Jonathan Lethem On The Song That Puts The Fear Into 'Fear Of Music'
"In the summer of 1979, in New York City, a fifteen-year-old boy sitting in his bedroom heard a voice speaking to him over his radio. The voice said: 'Talking Heads have a new album. It's called Fear of Music.'"
So begins Jonathan Lethem's Fear of Music, a new, in-depth exploration of Talking Heads' third studio album and its transformative effect on the boy who grew up to be a MacArthur Award-winning novelist and essayist.
Lethem's Fear of Music is part of the 33 1/3 series, a set of books each inspired by and dedicated to a single classic album. In his book, Lethem mixes track-by-track close readings with autobiography in an attempt to interpret one of his great teenage obsessions.
In 1979, Lethem, who describes himself as an "awkward white fifteen-year-old," was struggling to navigate the complex social terrain of his primarily black and Hispanic Brooklyn neighborhood. Bookish and arty, the child of a painter father and a political activist mother (who died when Lethem was 13), he took refuge in passions that later played a formative role in his writing career: science fiction, comics and music.
"In a lot of ways I can see in retrospect," Lethem says, Fear of Music "was a message in a bottle to me, to tell me that who I was, and how I felt, was gonna be okay, and might even be a little better than okay."
Fear of Music, produced by Brian Eno, marked a new stage of Talking Heads' growth from New York art-school punks into a nationally prominent, critically acclaimed pop band. The album rose to No. 21 on the Billboard 200 and gave rise to the hit single "Life During Wartime." Lethem, however, is more intrigued by "Memories Can't Wait," the track immediately following it at the close of the album's A-side.
"Memories Can't Wait" is a dark departure from the Talking Heads' typical sound, musically and lyrically. I spoke with Lethem about how the song surprised him, how he grew to understand it and how it shaped his youth and taste in music. (You can read Lethem's chapter on "Memories Can't Wait," from his entry in the 33 1/3 series on Fear of Music, here.) According to Lethem, it's a song that lifts the band's typical veil of ironic distance to expose the raw emotions underneath — anger, alienation and fear.
Rachel Smith: In the book, your description of "Memories Can't Wait" is really over the top visceral. You write, "This dreadnaught of a song wears an exoskeleton of reverb and sonic crud as it grinds grimly uphill, armored like a Doctor Doom or Robocop who has been smeared with tar and then rolled like a cheese log in gravel. It is as if 'Memories Can't Wait' rides on spiked treads, a vehicle bogged in mud at the depths of the record's second side, and determined to climb into view over the crushed bodies of the other tracks." It sounds almost monstrous.
Jonathan Lethem: Well, it's the most aggressive song on the record, in terms of real deep aggression, and it's also the most depressed song on the album, I think, the most really, really abject one. Both of those things are threatening to me, and in a way you might say that the tone of "Memories Can't Wait" was a problem for me, because it wasn't exactly what I was going to Talking Heads, or Fear of Music, to get. And in fact, I make a couple of jokes that I think are indicative in that chapter. I talk about The Exorcist, or Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper." I had a really embarrassed resistance to things that came on as scary or doomy at that point in my life. Like the first time I heard The Doors, and the way Jim Morrison was storming around, that sort of doomy voice, I thought it was a joke. I didn't think anyone could sing like that and want to be taken seriously.
In a way, "Memories Can't Wait" is almost like a Doors song, by Talking Heads. It plays that kind of portentous doominess, in the way it sounds and in the way David Byrne sings. It's a little heavy metal-ish. I look at it, a little bit, like this band I like, this singer I like, dressed up in fake armor, trying to be scary. But at the same time, I must have been scared. For it to matter to me as much as it did, I must've been like, "Well I don't know, under that fake armor, it's really a monster. It's really scary."
And it seems to me a very important part of the record, and a very unusual song for the band, who maybe once or twice ever reach for that intensity — like I say, candid darkness, depression, rage — it's not typical. And it kind of anchors the uneasiness of the record in a really not ironic, not mediated or well-negotiated dark feeling, but a really raw one. And I'm now like totally sold on it.
RS: You were a teenager when you first heard Fear of Music, right?
JL: Yeah, I was fifteen, and very predisposed to fall in love with this record. In a lot of ways I can see in retrospect that I could never have articulated back then, it was somehow, in a sense, a message in a bottle to me, to tell me who I was, how I felt, was gonna be okay, and might even be a little better than OK, might be something I could start to brandish, or act like was a version of a personality that was cool and acceptable, and a way to feel that was viable. That is to say, I was an awkward white fifteen-year-old in New York city in an environment that was really super stimulating but also nervewracking, and I was very bookish, and I was very, very saturated with the sound of black disco and funk, that my body was very responsive to, but I was also kind of desperate for a music of my own.
