Author Steve Almond chronicles his obsession with music in his latest book, “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book By and For the Fanatics Among Us (With Bitchin’ Soundtrack)” (Random House, $23), due out April 20. It delves into the impact that music has on everyone’s life, especially those whom Almond dubs “Drooling Fanatics.”
“Drooling Fanatics,” according to Almond, are fans who have amassed thousands of CDs, worship musicians and spends hours dreaming of being a rock star.
His previous books include “(Not That You Asked),” “Candyfreak,” “The Evil B.B. Chow” and “Which Brings Me to You.”
We spoke with Almond, who appears at Real Art Ways Friday, about his newest book and just how rock and roll can save a life:
Q: At what point in your life did you realize that you were a Drooling Fanatic?
A: Here’s the thing: I think everyone on Earth would just love to be a musician. … So, in a sense, identifying yourself as a Drooling Fanatic is kind of like admitting that you’re a loser who can’t make it in music. It took me until I was 42 to [realize] I’m not going to be a rock star, and 99.9 percent of us are not going to be rock stars. We’re going to be Drooling Fanatics. We’re going to be people who are able to feel the feelings that music is there to allow us to feel. That’s something in and of itself that should be talked about and honored. If I look back now, I would spend hours waiting for the DJ to play “Undercover Angel.” … When the DJ finally played that song, it was like God kissing you on the mouth. That was clearly symptomatic of my Drooling Fanaticism. … It’s taken me this long, though, for me to get over the fact — or try to get over the fact — that I could never make music, which is, to me, the dream.
Q: How do you think your life would have been different if you could have lived your dream of being in a rock band? Do you think you would have liked your life more?
A: [Musician] Dana Kurtz says at the end of the book, “Look, man. The fact that you’re a fan allows you to enjoy music in a way that you wouldn’t. It wouldn’t be as pure if you were a musician. It would be more complicated.” She’s probably right about that. People imagine that I just love writing, that it gives me great joy. But I have to break it to them: No, I have a very conflicted relationship with writing. It makes me feel guilty all the time, full of doubt, like I’m not really good enough, that nothing’s ever going to be good enough, and why’d I get involved with this? Maybe that would have just been the way it was with music. Maybe I would have just felt as miserable and conflicted about that stuff [as a musician]. Then there’s another part of me that’s like, “Are you kidding me, dude? I would have loved it!” … I don’t know, exactly, but I fantasize.
Q: Listening to music is a sensory experience. Was it challenging for you to articulate your feelings about music on paper?
A: Yeah! There’s a whole chapter of the book that’s about how you can’t really write about music. Even if you could describe it perfectly, that’s not the same as hearing it. Even if you could somehow get across how it feels to listen to music, that’s just how it feels for you to listen to that music at that particular moment in your life. Music is such an immediate, personal thing that’s happening. It’s totally intuitive, and it’s so emotional. The whole point of music is that it’s what you do when words aren’t enough.
Q: In the book, you give examples of someone writing technically about music and the experience of music. Is there even a point in reviewing music?
A: I just wrote a piece for The Boston Globe that was basically saying that I don’t really see the point of music criticism. … For me, as an avid Drooling Fanatic, I can try to write about what it felt for me to hear a particular band or song and what it was like. That chapter [in the book] about Nil Lara is me trying to capture the way that this guy’s music made us all feel. I’m trying to describe a little bit about how it sounds, but a lot of it is really how it felt for us at that time. I hope that that connects with other people who listen to a band and experience a moment in their lives where everything felt big and hopeful. … [Concerts] are primal. People need it. They come together. Our culture keeps people very far apart, locked in front of our own little screens. That’s why when I read at Real Art Ways, there’s going to be music in the background most of the time. When a song is invoked in the text, for the most part, it’s going to be played, and the crowd’s going to be able to hear some of it. That’s what people want, and that’s what people need. It’s got to be a party. I want people to hear the songs and feel some of the things [I’m talking about]. I want them to hear “Sweet Home Alabama” and, like me, feel like, “I love the South. I want to be part of the South. I want to have my kin [there]; I want to go see the swamp. Hell, yeah!” That’s what music does: It puts us all in the same place. It makes us imagine that we’re all the same people.
Q: Lots of literary critics spend their time talking about the rhythm of writing and comparing it to music. If you could classify your writing as a musical genre, what would it be?
A: That’s tough. … I’m not a poet, so I’m not a hip-hop guy. … For me, I can say that I know what I’m interested in, which is I’m interested in getting my characters, whether it’s me or a fictional character, in lots of danger. I’m interested in sort of slowing down when things get really dangerous and the emotions become complicated and conflicted inside. For me, that’s where the language does really rise up into the lyric register, where the sensual and psychological details start to compress, and the language feels more lyric — more like poetry, where the rhythm and euphony of the language comes out. I don’t know what genre that would be. I think the way I would say it is the kind of music that I write about in this book is like the kind of stories and essays that I want to write. I want them to be that emotional. They might be emotional in lots of different ways, sometimes in the get-your-ass-on-the-dance-floor-and-shake-it kind of way, and other times it’s crying-because-life-is-so-miserable-and-just-wallow-in-that-delicious-misery kind of way. But I want people to feel. That’s the kind of music I like, the kind that wears its heart on its sleeve.
Q: Nearly every chapter includes an interlude that is related to the chapter topic but is a bit of a digression. What made you decide to include these?
A: I just tried to put together a book that would be sort of cool, and I wanted to have chapters that were about bigger things and then, within those, I wanted to have something to break up the subject a little bit. It’s a digression, but it’s, I hope, related. … I want people to be able to skip around in the book and see whether they’re going to like this, that and the other. It’d be great if they wanted to read from the first word to the last, but I’m cool with them skipping around. We’ve got CDs that we now can skip around on, listen to Track 13 because we like the title or we saw it on a TV show or something. That’s just fine, and hopefully those interludes and chapters have enough internal integrity that you don’t have to read them in order in order for them to make sense.
Q: How was writing this book different from writing your other books, if it was at all?
A: This one was a lot like “Candy Freak” in that I was writing about an obsession. [This book] got an angle that was just trying to be funny — maybe succeeding, maybe failing, but trying to be funny. There’s a memoir part of it. There’s a cultural commentary part of it, and then there’s some reporting that’s also mixed in there. I like books like that, that are lots of different things mashed together. That’s the way “Candy Freak” was. I wanted to write a book that was not the standard, neat, between-the-margins kind of book. In that sense, it was tough to write because initially, it was so skewed toward me being a Drooling Fanatic. … It became much less Drooling Fanaticky by the end of it. I’m glad about that. I think it’s a book that has a broader appeal and isn’t just for those 5,000 of us who worship Chuck Prophet or Joe Henry. I hope, anyway, that this book is just for anybody who’s ever needed music to get to their true feelings.
Q: How can rock and roll save a life?
A: How can it save your life? One song at a time. That’s a little bit of a glib answer, but it really is true. Everybody out there knows that, at some terrible time in their life, they’ve needed music to make it through — and, in fact, more than once. Probably a million times. … That’s what songs do. They allow us to experience our real, actual feelings that make us genuinely alive.
Published in Hartford Courant