FEAR OF FICTION Lethem says that Fear of Music “describes a tone of [an] intimate, neurotic — but seductive — paranoid personality that I think I probably quite shamelessly hoped that some of my earliest fiction would sound like.”
In every single rock documentary on the BBC, there comes a certain moment. An abrasive chord overtakes the soundtrack, followed by footage of Johnny Rotten scowling and the narrator's solemn intonation: "Then punk came along and changed everything." While the rest of the sequence is up for grabs, it usually involves stock images of angry youth skulking around decimated London streets, Queen Elizabeth's fated journey up the Thames, or spitting.
How easy the English must have had it. For them, punk was a clearly defined thing that everybody noticed. In England in the late '70s, things were punk or not. Punk had an easily recognizable style, a presence on the pop charts and in the papers. It had a politics. It had legs.
Here in America, things weren't quite so tidy. Although the CBGB awning now hangs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the notion of punk was slippery, weaving in and out of the general consciousness for roughly two decades before it stuck. Much of the confusion falls squarely on the Talking Heads, that O.G. CBGB act that wasn't only weird and preppy but eventually stadium-level big.
The weirdness of the Talking Heads was a source of great consternation for the writer Jonathan Lethem when he was a 15-year-old Brooklynite — specifically, the weirdness of their third LP, Fear of Music, the band's first foray into conga drums and overall funkiness.
"I needed Talking Heads to be a punk band," Lethem writes in his new book for the 33 1/3 series, Fear of Music. "Talking Heads were meant to epitomize my opportunities to construct a cool that pointed away from 'the street' and towards bookish things, but was still cool." Little wonder the band was at the fore of Lethem's frame of reference — Fear of Music, like Lethem's novels, is preoccupied with, and defined by, life in New York.
"One of the things in the record that's disturbing and exciting to me is this question of New York as a solipsistic reality and whether or not there's an outside," he told me in a phone call last week. Lethem's living that question — in recent years, the lifelong New Yorker moved to California to take David Foster Wallace's old teaching job in the writing department at Pomona College.
The move — and the arrival of Lethem's children — helped delay the book's publication. But it's not his whole excuse.
"I'm writing about New York from afar a lot more than people realize," he said. "They've pictured me in Brooklyn writing about Brooklyn, when in fact sometimes I was in Toronto writing about Brooklyn, or a farmhouse in Maine writing about Brooklyn. I usually was running away from New York as much as I was embracing it, but I'm always dwelling in it, in a 'there's a party in my mind' kind of way."
All in all, it took Lethem five years to write a 135 pages, in which time he wrote a book of essays, a book-length treatise on the John Carpenter classic They Live, and the beginnings of a new novel.