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Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book by and for the Fanatics Among Us (with Bitchin' Soundtrack)by Steve Almond
The DF Starter Kit (No Assembly Required!)
1. It helps considerably if your parents are musicians of some sort My mother, for instance, was an accomplished pianist who attended the High School of Music and Art before settling into the far more glamorous fields of parenting and psychiatry. In addition to her assigned roles as therapist, domestic slave, and mother to three savage monkeys (i.e. me, my twin brother, Mike, and our older brother, Dave) she played piano on a black upright Yamaha. Owing to the size of our home, the piano was located in what we savage monkeys thought of as the TV Room. This created a conflicting agenda, which in many ways crystallizes the generational dichotomy in our household: Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor versus The Facts of Life.
We barged in on her constantly, resentful of the attention she lavished on the instrument, and the serenity it seemed to grant her. Our father eventually affixed a latch to the door. Thus, the emblematic sound of our youth--a soft cascade of notes interrupted by ferocious pounding, then a muted sigh. Mom played beautifully.
Our father sang, starting in high school and later with the Harvard Glee Club, a distinction we looked upon with the contempt to be expected of insecure male offspring. (Glee Club? Why not just announce you're in the Gay Club?) He performed Lieder mostly, accompanied by our mother. Our father with his chin tipped slightly up, mournful German couplets trembling from his chest. His throat swelling with imploration. Such vulnerability! We were mortified.
Our folks were too stuffed full of intellectual ambitions for a life in the arts. They were the descendants of European Jewry, cultured people who looked upon music as one of the elevating pleasures of our time on earth. They listened as much as they played, folk and rock music, but most of all classical.
We wanted nothing to do with classical music, excepting the Bugs Bunny episode "Rabbit of Seville," the viewing of which was as close as we came to a sense of musical communion with our father. He later dragged us to the actual opera, a decision he immediately regretted. Nonetheless, we could see how music soothed and transformed our parents and though we endeavored not to show them that we were impressed, we were and deeply.
2. Display just enough musical talent to suffer lessonsI am flattering myself here, as is my wont. I did not have talent. What I had was a greater need for parental approval. I have no idea how piano was settled upon, though I'm sure my own Oedipal longings played a central role. My teacher was one Rosanna Sosoyev, a diminutive Russian emigre with a carefully arranged omelet of ginger hair.
Mrs. Sosoyev was what I'll call a "traditional" teacher. Before each lesson, she would inspect my hands, then send me to wash them. (On a few occasions, she marched me to the bathroom and washed them for me. This ritual--my hands in hers, the rose-scented soap, the warm water--was mildly erotic and deeply distressing.) She stressed scales.
Sosoyev: Now, we play the scale.
Me: [Playing, badly]
Sosoyev: Did you practice the scale this week?
Sosoyev: You must practice the scale, Steven. You cannot play the song without the scale. It is like the sturgeon. The sturgeon cannot swim with no scale.
Our lessons were like this: small, poorly attended battles of will. The only spectator was her husband, a spectral figure who glided from one room to another in a cloud of camphor. I like to imagine that I caused Rosanna Sosoyev at least one small stroke, but I am probably flattering myself again. My mother was the one who bore the brunt of my halfhearted practicing. She had to listen to me mangle Haydn sonatas night after night. I also smashed the keys with my fists. A lot.
At a certain point, probably five or six years in, Sosoyev allowed me to mangle a few of Scott Joplin's signature compositions: "Maple Leaf Rag," "Peacherine Rag," "The Entertainer." I attacked these pieces with grim and relentless determination. Mike referred to this as my Maple Barf Rag phase.
It was no use. I sucked. I knew I sucked. If there was any confusion about my sucking (there wasn't) Sosoyev's annual recitals put them to rest. Here, I was provided incontrovertible evidence that I was making meager progress compared to her other pupils, who regarded me with expressions of polite confusion. There seemed to be some speculation that I was developmentally disabled.
What I lacked was the imagination that animates the learning process. I kept waiting for that mystical moment when the underlying grammar of music, the tonal relationships, would reveal themselves to me, or to my hands anyway, and I would suddenly just know what to play without having to memorize which little piggy went where and furthermore every key I hit would sound brilliant and glittery like Chico Marx. But this kept not happening because I refused to do all that lonely sustained work I mentioned earlier, because I lacked the capacity to forgive myself for mistakes (i.e. patience) and grew humiliated and angry and things turned smashy.
