The New York Times Book Review
A virtuoso performance by a writer at the peak of his powers, tackling one of his great obsessions: The Talking Heads.
The New York Times Book Review
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Fear of Music
By Jonathan Lethem
Continuum International Publishing GroupCopyright © 2012 Jonathan Lethem
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI Zimbra
The sinuous crisis of "I Zimbra" attains maximum velocity before we're prepared, a transmission in Morse code and stroboscopic scratch guitar thrusting us at once into the album's future (dystopian) and the band's future (utopian). In this double action it remains fundamentally impassive, discrete, impersonal — atopian. "I Zimbra" reaches beyond Fear of Music even as it opens a door into the record, makes an overture for it. Inscribing a seductive emergency state in our bodies while refusing to name a subject our minds can grasp, the song inoculates us with a "killed virus" version of Fear of Music that strengthens and sickens simultaneously. "I Zimbra" is untrustworthy. It compels the listener without bothering to persuade him. The formerly human band has mistaken itself for a machine in operation outside space, time, and mind. Or has it graduated and left us behind? No one's saying. "I Zimbra" has its way with us, like sexual desire or fear itself, which enact themselves in a place beyond language.
Yet, mocking us, there is language, of a kind.
Gadget berry bomber clamored Lazuli loony caloric cad jam Ah! Bum berry glassily gland ride He glassily tufty zebra—
Or so it might unfold, in the fool's yearning spell-check of the ear — at least until corrected by the lyric sheet. For anyone demanding sense, or instructions on how to feel about the journey you've undertaken in dropping the phonograph's needle on this particular record, here's a Dada left hook to the jaw.
* * *
The mind making retrospective sense of the artwork is a liar. Or a lie. Unspooling expertise and arcana, the critic spins a web of knowingness that veils its manufacturer, a spider shy of the light. Now here you come, whistling down the bookstore aisle — "Always liked that record; wonder what he's got to say about it?" — to be enmeshed in the web of expertise. Before you blink, the spider's remade you as his double, another presider over this mesh of opinions and trivia, which you're free to brandish as your own. Or maybe not free, but imprisoned. Caught. Do you care to recall what it was like to hear "I Zimbra" before, like a scoop of ice cream rolled in chopped peanuts, I got my words all over (and embedded inside) it? Better retreat quick, friend.
At what point did I learn that Hugo Ball (1886–1927), German-born Dada poet and manifesto-writer, was the source of the crypto-tribal chanted nonsense syllables that pass for lyrics on "I Zimbra"? I can't tell you. I do know this: I was, from the start, an inveterate inspector of credits, a curator of microdata. "H. Ball" as a co-composer (with D. Byrne and B. Eno) was there to be spotted on Fear of Music's label, and I probably spotted him before too long. But I'm also certain of this: there was a before. For I remember, dimly, the collision of that knowledge with my primal distrust of the song's refusal of meaning. I resolutely didn't want this band to stop making sense.
The boy in his room demands we take this confession further, take the opportunity to say how, when in first inspecting More Songs About Buildings and Food's label he discovered the names "A. Green and M. Hodges" credited with composition of his favorite punk rock hit of 1978, he tucked a throb of embarrassment behind a rapidly constructed tinfoil hat of knowingness: oh, sure, "Take Me to the River" was an old R&B or gospel song, makes sense. What a cool gesture on the part of his heroes! At the time the boy guessed the song was probably from the fifties or early sixties, had been funked up by Talking Heads. The boy recalls, with absolute clarity, going on to wonder to himself whether he'd ever know anything more about "A. Green and M. Hodges" than the fact they'd written the song.
Then again, a mere seven years (and seven thousand revolutions of emotion and taste) later, that boy — not such a boy now, but still enough of one to deserve the name — sat on a mattress with his college girlfriend and played her selected tracks from his complete collection of original-issue Al Green Hi Records LPs. Between tracks, in the manner of bragging how far he'd come, the boy retailed this exact saga of his innocence: that he'd once stared at a Talking Heads' label and wondered whether he'd ever know who Al Green was. By that time, the boy found his old attachment to Talking Heads an awkward thing, incriminatingly callow, the residue of awkward origins. Meanwhile, his devotion to the works of Al Green seemed to him to define his worldliness. If you'd announced to that twenty year-old that a quarter-century on he'd be writing a book about Talking Heads, rather than one about Al Green, he'd have arched a skeptical eyebrow.
The point is how right and wrong you can be at once. And that the "information" is only as good as what your ears already know. Or not as good. Like a lot of people, when I — for I am that boy in that room — first heard it I thought "I Zimbra" sounded African. Not, I hasten to say, in the sense of African music as I presently know and revere it, for I didn't know what African music sounded like. Rather, under the influence of the track's conga drums, the singing to me sounded like fake-tribal-chanting in some African language, Swahili or Zulu or, worse, an invented ooga-booga tongue, an art-school highbrow's version of the cannibal grunts and moans in The Cadets' "Stranded in the Jungle."
