Liz Prato Interviews Steve Almond
It’s 10am on the Saturday morning of the AWP Conference in Denver. Steve Almond and I are sitting at a high round table at the back of a deeply laminated hotel bar. We’re sleep-deprived, oxygen-depleted, caffeine-addled, and on social overload. But, damnit, we’re going to talk about his new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, a look into his obsession with music. The interview goes like this: I babble, he babbles. Fortunately, he’s a better babbler than I am. An hour later, we go our separate ways into the high altitude madness. Days later, the whole experience plays back like a psychedelic scene from Fear & Loathing — messy and beautiful and kinda profound. If I’ve learned anything from the music obsessives in my life (or “Drooling Fanatics,” as Steve brands his brethren), it’s that all the mysteries of the universe can be ordered in a Top-10 list. So, here we go:
The Top 10 Lessons of Music, Life & Literature, as Espoused by Steve Almond
1. Obsessions Tell the Whole Story
I teach these workshops when I say, Okay, write about a song that stands for a relationship. And, immediately, the whole relationship is so much easier for people to access, because they’ve got an angle in on it. When you write about an obsession, you can always use that as your filter, but what you’re really writing about it all your associations, memories or insights when it comes to this one thing which, mystically, always tells the whole story.
I’m able now to look back on my time in Greensboro [as an MFA graduate student] and say, I was lonely and miserable and angry at a lot of people – mostly myself – and what did I do to deal with that? I went to this fucking lousy little mall and tried to find new albums. I was always seeking out music as a refuge. The book is about people like me who need music to feel certain feelings. They’re inside us, but they’re not accessible by other means.
2. Yearning is Good – or Maybe God.
A big part of being obsessed with anything, desiring anything, is the part where you’re not getting it. It’s why we say, Yeah, sex is fine, but desire is what gives it energy. I can remember [as a kid] just sitting there listening to KFRC, waiting for them to play “Undercover Angel,” waiting for them to play “The Things We Do for Love,” and oh-my-God, when it happens it is so much bigger an event than when I can just click to it with my mouse. And people think I’m shitting on technology, and it’s not that. I’m not being a luddite. I’m just saying, Look, convenience at a certain point starts to overlap with spiritual indolence. It just does. It fails to activate the part of us, the big part of us, that needs to be in a state of desire, of yearning, and when that is immediately gratified the object of that yearning automatically becomes a little less sacred.
3. In the End, You Really Need Someone Who Gets Your Shit
That story of courting Erin [his wife]. . . that time was very ambivalent, tortured, not a happy thing for either of us, especially for her. I mean, my behavior was just this side of despicable. But at a certain point I decided — with Dayna Kurtz’s help — I need to stop seeing my loneliness or isolation as exalted bullshit. I just need to have someone to listen to music with. And that’s what Erin is. The glue was that she got my love of music and she wanted to hear my music, from the beginning . . . and in the end, what you really need is someone who gets your shit. And my shit was, I kind of depend on music, and I find it, and I’m evangelical about it, and Erin totally got it. She went to bed curled up in my little man-cave many times when Boris [McCutcheon] and I and the guys were still getting high and eating chocolate and I was trying to be part of the band. Not a lot of people who have put up with that.
4. If You Want to Really Know Someone, Know Their Music
The “Exegeses” in the book are my way of poking fun at rock lyrics, which is pretty much fish in a barrel behavior. It’s a funny barrel, fine, but part of the reason I cut some of those out is because they were too easy. When Erin read my exegesis on “Fade to Black” by Metallica, she said, “Well, it’s funny, but . . . .” and she had this look on her face, like something didn’t quite sit right. I said, “What? What else?” and she said, “Well, that song was really important to me.” And what happened then was a discussion about what that song had meant to her, which revealed a lot more about her teenage years than – I mean, I knew sort of the shadowy details – but a lot more about what happened. Remember I said songs are the way in? So, when she hears “Fade to Black” she remembers all of it in a way she wouldn’t if you just said, “Tell me about your troubled adolescence.” If you’re going to take account of what songs do for people, then I would be dumb not to hear that story and go, this belongs in the book, because that’s what this book is about.
5. Karma’s a Bitch
I hope that I was sympathetic to Erin’s folks, because they couldn’t have liked having a daughter who was getting all tarted up as a heavy metal chick, and was angry and wanted to be liberated and sexual and all those things. I’ve got a daughter and I’m going to have to deal with that at some point, and I’m sure I’ll be, in my own liberal, sensitive way, just as fucked up about it.
I wasn’t trying to vilify her folks – or anyone, for that matter. That’s why I said to Erin, “Are you really okay with this?” And I basically submitted it to her editing. “How can I say this? What should I say?” After all, they know what happened. It’s not like it’s some secret. But the question is the rest of the world, and how that looks. I hope it doesn’t hurt them or make them feel exposed or awful. Fortunately, I’m a pretty obscure author, so it’s unlikely that Oprah’s going to be saying, “Let’s bring on Steve’s wife to talk about her difficult childhood years!”
6. Get a Grip on Where You Exist as an Artist
I don’t think you consciously make this decision, but you’re always thinking, How many people do I want to affect and how deeply do I want to affect them? So if you make the decision to be a poet, you’re automatically saying you’re going to speak to a smaller number of people in a deeper way, in this very particular, urgent, lyric way. When you write short stories, or when you decide to write literary nonfiction, as opposed to a political book or a celebrity memoir . . . you put yourself pretty far out of the margin.
