In Defense of Dancing About Architecture: A Review of Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life by
By Art Edwards
June 14, 2010
*”Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”- A quip about music journalism variously attributed to Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, and Elvis Costello.
Think of the sections at your local bookstore: romance, history, science fiction, fantasy, western, chick lit, erotica. How big are these sections? Where are they located in the store?
And how does the section on rock literature compare?
Maybe it’s way in the back, or in some corner, often a shelf or two of biographies of the world’s most famous bands and not much more. It’s strange how slim the pickings can be when you consider the amount of people over the last fifty years who have loved rock music, bought records, gone to concerts, lived the lives of music zealots and harbored vague, irrational hopes of one day becoming rock stars themselves. Why has the rock psyche largely been ignored by those who write, publish and sell books?
And rock music fans are notoriously great consumers too, conditioned since their tweens to spend ten or twenty dollars on CDs, albums, cassettes—colorful rectangles that promise pleasure, escape, validation. The dominoes were all set up. It wouldn’t have taken a huge push.
No one is saying the industry hasn’t tried. A High Fidelity here, a The Commitments there. Fargo Rock City. And certainly no one is saying that the writer wanting to convey the essence of rock music, or the way it makes him feel, is in for an easy ride. Trying it can be as frustrating as having your favorite band cancel on you the night of their concert, your ticket reduced in an instant from a future date with bliss to merely what you paid for it in refund. Still, many writers who love music try to render what it means to them. And some, like Steve Almond with Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, succeed.
Almond, a self-described “Drooling Fanatic,” composed RARWSYL for those, like him, who are passionate about music but never learned to play an instrument. “We had wound up, instead,” he writes (italics mine here and throughout),
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.
Instead of spending his time learning the twelve-bar blues, Almond threw himself into writing, and his dedication to the craft is evident throughout RARWSYL. Below Almond conveys the experience when, as a child, he played record albums. “Suddenly, the air around you was painted with sound,” he writes.
You had engineered a miracle, an intricate mechanism of conversion visible to the naked eye. You could track the minute dips and risings of the needle over the grooves, something I did religiously, until I had discerned the precise spot where the wispy jet engine that opens “Back in the U.S.S.R.” was interrupted by the thrilling squawk of George Harrison’s guitar. If you lost yourself in a record, lay back and closed your eyes, you would eventually reach the distant surf at the end of each side.
The wistful, lyrical nature of this passage bears shades of Marcel Proust, and Almond’s summoning of The Great Meandering One doesn’t end with this instance. When arguing his reasons for holding on to his gigantic (4000 count!) music collection in an age when it could easily be stored on a hard drive, one can’t help but recall a certain famous madeleine. “The record is not simply a storage device,” Almond writes. “Its value resides in the particular set of memories and emotional associations held by its power. These are inseparable from the physical object, which is no longer a physical object but an article of faith.”
And Almond is also no slouch at rendering those moments when a musician holds an audience in his sway, like in the scene below where Almond chronicles a time around a pump organ with singer/composer Boris McCutchen. “Boris set his hands on the keyboard,” Almond writes.
For a second, we heard only the clack of the yellowed keys and the soft thud of the pedal underneath. Then notes began trickling out of the pipes. None of us recognized the tune; it was something he made up on the spot I suspect, a boogie-woogie by way of Aaron Copland. He closed his eyes and his face tilted slightly up, then his voice joined in, majestically, and the particulars of the song seemed absorbed into something larger, an ancient feeling like jubilation.
No Drooling Fanatic book would be complete without some overbearing opinions about rock music, and you will fall out of your chair reading some of Almond’s. Here are the ones that rattled me: claiming “Eleanor Rigby” is better than “Yesterday” because “[“Yesterday” is] really just Paul whining”; calling Kurt Cobain a bigger asshole than Axl Rose; and suggesting Pavement is somehow a lesser band than Los Lobos. (Okay, maybe he’s right on that last one, but I know which act’s music I play more often.) As Almond himself declares: “There’s no arguing with joy.”
