Is ‘Fear of Music’ A Book?

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It’s an inevitably posed question, perhaps a fake-clever one, given Jonathan Lethem’s cheeky chapter titles in his new entry in Continuum’s 33 1/3 series about Talking Heads’ 1979 album Fear of Music. “Is Fear of Music A Talking Heads Record?” he asks in one. “Is Fear of Music A Text?” he poses in another. Plus, it’s also an obvious answer. Of course it’s a book. That’s the title right there on the 9-inch spine of the Continuum edition, just below the series’ logo, and its number in the set, which specifically is 86. But the answer is also yes in a far deeper way. Jonathan Lethem’s Fear of Music is profoundly a book.

Drowning in endless meta-analysis, classic recordings become easily reinspected via deluxe reissues, documentaries, tours recreating albums start-to-finish, oral histories, YouTube wormholes, and countless fan-driven back-channels, until their tracks get worn down and dulled by the proverbial gaze. The best of Continuum’s ongoing series — they just accepted proposals for volumes 87 and up — seem to effortlessly bypass the morass, becoming not only distinct cultural objects, but ones that actually enhance the aura of the originals. The books’ 4¾” x 6½” dimensions are about an inch too wide to be comfortably pocket-sized — the age of skinny jeans has not been kind to pocket paperbacks — but along with their black borders and color schemes matched from the covers of the LPs described therein, they are instantly recognizable. Their lack of titles besides those of the original albums somehow imbues them with paradoxically more identity.

The 33 1/3 books are books in the deepest possible way, in a manner that seems to grow rarer by the year: the cheap, usable kind of book that might eventually enter circulation at used bookstores and garage sales, making themselves (and their subjects and writers) that much less likely to slip into oblivion. Adding to the warmly mechanical aura of the series is its genuine pulpiness. At ten dollars retail, and often stamped out on-demand by Amazon, not all of the titles are winners, though misfires are often less due to a hackjob and more because a fan can’t quite quite get it all out. That or plain over-thinking. The treasures are real, though, ranging from deliciously researched monographs (Douglas Wolk’s Live at the Apollo, Amanda Petrusich’s Pink Moon) to imaginative and aching novellas (John Darnielle’s Master of Reality, John Niven’s Music From Big Pink) to finely honed fan-letters (Mike McGonigal’s Loveless), cultural critiques (Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love), and dozens of other approaches.

For noted paperback-head Jonathan Lethem (another chapter: “Is Fear of Music a Science Fiction Album?”) the form is a perfect match. He quickly lands on an elegant solution to the structural problem of how to write about an album, danced with by all of 33 1/3’s seven-dozen alums. Lethem simply alternates chapters named after tracks with chapters titled something else, in this case, his playful questions. It is a near-perfect workaround. The book stays focused on Fear of Music as experienced and Lethem resists the urge to slip too deeply into its creators’ timeline in anything beyond a passing way. The resultant text somehow manages to create the illusion of living wholly within the original record’s 40 minute, 40 second duration, despite taking (most likely) longer to read.

The answer to another question — Is Fear of Music a Jonathan Lethem Book? — is also a hearty yes. Conveying far more truth about music than his ostensible indie rock novel, You Don’t Love Me Yet, it sometimes functions like a Critical Edition appendix to Fortress of Solitude. Beginning with Lethem as a 15-year old listening to the radio alone in his bedroom, the writer admits, “I’ve dragged [my teenage self] into the light of so many contexts he ought to be pictured by now as if blackened from head to toe with font.” But, perhaps because it’s everything a 33 1/3 title should be — readable, not too abstract, a good introduction to an album’s culture, and album culture as a whole – -it turns out to be a fine thing (just this once) that “the keyboard’s entirely in the kid’s hands.”

“Turn it up, for fuck’s sake,” Lethem suggests as he is supposed to in the book’s forward, but the most appropriate method of consumption might be headphones, where the experience of the Talking Heads’ music and Lethem’s writing might be that much more integrated, producer Brian Eno’s subtle treatments filling the spaces between words. Here’s Lethem on the fade-in intro to “Cities”:
The next ambulance is audible from miles away, klaxons screaming, tires swerving and juttering on blacktop, chassis screaming across the horizon, the whole thing lit up like, well, a house on fire… Hearing it approach, you understand this party has no beginning or end, never stops, only moves on to the next town.
Deftly, Lethem describes the sound and feeling of the recording while gracefully connecting it to the songs around it — in this case, “Life During Wartime” and “Mind.” Not to give too much away about Lethem the Younger’s activities, but still another chapter title is “So Fear of Music is a Concept Album. What Happens on Side Two?” Locating and tracing a path to the album’s center in the single-word song titles and internal hashtags — fear, music, mind, cities, air, and others — he establishes a basic language for the album that checks out with his teenage and contemporary selves. It adds up easily, piece by piece. This is no Greil Marcus imagining Bob Dylan gurgling with the breath of a Civil War soldier, but a conscientious listener pulling lovingly on Byrne’s threads, using them to find passage to a bigger well of ideas behind them.

