Reviewed by Ryan White
Without judging the book by its cover, the cover of Steve Almond's new book demands of the reader a certain personal value judgment. Well, technically, the title does all the work, not the cover.
"Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life."
Either you believe it, or you don't.
Either you know what it's like to become infatuated with an artist, a record, a singer, a guitar lick, a lyric, a song you track down and obsessively listen to over and over again until you know it better than you know yourself, or you don't.
Either you know the joy of a question brought to the dinner party (like, Who is the definitive American band?), one that fills the rest of the night with debate, and the next week, spilling over to Facebook, and e-mail, and on and on, or you don't.
If you don't -- if you're the kind of person who, when asked what should go on the stereo says, "It doesn't matter" -- you might be surprised to find out just how much it matters to some of us.
Almond, author of rants, short stories, semi-dirty stories and, most famously, the sweet-toothed memoir Candyfreak, self-identifies here as a "Drooling Fanatic." The Drooling Fanatic has lists and obsessions and a record collection that overwhelms the premises. The Drooling Fanatic stalks and crushes and very much believes it matters.
Offer Air Supply at your own risk.
The Drooling Fanatic wants nothing more than to impress upon the world -- or whoever is in the fanatic's immediate orbit -- the importance of whatever song or artist is, at that very moment, changing the fanatic's life.
And so over slightly more than 200 pages, Almond offers a love letter to the music that has helped him survive and celebrate life. The stuff that makes it make sense. It's a piece of music writing, sure. But not scholarly in the way Greil Marcus is scholarly. It's not as focused on broader cultural importance.
Though Almond offers sharp insights that fit into both categories -- and is probably right in his somewhat bold assessment of Dave Grohl vis a vis Kurt Cobain -- the book is far more personal. These songs, these singers and writers are important to Almond.
He isn't interested in telling you you're wrong. If you want to like Air Supply's "All Out of Love" or Toto's "(I Bless the Rains Down In) Africa," that's fine. He doesn't. (Even if you do, you'll probably still enjoy his lyrical deconstructions.)
His story is what he's learned about writing from Joe Henry, or what Nil Lara meant to Almond and his friends during a brief, sweaty, rowdy time in Miami, or why he became obsessed with and went to visit Ike Reilly, Bob Schneider or Dayna Kurtz.
Almond's interested in understanding the importance of Metallica's "Fade to Black," by seeing it through his wife, and what the song meant to her when she was a teenager. It's through her he also guides us to a hilarious couple of pages starring Kip Winger.
Almond shares his own list of very stupid things done because he was a Drooling Fanatic.
In his moments, anyone who believes the statement made up front will find familiarity.
"When people complain about how (bad) most commercial pop music is, what they're really angry about is that particular songs don't take them anywhere," Almond writes.
Because that's what music should do, does do and will do. If you believe that, you'll believe the title, and you and Almond and his book will have a lot to talk about.
Books mentioned in this post