Steve Almond: Interview

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Steve Almond loves music—so much so that he calls himself a “drooling fanatic.”  His new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, is a paean to all the drooling music fanatics of the world, “the sort of guys and dolls,” he says “who walk around with songs ringing in our ears at all hours, who acquire albums compulsively, who fall in love with one record per week minimum and cannot resist telling other people—people frankly not that interested—what they should be listening to and why and forcing homemade compilations into their hands.”  

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life
By Steve Almond
Random House, 2010

The book is a scrapbook of Almond’s relationship with music and his life as a critic for the El Paso Times and the Miami New Times between 1988 and 1999. Like a true music lover, he can’t help himself from including lists like “Rock’s Biggest Assholes,” “Top Ten Covers of All Time,” and a desert island playlist. He also wrote several exegeses of songs, including one about Metallica that is published here at TriQuarterly Online. I spoke to him over e-mail about the book and how MC Hammer changed the way he views music criticism.

TriQuarterly Online: You say your new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, is for the "drooling fanatics," the kind of people who wanted to be rock stars but wound up as the "wannabes, geeks, professional worshippers." Can you explain why you wrote this book for them, and what music means to you?

Steve Almond: The gist is that almost all of us have dreamed of being rock stars, but almost none of us get to be rock stars. Instead, we convert that unrequited desire into obsessive fandom. So, I wanted to commemorate that experience, which is really much more universal. I also wanted to write about how certain people need music to reach feelings that are inside of them but otherwise out of reach. I've been doing that all my life. Most of the memories are, in some very real sense, contained in songs. If you play "You Light Up My Life" by Debby Boone it brings me right back to fifth grade. Sad but true. And I still listen to music all day long, including when I write, and learned much of what I know about writing from musicians.

TQO: The book contains a bunch of pieces you call "Reluctant Exegeses" of pop songs, and the Metallica piece in TQO is one you decided to cut.  Why did you leave out this one and others, and how do you decide to cut sections from a book?

SA: First, the process of getting permission to use song lyrics is incredibly complex and time-consuming. And I was responsible for that. But more importantly, as much fun as it is to tease idiotic rock lyrics, a little of that goes a long way. In the case of the Metallica exegesis, I wound up writing about how that song—for all its bombast— had basically rescued my wife from a very unhappy time in her life. 

TQO: You wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe recently where you said that music criticism is a pointless exercise.  You had this epiphany when you were covering an MC Hammer concert as a music critic yourself.  You came prepared to hurl insults, but then you saw how much fun everyone was having.  As someone whose first-ever concert as a thirteen-year-old was Hammer's 2 Legit World Tour, I can appreciate this argument, but can you explain what you mean about music criticism?

SA: No critic can really capture what it feels like for another person—particularly a devout fan—to hear his favorite band in concert. Music critics can do other things, such as provide some history and context for what an artist is up to and where that artist might fit in the culture at large. And that's fine and well. But the act of trying to judge music in any objective way struck me as pretty absurd, given that the way people hear songs is totally and radically subjective.

TQO: You just said trying to judge music in an objective way is absurd, but does music criticism necessarily need to be objective anyway? Maybe it's a product of the modern media culture in the way everyone is always on the lookout for bias, but it seems like readers would look at anything other than a concert calendar as subjective in some sense. They expect you to pick a side, and you've already signaled a preference by choosing to write about a particular band or song anyway.

SA: I'm not arguing that music critics can't have an opinion (we all do), but that their opinion means almost nothing to someone with a different opinion, because our response to music— unlike literature—is almost entirely emotional and intuitive and almost kind of mystical. Pointing this out (and I don't think it's a particularly controversial point) tends to make music critics really angry. But the best music criticism, I'd argue, is really about how music makes us feel, and where we are in our lives, and how those two places connect in a great song or album or live show.

TQO: And this may be opening a can of worms, but who is your favorite band or musician, and why?

SA: This is one of those questions where I'd have a different answer for you each week. That's how it works with Drooling Fanatics: we fall in love with a new band about that often. But in terms of staying power, all the albums on my Top Ten Desert Island Playlist certainly rank (that's in the new book), and at the top of that list is The Best of Gil Scott-Heron. I consider GSH to be the single most overlooked musical figure of the past 40 years. He basically invented hip hop and has continued to produce music that is startling in its sonic variety—funk, soul, R&B, rap, jazz, Latin—invariably ass-rocking, and completely devastating in its lyrical power. Anyone who wants to understand what this country is about should listen to "Winter in America."