have finished it if it weren't so short. It is almost entirely devoid of true inspiration or insight. The main theme of the book is this: This album really, really blew my mind when I was a precocious teenager in the greatest city in the whole world! Variations on this theme are interspersed with dull, wooden attempts at snappy but probing exegesis. You can feel him counting the words to meet his quota.
I'm sorry to pan this, but I consider it a public service. Upped a star because of how much I respect Lethem's fiction and other brilliant essays. I can't hang with this man intellectually, but I also can't hang with this book.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2012
Perhaps I've been out of the loop, but the question I have reading Jonathan Lethem's "Talking Heads Fear Of Music" is when did intentional Attention Deficit Disorder become celebrated with prose in popular culture? Maybe it begins with this book. I have tried repeatedly to plough through the author's series of ramblings on The Talking Heads "Fear Of Music," and each time, I lasted about three pages before calling it quits. It's not a question of my inability to scavenge through a torrent of art history debris. I've been confronted with dada, surrealism, shamanism, post WW I Lost Generation, Post WWII Eisenhowerism/John Cage(ism) and so on for many years now.
The only cohesion on offer in this zippy little book is a continual reference to the author's pre- teenage years when he first heard the album. He refers to this as, "the boy in the room," era of his development. It was nifty the first couple of times he used the term, and then it wore out its welcome as a structural point in his meta essay. And honestly, we don't know very much about this boy in the room. Did he also play with G.I. Joe? Why was this album his only friend, and possibly a substitute for something lacking? He might have explored that a little. He mentions having a college girlfriend, and sitting on a mattress on the floor in a student's apartment with this friend, listening to Al Green, and attempting to explain why Al Green is a luminary, not only in R and B circles, but in the wider American popular culture during the Vietnam years. I enjoyed reading about his college years, and I wanted to hear more, but that sort of content was meager.
The only thing I seem to be getting from this romp through experimentalism, and I'm not sure if I'll try again to pick it up to make sense of it (Oh, I get it, Stop Making Sense! Hey, that's neat!), is that Jonathan Lethem is too profoundly caught up in his attachment to the Talking Heads to offer anything like meaningful (structured) criticism. I mean, talk about an unabashed Band Crush. It's embarrassing. It's cringe worthy. And it's schmalzy the way he injects Talking Head song titles in a cutesy display of hipster banter. This is real geek territory being broached. I knew some folks like this in college, and while I was kind to them, I pitied them. Injecting pop music content into a conversation never impressed me as being all that witty. Pop music is in some respects an enforced mantra through endless rotation on FM radio and MTV. It's not all that clever to allow monosyllable audio packets to spill out of one's mouth during conversation. It's more like a case of severe social conditioning on display. Meaningful, original communication is replaced by throw away pop lines, "here we are now, entertain us." (That actually got a roar of laughter when an audience member in a suburban theater shouted it out at the beginning of a film in autumn 1991.)
The only question I'm left with is: Is the author attempting to duplicate the album's intense rhythmical and lyrical content by sounding angst ridden, paranoid, jittery, and all things David Byrne in the late 70's and early 80's when Byrne was deep into Bolivian marching powder? When Byrne himself suspects that he was suffering from Asberger's Syndrom? Is he helping us disrupt our sense of order in that Arthur Rimbaud/Jim Morrison tradition by presenting a non-linear essay that you the reader will struggle with, and then receive a profound insight much like a toy at the bottom of a kiddy cereal box? You got me. Charlie Brown got his rock after trick or treating. After reading thirty pages of Lethem's tome, all I got was annoyed.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2012
If you like Talking Heads (and come on, who doesn't?), and if you like Jonathan Lethem... or maybe a better way to phrase that: if you are interested in the way that Lethem's brain works, with the tangential side comments, brilliantly multifaceted paranoid obsessions and intertextual references, and finally, if you are fascinated by downtown New York in the late 70s, then it doesn't really get any better than this, does it? Lethem doesn't live in New York anymore, but it's obvious that New York has left a deep impression on the wiring of his brain, and he finds a sympathetic open circuit to plug into in this exploration of Fear of Music.
If you want to know the specific microphones Eno used to record the album, or what sorts of things the band members were fighting about when the album was produced, this may not be the 33 1/3 you are looking for. I actually love that sort of thing too, but this book is about more than that. The book covers Talking Heads, but it also covers Jonathan Lethem...and there are shades of Lionel Essrog and Perkus Tooth thrown in for good measure. It's a privilege to watch this guy's mind at work, and it's also a pretty wild ride.
