As Elvis Costello (or maybe Frank Zappa, depending on who you believe) once quipped, writing about music is like dancing about architecture. This may be a fair comparison, but you’ll never find people who care so deeply about architecture who are also so crappy at dancing. The real problem with writing about music is that almost nobody can do it. We all love our favorite musicians with the passion and clear-sightedness of a Lester Bangs or a Chuck Klosterman, but very few of us are capable of explaining why without sounding like a four-year-old trying to describe why Yo Gabba Gabba is so awesome.
That’s why Steve Almond’s new memoir, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life—published by Random House and available for your reading pleasure next Tuesday—is such a breath of fresh air. Almond writes about the music he loves (and the music he feels a little guilty about loving) in ways you haven’t heard a thousand times before. And not just because he’s shared mostly personal experiences—like confessing that he got stoned in Graceland and tried to take a shit where Elvis died, or that while deejaying for a Jewish camp dance he played the dirty part from the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” for a group of six-year-olds. He also has a remarkable way of putting a new spin on old ideas.
Like what? Well, like this choice nugget: “If you have not yet attempted to remove a woman’s camisole with Nick Cave croaking, ‘I’m a bad motherfucker, don’t you know, but I’ll crawl over fifty good pussies just to get one fat boy’s asshole’ in the background, you haven’t quite lived.” Even if you’re not a fan of Nick Cave or the song in question (which, by the way, is called “Stagger Lee,” and it really should be on your iPod if it isn’t already), you can surely identify with the awkwardness he’s describing. Playing the wrong song at the wrong time for the wrong person with the best of intentions is about as awkwardly and beautifully human as you can get.
I called Almond to talk about his book, and it’s a small miracle I was able to salvage anything from our conversation for this interview. It was like a battle of the yammering music nerds. We talked about Nick Cave, of course, and just about everything from Cave’s brilliant Murder Ballads. We also talked about our musical infatuations in ways that two grown adults never should unless they’re both far too drunk to know any better.
Eric Spitznagel: I’m looking over my questions right now and most of them are just self-absorbed memories from my youth. It’s either “Hey, remember that video for ‘The Safety Dance’ with the midget?” or “I tried to get the Replacements’ song ‘Unsatisfied’ played at my high school prom. Is that bad-ass or what?” Is that just the nature of talking about music?
Steve Almond: It’s the nature of talking about any obsession, I think. With most of the shit that I write and put out there, it’s my hope that it gives readers the freedom to be really honest about their obsessions, to talk about the stuff that they care about maybe a little too much.
Even if that means being a navel-gazing, self-absorbed douchebag?
Sure, yeah, why not? We’re all walking around obsessing about things all the time. But it’s trained out of you, because that’s not the way people are supposed to be. I have a three-year-old so I can tell you, obsessional behavior is the natural path of consciousness. When I wrote Candyfreak, which was more or less just a series of confessions about my ridiculous obsessions with candy, people would come up to me after readings and be like, “I want to tell you about my favorite candy from when I was a kid and what it tasted like and its particular texture that I can recall with disturbing accuracy.” And I was like, “Okay, that’s cool, we’re just getting our freak out of the closet.” My hope is that this book will do the same thing. That’s the best news I could get from a reader, that they’ve been galvanized to talk about the time they saw their favorite band and what it meant to them.
I think you may be semi-qualified to settle this argument. I love Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel, but my wife thinks he sounds like a cat being tortured and refuses to let me play his music in the house. Would you be like that Marriage Ref show and tell me why I’m right?
Well, the problem here is that she’s right and you’re a loser.
This interview is over.
But you’re also right and she’s a loser. How’s that for reffing?
It’s fucking awful.
I had the exact same experience with a band called Tragically Hip. They had this lead singer, Gord Downie, who has this amazingly wonderful and annoying sort of ululating vocal style. You either loved it or hated it. It either struck the happy gong or it didn’t. It totally did for me, and it totally didn’t for my ex-girlfriend, who was like, “Arrgh, you are killing me.” That’s not an irreconcilable difference, but it is irreconcilable.