The sturgeon cannot swim with no scale.
3. Have an older sibling who thinks you're a dipshitIt's important that they think you're a dipshit because you're much more likely to worship them in this case, and to adopt their musical taste (which is better than yours) as a kind of gospel.
We need look no further than 1978, the year Styx was named America's Favorite Band by one of the many gold-plated award shows that slithered to prominence in the seventies. I remember this vividly because I raced to my older brother Dave's room with the news. He was the one who had turned me on to the mind-blowing brilliance of Styx and who I expected would share in my sense of personal vindication.
"Styx won best band!" I yelled.
"Styx sucks," he said quietly. "Get out."
I was dumbfounded. Styx sucks? But Styx so much didn't suck. Styx ruled. Styx were geniuses. They were like Mozart, like five Mozarts, each with diaphanous hair and shiny space-age jumpsuits, and they wrote pulsating anthems about renegade men and blue-collar men and epic ballads about love and loss and excessive cocaine use, none of which mattered because (inexplicably) Dave said they sucked.
A few days later I stole into his room and unearthed the culprit: an album called Outlandos d'Amour by the Police. What a disturbing artifact! Rock bands, after all, had mystical names like Led Zeppelin and Blue Oyster Cult. But the Police? I was a twelve-year-old whose hobbies were shoplifting and pyromania. Why would I listen to a band called the Police?
Nor did the songs make sense. They were jerky and tense, with minor-key melodies and jangled bursts of guitar. No solos. (Dude: no solos?) And the lyrics weren't about the reaper or invisible airwaves crackling with light. They were about loneliness and rejection, subjects on which I needed no additional briefing. I listened to Outlandos d'Amour straight through, trembling with disgust.
Why, then, did I keep sneaking into Dave's room and listening to the thing? If this were the sort of book written by a Professional Music Critic, I'd now be compelled to identify Outlandos as a watershed album, marking a shift from the bombastic escapism of prog rock to the edgy emotionalism of New Wave. I'd note the deft deployment of punk and reggae elements in a pop context and blah-blah-blah. But I'm a Drooling Fanatic. All I know is how I felt listening to the music: anxious and excited and weirdly relieved. I guess this is our last good-bye, sang the singer guy, but you don't care so I won't cry/But you'll be sorry when I'm dead/And all this guilt will be on your head. When my dad heard these lines, he laughed. This was a funny song about being jilted, then committing suicide. Suicide could be funny. Equally shocking: rock music could be funny.
This is the big thing about having an older sibling; they're always pushing the nascent Fanatic to venture beyond the safe margins of his or her taste. Without meaning to (because honestly, they just want you out of their fucking room) they implant the vital notion that there is music out there you don't know about yet, and that you'd better get hip to, unless you want to remain an immature twerp who worships Styx.
But you can never catch up. That's the thing. Because your interest in a band is (to the older sibling) the essential indicator that band is over. You're the Casey Kasem of their existence. I chased Dave from the Police all the way out to the margins of punk, which explains how I came to conduct what probably ranks as the worst interview Jello Biafra ever endured--for our high school newspaper. Dave did manage to shake me off his trail, but he had to go over to the dark side to do it. He became a Deadhead.
4. Find a guardian angelSo the older sib who thinks you're a dipshit is crucial, but any self-respecting DF needs a benevolent pusherman, too. Mine was Uncle Pete, my father's younger brother. Pete had tried out for the New York Yankees. He had been a TV reporter and made movies in Los Angeles. He had an apartment in New York City, a stunning new girlfriend every few years, the profile of a Greek god. He was practically a rock star himself.
On my tenth birthday, he presented me with Songs in the Key of Life. I listened to nothing else that fall. Every day after school, I sat with the album on my lap, trying to muster the courage to sing along with Stevie on "Have a Talk with God" and "I Wish" and especially "Village Ghetto Land." I didn't go to church or eat dog food. But I desperately wanted to be the kind of kid whose deprivation made me soulful rather than neurotic.
