Rock And Roll Will Save Your Life: A Talk With Steve Almond

A few weeks back I got an email from my good friend Jeff saying,  “Hey, you’ve probably heard of this book, but in case you haven’t, it looks like one you’ve gotta get.”  I hadn’t, and he was right!

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Random House 2010) by Steve Almond is a book dedicated to those of us who have always wanted to be rock stars, but settled for being rabid fans instead.  Whether it’s meaningless Top 10 lists, a reluctant breakdown of Toto’s “Africa” or how truly unglamorous it is to be a rock journalist, Almond takes us all on a hysterical tour of what it’s like to be a “drooling fanatic”.

Drooling fanatic – noun – 1. One who drools in the presence of beloved rock stars.  2.  Any of a genus of rock-and-roll wannabes/geeks who walk around with songs constantly ringing in their ears, own more than 3,000 albums, and fall in love with at least one record per week.

After reading a copy of his book in 3 days, I am now a drooling fan of Mr. Almond’s work, and was thrilled when he agreed to answer a few questions from a fellow fanatic.

Music Lit 101:  You’ve been a writer and rock journalist for some time now.  When did you realize that you were a “drooling fanatic”?

SA: I’m not sure there was any Eureka moment. I’ve just come to realize as I grow older that I’m a LOT MORE into music than the people around me. I listen to it more often. I’ve got more albums. I get WAY into my favorite bands. I talk about them way too much and generally call the members by their first names, as if they’re friends of mine. (They are not.) But I’d argue that everyone’s got a little fanatic in them, because everyone has some song or album that’s helped them reach feelings that would have otherwise been out of reach.

Music Lit 101:  Why do think so many people become drooling fanatics?

SA: Because we all want to be rock stars – or most of us, anyway – and very few of us get to be rock stars, and so some of us convert that unrequited longing into an obsession with music. The other thing is that people basically need music to remain fully human.

Music Lit 101:  In “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life” you breakdown the song “Africa” by Toto.  Why?

SA: I think it epitomizes this weird paradox, which is that the lyrics to a song can be totally absurd and disjointed and even in the case of “Africa” kind of demented, but if the melody and rhythm are there, the listener really doesn’t care. I’d listened to (and loved) that song for years before actually studying the lyrics and realizing how crazy and imperialist they are.

Music Lit 101:  Let me commend you on being the one of the first music journalists (at least to my knowledge) to write a book about how truly unglamorous it is to be a rock critic.  Do you think most journalists who cover music are really overzealous fan boys/girls or are they simply writers trying to make a living?

SA: I imagine they’re both, to varying degrees. Music critics are kind of in a tough spot, because I’m pretty sure they didn’t grow up thinking: Man, when I grow up, I want to be a MUSIC CRITIC! I’m pretty sure most of them would rather have been musicians. And they do get treated pretty horribly. They have to kind of beg to get interviews and get jerked around a lot. But at the same time, they get to go to a lot of shows and rack up the free CDs and indulge in the fantasy that they have a special connection with the rock stars they interview. (I certainly felt that way, wrongly.) So it’s kind of a mixed blessing.

photo: © Stephen Sette-Ducati

Music Lit 101:  As a drooling fanatic father of two, I really related to the chapters in the book you devoted to your wife and family.  With Mother’s Day having just past & Father’s Day right around the corner, what advice do you have for those of us who are trying to balance being a mother or father with their musical fanaticism?  Any advice for those who are still single, but are thinking about taking the plunge?

SA: Yeah, I mean, it’s tough. You can’t really crank AC/DC (or Ike Reilly) when you’ve got a newborn. And a lot of the time that I used to devote to hunting down new music, now goes into changing diapers and making bottles. But I also feel like good parenting is partly about sharing the joys of your life with your kids, so we try to do that around our house. We have regular dance parties. We sing to our kids. And we totally indulge their drooling fanaticism.

Music Lit 101:  You seem to be a devout fan of albums or CDs, but not as big a fan of digital downloads.  Do you think that’s a function of age or is there something else about listening to an album or CD that makes it special for you?

SA: I just think when you’re listening to a physical artifact, you’re more likely to listening intently. I find that when I listen on a computer, it’s too easy for me to just use music as background noise, rather than a concerted sonic experience.

Music Lit 101:  I noticed that you provide every one who buys the book with access to not only a special hidden offer, which I will not divulge, but also access to a “bitchin’ soundtrack” at your website,  Is this a way of better connecting readers with some of the music that inspired the book or a blatant attempt to justify your fanaticism?

SA: It’s more like this: I spend a lot of time in the book talking about how great I think Dayna Kurtz and Ike Reilly and Gil Scott-Heron are, and I just want the reader to be able to judge for him or herself. That’s one of the points of the book – that it’s impossible to convey music with words. People have to have the songs. So I’m just trying to give them the songs, in the hopes they’ll go out and buy some albums by the artists in question, all of whom I consider God-like and worthy of drooling worship.

Rock And Roll Will Save Your Life is a funny and intelligent look at what it’s like to be a true fan of music.  I highly recommend you pick up a copy of the book, read Steve’s blog and check out the free bitchin’ soundtrack.  You won’t regret it, cuz face it, if you’re spending time on Music Lit 101 you’re a drooling fanatic!

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