As in a concert film where the musicians subtly grow louder when the cameras focus on them, Lethem’s observations — about the lyrics or otherwise — act as something like a conceptual remastering job on the record, inevitably transforming the reader’s next listen, with new lyrics, guitar parts, and ambiences coming to the foreground. In this way, Lethem’s treatment of Fear of Music demonstrates in a precise, direct way just what it is possible to get out of cultivating a deep relationship with an individual recording.

At one point, Lethem links “Heaven” to a “Fear of Nowhere sequence” within the bigger Heads songbook, stretching from 1978’s “Big Country” to 1985’s “Road to Nowhere.” But Fear of Music — Lethem’s Fear of Music, that is, not the Heads’ — is definitively not nowhere. Consumed at the right age (much like Talking Heads’ music itself), Fear of Music — a cool little green and black paperback — might provide a young reader/listener with a friendly road to somewhere indeed, connecting her to a much bigger conversation about art and life and music. And for a Talking Heads fan who might’ve overplayed Fear of Music into oblivion, it might provide a surprising and welcome road home.

But no matter what metaphors Lethem’s book provokes through its arch self-reference, it always gracefully reinforces its sheer bookiness. The reading experience is surely better while listening to Talking Heads (much in life is), but it’s not strictly necessary. Lethem recreates the album so thoroughly that — listening or not — one is destined to end up in the self-contained world of his book, the Talking Heads themselves appearing in pantomime, but still playing rather loudly, at a party that might never really stop, even after the last page.

Find Myself A City To Live In: Ed Sanders’ Fug You & Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings On Fire


Finding the entrance points to New York’s musical undergrounds has never been quite as simple as decoding MTA maps, though that’s usually the first step. Two excellent new books chart a decade-and-a-half worth of street-level detail, illuminating not only entrance points, but how they were willed into existence. Ed Sanders’ Fug You: An Informal History of the PEACE EYE BOOKSTORE, the FUCK YOU PRESS, the FUGS, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side handles 1962-1970, while Will Hermes’ astonishing Love Goes To Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever takes care of 1973-1977. The City’s secret connecting forces, the subway and otherwise, rumble evocatively beneath each, both New York classics in their ways.

Besides Allen Ginsberg, there was perhaps no bigger mover, shaker, or self-promoter in the mid-’60s East Village than Ed Sanders. Born in Kansas City in 1939, he founded The Fugs with the poet Tuli Kupferberg, immortalized in Howl!, who “jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alley ways & firetrucks.” As a singer, bookstore owner, and poetry zine publisher Sanders found national notoriety, including a February 1967 cover of Life, and helped network the New York counterculture to a larger national platform. Like Neal Cassady in the west, Sanders provided a link, as well, between the Beats and the hippies, and — in Sanders’ case — soon the Yippies. “We’re on the EAST SIDE,” The Fugs sang proudly on “We’re The Fugs,” a sloppy and joyous theme song that came two years pre-Monkees, and giggled in the face of congenial West Village guitar strummers. “Dope, peace, magic Gods in the tree trunks, and GROUP GROPE,” Sanders declared on “Group Grope.” They never quite made it big — they didn’t quite crack the top 50 on the Cashbox chart — but it was enough.

There is glee in Sanders’ vivid telling, playing straight man to an absurd world, despite being the one making the pornographic avant-garde films and selling Allen Ginsberg’s pubic hair and “well-scooped cold cream jar” through a rare books catalog he operated from his bookstore, where he spat out publications on a mimeograph. He is fond of asides that call lightly on deeper traditions he locates himself in, often the Egyptian hieroglyphics he taught himself to read at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  “Allen and Peter Orlovsky located a three-room pad at 704 East Fifth Street, near Avenue C, on the sixth floor. It was just $35 a month — Hail to Thee, O Rent Control!” For Sanders, the glory of the City is as a staging ground for what he has called “the forces of peace,” a thread he traced in his nine-volume America: A History in Verse, published between 2000 and 2008, which reads like an upbeat Howard Zinn and (besides The Fugs’ first recordings) is arguably Sanders’ most essential work.

