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Book Review: ‘Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life’

Music critic Steve Almond recounts the obsession that transformed him and legions of like-minded believers.

April 29, 2010|By Chris Daley | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Steve Almond with his wife Erin during a photo shoot.
Steve Almond with his wife Erin during a photo shoot. (Stephen Sette-Ducati /…)

If you're going to use a promise as your title, you'd better deliver. In his sixth book, " Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book by and for the Fanatics Among Us (With Bitchin' Soundtrack)," Steve Almond presents a memoir wrapped in a collection of observations about music and packaged as a source of salvation. The book is a rock fan bildungsroman in which Almond offers personal anecdotes related to his lifelong love of music. His story is interwoven with some cultural analysis of what it means to be a "Drooling Fanatic" in the face of "That Which We Worship With Irrational and Perhaps Head-Banging Glee." It is the fanaticism itself that is offered as a means to redemption.

As Almond comes of age, he discovers music and then how to make money from it. He describes the life of a nomadic music journalist, moving between cities such as El Paso and Miami, trying to scrape together a living. Almond's stories often revolve around the pure joy that a fan experiences when touched by a song or an artist. His book also includes clever classifications of fandom and various forms of short interjection: gratuitous lists, interludes and the occasional "reluctant exegesis."

The Drooling Fanatic, or DF, is the true audience for this book. DFs will recognize themselves in Almond's definitions and classifications with a mixture of revelation and embarrassment. Yes! I also believe "the only thing wrong with music … is that you cannot eat it." Yes! I also "spent several thousand dollars to create an ultra convenient digital library with the sound quality of a 1958 transistor radio." But seriously, did you need to bring up the ridiculous name of my DJ spot?

Almond spends a fair amount of time splitting hairs as he outlines the DF "ghettos" and what they are definitively not: Concert queens are not groupies, collectors are not music snobs. Yet after all this taxonomy, he argues that we are all DFs. Astute analysis is sacrificed to a play for a more generic readership. Sweeping generalizations about music's relationship to the culture at large also tend to fail. As early as Page 10, Almond tries to conflate American popular culture, capitalism, consumption and porn in one long, unfocused paragraph.

Almond is much more successful when he focuses on the merry exegesis of songs by the likes of Toto ("Africa") and Air Supply ("All Out of Love"). These are so entertaining that one wishes he'd sprung for rights to use more lyrics in full. The thing is, Almond can be very funny. It may be snarky to describe an MC Hammer concert as similar to "watching an ad for a delicious soda that makes people want to commit murder," but other observations are sharp: "I can't remember when cassettes displaced vinyl, but it happened quick and mean, like most everything else in the eighties."

This witty commentary is compelling until, in the last several chapters, the book hits a snag; these chapters are a series of idolatries or, as Almond would put it in one case, "man crushes." These tales suffer for two reasons: They are basically all the same story — Almond uses his journalist cred to score a disillusioning interview — and they are all too much about the writer (usually playing the fool) and not enough about the musician. This reclamation project portrays "guys who had twice the talent necessary to be stars, but who remained essentially neglected figures": Nil Lara, Gil Scott-Heron, Ike Reilly, Boris McCutcheon, Bob Schneider and, for good measure, a female, Dayna Kurtz.

Almond admits the gender bias apparent in his profiles, but he does a solid job of including women among his DFs. As he recounts his courtship of his wife and previous romantic disasters, it becomes obvious that for Almond, music and women are inextricably bound, as love objects and song subjects, but also as active partners in the joy of shared music.

Being a DF is a "spiritual condition" — early on, Almond makes a distinction between the DF and the Professional Music Critic, with the critic not focused enough on how the music makes you feel. An added bonus of this book for the DF is the steady stream of mostly unpretentious references to bands and songs from the last 30 years or so. There is a lack of snobbery in the style because, as the author points out, "There is no sin in the realm of taste.… We all have a Styx in our closet."

Perhaps rescuing unashamed pleasure from the guilt bin is how rock and roll will save our lives.

Daley is a Los Angeles-based writer.

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