Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life

BOOK: Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life
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Also by Steve Almond

(Not that You Asked): Rants, Exploits,
and Obsessions

Which Brings Me to You
(with Julianna Baggott)

The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories

Candyfreak: A Journey Through the
Chocolate Underbelly of America

My Life in Heavy Metal

To Richard and Barbara Almond
who continue to make beautiful music together
.

We are ugly, but we have the music
.

—Leonard Cohen

Contents

Intro:
Bruce Springsteen Is a Rock Star, You Are Not

Gratuitous List #1:
Bands Shamelessly Overexposed by the “Alternative” Press

Chapter 1:
The DF Starter Kit (No Assembly Required!)

Interlude:
Paradise Theater
, American Classic

Chapter 2:
Moving in Stereo

Reluctant Exegesis: “(I Bless the Rains Down in) Africa”

Chapter 3:
How I Became a Music Critic

Interlude: Why Covering the Grammys Is Not as Glamorous as You May Have Been Led to Believe

List #2:
Ten Things You Can Say to Piss Off a Music Critic

Chapter 4:
Configurations (or How the Industry F’d Us)

List #3:
Rock’s Biggest Assholes

Chapter 5:
What Songs Do

Reluctant Exegesis: “Fade to Black”

Chapter 6:
Nil Lara Was Our Messiah

Interlude: Five Really Stupid Things I’ve Done as a Drooling Fanatic

Chapter 7:
On the Varieties of Fanatical Experience

List #4:
Rock’s Top Ten Religious Freaks

Chapter 8:
How Hip-Hop Sounds in a Canyon

Interlude: Winter in America with Gil Scott-Heron

Chapter 9:
In Which Mr. Joe Henry (Rather Unwittingly) Becomes My Writing Coach

Interlude: A Mercifully Brief Survey of Prog Rock Lyricism

Chapter 10:
The Mating Habits of the Drooling Fanatic

Reluctant Exegesis: “All Out of Love”

Chapter 11:
The Marriage of Fanatico

Interlude: The Kip Winger Canon

Chapter 12:
Burying the Dead with Ike Reilly

List #5:
Top Ten Covers of All Time

Chapter 13:
Why in God’s Name Am I Managing a Band? The Boris McCutcheon Story

Interlude: A Frank Discussion of My Mancrush on Bob Schneider

Chapter 14:
How Dave Grohl Taught Me to Stop Whining and, Against Every Known Impulse in My Body, Embrace Happiness

List #6:
I See Your Muffin and Raise You a Pirate: The Many Silly Names of Rock Star Spawn

Chapter 15:
Dayna Kurtz Sings the World a Lullaby

Outro:
Drooling Fanaticism in the Age of Actual Drooling

Appendix A:
The Official Drooling Fanatic Desert Island Playlist

Acknowledgments

Permission Acknowledgments

Bruce Springsteen Is a Rock Star, You Are Not

On a warm spring night three years ago, The Close called me up in a state of agitation. He had something I needed to see. This was a Tuesday, late, but I was at loose ends, meaning lonely and despicable. “Right,” I said. “Let me find my pants.”

The pants were necessary because The Close had moved across the Charles River into Boston proper, whereas I was still in Somerville, a city sometimes compared to Paris by people who have never visited either place. I suppose it’s important to know that The Close and I were writers and that we spent most of our waking hours sitting at our keyboards making poor decisions, or cursing those poor decisions, or avoiding our keyboards altogether and feeling crushed by guilt, or (most often, actually) sitting at our keyboards not making any decisions at all because we were too busy cursing the obscurity to which we felt damned. Hey, it’s a living. Also: while both of us had enjoyed years of misbehavior, the terrors of adulthood were now gently breathing down our necks in the form of our gentle fiancées, who were moving to town in a matter of weeks. Oh, and mine was pregnant.

The Close was smoking on the windowsill when I arrived. Nearby lay his binoculars, used to survey the windows of the building across the street for women in states of undress. He had one chair in his place, amid the Styrofoam take-out boxes and freshman compositions with titles such as “Why Raymond Carver Bores Me to Death.” He gestured for me to sit and clicked on his VCR. “This is Bruce Springsteen playing the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975.”

“Since when are you a Springsteen fan?” I said.

“Just fucking watch.”

The Close was from Jersey and spoke the native tongue, a clipped, tough-guy patois that implied a life spent amid mobsters. This was (like so much else about The Close) patently fraudulent. He taught literature at a famous university and quoted the Terrible Sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins at least once an hour. Nonetheless, The Close was a creature of passion. He wasn’t going to shut up until I watched.