Pete kept up a steady supply: Thunder Road, Shoot Out the Lights. Then it was on to the advanced material--a compilation by Dion and the Belmonts, the dark ruminations of Leonard Cohen, the rambunctious poetry of Gil Scott-Heron. These albums were so far beyond my ken it took years to hear them properly. But I kept them with me. They were like savings bonds I knew would someday mature.
5. Be lonely, and spend your hours amid the lonelyI didn't just like music. I needed music. There wasn't much else on my dance card. Pinball. TV. Masturbation, eventually. I spent a lot of time alone on the carpet in the living room, listening to Abbey Road or Mind Games or Through the Past Darkly. And studying these records, poring over the lyrics and album art. The back cover of Goat's Head Soup--with the actual goat's head in a cauldron of soup. I puzzled over that image for the entirety of 1975. (Could one actually make soup out of a goat's head? What would it taste like? What would happen to the horns and fur and teeth? And the eyes? Did one eat the eyes, or were they there just for flavor?)
Music was also a way of reaching out to friends, other boys mostly. It is in the nature of the pre- and adolescent male to isolate and brood, to interact as indirectly as possible, with aggressive ritual as mediation. These days, it's done with video games about carjacking. Back then, it was a devotion to particular albums. Scott Sutcher and I spent most of seventh grade locked in his room listening to Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. There was a protocol. He lay on the bed. I sat with my back against the box spring. We slammed Hostess products foraged from the pantry. There was almost no talking. A few words to fill the scratchy silence between songs. You poot? You did. Dickwad. Pootwad. Then it was back to the joyous malevolence of AC/DC, its perverted and fuzzy roar, the gravelly alliteration of the title track (all those croaked Ds to which we chanted along so softly), the leering innuendo of "Big Balls," in which Bon Scott observes that some balls are held for "charity" and others for "fancy dress."
But when they're held for pleasure
They're the balls that I like best
Bon Scott delivered these lines with a smirking pomposity that struck us as unbearably sophisticated. The man was Byron. In the meatiest passages of particular songs, we closed our eyes and let the chords surge through us. It was a kind of trance. We were alone, but not alone. We were embarrassed--everything embarrassed us in seventh grade--but flushed with angry hopes.
When people bitch about the death of the vinyl LP as a medium (and lord knows they bitch) what they're mostly lamenting is the death of this kind of listening. Music as a concerted sonic experience, rather than the backing track to a flashing screen. What I'm suggesting here is that Drooling Fanaticism boils down to undivided attention, which is not only our most endangered human resource but the first and final act of love.
Paradise Theater, American Classic
I mentioned Styx. Having done so, I cannot unmention them.
Let me say, then, that I loved Styx and that I still love Styx and not ironically either. There is no sin in the realm of taste. This will come as a shock to a critical establishment that prides itself on haughty judgment. But you can't tell someone his or her ears are wrong. You can't rescind the pleasure they derive from a particular piece of music. You can certainly deride that pleasure. If we were to meet and you were to break into the refrain of "Renegade," for instance, or "Come Sail Away," I would feel embarrassed. I might even, for the sake of camaraderie, go along with the gag. Ha-ha-ha. Yeah, Styx: what was I thinking? But that is quite different from what my body experiences when I listen to Styx. And in particular, when I listen to what I will now call--with no alcoholic intervention--the Styx masterpiece, Paradise Theater.
PT was released in the winter of 1981, my freshman year in high school. It documents the demise of Chicago's Paradise Theater, which is a metaphor for the demise of America's civic culture, which is deep, man. So it's a concept album, or half a concept album, because only Dennis DeYoung was committed to the concept and he was the pianist. The rest of the band almost certainly thought DeYoung was a fag.
That I memorized the album, word for word, will go without saying. That I used impromptu recitations to score titty privileges at Jewish summer camp also can be assumed. I was especially taken by the rousing power ballad "The Best of Times." I loved everything about it: the Elton Johnish piano intro, DeYoung's histrionic vibrato, his shameless appropriation of Dickens, the marching cadence, the chorus with its richly harmonized coda ("These are the best . . . of times"), Tommy Shaw's Harrisonesque solo--a solo I cannot hear without picturing Shaw in the bright green jumpsuit he wore for the concert video: the Jolly Green Giant's tiny catamite lover.
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