For the past eight years Steve Almond has been racking a succession of collections that are suitable for praising. From his first book of short stories (My Life in Heavy Metal) to his last look at whatever the hell he wanted ((Not That You Asked)), Almond has charted a course that’s self-deprecating without being pouty, ironic without being snarky, knowing without being preachy and confident without being fat-headed. Mostly though, be it in fiction or in fact, he reveals a kinda breathless zest for whatever’s on his plate that goes beyond the pose and gets with the guts of what it means to be alive in these times.
Almond’s latest foray is called Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Random House $23), and as his subtitle says, it’s “a book by and for the fanatics among us.” SunPost Weekly got with the wily wordslinger and gave him 13 questions to answer. Here’s what he gave back:
JH: For those who’ve yet to read your book (www.stevenalmond.com) what are some of the characteristics that make for a “drooling fanatic”?
SA: First and foremost, we own at least 3000 albums. We get deeply involved with obscure bands and become incredibly evangelical about them. But if they dare to get popular, we’re immediately resentful. We also tend to refer to members of our favorite bands by their first names, as if they are friends of ours – which they are not. We’re also people who need music to reach the feelings inside us that are inaccessible by other means.
JH: You’ve said you “fall in love with a new album about once a week.” What have you fallen in love with lately?
SA: Ike Reilly’s new one, Hard Luck Stories, is fantastic. He’s got a song called “Lights Out, Anything Goes” that’s a brilliant portrait of life in the new recession. I’m also loving Florence & the Machine’s disc Lungs. It’s like a mash-up of Kate Smith and PJ Harvey. Oh, and this guy down in Jackson, MS gave me a disc by a local band called The Furrows. His brother is the drummer. I was like, ‘This is gonna suck.’ But it’s awesome. At their best, these guys sound like vintage 70s Stones.
JH: Drooling fanatics are famous for telling others what to listen to – or else. Do you ever listen to what others tell you to?
SA: Oh yeah. I’ve got my suppliers. The whole point of Drooling Fanaticism is to increase your joy (or diminish your sorrow) via music. So I’d be a fool not to listen to other people’s drooling recs. There’s only so much stuff I can find myself anyway, now that I’ve got two kids and debts no honest man can pay.
JH: Do you get pissed when someone is on to a new thing before you (and do you let that influence how you hear it)?
SA: I certainly used to, but not so much anymore. I mean, I get a certain narcissistic buzz off feeling like I “found” a band before the rest of the crowd. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that basing your ego on other folks’ talents only gets you so far. What matters is the pleasure you take in the music, not how many people are in the crowd.
JH: How important is the live experience to the drooling fanatic?
SA: It’s huge. I’m thinking of all those years I spent in the front row of metal concerts. I was the reviewer, so I didn’t always love the bands. But I could see that the kids around me – mostly poor kids from El Paso and Juarez, kids who might have spent a month’s wages on their ticket – were being absolutely transformed by the music. And my worship of artists like Boris McCutcheon and Bob Schneider has been based on the incredible talent and energy of their live shows. Music becomes something entirely new in concert, especially given the world we live in today, which is filled with screen zombies who rarely actually experience any kind of art in a live setting. It’s the idea of possibility – that at any moment something could happen that you’ve never seen or heard before. And you get to share that, in real time, with the band and the people around you. It’s like a form of religious communion.
JH: Speaking of shows, all tolled, about how many concerts would you saw you’ve caught over the years and what were some of the most monumental?
SA: Oh gosh, it’s got to be well over a thousand. Maybe 1500? As anyone who was there knows, most of Nil Lara’s shows at the Stephen Talkhouse in the mid-90s were just insane riots of joy. Same goes for most of the Bob Schneider shows I’ve seen. And I can remember seeing the Tragically Hip absolutely destroy this tiny club in El Paso in 1990. Steve Earle and the Dukes in Las Cruces, 1991 – they shredded. Oh, and Ike Reilly. Any time I can see him. Dayna Kurtz played for me and four other people in a tiny Cambridge club and brought me to tears. I could go on.
JH: In all those shows, how many caused you to embarrass yourself?
SA: I do a lot of hooting and hollering. I scream out obscure covers I want the band to play. (I’ve been trying to get one of my favorite bands to play a cover of TLC’s “Scrubs” for the past fifteen years). I dance in a manner that causes others terror. You know – the usual.
JH: Rock and Roll comes with its own www.stevenalmond.com/soundtrack. How’d you select the songs and did the process cause you many sleepless nights?
SA: Yeah, the soundtrack was tough, but the Desert Island Playlist at the end was even more brutal. I’ve probably fallen in love with 2000 albums in my life, and to have to choose a top ten was both excruciating and awesome.
JH: You seem to have a particular fondness for hyper-literate white guys with acoustic guitars. Why do you think that is?
SA: Hmmm. Because I’m an elite racist? Could that be it? Actually, the hyper-literate part is pretty easy: I’m a writer. I care about the language. I’m drawn to the sorts of musicians who know how to tell stories that reach the unbearable truths, as opposed to stringing together clichés with a rhyming dictionary. And the artists I praise most elaborately in the book are Gil Scott Heron, Nil Lara, and Dayna Kurtz, none of whom fit the profile. In the end, all I care about is the songs. I could care less about anything else. It’s a sad and limited way to look at things.
JH: Speaking of Nil Lara, you call him “Our Messiah.” Can you please explain why?
SA: Yeah, I spend a chapter explaining why. But it boils down to what Nil calls “barbaric expressions of the soul.” Anyone who was fortunate enough to see him and his band in action in those Talkhouse days knows exactly what he means. He simply made us believe in everything – in him, in music, in love, in the great fate that awaited all of us.
JH: Is being a Christ figure some kinda prerequisite for rock stardom?
SA: Yeah, probably so. In the sense that Christ was a dude who walked around half naked and activated people’s ecstatic wishes and cured the sick and tended to wicked. So yes, there’s a lot of overlap with rock stars. But honestly, nobody deserves that kind of pressure. And it tends to crush musicians, who really just want to release the songs that live inside them. You look at a guy like Elvis Presley – he was basically killed by the fame around his music. Same thing with Cobain. The list goes on. But I’m not a believer in that Myth of the Suffering Artist. The whole idea of art is to make people feel less alone and thereby more connected to themselves and the people around them.
JH: Surely the devil plays some kinda role too, no? (And it’s a lot more fun!)
SA: Yeah, all that being said, the whole point of music is also to release your ass from the ass cage. To allow you to feel the full range of your feelings, some of which are angry, depressed, horny, even violent. I mean, it’s “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll,” the holy trinity of teenage misbehavior. But I’d call it more a liberation of those barbaric impulses that Nil talks about – of music forcing our bodies to admit how much they need.
JH: If I’m not mistaken this is your 6½ book. What’s next on the print plate?
SA: It’s hard to tally up the books, because – weirdly, probably stupidly – I’ve started making my own books. But the next project is actually a short story collection called God Bless America. I get to return to my first love! It won’t be out until next year. For now, it’s all rock, all the time. Lighters up!