"It was easy to say I wanted to do it and get 33 1/3 to agree, but suddenly I was staring into the abyss," he said. "What does anyone have to say about a record in the length of a book? It meant so much to me. And I'm not a musicologist — I don't have the language of musical analysis available, so I had to invent my own ways of bringing language to this problem — this, er, project."
The result isn't typical music writing. Lethem didn't find out how the record was made or couch it in a wider musical context. He didn't talk to the people responsible for making it — even when fate provided him with the opportunity.
FUTURES PAST “One of the things I felt very conscious of,” says Lethem, “was the people who are walking around today as ex-members of the previously-existing band the Talking Heads are not the people they were in 1979.”
"I saw David Byrne twice and I avoided him both times," he said. "We were in the same party or in the same room, and I didn't cross the room." Lethem didn't want to talk to the giraffe-necked auteur, since he worried about the effect it might have on the book he was writing. And he wanted to focus on the record itself.
"One of the things I felt very conscious of was the people who are walking around today as ex-members of the previously-existing band the Talking Heads are not the people they were in 1979," he said. "If I could get in a time machine and go to meet them then, I might have felt a little more urgent about it, but that's never possible."
"I've had conversations with people who've just had an excited experience reading my first novel, which is much more alive to them than it could ever be, anymore, to me. I'm almost 50, and that book was begun by a 22-year-old. I don't know a tremendous amount about how he felt anymore. It's a mystery to me, too."
Instead of questioning the band, he interrogated himself and his 35-year personal history with these songs. The result is a broad range of ways to approach Fear of Music — as a Talking Heads record, as a David Byrne record, as a New York record, and as an Asperger's record, among other interpretations.
"It's a record I have an on-again, off-again relationship to," he said. "There have been times when I've felt really close to it and times when I barred myself from connection to it. So I had to re-immerse and find out what the record sounds like to me now. I authorized myself to go in my own more eccentric orbit around the thing."
In a way, Lethem's fiction can be interpreted in part as an eccentric orbit around the Talking Heads. He wrote four noir-ish, sci-fi-ish books in the early '90s before his 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn — a work about a detective with Asperger's — won the National Book Critic's Circle Award for fiction. His subsequent book, Fortress of Solitude, was a bravura New York novel that solidified Lethem's reputation as his generation's bard of Brooklyn.