In as much, the resemblance embarrassed and bothered me, but I could never have articulated the botheration for many years to come. It was too personal. My disapproval of white-boys-acting-black had determined the plot of my life to that point, my schoolyard crises, musical and otherwise, and was the exact reason I'd fallen on non-blues-based punk or new wave bands with such exultant relief. 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. I didn't need them glancing at Africa, with or without quotation marks.
Later I'd learn that this band had conceived Fear of Music as a chance to close some of the distance between punk and disco. For me, though, it was for the best at the time that I hadn't learned that fact, and that my aural defenses were good enough to keep me from hearing it. I needed Talking Heads to be a punk band, not a funk band. But in "I Zimbra" I couldn't help hearing — as anyone would, and everyone did, at least in the retrospect of Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues — the homeopathic tincture, the minimum effective transformative dose, of all the funk to come.
This white band was going to have black people in it.
Maybe already did.
But that's getting way, way ahead of ourselves, especially ahead of the boy in his room.
Brian Eno, the only acknowledged intruder on the "official quartet" of Talking Heads to this point, was British and bald, and played not drums or bass but keyboards, or sat geekishly behind a console. Talk about Trojan Horses!
Into this confusion plopped the clue: Hugo Ball. Finding "I Zimbra" credited in part to the dead Dada poet, I could modulate my worries about this turn to the African, but only a little. My ears were still telling me something, still anxiously parsing this harbinger of the band's future (destined, of course, to consist of a series of collaborations with live black musicians, not dead Dada poets).
But what did it mean? Inquiring minds, licensed to overthinking by this band's fundamentally cerebral founding premise — heads, talking, rather than bodies unhinged from self-consciousness on the dance floor — might be obligated to bear down on the thing. Hugo Ball's poem, by deflecting meaning, accumulated speculative-interpretive force, like a Rorschach blot. Dada — European, collagistic, prone to manifestos and provocation, to sneering at history — made a fair bedfellow for punk. The song claimed a precursor in Dada's guttural and spasmodic presentation, and its freedom from conventional logic, but also its tendency to the regimented and doctrinaire. Hugo Ball's drill-sargeanty nonsense, and the immobile geometric armor he wore while presenting it onstage: these both satirized the human impulse to control human impulses, and exemplified the discipline needed to make that kind of artwork (if nothing else, a song or poem composed in an invented language foregrounds the labor of memorization that's normally taken for granted in performance).
Still, 1916 Zurich is an awfully long way for a rock band to venture merely to authorize use of nonsense syllables. From well before the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" and long after the Police's "Da Doo Doo Doo," the rock lexicon abounds with blurts and grunts and gibberish of a zoological diversity. Some historically-minded folks place the very origin of the rock song-form in the realm of verbal hoo-ha: early rock-and-roll as a jubilant, irreverent expansion of the nonsense asides in vocal jazz and rhythm-and-blues, or of the kind of Pentecostal babbling-in-tongues recorded by John Lomax in the 1934 "Run Old Jeremiah": "I gotta rock / You gotta rock / Wah wah ho / Wah wah wah ho." The conventional reading of the nonsense lyric — or the James Brown grunt, or of jazz scatting — might be that the voice, seeking to reproduce the wild expressivity of the band's instruments, finds it necessary to leave verbal meaning in the dust.
The vocal manner of "I Zimbra" stakes out a different turf. It distinguishes itself not only from the above-described premises for nonsense verbiage, but from Talking Heads' previously established default conceptual-scheme, which goes something like this: freaked-out singer tests his anxieties, vulnerabilities, and yearnings against the bounds of a music that's fierce and impassive in ways he can only dream of. The metronomic drumming and monolithically regular bass lines, the tight-wound guitar-and-keyboard figures, sometimes menacing, sometimes chipper, sometimes both, but always crucially less — or more — than human: on Talking Heads' first two albums, the band frames David Byrne's voice and lyrics as a fragile human entity locked into a ferocious exoskeletal structure, one driving him through confessions, passive-aggressive fits, and bemused homilies about work, love, art, and television.
That voice, when bored, sighs: stays human.
When alienated, reveals dread: stays human.
When angry, goes spastic: stays human.
It is only with "I Zimbra" that this voice inscribes its complicity with the machine or machines that bear it forward. Chanting in lockstep, the vocal of "I Zimbra" reveals and celebrates a new possibility of neurosis-free compliance to the music's urgency. It's not only nonsense, it's impersonal. Nobody's home. Or maybe it's an undead lifelessness. Like a vampire, the song gazes in the mirror and finds nothing reflected; it dashes through the room before we've noticed it casts no shadow.
