Jonathan Lethem and David Byrne Explain It All

Jonathan Lethem and David Byrne were both featured in Seed Magazine‘s “Seed Salon” in 2007 though not in conversation with each other: Lethem was in the March issue with Janna Levin, while Byrne was paired with Daniel Levitin in the June issue.* In his This is Your Brain on Music (Penguin, 2006), the latter writes,

David Byrne is generally known for his abstract, arty lyrics, with a touch of the cerebral. In his solo performance of ‘Lilies of the Valley’, he sings about being alone and scared. Part of our appreciation for this lyric is enhanced by knowing something about the artist, or at least the artist’s persona, as an eccentric intellectual, who rarely revealed something as raw and transparent as being afraid (p. 244).

How Music WorksIn How Music Works (McSweeney’s, 2012), Byrne reveals less fear and more fearlessness. He eschews what he calls the “crowded shelf” of aging-rock-star biographies and instead brings together a career’s worth of insight on the practice and process of music-making, from performing and using studio technology to building a business and maintaining a community. Byrne’s attention to the neglected factors that contribute to music-making (e.g., the physical context of its performance, the physical context of its reception by the listener, the available recording technology, live amplification, collaborators, producers, instruments, etc.) make this book a must-read for anyone interested in music or making it. It’s also beautifully put together, with tons of color photographs and an elaborate, cushioned cover.

Twenty-six years ago, Byrne predicted that computers would have little influence on the arts by 2007 (Long, 1987, p.94), but How Music Works more than makes up for his former oversights. It’s as comprehensive as it is constructive. As with previous books, Byrne strays in ways one wouldn’t expect, and always in ways you’ll want to follow.

Talking Heads

Byrne credits CBGB for the scene he and Talking Heads came up in. “The mere existence of CBGB facilitated the creation of the bands and songs that touched our hearts and souls,” he writes. “It was the right size, the right shape, and in the right place” (p. 253). In relation to the other New York bands of the time, James Wolcott describes Talking Heads as “deceptively light, a model airplane with a erratic flight pattern” (p. 135). NME‘s Paul Rambali wrote that their 1979 record, Fear of Music, “doesn’t sound like an album at all, just songs caught in full flight and grouped together in a pleasant combination” (quoted in Sheppard, 2008, p. 322). Jonathan Lethem, who wrote one of my favorite novels of all-time partially concerned with flight and partially set in the New York of the time (Fortress of Solitude; Vintage, 2004), triangulates his musings in Fear of Music (the book; Continuum, 2012) using Fear of Music (the record), his adolescent self (who first heard the record), and his grown-up self (who’s writing the book). Initial sketches of the album were recorded by a mobile studio van parked outside Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz’s apartment in New York. With cables running from the van up through the windows, they hashed out the basic tracks. It was art as ephemera, a provisional situation at best, and it gave them the creative constraints that both Byrne and collaborator Brian Eno crave so much.

Fear of Music

On “Mind,” David Byrne adopts the voice of a “paternal narrator without flaw or dysfunction,” as Ian Gittins (2004, p. 53) puts it. Lethem characterizes the song as decidedly liminal, a narrator arising from the negative space between identities. Much of Fear of Music (the book) emerges similarly in interludes between Lethem’s song-by-song analysis. The interstitial chapters pose such questions as “Is Fear of Music a Talking Heads Record?,” “Is Fear of Music a David Byrne Album?,” “Is Fear of Music a Text?,” “Is Fear of Music a Science Fiction Record?,” and “Is Fear of Music a New York Album?,” Lethem looks for the heart of the record from all angles. The Bottom Line is that if you love this record, you’ll love Lethem’s book — and that’s not necessarily true of all of the books in this series.

Brain Eno, who’d also produced 1978’s More Songs About Buildings and Food, joined in again as the fifth Talking Head on Fear of Music. His collaborations with Byrne and the band redefined the studio-as-instrument idea. On the funked-up “Animals,” Eno ran the bass drum signal through a synthesizer, added an echo, then filtered out the distortion (Tamm, 1995). Practices like this eventually became commonplace, but Eno and Talking Heads were pushing boundaries. All of their pushing on “Animals” landed them squarely On the One (that start-stop hallmark of Classic Funk). “A studio is a situation with literally infinite possibilities,” Eno would later say (quoted in Sheppard, 2008). Even so, as Byrne discusses at length in How Music Works, as a band Talking Heads were still very much a live act. Eno pushed them beyond that on Fear of Music, with “more overdubs and wiggly treatments,” as Byrne (2012) puts it (p. 46). Ever tying the record and book together, Lethem relates the urgency of “Animals” to “I Zimbra” and its structure to “Memories Can’t Wait.” If he didn’t find this record’s heart in this book’s pages, no one else is likely to locate it.

Most of the entries in the 33 1/3 Series show a propensity for close reading, but Lethem’s Fear of Music is exactly what these books were made for: lyrical geeking-out, unfettered fandom, great writing about great music.

A conversation between Jonathan Lethem and David Byrne would be undeniably generative, especially given their obvious overlapping areas of interest. Reading these two books together hints at a small piece of the awesomeness that such a dialogue might entail.


Bly, Adam. (2010). Science is Culture: Conversations at the New Intersection of Science and Society. New York: Harper Perennial.

Byrne, David. (2012). How Music Works. San Francisco: McSweeney’s.

Gittins, Ian. (2004). Talking Heads: Once in a Lifetime: The Stories Behind Every Song. London: Carlton Books.

Lethem, Jonathan. (2004). The Fortress of Solitude: A Novel. New York: Vintage.

Lethem, Jonathan. (2012). Fear of Music. New York: Continuum.

Levitin, Daniel, J. (2006). This is Your Brain on Music. New York: Penguin.

Long, Marion. (1987, January). The Seers’ Catalog. Omni Magazine, pp. 36-40, 94-99.

Sheppard, David. (2008). On Some Faraway beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Tamm, Eric. (1995). Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound. New York: Da Capo Press.

Wolcott, James. (2012). Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in the Seventies. New York: Anchor.


Special thanks to Doug Armato for the tip on James Wolcott’s book.

* Both of these conversations are included in Adam Bly’s SEED Salon anthology, Science is Culture (Harper Perennial, 2010).