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Fear of Music

by Jonathan Lethem

Paperback, 141 pages, Continuum Intl Pub Group, List Price: $12.95 |


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Excerpt: Fear Of Music

Memories Can't Wait

From its first appearance, every grinding gear, every corroded nut and bolt, each once-tremulous syllable or plucked note of this dreadnaught of a song wears an exoskeleton of reverb and sonic crud as it grinds grimly uphill, armored like a Doctor Doom or Robocop who has been smeared with tar and then rolled like a cheese log in gravel. It is as if "Memories Can't Wait" rides on spiked treads, a vehicle bogged in mud at the depths of the record's second side, and determined to climb into view over the crushed bodies of the other tracks. The fools! They dared go to battle wearing only their disco outfits! "Memory Can't Wait"'s aura so totally inhabits the destructive panorama of the preceding song that the lyric will never need mention it, can instead proceed on an inward path of self-corrosion, demolishing stances and attitudes we hadn't considered might be cozily smug, on our own parts and those of the earlier narrators. "Wartime" comes here to be engulfed and rebuked.

The sound is both malicious and mournful, seething and glum. As a voice rises through the dire swampy trudge the song now appears to wish to halt time, in order to survey damage it itself inflicts, perhaps half-knowingly, like a curious monster, a wistful Godzilla astride a city numbed and dumbed by its depredations. How can the creature help being enraged by what it sees, by what it alone understands? Yet each daft screaming human it lifts to its wondering face, in order to make inquiry or at least meaningful contact, is pierced instantly by its claws, head lolling to silence.

Alone again, naturally.

* * *

"Memories Can't Wait" is a fucking disaster area, a black bubbling cauldron full of barking dogs and backwards masking — the dumb-scary trick of "satanic" bands — and every other creepy sonic tape-effect Brian Eno couldn't sell to Devo. This is the Talking Heads you didn't even know to hope never to meet in a dark alley, the heavy metal-heads, who Don't Fear the Music Reaper, but know you do, or are willing to show you why you ought to. The song's impossible to dismiss. Unlike a lot of other things tricked-up to look scary, but which turn out to be Donovan singing "Season of the Witch" when you peek beneath, the Enoween costume on "Memories Can't Wait" is laid on top of a face even scarier than the mask. The song's churning, clanking, scrabbling guitarcitecture is rock solid, i.e. it's solid rock — never has this band gone further afield from its disco-funk liaison, that long date they've been keeping en route to Speaking in Tongues. The only thing African about this track is that you're probably not comfortable there.

As for the singer's approach, behold the doomy bombast and say it's not more or less exactly what you'd get if the band from whose forehead sprung the whole premise of downtown-New York art-rock, the band that Andy Warhol sponsored, the band that begat Modern Lovers which begat Talking Heads, had been fronted not by Lou Reed but by Jim Morrison. There's a party in my mind, so try to set the night on fire! I'm stuck here in this seat, so break on through to the other side!

This song is a promise-keeper, a dread-deliverer, and a proving ground for the album's claims. "Mind" teases at solipsism; "Memories" drowns in it. "Paper" and "no time for dancing, etc." were memos informing you that much of what you hold precious — including about this band — isn't secure in the long run; "Memories" mugs you, frisking your pockets for your last dime of hope. "I Zimbra" seduced you with the dizzy freedom of nonsense, "Memories" now delivers the bill for the vacation, and it's a whopper. ("Air" and "Drugs" share a similar see-saw relation: both sides of the LP begin ethereally refreshed and plunge toward an earthbound squalor of insomnia, of sweaty sheets and fingernail grime.)

Above all, "Memories" chides that "Life During Wartime" wasn't the end of Side One. Where the earlier song sketches a battlefield, this vaults from its trench to bayonet you. One track after "Wartime" proposed externalizing the album's drama in a literal and present apocalyptic setting; "Memories" reverses the charges. Go ahead, depart the nightclub — the party, kid, is in your mind. The war was fought and lost a million years ago, and you're picking through the rubble, trying to reinvent the language of those who lost it on your behalf. The album's crisis has moved entirely into the self, and therefore infiltrates every present circumstance. The van has tread marks crushed into its roof.

"Memories Can't Wait" declares itself as a reply to "Life During Wartime" by the extra words in its title. On iTunes the two stick out of the skinny body of the song list like a blunt erection. They've got the same number of characters, if you count the apostrophe. Dead heat, but "Memories" has the last word.