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2012
Quick and simple, Jonathan Lethem has written a majestic tribute to one of rock music's turning point masterpieces. If you are a Talking Heads fan of any degree, you must read this. Don't brush your teeth or cut your hair, just add to cart.
Beautifully written from without a doubt an adoring fan. Puts the T-Heads into a great perspective. Thank You, Jonathan. The Heads have never been heralded as the geniuses they were. Pure aural art. (And visual when you have the vinyl editions of course!)
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 2012
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. It would have been nice to include a few quotes from the band on the actual making of the record. Skip this one altogether. A total waste of a read.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2013
If you are buying this because you're a fan of Talking Heads, as I am, I can guarantee you that this egocentric and narcissistic book by Jonathan Lethem will anger you. I want my money back. I want my time back. Awful book.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 8, 2013
I've read 'Gravity's Rainbow' and 'Infinite Jest'. I'm a reader who has NEVER in his life had to put a book down in response to being annoyed at the writer's style. He clearly loves his subject but I have tried, repeatedly, picking this mess up after setting it down for a few weeks and I just can't do it.
It's been six months, Mr Lethem. I've made it to page 76 (where side 2 starts up) and there's no place in my brain for your endlessly disjointed prose. I may try one of your novels for curiosity's sake but only if someone else pays for it. I'll be forever shying away from your name when I see it in my favorite book store. Sorry, dude, but you're giving me cramps.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 1, 2013
I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of this book. What's not to like? At one point Lethem remarks that his identification with Fear of Music as a teenager was so strong that you could have placed the album where his head was and it would have adequately represented his inner self. If you haven't ever felt that way about an album, book, or movie, this isn't a book you should read. Lethem isn't doing standard music criticism or cultural analysis--thank God, who needs more of that?--he's exploring the strange liminal zone between his own psyche and a rock album that got so deep under his skin (like Byrne's air) that it had a hand in forming it (his psyche).
But then, some people don't know s*** about the air.
For Lethem writing this book, everything seems to be up in the air. That's the point. Lethem can't tell where Fear of Music ends and he begins, or vice versa, and the reader isn't supposed to know either. And it comes directly from his heart to you. What Lethem can do as well as any music writer I've ever read, however (as he also showed in his novel You Don't Love Me Yet), is describe musical progressions and effects in coherent language that somehow captures the essence of music and meaning, that merges forms, creates prose that sings the praises of songs that narrate, so the music and the analysis get together, load their trucks, burn their notebooks, and change their hairstyles. This is one of those abilities that mystifies and humbles me: I don't know how Lethem does it. I can only absorb it admiringly and, as with great music, enjoy its ineffability and my own incapacity to understand how he does it. Ironic, because Lethem's Fear of Music is kind of about that: Lethem's still-adolescent fumbling, joyful, jerky, melancholy, intense, searching, desperate, weary and inspired attempt to come to terms with his inability to understand Fear of Music and, at the same time, his inability not to at least TRY. Maybe that's why some people didn't like it? Too naked, too honest, too raw--like Fear of Music the album, Fear of Music the book offers no comfort or solace besides the comfort and solace of forgoing comfort and solace: "I ain't got time for that now."
Fear of Music has been my favorite album for thirty years. My favorite song was Heaven, which is about a bar where they play your favorite song, all night long. (How's that for an infinity loop?) I had never read anything else by Lethem before I read his little book. It did not disappoint, which in itself is about as likely as a party where everyone leaves at exactly the same time. Lethem writes like a building on fire, like he's flat on his back, with no regrets, like he's a little freaked out, like he's charged up, like he's got it figured out, like he doesn't know what he's talking about, like there's a party in his mind, like he's inside a dry ice factory.
It's a good place. He gets his thinking done.
This is the book I read.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on June 27, 2012
Many years ago I was sat in my room watching TV one Christmas break. I happened to turn over to BBC2 and saw the most riveting concert ever. There was a big suited front-man, icy cool female bassist and an ensemble that made funky alternative music. I had never heard anything like it before. Stop Making Sense started my love affair with Talking Heads. I was too young to ever see them live so it was an absolute thrill.
Ok, did I bore you there? I hope not but entirely understand if I did because that's what this book is like. Well actually its far more densely written than that. Taking twenty words to say what five could. This book is not a story of the making of the rather superb Fear of Music album. Rather it is the authors love affair with that album and relating his boy in the bedroom experiences (as I did above) throughout. Each song is de-constructed chapter at a time. Interspersed with the odd chapter examining the piece as a whole (samples are 'Is Fear of Music a David Byrne Album?', 'Is Fear of Music an Asperger's record?' or 'Is Fear of Music a New York Album?'). There is no research into the making of the record really. No illuminating insights into the process. Just a 140 page essay on the albums effect and impact on the listener. Written in such a way that I found incredibly difficult to keep reading at times (I put the book down regularly as the writing was to dense). An example would be the opening to the Paper chapter (that obviously concerns itself with the song of the same name). It goes thus... 'Confronting the first of the tangible nouns, the band renews their commitment to guitars, which abruptly in command, seem delighted to have rehabilitated themselves from the daffy slackness of "mind".'