The lights came up on the E Street Band, several of whom were wearing white fedoras. Springsteen appeared in black jeans and a tattered leather jacket. This was not the
Bruuuuuuuce
of recent popular imaginings: the airbrushed hunk with ass by Nautilus, or the elder statesman in dignified soul patch. No, this was Primordial Bruce, the scruffy kid with a goofy underbite and toothpick arms.

“Understand:
Born to Run
has just come out. Bruce is on the cover of
Time
and
Newsweek
the same week. They’re calling him the future of rock and roll.” The Close had his tongue practically inside my ear, jabbering these hot words of praise and envy. “The guy’s got the world hanging off his dick and he’s twenty-five years old. Can you imagine?”

“No,” I said.

What struck me, in fact, was that Bruce looked frightened. He kept fidgeting with his cap and he refused to face the crowd. When he finally did speak, he sounded like a high school kid playing drunk.
“How’s things going over here in England and stuff, huh? All right?” The crowd hooted and Bruce laughed so hard he began gasping for air. He wanted everyone to understand how outrageous he found the situation: all these posh Londoners turning up to see his little bar band. It was one of those awkwardly phony moments designed to conceal something awkwardly real. Bruce was stalling. He hadn’t quite answered the question that haunts all budding superstars:
Do I have what it takes to be who they say I am?

In the background, Roy Bittan played a piano run straight from the Motown playbook and Max Weinberg cracked at his drum set. Bruce staggered back to the microphone, only this time he spoke in a hushed growl.
Oh Christ
, I thought,
he’s gonna try the black preacher thing
. “Yuh know, on the eighth day, He looked down on a bunch of drunks in this bar and uh—” Bruce wrestled the mic from its stand and again turned away from the crowd. “He looked down on a bunch of drunks in this bar on the eighth day, and, and with a wave of his hand he said …

Sparks fly on E Street when the boy prophets walk it handsome and hot

And suddenly Bruce was singing, urgent and raspy, and the crowd, released back into the music, erupted, because this was after all “The E Street Shuffle,” Bruce’s creation song, slowed to a half tempo, recast as an epic soul ballad, sent reeling back, that is, to its country of origin, the fuzzy AM radios in those big-finned cars he’d cruised as a lonely dropout punk, listening to Otis and Roy and Sam, dreaming he would someday be them: the man with the golden voice, the fearless band, who escaped his prospects not by forgetting where he came from but by commemorating its joys and hardships in song, and then, just in case anyone missed the point, Bruce steered his crew into a languorous version of “Having a Party.”

The crowd was plowed. They’d never seen anything like Bruce, never seen a rock star swan dive from naked terror into poise, never heard a band reclaim American popular music with such raucous elegance. They played for two hours solid, culminating in a doo-wop rendition of “Quarter to Three” that ended (and started again) half a dozen times. Bruce twirled in the rosy light, soaked through and howling.

“Why the fuck should he stop?” The Close shouted into my ear-hole. “He’s fucking
killing
those people. That’s what I want, brother. Seriously. Enough of this shit.” He gestured at the drafts scattered on his desk, the pitiful, noiseless words, then looked at me with his big sad Jersey eyes.

“Where the fuck did we go wrong?”

Yes, Where?

The Close expected me to say something wise, of course, because I’m his elder and because I frequently suffer from the notion that I have wise things to say. But it was past midnight by then and I was feeling just as wrecked as he was. We were, after all, in the twilight of our bachelorhood, our last hurrah as Dudes Who Might Be Anything, and so the perpetual adolescent dream of rock stardom had lashed up from the depths and seized The Close and he had called me because, well, misery loves another idiot with a jukebox where his soul should be.

Later, having driven home and heroically resisted getting stoned, I tapped out this e-mail:

Now look here, Close: I recognize that what we do rarely lands us anywhere near the basic human plumbing of instinct. Whereas Bruce, he liberates the riot inside of us and shakes our butts for good measure. But you’re a smart enough dope to recognize that all language is an aspiration to music. Our only refuge is that people need what we do, too, our own quieter songs.

Did The Close buy this horseshit? I would say no.

I certainly didn’t. I couldn’t shake the notion that we
had
gone wrong somewhere, that we belonged to some special category of the thwarted. We spent an inordinate number of hours mourning the fact that we had
not
wound up as rock stars or one-hit wonders or near-misses or bar bands or wedding bands or KISS cover bands.

We had wound up, instead, as 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 that 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. For the purposes of dignity and common marketing, it would make sense to call us something catchy like, say,
Superfans
. But I’m going to nominate
Drooling Fanatics
, which better captures the embarrassingly regressive aspects of our tribe.

BOOK: Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life
6.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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