"Memories Can't Wait" wads two of Fear of Music's leitmotifs — "sleep" and "party" — into a tight sandwich of tinfoil, and insists you take a bite.

Like certain Bob Dylan songs, "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)," or, "I And I," which beneath poetic and metaphysical trappings rest on a simple cinematic depiction of human action — lovers parting in a wintry park, her face concealed in a scarf; a restless man leaving a woman sleeping while he slips outs to gaze at the rail yards — we can, after the atmosphere settles around us, pretty easily project a "Memories Can't Wait" movie in our heads. In the loft wherein the party in the narrator's mind is enacted or reenacted, in the waning hours of said party, the narrator confronts a few dopey guests who've been granted the release of sleepy forgetfulness he'll never taste himself. "Do you remember anyone here? / No you don't remember anything at all." Another, flat on his or her back, speaks to us as if in a psychic transmission out of stupor, coma, or death: "Never woke up, had no regrets." The logic, damn him, is unassailable: anyone awake has necessarily therefore got regrets by the busload.

These sleepers, the song's "other people," can't help but seem a late-arriving indictment of the heedless folks in "Cities," those who sleep in the daytime, if they want to. Even the ostensibly hard-boiled narrator of "Life During Wartime," he who sleeps in the daytime out of necessity, as he incessantly reminds you — not because he's a party animal, no — now looks like just another dozer. The real hard-boiled among us never blink, dream, or forget. They're fighting the higher war of insomnia, on the battlefield of memories.

Your mind is a van loaded with weapons pointed at you.

These final, dead-on-their-feet guests at last shoveled out the door, our narrator sags into a chair — picture it unmoored from other furniture, adrift in the center of the loft's expanse — there to endure upright nonsleep, to conduct his witnessing vigil. I'll be here all the time, I can never quit. Now the fun begins: a walk through the land of shadows. Death-of-Party, the no-disco-for-you-youngman reproach, has transmuted into Party-of-Death. Peaceful Meadows is the name printed under a mortuary director's name, for sure. (Your disappointment at what's found there prefigures the ennui of "Heaven.")

"I'm wide awake on memories / These memories can't wait." Close-up on eyes wide open. Zoom into pencil-dot pupil. Cut, roll credits.

* * *

Like most if not all of the Fear of Music songs, "Memories Can't Wait" finds a way to contradict not only its neighbors but itself. Two and a half minutes in, on the words "everything is very quiet," this song that takes as its subject the blockage of transition into sleep, the denial of that sweet generic release bestowed eventually upon even the most desperate among us (prisoners in their cells, soldiers in their foxholes, animals and party animals alike), undergoes a musical transition that is also a release. A song dominated by a deranged clatter, and which has reached a harsh wheeling pitch, now smooths itself into mournfulness. What follows is a weary cascade of guitars that sounds like the Beatles' "Dear Prudence." These guide the listener to the loft's elevator, forgivingly. In such a garbagey discordant swirl, it almost sounds as if someone's removed the stopper, or flushed the toilet. One screeching effect pulls against the drain's sucking, and then it too succumbs, and all the gobbledygook Enoturds are gone. What follows isn't quiet, but it is calm, as if the tank is refilling, the well rising back to the top. The lyrics may not know it, but the track does: somebody's memories have given way to dreaming.

* * *

The noun/verb dream never appears in the Fear of Music text. If you sought a missing signifier to propose for a late-discovered outtake or Siberian-release-only B-Side, you'd have to figure "Dreams" (along with maybe "Skin" or "Sex" or "Music") would make a fair candidate.

* * *

Speaking of the Beatles, "Memories Can't Wait," with its placement at the end of Side One, brings to mind "She Said, She Said," the last song on Side One of Revolver. In both instances the songs chart out a harsh frontier of psychedelic divination to which the band in question will seldom return (though "The Overload" from Remain in Light is like "Memories Can't Wait"'s subdued hangover). In both cases the songs find a partial reply in spaced-out form in the last song on their respective albums' Side Two ("Drugs" and "Tomorrow Never Knows").

Speaking of the Beatles, the fading piano tone of "Memories Can't Wait" sounds just like the sustained note at the end of "A Day in the Life," only it doesn't stick around as long. Hurry up please it's time.

From Fear Of Music by Jonathan Lethem. Copyright 2012 Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of Continuum Books.