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Everybody hates rock critics. They’re nerds; they’re hustlers; they’re cynical; they’re hopelessly romantic; they’re frustrated musicians; they make fun of your favorite records. The stereotype goes back almost as far as the job: In 1977’s Between the Lines, Jeff Goldblum (say no more!) personified the rock-crit myth at a time when most newspapers still didn’t employ rock critics. “Rock journalists were meatheads,” writes David Bowman, only semi-ironically, in This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the 20th Century.
1977 is also the year that Talking Heads released their first album. Some rock critics followed their career closely, but why get any of them to tell the story when you can have Bowman? He’s a novelist whoaccording to the book-jacket biowas acclaimed by Salon and “shortlisted” by Granta as one of the “best novelists under 40.” The bio continues: “Bowman lives in Manhattan. He has a wife. They have a dog.” The author probably wrote that, and if he didn’t, it must have been penned by a flack imitating his style. Bowman has read Hemingway. He writes short sentences. It’s a pain.
Bowman’s irksome style isn’t the principal reason his book is a misadventure. The writer has done a lot of research, even turning up my Washington Post review of the Heads’ 1988 Naked, a piece he discusses in surprising detail (and without hostility). His background knowledge, however, is embarrassingly lacking. And, because the book was poorly edited, Bowman is left to take the heat for such elementary errors as writing Herald Tribute (for Herald Tribune), mistaking “incredulous” for “incredible,” and losing track of modifying phrases: He writes, “Like Tina [Weymouth], [Brian Eno] was raised a Catholic and went to Ipswich Art School in the mid-1960s.” (Funny, elsewhere Bowman supports the widely held notion that she went to the Rhode Island School of Design.)
It’s bad enough that Bowman renders Can as Cann and Andy Paley’s surname as Paly, but spelling is the least of it: In a three-page discussion of Paley’s role in introducing Jerry Harrison to the other Heads, he identifies Paley as the keyboardist of the Sidewinders (he was the singer), mislocates the club where Harrison first saw the Heads play (it was near Central Square in Cambridge, not Kenmore Square in Boston), and botches the musical relationship of Paley, Harrison, and Ernie Brooks (they all played together for a time in Elliott Murphy’s band, in which Paley was the drummer).
That was a long time ago, to be sure, but such details are important to those of us who think that (1) the Heads took more than they ever acknowledged from the Modern Lovers (Harrison and Brooks’ former band) and (2) the Heads were better as a trio. The latter sounds like absurd snobberysort of like saying Prague was cooler in the ’80sbut I believe it. As a threesome, the band worked electrifyingly against its limitations. Adding Harrison began a process that soon turned into a cover for David Byrne’s writer’s block.
Bowman can be breathlessly enthusiastic, claiming that the Heads became “almost as big as Karen and Richard [Carpenter]” and approvingly quoting band manager Gary Kurfirst’s balmy boast that in 1987 the Heads were “the most popular band in America.” He also likes flip, quaint languageThis Must Be the Place must have more “chicks” in it than any upscale book published since early-’70s feminism made its pointand goofy asides, such as imagining Harrison’s sex appeal as a “love vibe” protruding from the musician’s forehead in a David Cronenberg movie.
This Must Be the Place is certainly correct that Weymouth was obsessed with what she saw as Byrne’s undeserved reputation as the band’s creative force; the one time I met her, she couldn’t stop talking about itand that was back when the band had released only one album. (This doesn’t mean, however, that Weymouth was somehow in love with Byrne, as several interviewees allege.) Bowman also neatly contrasts the well-documented conflict over Remain in Lightfor which Weymouth and Chris Frantz believed they were denied proper creditwith the lesser-known case of Tom Tom Club, for which Adrian Belew believes Weymouth and Frantz denied him proper credit.
The book told me a few things I didn’t know, such as the fact that Weymouth is the ex-sister-in-law of Washington Post correspondent Lally Weymouth. Bowman quickly ruins the effect of this revelation, however, by claiming that when she was a college student, “Tina got a summer job working for the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the naval shipyard in Washington, D.C., making diagrams for constructing bombs.” (Apparently, HEW was building ordnance for the War on Poverty.)
That gaffe, which comes on Page 12, illuminates a crucial flaw. Bowman tries to put the Heads in the context of their time, dropping the names not only of pop-music and art-world types but also such Heads-era exemplars as Ronald Reagan, Ivan Boesky, and Nelson Rockefeller. (The last is cited for dying while having sex; Bowman has a very ’80s interest in celebrity mating habits.) Context is hard, however, when you’re clueless.
Here’s where Bowman diverges from most of the professional rock critics I’ve met or read: He don’t know much about cultural history. He places dada’s origins “in Swiss coffeehouses right after World War I,” when it was actually birthed during the war. (All those artistes didn’t abandon Paris and Berlin because they heard that Zurich was the new Seattle; they left so they wouldn’t get killed.) This is my favorite, though: Bowman attributes Europe’s generous government funding of the arts to “the Monroe Doctrine. Yes. Go back to just after the war. The art of all nations had to be protected.”
Well, no. This one’s so convoluted that I don’t guarantee that I’ve deciphered it, but here goes: I think Bowman has confused the Monroe Doctrine (the 1823 statement of American interests in the Western Hemisphere) with the Marshall Plan (the post-World War II American commitment to rebuild Western Europe). Perhaps this is appropriately muddled for a book about Talking Heads, whose “Cities” misplaces the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis in Greece. But when he sang that, David Byrne was just an aspiring rock star. David Bowman is auditioning to be a rock critic. For that job, the standards are higher. Mark Jenkins
Find a complete collection of What Goes On columns on the Web at www.washingtoncitypaper.com.