And your solution is … get a divorce?
I wouldn’t take it that far. But the harder you push for her to come around to the genius of Jeff Mangum—”it’s not a caterwaul, it’s like a brilliant primal baying at the moon,” or whatever rap you have for her—she’s never going to hear it that way, because she’s got her own set of ears and her own emotional needs behind those ears. You can’t really argue with somebody else’s ears.
But isn’t that the whole point of writing about music? You’re basically telling the world, “I’m the authority on what constitutes good music, and if you don’t agree with me, then go fuck yourself?”
Yeah, that’s pretty much it. And it’s part of the reason I’m so down on rock critics. I was a terrible critic myself. I remember being a 21-year-old dorko critic, going to an MC Hammer concert and seeing how fake it all was and how it was all choreographed and the music was shitty and the rhymes were all lame. But what gave my opinion any more validity than the person next to me, who was so in that moment? He was probably thinking, “MC Hammer rules! He’s making me feel incredible amounts of joy! I can’t even contain it in my body! I have to do a frenetic Egyptian jazz-hand buckle-step to commemorate how happy I am about this performance!” There’s no possible way for me as a critic to affect that sort of unbridled joy. I could certainly deride it and say, “Oh, you’re being had, this guy is a huckster.” But what the fuck is the purpose of that? It doesn’t advance the cause of art or humanity one inch.
And yet in your book you described that particular Hammer concert as “watching an ad for a delicious soda that makes people want to commit murder.” That’s snarky and unnecessarily mean, but it scratches me where I itch.
Well, that’s the contradiction of rock journalism. Critics can be totally sharp and smart and see through all the bullshit, and at the same time be completely irrelevant to the people who love music. You can’t argue with a Mariah Carey fan about why Mariah Carey is terrible. You can point out that it’s inferior art, but that has nothing to do with people’s hearts or how they experience music.
Your book also has a pretty brilliant essay about Toto and their hit Africa, arguing that it’s possible to love and hate a piece of music simultaneously. Why does that idea make my head hurt so much?
It’s the musical version of negative capability. Can we hold two opposing views of that song? I see it all the time. I’ve read that essay with musical accompaniment a few times, and it’s really striking what kind of effect it has on an audience. You can feel the change. People hear the first few opening notes, with the fake African drums, and they’re like, “Oh, yeaaaaaaah,” and you can tell that the part of them that likes things too much is like, “This is awesome! This song rules, I love it!” And then I start talking about it, and pointing out how the song is just an Imperialist handjob, and that’s when critical perspective clicks in. “Oh yeah, this is a cheesy song.” You love it even as you’re remembering you’re not supposed to love it.
I want to ask you why vinyl is so superior to digital music, but I don’t know how to phrase the question without sounding like an old hippie with a graying ponytail and a tie-die Grateful Dead t-shirt.
The sad thing is, it’s impossible to talk about anything related to music and technology anymore and not sound old. You bring up CDs and most people are like, “What are those?” Pretty soon even talking about the iPod is going to be like “C’mon, Gramps. Get out of the basement, man. It’s 2013. Nobody listens to those anymore!” Technology has made fogies out of everyone. But when it comes to LPs, I think the real complaint from purists is that we don’t listen to music in the same way anymore. I remember listening to Songs in the Key of Life or Mind Games, whatever it was, while sitting on the floor of my parents’ living room and reading the lyrics from the album sleeve and just being immersed in those songs. There wasn’t any other narrative going on. It was just me and whatever the music was making me feel, period.
I once spent an entire weekend studying the cover art for Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out and trying to figure out why Charlie Watts was dancing with a donkey.
