Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, Steve Almond’s new memoir-via-music-journalism, is far fresher, funnier, and insightful than its dopey name or silly cover will attest. Not that Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is a wholly terrible name (even presented in cruciform arrangement), or that the unironic waving of lighters in the air is an awfully hokey image–but both seem counter-intuitive to the playful, self-deprecating spirit of Almond’s book. I suppose that the publisher wants to highlight a rock-as-religion motif that kinda sorta exists in the book (further compounded by the pull-quote from Aimee Mann: “Required reading for all us fans and musicians who belong to the Church of Rock and Roll”). Almond’s book is, I suppose, about being religious about music–that is, about being fanatical, crazy, bonkers about music. He calls these people–he is Exhibit #1, of course–Drooling Fanatics, or DFs for short. Drooling Fanatics are
. . . wannabes, geeks, professional worshippers, the sort of guys and dolls 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 interested–what they should be listening to and why and forcing homemade compilations into their hands and then calling them to see what they thought of these compilations, in particular the syncopated handclaps on track fourteen.
You might know some Drooling Fanatics; I know many of them. In fact, I have some DF-tendencies myself that I manage to keep in check. It’s this keen sense of self-awareness–geek-awareness–that makes Almond’s memoir so charming and engaging, particularly when he’s recounting interviews and experiences with obscure also-rans like Nil Lara, Bob Schneider, and Joe Henry. Almond’s devotion to these lesser-known artists permeates his text. His Drooling Fanaticism makes a great case for their music and even as he rants that they didn’t gain the fame and superstardom they surely deserve, he also admits that part of the Drooling Fanatic’s love for his or her artist is the special love of knowing something the rest of the world doesn’t know. Not that Almond doesn’t have various run-ins with famous people. An interview with Dave Grohl leads to Almond’s epiphany near the end of the book that being a good father and husband, doing your job to the best of your ability, and engaging fully in your own life is more important than the illusion of fame or “artistic integrity.”
Yes, “epiphany” is right–Almond’s memoir manages to avoid most pitfalls of that genre, but it still follows a recognizable arc, right up to a moment of insight and maturation. Almond punctuates this loosely-chronological framework with lists that claim to take the piss out of rock critics (who notoriously love to make lists) but, are, of course, lists. They don’t add anything to the book and they will certainly date it, and Almond’s entire chapter of lists of rock star kid names is mildly amusing but ultimately distracting. Far more successful are the “Reluctant Exegesis” sections of the book, where Almond interprets the lyrics of swill like Toto’s “Africa” and Air Supply’s “All out of Love” (he finds shades of Heidegger in the latter). These tongue-in-cheek exercises show Almond’s humorous tone as well as his skill as a critic; they also fit neatly into his memoir, contributing to the narrative proper.
Almond’s book is refreshing, both as a memoir and as a form of rock criticism. Music critics and memoirists alike are far-too often self-serious, even solemn about their work. Almond’s memoir reveals that the coolness meant to exude from many modern music critics is really an overt symptom of Drooling Fanaticism, a pose meant to close (or at least reconcile) the gap between artist and reviewer. Almond fills that gap with heartfelt joy, and, best of all, he achieves the real job of any music critic–he makes you want to listen to the stuff he’s writing about for yourself. Recommended.
Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is available April 13 from Random House.