Did you follow that? I didn't pick that instance on purpose it was a random opening to a chapter.
So, I didn't enjoy the author being the main character of the piece, the prose or the fact that its just a very long essay on the book. I did enjoy the fact that it made me what to listen to it again. It does give you a feel of the genuine love of the album. It works in that regard.
So, in conclusion. 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. You will want to listen to the music again and you will feel the love the band emoted in this individual and possibly yourself. However, if you want something that tells the story of the albums genesis, construction and legacy then you need to look elsewhere.
34 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on May 21, 2012
In the Talking Heads song "Found a Job", which can be found on their second L.P. "More Songs About Buildings and Food", songwriter David Byrne gives voice to "Bob and Judy", a frustrated couple who bicker over the crap they watch nightly on television, and who eventually attain fulfillment/a happy ending by producing their own programs.
"Making up their own shows .. better than t.v."
Byrne's point to this amusing and insightful song is that rather than complain about on-the-nose art/entertainment, we should simply create our own, superior art/entertainment, and thus become part of the solution.
David Byrne wrote "Found a Job" in the 1970's.
In the year 2012 however, we are all more or less connected to the Internet, which can be employed, among many things, as a weapon for fighting on-the-nose art/entertainment.
If I don't like someone's book, I don't have to go out and write my own in a call-to-arms response; I can simply register my distaste on a message board, where potentially millions of people can read it, a little warning sign to a community I will never really know.
I'm no judgemental Adam though, there is an entire Internet culture that revolves around one's Right to having their say.
On the whole, Byrne's solution seems more satisfyingly elegant.
Perhaps it's no new phenomena. Criticism has long been a semi-respectable vocation; the Internet has merely given voice to the amateurs, aka the actually punters, the buying public. The teeming millions. And it's a pretty loud, coarse voice.
Preamble now complete, let me move onto my review of Jonathan Lethems book on Talking Heads' Fear of music.
I was really disappointed.
It read like a lengthy Pitchfork review .
If you take Ian MacDonald's 'Revolution in the Head' as a benchmark for popular music critique, a heady mixture which deconstructs the Beatles songs whilst also exploring the cultural context within which the band were placed; the author's opinions and flights of whimsy laced with tasty factoids concerning the recording and writing of the songs themselves, then Lethems effort is merely pretentiously overwrought and painfully self-referential by comparison.
The author's relentless overuse of his banal 'boy in the room' conceit - initially a mildly charming (thought hardly original) way of depicting the way in which exposure to Fear of Music affected him and shook up his then-sheltered world - becomes an almost unbearably grating phrase before a third of the book is gone - I simply couldn't believe the author kept returning to that shallow well.
The book contains little that most Talking Heads fans wouldn't already know and even less than it needs to know; none of the album's principle players are spoken to (indeed are hardly discussed), and the whole 'shhh, Talking Heads helped me accept black music and by extension its culture' angle is practically written on their Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame bio.
So what we get in this book is the (overly esoteric) musings a guy who likes an album a lot.
That's great, I like that particular album too. A lot.
But perhaps Jonathan Lethem shouldn't have taken his simple appreciation as a springboard to leap, insightless, into writing a book about the appreciated subject.
Because there is little to be found in this book, unless you value either the specific nostalgia of a complete stranger, or the florid language someone uses when they don't *really* have much to say - this particular reader didn't value those traits when coupled to the subject of the Talking Heads album Fear of Music, and as a consequence I struggled to get through it's slight volume.
Lastly, one doesn't need to go all the way to the top, that being Ian MacDonald's 'Revolution in the Head', to finding a comparison with which to measure Lethem's disappointing effort.
Bryan Waterman's book on Television's Marquee Moon, itself also a book from the very '33 1/3' series of which Jonathan Lethem's 'Fear of Music' is a contribution is a terrific read, written about a band with very similar pedigree to Talking Heads - Waterman actually went to the trouble of extensively researching his beloved subject, and the world of rock n' pop music writing is all the better for his efforts. Sadly, Talking Heads fans have been short-changed by Lethem's too-clever-by-half-assed approach.