Yeah, yeah, that’s what it’s about. I think that’s what these LP guys miss more than anything. They’d say, “Well, it’s about tonal quality, blah blah blah.” But I think it’s really about people honoring music enough to listen to it that carefully and not treating it as one more ancillary part of the entertainment package.
There’s really no way of asking my next question without prefacing it with “These goddamn kids today,” but it sounds so cliché.
Just go with it, man. There’s no judgment here.
Okay, fine. These goddamn kids today have it too easy, with their iPods and their file-sharing networks. Has instant gratification taken the fun out of music?
I think so, yeah. I kinda miss when music was less available. I remember listening to the radio as a kid and being like, “Please, DJ. Please, fate. Smile upon me and play ‘Undercover Angel.’”
Yeah, baby! I loved that song!
I was probably seven or eight when it came out, and it just made me happy. So I’d sit next to the radio, just waiting for it to come on. I was like, “I need this! I need to hear that rocking song.” I could’ve just played it for myself, but it’s never the same. It’s too easy. You want somebody else to validate that a song kicks ass. It feels so much better when it’s the guy on the radio playing it and not just you.
One of my favorite theories from your book is how characters from unrelated songs might be connected. You suggested that the heroine of Hem’s “When I Was Drinking” used to date the guy in the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular.” I think you may have invented one of the most addictive party games ever.
You think so?
Absolutely. I lay awake in bed now trying to connect songs. For instance, I’m pretty sure the slave trader in “Brown Sugar” gets his ass beaten by “The Theme From Shaft”.
I like it! Or maybe he hangs out with the narrator from that Randy Newman song. (Sings in a Newman drawl.) “In America, you’ll get food to eat.” I think it’s called “Sail Away”. He’s just selling the idea of America.
The protagonist in Nirvana’s “Rape Me” was actually raped by Paul McCartney in “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?”
Which leads to a three-way with Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place.”
Yeaaaah! Why don’t you patent that shit before I tell the world it was my idea?
Don’t tempt me, Almond.
I see this as a potential Spitznagel thing. You won’t make any money from it, but you’ll start socializing with other people who share your obsessions. It’s a way of finding other people who are on that freak wavelength.
If nothing else, it’s taken the intellectual space in my brain that used to be occupied by making mix-tapes for girls I want to sleep with.
I still do it, dude. I make mix tapes—now mix CDs—for everybody, all my friends. I can’t give that shit up.
But not specifically for women you want to sleep with?
Well, not on a shared computer anyway. You don’t want the wife digging around and asking questions like, “Wait, what’s the ‘I’m Hard’ mix? Who’s Theresa?” There’s no good way of answering that question. “Honey, that’s Saint Theresa. She makes me hot.”
Before I forget, we should probably talk about how your wife nearly slept with Kip Winger.
(Laughs.) Thank you for mentioning it.
That alone is a reason to write a book. How many people get to say, “My wife came dangerously close to having dirty hotel sex with the lead singer from Winger?”
And it could still happen! I’m reminded of that every day. She was worried about me writing about Kip at all, because she didn’t want to burn that bridge. “I’m serious, honey, don’t fuck this up for me!” And the thing is, she was being dead serious. There’s some part of her holding on, like “Maybe I could do better than this dweeb.” She’s keeping her options open.
Does that have a subconscious effect on you? Do you start feathering your hair or wearing tattered t-shirts or grooming your chest hair like a Chia Pet?
There’s nothing subconscious about it at all. Kip is always there in the specter of my sexual failures and potential abandonment.
Oh come on, don’t be like that! What does Kip have that you don’t?
He’s flexible. He’s got that big mane of hair, and he’s a dancer, he knows how to fill a pair of leather trousers, and he knows classical guitar. He’s the renaissance man of heavy metal. I’m just a dork.
Wow. I guess you’re right. (Long pause.) Sorry, man. I think your wife is leaving you for Kip Winger.
(Laughs.) It’s okay. I’ve been bracing myself for it. I knew this day would come.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com)