‘Wannabe central’ Archive

Can Rock and Roll Save Your Life?

Monday, December 20th, 2010

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

“Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life”, by Steve Almond, may not be the funniest book I’ve ever read about being a music fan, but it’s close. In this entertaining memoir, Mr. Almond takes us on a tour of his adult life viewed through the lens of Drooling Fanaticism, his term for the pure, hopeless note-crush that the musically talentless have on the musically talented. I’m pleased to say that I laughed out loud several times, and subjected my wife, She Who Must Be Taunted, to the oral presentation of multiple passages, even though she is almost certain to read the book herself and I, regrettably, am a terrible out-loud reader, with the rhythm of a stalled subway car and the timing of an asthmatic whale.

Alas, although this essay begins as a review, it is about to veer off into navel-gazing, since you can easily obtain this book at your local bookstore or Kindletorium, but far less easily gaze into my navel. See, Steve’s experience is a pure one, and mine is not. I could have been him – it would have been easy. And the extent to which I disagree with him – insofar as he has any thesis at all in his book – is the extent to which I failed to be him, for which I am exceedingly grateful.

I recently wrote, in my newsletter, that my desire to be a rock’n’roll star came to me late at night, during a portentous midnight conversation in the dark, as I camped out on the floor of a friend’s bedroom. It really was that sudden, and it wasn’t any more realistic than the hero worship of Mr. Almond’s Drooling Fanatic. I don’t think I was in love, at the time, with anything different than the average music fan: the desperate need for life to mean something more than it actually does, the quest to tease some sort of operatic significance out of the pedestrian everypersonness of our lives: love, family, ecstacy, death. Unlike Mr. Almond’s Drooling Fanatic, I was a musician already, with a reasonable amount of talent; like the Drooling Fanatic, however, I was still on the outside looking in.

And I remained there, for a long time. I took out an ad in the Phoenix and attempted to join a band which featured a drummer with a kit larger than my bedroom, and got kicked out of that band, ostensibly, because I didn’t have a car – but I’m pretty sure it was because I was a wannabe dweeb. I met a doomed siren named Scott Mastro and miserably failed to even realize that I was a corner of a love triangle with a female musician who was almost as damaged. I presented my own derivative, sappy, overly obvious material on the stage of the Nameless Coffeehouse, to little or no effect. I failed to join a band that I had actually heard of, which was completely reconstituting itself around the original guitarist and a bass player who had “moved beyond the music into the image”. I joined, and managed to stay in, a joyful ska/pop band called Agent 13, which ultimately imploded after six years in a matter of a few hours. I hid in graduate school and wrote a ton of songs. And yet, still, I was on the outside looking in.

What finally kicked me in the ass – and this is a story I’ve probably told elsewhere – was a lunch I had with Peter Mulvey, right before he left town to become Peter Mulvey. I met Peter at a songwriting circle in Porter Square (one of the only two people I knew, on first listen, that they were going places, and I’ve been right both times), and I was fortunate enough to become an acquiantance – not quite a friend, since I was a bit too old and a bit too embarrassed about everything to meet Peter as an equal, but an acquaintance nonetheless. And on this day when we had lunch, he was telling me about his trials and tribulations in the music business and I looked at him and realized: as far as he knows – because I’d met him after my band broke up, after I’d started to hide – as far as he knows, I’m just this guy who’s always going to be bitching about not getting out of his own living room.

If Steve Almond were writing about this lunch, he’d have the good sense and talent to turn it into a whole book chapter. I don’t have that kind of space, or his patience for narration. But this was a seminal moment – when I realized that I could either be on the outside looking in, with a hero worship of the musician’s life, or I could do it. Unlike Mr. Almond, I had the choice – and almost fifteen years later, I’m almost, almost, happy with how it’s turned out.

No, I’m not a star. No, I don’t make my living at it. Yes, I’ve learned about the horror of the music business from the inside – from watching friends work their way through it, from watching the people above me on the ladder stand on that same damn rung of the ladder forever, even as the ladder grows taller and keeps trying to shake them off. I’ve been on the other side of those moments where the room is empty, and you’re playing, and that’s what you do, and maybe there’s someone in the room, one person, who sees your genius, and maybe there isn’t, but all that matters is that you get up there and do your act and eat your burger and pack your gear and go home and put your head on the pillow and think, yep, I was great tonight. Too bad nobody saw me.

Every day, a great musician falls in the forest. Sometimes there’s someone like Steve Almond to hear him; sometimes there’s not. But on this side of the Drooling Fanatic divide, the music burns differently – when it comes out of us, in a murmur or a torrent, in military rows or as a filthy rabble, it reminds us that we have the ability to be that hero to ourselves. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve played one of my old songs and thought to myself, “Damn, I’m good at this”; and that’s less than a step away from saying “Damn, I wish I’d written that”. The enormity of knowing what it’s like to make the Drooling Fanatics among us feel that way is something we can appreciate because we’re less than a step away from being Drooling Fanatics ourselves.

Being able to do it makes less of a difference than you might think.