And so this magical image, and the other thing that made me kind of a supertaster for this record, was that I had grown up as an art kid. My father was a painter, and I was already an art student myself, and so all the frameworks that seemed to be surrounding this music — the self-conscious brandishing of neuroses and fear, the bookishness, the pretentions to the visual arts, the celebration and anxiety about New York City, the sneaky relationship to black polyrhythms and dance music, but putting kind of a gawky white face on top of that — all of this just made it like a magic trick, I identified with it so totally. It also had narrative elements and language elements, motifs that really mattered a lot to me. It seemed to be kind of dystopian — kind of about that weird way in which everyday life could feel also a bit like a paranoid future. That certain kinds of encroachments of technology, or political paranoia, or the undertow of devastation in the urban environment, all of these could combine to make you feel like you were living in a sort of science fiction novel. And it seemed to me that Fear of Music was saying the same thing about everyday life — that it was both the future and the present all at once, that it was supposed to be totally normal, made up of familiar stuff — "Paper" and "Air" and "Drugs" and "Animals" — but it still had this ominous overtone, that all of these things could seem charged. Like they were grievances, or like they were your enemy in some way simultaneously.
I did my best in writing this book to go back and taste that feeling again, of the first approach to it. I mean, it was very funny. I could tell that it was smart, that it was anxious and self-conscious in a way I identified with, and that made me laugh. David Byrne's relationship to the band, his voice, the way it so totally enabled or supported the power, the tension, the in some ways robotic intensity of the musical setting. But at the same time it was always, like, flipping out. It was helpless in that same environment. This doubleness was very appealing, physically. Because, simultaneously, when you're fifteen years old anywhere and any time, you feel like you're the master of everything and like you're totally at the mercy of everything. And the Talking Heads seemed to me to catch some of that sensation, you know, that inside my fear was strength but inside my strength was a lot of fear.
RS: Did "Memories Can't Wait" itself scare you? Does it still scare you?
JL: Yeah, yeah, I think it does. It presents two different dangers simultaneously, and I think that's why it's a scary song. It presents the possibility — on the level of the presentation and the sound and the attack — of becoming so aggressive and so angry and so armored and ferocious in response to what makes you anxious that you become monstrous. But at the same time, it somehow can present the helplessness or the total dissolute, despondent plunge into depression that's right under the skin of that kind of anger, and make that really tangible too, and that's nightmarishly threatening too. That's what makes it so brilliant. So, the real fear the song arouses is: Where — between those two, between coming on so angry to avoid depression, or plunging into the maelstrom of sorrow underneath it, underneath those memories — where can you live? Where can you find space that's not one or the other, and go on?
RS: You write, of the line in the chorus that goes, "There's a party in my mind": "We can pretty easily project a 'Memories Can't Wait' movie in our heads." What does that movie look like?
JL: I see a very clear and simple tiny plotline in this song. To me, it's surveying the last hours at a loft party, in some kind urban industrial environment where people have been taking speedy drugs and staying up all night. And then, the pretense of it being fun and communal and being a party begin falling away, and the people who are still on their feet, or didn't take quite so many of the speedy drugs, go off back into their lives, and what's left are the dregs.
It's narrated by two disconnected, terrified party animals who are still awake and still in the space after it's cleared out. One of them is the principle narrator of the song. He's basically awake and feels like he'll never go to sleep. He's sitting there, maybe in a chair, or in a corner, or maybe he's standing on the dance floor like a zombie and the music's pulsating on because no one's turned it off, and he's like, "This will never stop. I didn't even need the party. It was in my mind to begin with, and my memories and my dread are keeping me awake but they're also all I have, they're what I am."
And you also hear a couple of other voices. There's one who's like, "I'm lying here, I can't wake up." You know, there's someone else who's in some sort of coma, or passed out, and who's almost speaking like a zombie or a dead body from the corner. But these figures are not able to connect with each other.
And then I think what's really interesting is that the music changes, but the voice doesn't seem to recognize the change. Because the sound is very turbulent; it's the sound of insomnia.
Suddenly there's a turn, and on the moment where the voices says, "Everything is very quiet, everyone has gone to sleep," it's as though the song soothes itself. The sounds become very dense and relaxed and dreamy, when they've been very agitated and very awake. The sounds become like, the mercy of sleep being permitted to this brain. But the vocal is still claiming to be out on this precipice of insomnia. You know, "I'll never sleep, I'll never sleep."
And that doesn't resolve. The song thinks it's passing out, the brain thinks it's still going on in hyperactive anxious memories.
It's almost like a nightmare scene, one of those stories you hear about someone who is trapped in an immobile body, like the anesthesia didn't work but they go under surgery and they can't speak or move to say that they're feeling everything that happens. [nervous laugh] Or, you know, the person whose spinal column collapses but they can still think and they just can't reach anyone on the outside.
There's this deepening of the loneliness of the narrator, in a way, because the song itself goes to sleep, and he's still awake.
RS: Growing up in New York in the time you did, you were in some ways quite close to this world that you were imagining ... and I don't know if in that scenario you were literally imagining people in bands go to parties like this. But, I mean, I'm just curious, did you ever find yourself at a party like that?
JL: Sure, sure. I mean, yeah, I don't wanna turn it into the humble-bragging of a degenerate wannabe 17-year-old punk rocker arriving only just slightly too late for the key years in lower Manhattan. But I did arrive to that world and it bore with it a lot of the properties of this description, absolutely. You know, that party is not unimaginable to me as something you could glimpse. Sure. But of course by the time I did that I also was armed with the descriptions, you know. We were making the world partly out of them, partly in order to be like our heroes.