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Steve Almond, author of the new Random House book Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, first arrived in Miami during an especially fertile period of its music scene. It was the early '90s, and a 20-something Almond touched down here as a staff writer for New Times. He duly settled in a sun-bleached South Beach at a time when live music dives coexisted with crumbling geezer hotels.
The late, great Stephen Talkhouse was in full swing, and it was there that Almond began to nurse one of his great obsessions: singer-songwriter Nil Lara. The performer was pioneering a Latin-tinged pop-rock that would influence countless other Miami bands, and it seemed he was going to break big. Crowds at his shows swelled, labels came sniffing, and there, through it all, was Almond, cutting a rug that earned him the nickname "Dancing Steve."
It wasn't the first of such obsessions, though, and it wouldn't be the last. Most passionate music fans can relate to this kind of fixation. A singular performer or band speaks to you and only to you. His or her words and melodies create a spiritual balm that seems tailor-made.
Yeah, Almond knows all about that, and he recounts his musical love affairs in embarrassing, hilarious detail in Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. Arranged as a loosely chronological series of essays, it relates the beginning and, usually end, of such abstract love affairs. (Besides Lara, Joe Henry, Chuck Prophet, and Ike Reilly are the subjects of particularly intense worship.)
The book is also an anthropological and sociological guide. One chapter handily delineates how one becomes a "Drooling Fanatic," a term Almond uses to refer to himself and his kind throughout the volume. Other mini-essays argue for the saving power of Metallica's "Fade to Black" — which he acknowledges even though he is not a fan. Also interspersed are a number of pithy lists that would delight Chuck Klosterman fans, with titles like "Ten Things You Can Say to Piss Off a Music Critic."
Anyone who's ever empathized with Nick Hornby's fictional characters will find a real-life hero in Almond, who's not afraid to chart his successes and failures in, say, romantic mixtape-making. And Nil Lara isn't the only Miami character who shows up. Another chapter is devoted to underground hip-hop in the city around the same time, which Almond discovered while reporting his award-winning 1995 story "The Canyon," about the Liberty City housing projects of the same name.
New Times recently caught up with Almond, who's also penned popular books such as My Life in Heavy Metal, a short story collection; Not That You Asked, a volume of essays; and Candy Freak, a memoir about another obsession, with obscure candy. We discussed the new book and its Miami chapters in particular.
Check out what he had to say below, and make sure to check out stevenalmond.com. There you can share the objects of your own Drooling Fanaticism, watch videos of artists mentioned in the book, and even download a free soundtrack album, featuring tracks by everyone therein.
New Times: What made you decide to write this book now, after delving into fiction and nonfiction on other subjects?
Steve Almond: Basically, because I'm a lazy stoner. But also because sometimes the stuff that you're obsessed with never occurs to you as a book topic. It's like literature is reserved for some special category of experience. But a few years back, I realized that I do best when I just drop the literary pretense and self-judgments and write about the shit I think about all the time (sex, candy, music).
Your chapter on Nil Lara details his stymied attempts to break big on a national level. When a favorite reaches a sort of "almost-was" status, how does it affect the Drooling Fanatic?
It's a really conflicted dynamic, because the part of you that's an evangelist is like, "Hell, yes, Nil is gonna be a star and everyone will know how awesome he is and I'll have been on that shit first!" But then another part of you is like, "Shit, now everyone knows about Nil and I'm no longer part of this little exalted cult and I can't even get into his shows anymore and, shit, what if it becomes, like, cliché to like Nil?" It's like this battle between your generosity and egotism as a fan.
When did you notice the local scene as you knew it was dramatically changing? Was it the narcotics?
Taking bad drugs can be a good way of putting the dark shit into perspective. But it's not like I hadn't noticed South Beach was changing before or that I was falling out of love with my girlfriend or getting sick of my own bullshit — it was all of those things hitting me at once while on bad drugs.
Do you remember if there were any other local performers you particularly liked during that period?
There were lots of great bands back then. Us Nil freaks were just one faction. Natural Causes was also great, and there was Goods and Mary Karlzen and Matt Sabatella and a bunch of others. It was a great time for music in Miami. But, you know, I'm sure it's still a great time if you're 25 and go out four times a week. Every generation waxes nostalgic for the good old days when the truth is the missing ingredient isn't the kick-ass bands but your own youth. Wow. That's depressing.
Your chapter on hip-hop mentions an artist named Simeon and his crew, Lastrawze. Did you ever hear about them again? And why doesn't this chapter focus on your devotion to a particular artist?
I never heard about Lastrawze again... and I didn't want the book to be a bunch of profiles of musicians I worship. I was more interested in telling the story of how music helps certain people reach certain feelings. And the year I spent in the Canyon was a big deal to me. Hanging out with those kids and watching what they were going through made me realize, in a very concrete way, how much suffering and hopelessness was plunked right in the middle of Miami. And it made me realize where hip-hop was coming from and what it meant — that it was a way for sad, powerless people to feel happy and powerful.
What qualities in a performer unlock your Drooling Fanaticism?
I couldn't care less about what performers look like or call themselves. I'm just looking for musicians who make me feel the feelings I can't reach by other means — the sorrow and rage and exaltation that most of us spend our days running from. I'm not a big fan of sophisticated poses in music. I tend to go for bands that are openly trying to fuck their fans up, to free their asses from the ass cage.
Because my DNA is basically Beatles DNA, I also tend toward big, juicy melodies and rhythms. But the point of the book is that everyone has their own DNA as a Drooling Fanatic and their own emotional needs when it comes to music. We all dig different stuff, but we can all agree that music is basically the one giant thing that people have done right, amid all our stupid sins.