Wide Awake on Memories: A Look at Jonathan Lethem’s 33 1/3

Talking Heads’ Fear of Music
by Jonathan Lethem
Continuum; 160 p. 

I am so glad I wasn’t born when Jonathan Lethem was born. Now that he is middle-aged and recounting his love of Fear of Music, the third full-length album by the Talking Heads, he has many albatrosses to contend with (nervously, mockingly). His friend, for instance, insists Jerry Harrison’s involvement before the recording of 77 signaled the end of “pure” Talking Heads. He sounds like a barrel of laughs. There’s also Lethem’s “primal distrust” of “I Zimbra”‘s lyrical refusal of meaning (to which I say, if you’re curious: whatever, old man), and his eagerness to name the “worst” song on Fear of Music even as he extols its virtues, as if someone would take away his critic’s badge if he didn’t mention the unpopularity of “Electric Guitar.” Then there’s his reflexive reliance on bootlegs and vinyl, as well as his insistence on reminding us of his ownership of these artifacts. But of course! Needless to say, he opens with a plea for the reader to listen to the record on real speakers and listen to it loud, as if there was any doubt that he enjoyed the sound of it.

No burden is greater, however, than the memory of what it felt like to be a teenager in 1979, or rather what it felt like to be Jonathan Lethem in 1979. I cheerfully remain ignorant of that problem, and Lethem remains as self-aware as he ever was, which can be both annoying and endearing. I have the advantage of never hearing Talking Heads the way he did; as he points out early on, I should run for the hills with my meaning and my stories about this wonderful and weird album. He argues, I hope with tongue in cheek, that reading his words will leave an indelible impression.

It sure is cheeky of him to suggest that I could possibly feel the brunt of his experience more intensely than my own. There’s a lot of cheekiness in Jonathan Lethem’s 33 1/3 about Fear of Music, an album which is my second favorite of theirs only because of sentimental attachment to the one that precedes it, More Songs About Buildings and Food. To state my own love and devotion to this band seems defensive, petulant even, in the shadow of this 33 1/3 authored by the most famous (in an NPR sort of way) person in the series. How, after all, could I truly get this album if I were not Jonathan Lethem? I had not been in a room in a brownstone in 1970s Brooklyn, listening to the radio at the exact moment the ad for the LP was broadcast on WNEW. I had never been to the Mudd Club and I was only ever in CBGB once, upstairs, circa—are you ready for the gaucheness—2006. Worst of all, I don’t remember what it was like to have never heard this record. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the Talking Heads like my telephone number. Thanks a lot, parents! See, it’s hard for me not to be childish here. I have difficulty sharing.

In spite of my own one-sided history with the band and the album and Lethem himself, I was ready to unfold my arms and embrace this 33 1/3. Lethem is smart, aggravatingly enough, and on point in many ways in his music criticism, if one puts aside his generational cliches. Let’s look at a highlight reel.

Lethem on the funniest song on the record (sorry, “Animals,” thanks for playing), “Cities”: “It’s a disco ambulance.” “Yup,” I wrote dumbly in the margins.

On “Memories Can’t Wait,” my favorite song on the album: “Your mind is a van loaded with weapons pointed at you.” Clever! Bringing in other lyrics to demonstrate the shift in tone this song represents. Also, that’s terrifying.

On “Life During Wartime,” that unimpeachable classic: “A bunch of cops or soldiers have burst through a set of loft doors (imprinted with the album jacket’s anti-skid pattern) to find the band break-necking at a new national anthem, one so pressured and mordant, so churlish and stern, it ought to be illegal if it isn’t already.” Pumping my fist in the air at that one!

There are some clunkers though. Like this one about “Memories Can’t Wait”: “The only thing African about this track is you’re probably not comfortable there.” Woof. Leave that one on the cutting room floor. Or this about the Weymouth sisters appearing on “Air”: “The female element, ordinarily sublimated in this band— this bassist adamantly one of the boys—here breaks teasingly to the surface. In fact the bassist appears to have tripled herself.” Again, I’m glad we weren’t fifteen years old at the same time; he might not have reached this ripe old age he’s enjoying.

I should have seen this coming—our minor disagreements (the narcissism of small differences, to paraphrase Lethem) are inevitable because we agree on a fundamental point. The words we write wouldn’t exist without the experience we had, years and cities and flaws apart, with Talking Heads. It was an experience that led us both to champion them as Our Band, which not-so-incidentally is an idea that David Byrne continues to cherish; globally shared experiences erase the regional identity afforded to the New York stereotype hanging in hip arrested development, and that’s just fine, even preferable. Don’t worry about it. You don’t have time for it now.

There are some totems that I worship begrudgingly, but Fear of Music isn’t one of them; I bow down with ease. It’s delightful to read gushing praise about something you can nod along with for the most part. Who am I to argue with the most enduring theme in Lethem’s work: there’s nothing more sacred, more everlasting, than a listening experience at that exact moment when you feel as if you own the art you like. Nothing came before it, so there’s nothing that could ever be like it again. And when you have the kind of taste that Lethem has (it’s extraordinary, is it not, how he managed to pick all the cool things, despite being woefully uncool?), it is easy to return to what you loved. Imagine what sort of work Lethem would have turned out had he loved something indefensible. What if this had been a 33 1/3 about Under the Table and Dreaming? I probably wouldn’t have begged to read it. We are one. We are People Who Came of Age Loving Talking Heads. This is basically the whole purpose of the 33 1/3 series, boiled down to one idea: I like this album, and you do too. Let’s listen to it together.

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