In Fug You, those Forces wander local bars and underground newspaper headquarters, weather obscenity busts and CIA tails, and engage in pornographic avant-garde cinema and the still-thriving poetry scene. Sanders spews a dense and heady stew of facts, dates, and addresses with a mostly compelling lightness, cutting it every now and again with some groovy beauty. Here he is on The Fugs’ entrance to a 1968 gig in Los Angeles:
The club had rented a searchlight the night of our rite, which beamed white tunnels of psychedelic allure up towards Aquarius. There was an anarcho-bacchic Goof Strut parade into the parking lot of the club behind a mint-condition ’38 Dodge (similar to a Kienholz work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
But Sanders’ details can grow mechanical (or, worse, self-aggrandizing) as they accumulate. He enthusiastically catalogs group gropes and the varieties of drug use, but rarely gives much of his own experiences. There is almost none of his midwestern upbringing, and precious little on the brilliant and vivacious Tuli Kupferberg. Sanders himself has been a slightly-too-enthusiastic ’60s memoirist since at least 1975, when he published the first volume of his Tales of Beatnik Glory novels, and it’s possible he’s just out-biographied himself, which might account for Fug You’s occasional cold formality, despite its title. Though there is an element of archetypal ’60s solipsism to Fug You, and much of Sanders work, Sanders was there and kept his bearings.

For all that, though, Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings on Fire comes across as more personal than Fug You. A Queens teen in the mid-’70s, Hermes himself shows up throughout, offering surprisingly tender evocations of his music-loving youth. “I’d been mugged on trains a few times, twice at knifepoint, coming home from Manhattan shows alone at night,” he writes, segueing from a Village Voice cover story about the atrocious state of the subway.
But the worst was in May [1977], when I was stuck on a broken-down E train for an hour en route to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to meet a girl I was cross-eyed crushed-out on. She had tickets to see the Grateful Dead five hours north that night, at Cornell University’s Barton Hall. When I finally arrived, the girl and the bus — the last Ithaca run of the day — were gone. …Fucking subway.
Though drugs and the Dead turn up enough times to communicate that Hermes is writing from his continued position as a serious music head,  Love Goes To Buildings on Fire is hardly a memoir in a literal sense. Instead, he picks up not long after where Sanders left off, the East Side counterculture almost in ruins at the outset. Though plenty of books have covered similar subjects — notably Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, and Tony Fletcher’s All Hopped Up and Ready to Go — Hermes finds fresh details everywhere, a dizzying succession that piles luminously atop another in a bright layering of punk, hip-hop, disco, Latin, avant-garde, and jazz history.

In a typical passage, he writes, “As it turned out, Einstein [on the Beach]’s most indelible music involved the incantations of ‘One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight,’ which were being rehearsed on Spring Street just as the Ramones, down at CBGB, counted off every song “One-two-three-four!” He specializes in sudden juxtapositions, jumping from Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorcese’s favorite post-work Chinese-run Latin joint (La Tacita de Oro on 99th and Broadway) while shooting Taxi Driver, to Rubèn Blades’ favorite post-work Chinese-Cuban place (La Caridad on 78th and Broadway) not far away, near the Beacon Theater.

Two of the genres whose births Hermes recounts — hip-hop and disco — arguably evolved into the two most global pop genres of the 21st century, both in forms directly traceable to New York in the mid-’70s. Other developments in punk and minimalism forever changed the conversation, sound, and infrastructures of rock and roll and classical music. Though the ceaseless crashing of names might prove overwhelming to non-music obsessives, quick trips to YouTube are an easy fix. At its most basic, the book is a rich and invaluable crash course in the roots of contemporary music.

As much as it belongs on that of any serious music fan, Love Goes To Buildings on Fire especially, belongs on a long NYC-centric bookshelf that begins with Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World. Read as an oddly upbeat and unintentional sequel to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, the heroes of Love Goes To Buildings on Fire are themselves pivot points in New York’s history between “Ford To City: Drop Dead” and the MARCH squads dispatched by the Rudolph Giuliani/Michael Bloomberg-era NYPD to crack down on illegal artist lofts. Mark Alan Stamaty’s Buildings on Fire cover illustration depicts the teeming City perfectly, musicians’ caricatures sprouting like towering fauna from the cement. It was a City growing denser. In 1960, just before Ed Sanders arrived in New York, there were roughly 336 artists, writers, and musicians per 100,000 American citizens, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. By 1980, just after the end of Hermes’s period, that number was up to around 565 per 100,000, and likely even greater in Manhattan, where the general population had shrunk to its lowest level in a half-century, a City about to transform into something beyond its own oddest dreams.

The sounds and ideas of disco and hip-hop and punk and salsa and minimalism and free jazz made their way across rivers and around the world on the backs of ever-cheaper technologies. Everywhere, they mushed into advertising and bland pop mutations, but also freethinking new turns, where the blueprints for counterculture remain deep inside the music, ready for deployment against lame government, bureaucracy, or blandness. And though those people making wondrous new things in their bedrooms or garages might not identify themselves as the Forces of Peace as much as Sanders and his Pentagon-levitating brethren may like, there is little else they could possibly be.