Talking Head up his bum 

Excoriating the mortal sins of a music journalist

Writing books about pop music is gross and predatory, and This Must Be the Place is the worst of its kind: an overlong, under-researched and flirtatiously written exercise in uselessness that fails miserably at shedding light on anything except the author’s inanity. What a joke. If getting a book deal is really this easy, we might as well all stay home cutting articles out of ’70s magazines and collating them together with our own banal observations on other people’s ideas about the thing we’re supposed to be writing about in the first place.

This Must Be the Place reads like a primer of everything I hate about music journalism. All the usual factual errors, misspelled band names and misquoted lyrics—blunders which, though grave, I actually consider to be among the lesser sins of music writing—are more than adequately represented here. About the only thing author David Bowman doesn’t do to expose himself as a hack, a parvenu and an outright impostor is litter his smug rambling with the collect-all-five equivalent of the old cereal box sweepstakes, the mail-in booby prize for hack music writing: seminal, angular, high-octane, quirky and edgy.

Those are the infamous five: in my opinion, the five classic “battered ornaments,” as the Fowler’s Guide to English Usage calls them, for writing about music. Angular is second worst; never mind that every doorknob who ever picked up a pen for Spin or Rolling Stone has described a particular sound as “angular” and thought himself clever for it. It can mean bony or gaunt (starting with its fourth or fifth dictionary definition), but mostly it just means “of or pertaining to angles.” And that reminds me of another hackneyed writing convention I’m surprised Bowman didn’t trundle out: the use of dictionary definitions to frame the content of an article, e.g. “Webster’s Dictionary defines a talking head as...”

But seminal is the worst. Nothing says “I just found out about this band yesterday but I’m trying to make it sound like I’ve been into them for years” about a music writer like the use of the word seminal. You might as well stop reading when you see it. If a music writer doesn’t know enough not to try and retrofit his credibility by recklessly tossing around the word seminal, he’s got no business telling you what he knows about anything.

But these, like I say, are the lesser sins, the venal ones, not the mortal ones. Not quite enough to damn him to hack hell, but more than enough to send him to confessional on an onanism rap. He’d better be good and sorry for what he did.

Far more damning are the mortal sins of laziness, slipshod research, and his asinine decision to pit himself against Talking Heads for the purpose of writing a crappy book about them. Bowman never lets on how or how well he knows his subjects (amazingly, he doesn’t indulge himself in the tired first-person “The first time I heard Talking Heads...” reminiscence crap), but you get the feeling from the way former members try to discourage his meddling in their band history that they knew he was an idiot all along and wanted to distance themselves from his book. Hell, they actually tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and those quotes are among the very few in the book that are directly attributed to conversations or interviews Bowman had with them.

He should have listened. It’s almost as bad as reading a glossy piece of innuendo masquerading as music writing whose only real animus stems from the sexual tension that a horny rock writer flatters himself to feel between himself and his subject when he’s interviewing some flavor of the month bimbo for Rolling Stone. That’s basically what This Must Be the Place is, with a variation that would be interesting were it not so boring: Bowman jockeys for position creatively, not sexually, in the lives of Talking Heads. Instead of heeding polite warnings from bassist Tina Weymouth to stop writing until he knows what he’s talking about, Bowman seems to have taken these warnings as carte blanche to write whatever bullshit he felt like writing. About anything that limped across his mind long enough to be taken hostage for background information or zeitgeist or incidental trivia or whatever the hell else.

And Bowman can’t even make his bullshit interesting. Or prurient, or provocative, or anything but banal from cover to cover. Anyone looking for a glimpse into the creative drive-chain of some of pop music’s most erudite weirdoes gets the boorish voice of David Bowman droning on and on about nothing. And quite often in a coy, infuriatingly precious, naïve style that presumably is supposed to recall the lyrics of Talking Heads themselves. A typical dollop of this dreck: “On February 14, Tina made love with her husband. Chris Franz was not a bass guitar, and Tina got pregnant. This was the intention of the congress. It was a good thing.”

Barf-o-rama! Or how about this hard-hitting bit of investigative journalism: “David [Byrne] has been recorded eating in a peculiar fashion. As it has been stated time and again, David eats quickly, but never mushrooms. Mushrooms he just picks at. He once carefully lined up a row of almonds along the spine of a leaf of lettuce before eating them.”

Jiminy Christmas, you get better music reporting reading Seventeen! Talking Heads fans must surely be rioting in the streets, or at least flaming away in some Internet chat-room. To read his copious notes on sources, you’d think that Bowman knew more about Talking Heads than anyone else not in the band. To actually read the book, though, you’d think he conducted one interview with each band member and cribbed the rest of his notes from articles photocopied out of a library newspaper archive. Talk about a road to nowhere.

David Byrne turned 50 on May 14.

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