Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life by Steve Almond

Rock n Roll Will Save Your Life by Steve Almond

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life
by Steve Almond

Early June, my family and I were preparing to move from the Spokane, Washington area back to Great Falls, Montana. Any music fanatic will tell you, the storage and transport of one’s CDs, tapes and vinyl take precedence over supposedly more “vital” things. Ignored clothes, knickknacks, children’s toys that have always annoyed me? Bring on the Goodwill box. Dishes? Ah, grab some newspaper and pack them well enough. But the music? That takes special consideration.

If you’re wondering if you’re a collector, ask yourself two questions.

1. Do I own too many records?

2. Do my friends and family feel I own too many records?

If your respective answers are No and Yes, you’re a Collector.

Because we are staying with my mother while we wait for our Washington house to sell, much of our belongings are in storage. As such, I decided to back up all my CDs onto an external hard drive, then put the majority of them in storage. (Some exceptions: stuff I just bought, anything autographed, rare, Oasis, Bush or Ryan Adams-related. No vinyl in storage either.) One afternoon, I was flipping through the liner notes to Poe’s second album Haunted when I said to my husband, “Did you know that Poe’s real name is Annie Danielewski?”

“Oh,” he said. He was trying to read a Charles DeLint book he’d just bought after we exchanged some unwanted ones at Auntie’s Bookstore.

“She read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe.” I thought about the profile of her I used to have tacked on my bedroom wall when I was in high school. I’d clipped it out of Seventeen magazine, and she was wearing jewelry one of her fans had made. “Oh hey,” I said, pointing to one of the acknowledgments in the booklet. “Says here that Mike Elizondo played on this album. That’s the guitarist from Incubus, right?”

“I know there’s a Mike in Incubus,” my husband said, “but I couldn’t tell you his last name.”

I stared at him, wishing I hadn’t already packed the Incubus CDs. Isn’t he the bigger fan? I thought. And why don’t I already know this?

Collectors have pretty much given up relating to anyone who isn’t a Collector.

Luckily, as I’ve said before, I have an indulgent husband who knows that music and all the accompanying bits of overlapping information are essential to my everyday being. Turns out, the guitarist from Incubus is named Mike Einziger. Mike Elizondo is a bassist, keyboardist, songwriter and producer. He’s worked with Fiona Apple and Dr. Dre, among others.

So it may go without saying that a book called Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life would be required reading for me. I am, to use Steve Almond’s term, a Drooling Fanatic, though perhaps a more specific one. While I may not always be on the hunt for new records with which to fall in love, I am continually swooning over something. I like discovering new music, of course, but I’m often just as happy buying the latest album from someone I’ve loved for years. I’m both a Collector and a Completist.

Steve Almond is also a Collector and Aging Music Geek, and he is dumbfounded by critics who want to make music an intellectual exercise. “The real problem here,” he says, “is emotional. The prose, for all its technical fidelity, conveys almost nothing about what music feels like.”

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life attempts to articulate those feelings, as well as tell the stories of Almond’s fandom along the way. There is list-making, reluctant admissions of enjoying Styx, and considering whether or not dating a woman with incompatible music tastes is worth the time. He admits that there was a time in his life, employed as a music critic no less, that he had barely any idea who Bob Dylan is. No matter the level of Music Geekery, there are always embarrassing gaps in one’s knowledge.

Particularly amusing and honest is Almond’s interaction with Bob Schneider: “A Frank Discussion of My Mancrush on Bob Schneider.”

I have to start here, because if I don’t my wife will eventually read this and say something like, “Aren’t you going to mention your massive mancrush?” to which I’ll respond, “Shut up! I so totally don’t have a crush on Bob!” to which she’ll respond, “Then why do you talk to the poster of him on your wall?” to which I’ll respond, “I admire him as a musician. Why do you have to make it into something dirty?” Then I’ll slam the door in her face and throw myself down on the bed and stare up at my Bob poster, the one with him looking all yummy and stubbled, and wail, “Don’t listen to her, Bob! She’s just jealous!”

Nobody wants that.

He goes on to talk about trying to not say anything stupid during their conversation, about using Schneider’s bathroom, and what his music meant to him when he discovered it in 2002. He admired both his skill and physical magnetism, how he exuded “Front Man” in his performance. He fell in love with Schneider’s way of paying tribute to all the music that influenced his own.

However, the hard part about meeting your idols/crushes is that sometimes they either disappoint or leave you feeling sad. Bob Schneider now lives on his own, records at home and seems to have no real friends. “It’s a strange feeling, to worship and pity someone simultaneously,” Almond says. Still, he recognizes that desolation is the place where art often flourishes, and perhaps he’d have been better off not witnessing it firsthand.

I can’t imagine the amount of mental rehearsal I’d need to meet Noel Gallagher, though I hear he’s quite good at making people feel at ease. Chances of me turning scarlet, laughing at everything, and saying crap like, “My friend Melanie had a cat named Noelly-Paws. It had extra toes!” — Well, let’s not think about all the dumb things I might say. No, no, I would be the model of confidence, I’d be prepared, stunning, witty...

Of course.

The thing about reviewing a book about musical fandom when I am hopelessly gone myself is that I spent the entire time comparing his thoughts and experiences with my own. When he talks about songs that take him back to a particular time and place, even if the songs aren’t the greatest, I nod in agreement. Any regular readers of this blog know that talking about personal time and place in relation to songs is one of my main activities. For his wife, Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” may take her back to managing the cosmetics section at CVS, but for me, it reminds me of my dad on his day off, blasting the music over the vacuum.

I bought this book after seeing Steve Almond give a reading at Powell’s in Portland. I’d planned on reading it anyway, though maybe seeing if the library had it, until I saw that he’d be there while we were on vacation. During his reading, he punctuated sections of the text with music, and to be honest, reading the same passages at home later wasn’t the same. Though the book is plenty funny, it’s much funnier in person. And any book about music is better with a soundtrack (which is why he provides a “Bitchin’ Soundtrack" on his website). Anyone who has the chance to listen to Almond read should go.

When I had Almond sign the book, I mentioned that I was a drooling fanatic as well.

“Oh yeah? What’s your main thing?” he said.

“Oasis,” I said, watching the look of surprise cross his face. “I know. I see that look a lot.”

“No, no,” he said. “I’m not judging. I have two of their albums on my laptop right now.”

“Most people have the first two albums, if any,” I said, then realized that sounded more snobby than it should.

“She’s Electric, that’s a great song,” he said and immediately I forgive him for any imagined looks because he mentioned a song that isn’t a single, that isn’t “Wonderwall.”

We talked a little bit about British rock, and then moved onto This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. As I mentioned in that review, I left feeling like I’d squandered explaining myself. But why should I have to? Why should I care?

Inherent in the Drooling Fanatic personality is the desire to inflict our musical obsessions on our friends and loved ones and, well, pretty much anyone who will listen.

Music and the way it makes us feel is a language I will forever be trying to articulate. There is so much to say, and yet, words never do it justice. But we keep on trying — Trying to bring the joy, the depression, the heart-punching moments of truth into our everyday lives and to the people that we adore. The fanatic finds music inseparable from themselves. If you want to know me, we say, look at my collection. Look at the way my face lights up when I talk about a song I love. Everything you want to know can be contained within these moments.


This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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