Rock And Roll Saved Steve Almond's Life - Here's How
It's one thing to enjoy music as the kind of casual background noise to a car ride, jog in the park or commercial extolling the incredible mileage of the new Honda. Fiction writer, memoirist and former Miami New Times music writer Steve Almond (My Life in Heavy Metal, Candyfreak) is not that kind of person. His latest effort is aimed directly at what he calls the Drooling Fanatics, or DFs. You know, the High Fidelity John Cusack types who can spend hours arguing which "era" of Dylan was the best or who never thinks they have enough records no matter what every other person in their life thinks. And what do they know anyway with their American Idol watching and Eagles Greatest Hits spinning? Philistines! The gloriously messy mixtape (remember those?) of a book includes essays on the majesty of the scrawny Springsteen, deep analysis of Styx's Paradise Theater and the lyrics of Toto's "Africa," lists ("Bands Shamelessly Overexposed by the Alternative Press," "10 Things to Say to Piss Off a Music Critic,") his own encounters/interviews with people like Dave Grohl and Bob Schneider, his wife's own sexual fascination with hair metal god Kip Winger. Reading the book made Rocks Off feel better for two reasons: a) There is finally a manifesto for our own pathetic DFness; and b) This State of Being does not preclude sexual activity; Almond is married to an actual woman - a DF herself - and has produced two children who are apparently his. We reached him between bottle feedings and compulsive spins of Gil Scott-Heron discs to discuss many, many things. Rocks Off: Why a dissection of Paradise Theater, and not, say, The Grand Illusion or Kilroy Was Here?
Steve Almond: Wow, Kilroy. That's brutal, dude. That's like the album that Ayn Rand and her pool boy fucked to. I'd be a little scared to perform a dissection on it. Like, what would such a dissection actually yield? The pickled remnants of Dennis DeYoung's bloated ego? Tommy Shaw's famous lost coke spoon? The Grand Illusion, on the other hand, is just your basic prog cheese. But Paradise Theater was something larger, a direct musical transcription of the Reagan Revolution with all its phony nostalgia and self-regard. It was the precise moment when Styx maxed out on the credit card of their own talent. Rocks Off: Is a DF happy for one of their favorite, little-known bands to break bigger and become more popular... or do they secretly wish not so as to retain an inside credibility? Steve Almond: Yeah, that's really the core DF paradox, isn't it? Is our attachment about possession, what the Greeks called eros? Or do we love the band with a pure, selfless heart, which the Greeks called bonos? I always tell people it's all about unconditional love, that being proprietary about art is a sucker's game. But if any of the bands I wrote about in the book ever got huge, I'd be the tool reminding everyone that I'd been listening to them since they played Club 101 in El Paso in 1989. Rocks Off: We totally related to the part where you talked about secretly hoping (even when time and time again it doesn't happen) that YOU'LL be the one music journalist who'll connect with the musician on a deeper level and become BFFs. Why is this a sad DF pipe dream? Steve Almond: Because we're pathetic wannabes who worship fame while simultaneously being enslaved by it? I'm just guessing here. Actually, I think it has to do with fact that the rock-star media interview is this totally phony construct. The rock star has to pretend to give a shit about the reporter to get the coverage, and the reporter has to pretend to give a shit about the rock star to get the story. It's a completely ulterior relationship. So for me, I was always trying to break through that inherent phoniness, especially if I liked the band. I wanted there to be something authentic behind the music. Oh shit. I just said "behind the music," didn't I? Now I owe fucking VH1 a royalty payment. Rocks Off: What musician would you pull out as sort of a litmus test to check the true musical fanaticism of another DF?
Steve Almond: Gil Scott-Heron is the basic DF litmus test for me. The guy invented rap and remains its most finest practitioner. If America wasn't such a pig-hearted bigot haven, his face would be up on Mt. Rushmore, along with Eleanor Roosevelt's. For someone not in the book, so I'll go with Roy Ayers. The man wore silk pajamas in concert and played the vibes. Rocks Off: We're in Texas, so we know our Bob Schneider very well (though we still think his best song is the Scabs track "Big Butts and Blow Jobs"). You have an entire chapter about your mancrush on him. Do you think Bob was aware of this and has he, to your knowledge, seen this book? Steve Almond: My wife and I did our first wedding dance to "Big Butts and Blow Jobs," so thanks for the memory! Yeah, I'm pretty sure Bob was aware of my mancrush. He's no dope. He knows how the world regards him. He's so absurdly good-looking I'm not sure it's medically possible to not have a crush on him. Even more annoying, he's also incredibly smart, thoughtful, self-examining. And he writes a beautiful song, like, once an hour. I was sure he was going to hate the chapter about him, because it's so totally creepy. Or just not even bother to read it. But he did finally read it and he wrote me an e-mail that said (I believe I have this memorized), "I love it. I love how you captured the whole thing." That's the weird thing about Bob Schneider, the thing that totally redeems him in my book, which is that he's intensely self-loathing. Maybe he's got a little Jewish blood in him or something. Rocks Off: Is it better for a DF to have a DF spouse or someone who doesn't care about music at all? Steve Almond: No no, she's got to be a DF too, or at least understand the basic pathology. Someone who's indifferent to music is a dead fuck in my book. It's like someone who doesn't like chocolate. Why would you take a pass on so much potential joy? Rocks Off: Does every DF want to mold the musical choices of their offspring? Rocks Off makes mix CDs for our nine-year-old daughter and six-year-old son which includes the Beatles, Jim Croce, War, Chuck Berry and Men at Work.
Steve Almond and wife Erin
Steve Almond: Men at Work - well played, sir! They were like Australia's Beatles! Or Australia's Bay City Rollers. But I'm not I'm going to try that hard with my kids. They already think my music is shit. They're like, "Why do you play such sad music, daddy? Did someone die?" And I'm always like, "Shut up and put the headphones back on! You're going to miss the mournful steel guitar solo!" So yeah, we're probably gonna have to get rid of them. Rocks Off: What was the most surprising thing you saw in Dave Grohl's house? Steve Almond: The Ass Quake Dildo with Rotating Clitoral Cuff definitely caught me off guard. They also had the same little chair we bought for our daughter. Rocks Off: What are you working on next? Steve Almond: A short story collection called God Bless America. That's where are all the big money is - short fiction. Christ, I'm wealthy. The title is my way of trying to get in good with the Tea Party. It's always been my dream to be a frightened, self-pitying white person who feels oppressed because slavery ended. Random House, 240 pp., $23, www.stevenalmond.com.