* * *
"I Zimbra," considered as an envoi to Fear of Music, plays at refuting the album's methodology before it even gets started, and at the same time clears the ground for that methodology's deepest operations. For Fear of Music is all about its subject matter. Like a high school social studies teacher chalking a heading on a blackboard, the song titles function as "topics for discussion." "I Zimbra" coughs into its fist and says "bullshit" to that plan: your pedagogy is all talk, perfesser, and talk is all nonsense.
The implicit "I" of the band, to this point, was nothing to sneeze at. The persona on Talking Heads '77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food had been funny, neurotic, pretentious, and nerdishly intense — capable, variously, of Dylanesque break-up songs, anthems of mixed emotion, and deadpan self-help advisories which dare you to take them at face value. Yet in every case it tended to exhibit a "personality" — someone, whether you want to call him "David Byrne" or "Psycho Killer" or something else — who can be safely taken by the listener as either a portrait or a self-portrait.
What "I Zimbra" announces is the destruction of this individual limit to the band's paranoiac worldview. This is a huge, if stealthy, gain for the album's overarching authority. Our lives all feature air, paper, cities, mind, animals, memories, war, and so forth. "We dress like students, we dress like housewives ..." Fear of Music will be a collective enunciation in which the listener is helplessly enmeshed or it will be nothing much — a "comedy album" (cf. Lester Bangs). By evaporating his individuality into the group-incantation of "I Zimbra" the singer prepares us, if only subconsciously, for our complicity with matters beyond any individual character's neurotic grievances.
"I Zimbra"'s origin encodes Fear of Music's motifs in one other sense: the Dada movement itself was a response to "life during wartime." The European aftermath of the Great War seemed to dwarf all attempts at humane commemoration or remorse; trench warfare and mustard gas and shellshock were the language Hugo Ball and his fellow Dadaists sought to overwrite with their avant-gibberish.
* * *
If there's any back door out of the future-shock corridor of "I Zimbra" it is proposed not by the singers, but by the bass player, who frequently seems to direct her instrument's line into a rubbery skid toward this one-lane-highway's ditch. The propulsive quorum — drums, guitar, and vocals — ignore her renegade proposal, pushing ever forward. The keyboard, gnarling in a neurotic collision with itself, never betrays the song's pace, and so seems celebratory, a bow on the tightly wrapped package. This keyboard sound, ascending in jubilant dysfunction, concludes the track, boasting no exit, no exit, no exit. Relief comes not from within "I Zimbra"'s tensile structure, but from our easeful fall to the next song's seeming amplitude and warmth. But look out.
Is Fear of Music a Talking Heads Record?
The opening few songs in Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads' concert film, Stop Making Sense, reenact or allegorize the band's early formation and later expansion: first the songwriter, alone with guitar and a beatbox, then bass player and drummer to form a rhythm section in support of him, then the keyboard player, who also plays second guitar. Expansion follows: conga players, back-up singers, a second bass, and a second keyboardist — yet anyone who cares for this band is meant to understand that the inner nougat, the band's hard chewy center, is made complete when the fourth member appears on stage. Jerry Harrison, that fourth member, was actually added after Talking Heads had already declared themselves — and, as these things go, I do know at least one stone purist, happy privileged witness to a string of early gigs, who swears by the band as a threesome, claiming their ferocity and focus was irrevocably diluted by Harrison's entry into Talking Heads — but he made it aboard in time for the first record. That's good enough to qualify for a World Series share, or a plaque in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, should a band make it that far.
Brian Eno, the first "Fifth Head," the aforementioned Trojan or stalking horse for all expansions to follow, doesn't appear in Stop Making Sense.
A Talking Heads record? To the kid in the room, a stupid question. The quartet of the band, as presented on the first three records, and as would be reaffirmed by the back-to-basics (and post-Eno) Little Creatures, never, at the time of Fear of Music, seemed in the faintest doubt. Brian Eno was a producer. He hadn't joined Devo, had he?
Yet as quickly as the band's next album, Remain in Light (1980) and then the Byrne–Eno collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981) — two records as undeniable in their force and mystery as anything a listener could have wished — the original band's integrity was partly conquered by another story. This went something like: a prodigy, a genius, outgrew, or anyway became impatient with, a context and a format — "rock band" and "pop song" — and at the same time, or as a result, began to separate himself from a group of friends, his bandmates. At the same time, the genius became infatuated with another genius, he who happened to be famously an outgrower too, specifically of the context and format of "rock band" and "pop song."
Excerpted from Fear of Music by Jonathan Lethem Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Lethem . Excerpted by permission of Continuum International Publishing Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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