Candyfreak unexpectedly reached a larger number of people. But most of the people who read that book probably didn’t say, “How interesting. He’s writing about depression and the way in which a particular kind of identity is being eroded in America,” all that deep heavy stuff that you try to build into a book so you feel like it’s not just about candy and you’re a big dope for writing about candy. So even if the book reached several tens of thousands of people, as opposed to just a few thousand, I can’t even control how it’s received by those people. It’s about recognizing — especially if you chose to be a writer — the limitations of that.
7. Maybe Success is Just a Good Party
There was a moment [in Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life] of me recognizing that it wasn’t the dream for Nil Laura be a big deal, by which I really meant, Wasn’t the dream for me to be a big deal? And he was, like, “No. The dream is to have a good party and to be able to see people’s bodies and how they’re receiving the music.” I had projected all my crazy, fucked up, needy ambition onto him, and he was gently saying, No man. That’s not what it’s about.
I like the little niche I’m in. If there’s a certain part of me that’s needy or narcissistic saying, Well, I want to be famous, too, — it’s not the best part of me. It’s the part of me I was systematically trying to get rid of in all my years of analysis and therapy. And is it gone? No, and everybody still dreams that dream. But in your better moments, you try to go, Whatever. And my concerns, frankly, have less to do with my personal fate as a writer, than, Is art going to play a role in rescuing this species, or not?, to the extent that anyone’s who’s doing art is trying to make people feel some moral responsibility for the suffering of others. I now have these little kids, so my horizon goes out to 80 years. So I figure if I have a book that does well, then I get a platform – to use the barfety barfy marketing term – to say, Hey, why are we behaving this way? Let’s all agree to be more compassionate and not be so greedy and so self-interested. That’s what I’m trying to think about, as opposed to, Oh my god, how will I do? I’m doing fine.
8. For Every Dave Grohl, There Are 90 Kurt Cobains
The whole idea of celebrity is a modern construction that is so deeply fucked up. When people lived in a communal setting, if you were a good singer, then the village you lived in knew that you sang well, and that was your fame. It’s not like you needed approval, and you didn’t have to be connected to some late capitalist nightmare where you start moving product. The expectation of making money for people . . . I mean, Jesus. Anytime you’re worrying about that, you’re heading away from interesting work. Because you’re saying, what will the audience think? Not what did the characters experience?
For musicians, I think the dream of being a rock star is that everybody knows you. You’re a big famous person! But, ultimately, the ones who are Big Famous People just end up getting devoured. Dave Grohl is one guy I can point to who’s really famous and he seems really well adjusted and happy. For every Dave Grohl, there’s, like, ninety Kurt Cobains. The pressure of that kind of attention and expectation and projection just destroys them. It grinds them down.
9. Care Deeply and Disastrously
What I feel in good music, the music that endures, is that the emotion feels real. And that’s because it’s focused on what the songwriter and the character are feeling. Musicians have this amazing — a zillion times more powerful than words — tool they can use, but we, as writers, should aspire to that, to reach that lyric register where you’re trying to get at the heart of a very emotionally complex and troubling moment, and you slow down, instead of trying to race through it. And the music inherent in the language hopefully emerges. It sounds really easy to say, “Well, just slow down where it hurts,” or any of my bromides. But then it turns out to be very difficult, in fact. “Just tell the truth about the things that matter to you the most deeply”— I always say that. Okay, great Almond. Sounds easy. I’ll just do that. But it’s hard. And it took me until I was 35 to even start doing that, and I mean start doing it.
I’m always saying and recognizing that the kind of writer I am – and reader, for that matter – is I want to know that the author cares deeply and maybe even disastrously about what’s happening on the page with his or her characters. When I would hear these musicians, when I was in grad school especially, I would say, That’s what I want to get to. Literary writing should give us permission to be more emotional than we are in our regular lives.
10. Don’t Blame Me For that Stupid Song Stuck in Your Head
When I play Toto during a lecture – it’s less true of Styx – but Air Supply, okay, a lot the audience is having this complicated experience of saying, “I know that song’s cheesy, so I’m sort of laughing at it out of one side of my mouth, but out of the other side of my mouth I’m singing along.” What can you say? The band found a beautiful melody – or, at least, a stubbornly catchy melody – and it’s good enough to have dignified whatever clichéd language comes rolling out of the singer’s mouth, and you fall for it. You fall for it over and over again. I know people are going to be pissed because they’re going to have those songs stuck in their head, but it wasn’t me. It was some classic rock DJ.
That being said, everyone can find those bands in two seconds. I hope they look for Ike Riley, Boris McCutcheon, Nil Lara, Dayna Kurtz, Bob Schneider, Gil Scott Heron, etc. What I really hope happens is that people will make their way to these much less known, much more obscure musicians. I totally stand by them. I know that if I can force people to listen to them a few times, they’ll say, “You’re right. That’s the shit. That’s real music.”
Read Liz Prato’s “My Son’s Father” and Steve Almond’s “A Bird of the Parrot Family” in LAR Issue 6.