Q&A With Steve Almond, New Times Alum and Author of New Book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life

Steve Almond, the author of the new Random House book Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, first arrived in Miami during an especially fertile period for its music scene. It was the early '90s, and a twentysomething Almond had touched down here with a new job as a staff writer for Miami 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: the singer-songwriter Nil Lara. The performer was pioneering a Latin-tinged pop-rock that would influence countless other Miami bands after him, and it seemed like 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 fans of music 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 speak only to you, and serve as a spiritual balm that seems tailor-made. 

Yeah, Almond knows all about that, and he recounts his own musical love affairs in embarrassing, hilarious detail in Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. Arranged as a loosely chronological series of essays, it details the beginning and, usually end, of such abstract love affairs. (Besides Lara, Joe Henry Chuck Prophet, Ike Reilly are the subjects of particularly intense worship.)  

The book also serves as an anthropological and sociological guide, of sorts. One chapter handily delineates how, exactly, one becomes a "Drooling Fanatic," a term which Almond uses to refer to himself and his kind throughout the volume. Other mini essays throughout 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 of the kind 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, say, in romantic mix-tape making. And Nil Lara isn't the only Miami character who shows up. Another chapter is devoted entirely 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.

Crossfade caught up recently with Almond, who's also penned past popular books like 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 his web site at 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. 

Crossfade: As the book says, you've been a music lover (or "Drooling Fanatic") for most of your life, even working as a professional music critic/editor on and off. What made you decide to write this book now, after delving into fiction and nonfiction on other subjects? Or rather, what took you so long

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 pretensions and self-judgments and write about the shit I think about all the time (sex, candy, music).  

Do you ever miss full-time professional music journalism/criticism, and if so, what do you miss about it? 

Yeah, I totally miss getting lots of free music and free tickets and being plunked in the middle of a sea of Drooling Fanatics with my little notebook. I miss the adrenalin and the schwag. But I don't miss the part of myself that sometimes came out as a critic, the part that shit on various bands for the sake of dumb jokes. I wrote a piece about this recently, which made all the music critics get their knickers in a bundle. Imagine that. 

But part of the point of the book is that there's really no angle in hating on someone else's favorite band. It just amounts to shitting on their pleasure. I'm not saying that I don't get pissed at the clichéd pop songs that dominate the charts, but my solution for the past decade has been to get all evangelical about the bands I dig. 

How did you decide how to organize the book, and to which favorites you would devote the chapters? It seems more or less chronological, but then it meanders back and forth a bit in time, especially with the lists and asides. 

Yeah, "organize" is kinda dignifying it. I basically just wanted to move from childhood to idiot bachelorhood to more idiot bachelorhood to marriage-and-kids, using the bands and albums that were the soundtracks for those various eras. The lists and asides are just how my mind work. I prefer books that are messy to ones that follow these obvious marketing templates. All readers want is good stories. Obviously, as a reporter, I could never get away with that kind of horsing around - which is why I'm not a reporter anymore. 

What really separates the Drooling Fanatic from the Semi-Pro? It seems like it's musical talent, but then one characteristic of the Semi-Pro, it seems, is that although he (or she) may sometimes be talented, sometimes he may not be, either. 

It's more that a Semi-Pro has made a real, sustained effort at making music as an adult, which I never did, because I lacked the courage. To me, talent isn't the deal breaker in most pursuits. It's more having the balls to keep going in the face of failure/humiliation/people booing. 

Your chapter on Nil Lara details his rise to local fame, and then his stymied attempts to break big on a national level. But when you and your friends were following him around in Miami, you seemed certain he would be a star. When a favorite reaches a sort of "almost-was" status, how does it affect the Drooling Fanatic? Does it disappoint you, or does it make you more ardent in your Drooling Fanaticism? 

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 that the local scene as you knew it at that point was dying (or at least dramatically changing)? Was it really during that candy-flipping [ed. note: younger folk may call it "trolling] epiphany you describe in the book? 

Yeah, 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? Was the scene as a whole focused on Nil? 

No, there were lots of great bands back then. Us Nil freaks were just one faction. Natural Causes was also great, and The Goods and Mary Karlzen and Matt Sabatella and a bunch of others that, if I weren't such a pothead, I would remember. It was a great time for music in Miami. But, you know, I'm sure it'se still a great time for music in Miami if you're 25 and go out four times a week. Ever generation waxes nostalgic for the good old days when the truth is the missing ingredient isn't the kickass bands but your own youth. Wow. That's depressing. 
 

Moving on, when you were reporting on the Canyon, at the time, did you pay much attention to the way music was heard and distributed there, or was that in retrospect, when you were working on this book? 

No, I remember at the time there being these beat up cassette tapes and thinking, "Wow, that shit is old school." Because remember: I was a Drooling Fanatic. I wanted to know what people in the Scott Homes listened to. 

You mentioned a few local hip-hop artists in that chapter, especially someone named Simeon and his crew, Lastrawze. Did you ever hear about them, or any of the other artists you heard around the Canyon, after that? 

I never heard about Lastrawze again.  

This is actually a chapter that doesn't focus, so much, on your devotion to a particular artist. What, then, made you decide to write it for and include this in the book? 

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.  
 

The different chapters focus on an eclectic stylistic spread of performers. What do you think is the common thread among them? (Besides the fact that they usually seem to be male singer-songwriter types who often just go by their own name). What qualities in a performer unlock your own personal Drooling Fanaticism? 

Yeah, I could care less about what they 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. 

Finally, are there any artists you've discovered lately that are bringing out the Drooling Fanatic in you? 

Yeah, like maybe a thousand. I'm not going to bore people with a list, but if they want to see my most recent list, it's here. And if they wanna, people can also read excerpts or listen to the soundtrack.

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