Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jonathan Lethem's "Fear of Music"

Of course I remember them.  It has only been in recent years however, that I have really come to appreciate them.

I am referring to The Talking Heads.  Living in rural Indiana, I didn’t come across them until “Once In a Lifetime,” “Burning Down the House,” and “Wild Life” all made regular appearances on the radio airwaves.  Then there were of course snippets of their film, Stop Making Sense that made it onto Nite Flight on the USA Network.  Sigh…remember Nite Flight?  That’s a subject for another nostalgic post.

Speaking of nostalgia, less than one month into my freshman year in college, I had a professor play a Talking Heads song in class.  The class was The Contemporary Situation and the song was “Television Man.”  Quite fitting, really, but sadly at the time we were snot-nosed kids, raised on Prince and Guns N Roses among other bands.  So we just exchanged dumb looks with each other during the song.

Unbeknownst to me, The Talking Heads had of course been around far longer than my first encounter and certainly long before I was unwittingly blessed with “Television Man” that first month in college.  In fact, it is one of their earlier records, 1979’s Fear of Music that is often considered their best.  I missed it the first time and am only just now playing the brilliant tracks from it.  One writer was there from the get go, in the veritable backyard of the band’s location.  That’s Jonathan Lethem, author of books such as Gun With Occasional Music…books I need to read, but that’s an entirely different matter.

Living in New York City in 1979, Lethem nearly wore out the record Fear of Music.  Remember kids, this was well before the digital computer age effloresced and music used to come on this stuff called “vinyl.”  Lethem went to every show that he could, seeing The Talking Heads playing in legendary joints like CBGBs and The Mudd Club.  As he said, “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.”

Sounds like me and Duran Duran.

I can’t say I blame Lethem.  Every single Talking Heads song, even when they are being deliberately obtuse or silly, has an intellectual quality to it.  I am just now finding this out for myself.  Lethem has been there for the whole ride.  As testament to this fact, he has just released a new book called…fittingly enough…Fear of Music.    I’ve yet to read it but this review in the New York Times is enough to get it onto my list.  My ever-growing list.

When you delve into the songs and subject matter on Fear of Music, the record not the book, it’s almost a no-brainer that I’d come to appreciate it.  There’s “Life During Wartime,” about a guy in a collapsing civilization who is living on peanut butter while listening to rumors of war, weapons shipments, and mass graveyards.  There’s “Air,” a statement on air quality, and “Paper,” about a love affair with…well, a piece of paper.

It's an odd bag of mixed emotions when you "discover" a band that's been around for so long.  First, you're excited as the music is of course new to you.  There are few things more exhilarating to me than hearing a song I like for the first time.  In the case of fantast David Byrne and his cohorts, it's an almost mystical experience as well. 
Then there's that feeling of embarrassment, that sense of "I need to hand in my Pop Culture Card as I completely missed this when it was going on." 

Oh well, better late than never.  I need to thank that professor for playing "Television Man," even if I didn't fully appreciate it first time.

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