But only a poor review of RARWSYL would focus on the above disagreements at the expense of the deft handling of language therein, or Almond’s grasp of humor, which is bountiful and effective and obvious to anyone who cracks its spine. For my money, if Almond has one tick as a writer that doesn’t serve him faithfully in every instance, it’s his sometimes too-quick dip into his funny bag. Once or twice while reading RARWSYL, I caught myself wishing he’d skip the yuks and get right to the things about music (or love, or friendship, or family, or sex) that touch us deeply. It’s really what sets the book apart.
But the humor–tailored by default to a group of people who couldn’t forget Styx, or Toto, or Air Supply even if they tried–is invariably smart and funny, better than your cleverest Facebook friend on a day off work. I smiled and shook my head throughout RARWSYL, and laughed out loud at least once. Almond’s humor acts as the perfect escort into his more serious concerns, and it works so well most of the time you’ll forget Almond has more serious concerns.
Writing about music may indeed be dancing about architecture, but only in the same way that writing about anything as rich and complicated as human feeling is dancing about architecture. With Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, Steve Almond proves he can pogo with the best of them.
Nice job, Art!
Parlez-vous Lester Bangs?
Not fluent, unfortunately, but I’m willing to learn.
I did just read that he called Black Sabbath the first Catholic rock and roll band, which is pretty much the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.
This, from Bangs’ profile of the Clash, is my favorite rock & roll writing ever:
“The politics of rock ‘n’ roll, in England or America or anywhere else, is that a whole lot of kids want to be fried out of their skins by the most scalding propulsion they can find, for a night they can pretend is the rest of their lives, and whether the next day they go back to work in shops or boredom on the dole or American TV doldrums in Mom ‘n’ Daddy’s living room nothing can cancel the reality of that night in the revivifying flames when for once if only then in your life you were blasted outside yourself and the monotony which defines most life anywhere at any time, when you supped on lightning and nothing else in the realms of the living or dead mattered at all.”
I will be buying some Lester Bangs tonight.
Look for the Bangs review of a Elvis concert he witnessed in the seventies, right before the King died. I loosely paraphrase, but Bangs–who had been too young to see Elvis in his prime–writes that, regardless, seeing Elvis onstage gave his heart an erection.
I’m more partial to Robert Christgau, though. He’s a master of pith and wit.
I loved reading Bang’s material. I wish he would have lived longer; I think I’d have enjoyed his commentary on some of the bands I grew up on in the ’90s.
Wow, that’s genuine insight.
Look out for the rib cage!
“The record is not simply a storage device,” Almond writes. “Its value resides in the particular set of memories and emotional associations held by its power. ”
With all due respect to you, Art, who have managed a highly readable review, this quote to me reads like a word salad. I know that there’s a meaning in there somewhere, but it’s gonna have to crawl under the barbed wire and avoid the sharpshooters up in the towers to escape.
I may have this wrong. I just re-read the whole thing again, and I am beginning to wonder if Art is perhaps 10 times more clever than I thought. If he’s managed to accomplish what I think he’s done, he’s done it brilliantly.
When I read that sentence, I think of Journey’s Escape LP, specifically the eight-track my mom had in her Trans Am. I had the album, my sister had the cassette, but it’s my mom’s eight-track that I remember most, the way there were four “sides” to the eight-track, each with three or four songs on it, and the way the label was bubbled. I remember my mom singing “Stone in Love” as we drove around town, and how happy it made me to hear it. I remember the way the sidewalk looked in front of our house, the slant of the cement driveway where the Trans Am was parked, that I was in late grade school and getting ready to go to junior high…I could go on forever.
Maybe those are the memories and emotional associations Almond is talking about, and all from a weather-beaten version of an old LP.
[…] rock lit classic Rock and Roll will save your Life explores his life as a drooling fanatic. Ulvaeus had to endure ABBA fanatics drooling over his wife […]