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Interview: Steve Almond of How Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Part 2)

Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor  (@kbylin Read Part 1

SteveAlmondwithErin

In the book, you speak of how Nil Lara became your messiah, because he “cultivated that trait so essential to rock stars: mystery.”  Not knowing anything about Nil, you say, only served to further ignite your passion; it allowed him to become larger than life, and for your personal mythologies to come alive.

In a hyper connected world, with almost all the details about any artist at our fingertips, and instant access their Twitter feed and blog, are today’s artists shrouded in less mystery?  And, because of this, could it be that Drooling Fanaticism isn’t as easily cultivated in today’s audiences?

Steve Almond: Yeah, there may be something to that. It’s true that today’s DF has access to the tireless tentacles of the internet. And I agree that it’s harder to build up a genuine mythology when you’ve got photos of these folks emerging from Starbucks, looking like death warmed over. 

But I also think that the essential mystery of rock stardom usually remains intact, because most rock stars get elevated in the minds of hardcore fans into these semi-divine figures. This certainly happened with me and Nil. And once this happens, who they are really doesn’t matter. It’s all about the wishes and fears you project onto them. 

You write that the one thing misunderstood by those who don’t have unreasonably large music collections is that “a record is not simply storage device.  Its value resides in the particular set of memories and emotional associations held by its owner.”  Going onto say that, “These are inseparable from the physical object, which is no longer a physical object but an article of faith.”

As the music collections of those who were born digital become ever more fractured, consisting of bits and pieces of everything, of songs divorced from their origins and physical packaging, do you think that our more romantic notions about what the act of collecting music entails are diminished?  Or are the articles of faith that they treasure just different from those of previous generations?

Steve Almond: No, this is an area where I do think there’s been a fundamental shift. My sense is that most younger listeners don’t have the same romantic attachment to albums as physical artifacts. When they think about a song they may immediately think about the associated video or the TV show or movie where it first appeared. And that’s just really different from how I thought about an album like Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. I spent a year of my childhood listening to that record and holding it in my lap and I can’t remember studying the lyrics as I listened to each song and even Stevie Wonder’s fingerprint, which was printed on the record.

As I recall, he even wrote out “Steveland” – his full given name – in child-like script. I also had a set of internal expectations when I listened to the record (it was actually a double album, so two records), because I knew which songs were coming next. There was a whole rhythm to the record. I don’t think that’s too common anymore. But I’m pretty sure that the Digital DF has their own sacred relics, even if they’re not physical objects. Every generation does.

As you and The Close cruised along the darkened shoreline of Minear Lake, you said, it occurred to you that this was the central allure of rock and roll: the creation of the personal mythology.  Saying that, “Rock and roll allowed people to lie about themselves, and to be sanctified for the extravagance of their fictions.”

Why do you believe that, and why is it that music fans go to such great lengths to preserve their mythologies?

Steve Almond: Because I think we all walk around with two stories inside of us: the one about who we want to be – the grandiose dream – and the one about who we really know ourselves to be. And rock stars really represent to us people who are able to project the big, exalted dream, the larger than life persona, the right to reveal themselves very loudly before thousands of screaming fans and to be loved for this revelation. The chance to take drugs and have unlimited sex and destroy hotel rooms. The right, in other words, to indulge their oversized ids. People have always needed such figures, who indulge in all the way we desperately want to but can’t. They’re able to shed their pasts and reinvent themselves as something larger and more exalted.

Over the years, you argue that we have perpetuated the Myth of the Starving Artist, “the obdurate notion that success should come at the expense of happiness.  Saying that, “somewhere along the line we’d convinced ourselves that the acts of imagination only had value if strangers would pay for them, or if they won fancy prizes, of if critics decided they had merit.

How has this thinking of music as commerce, as strictly a means through which money is made, probably caused us to lose sight of the importance of music as culture?  

Steve Almond: This is really just a variation on the old tug of war between art and commerce. It’s the same reason Van Gogh paintings are not just gorgeous pieces of art, but hugely valuable assets. There are always people around who are going to try to figure out how to profit off of other people’s creativity. It’s just that late-model capitalism has made this pursuit kind of the default setting for how we regard art. We think: has it been given the stamp of approval by the critics, has it won prizes, is it “hot”? My book is an attempt – and a pretty half-assed attempt, I’ll admit – to give artistic credit where artistic credit is due.

The only thing that matters to me about music is how much it makes us feel. It can also make us dance and think and stage dive. But the central thing it does is make people feel. We’re living in a time and place where excessive feeling – obsession in any form – is generally looked down upon. I hope Rock & Roll Will Save Your Life will help people find music that makes them feel more alive, or view with the proper reverence the musicians who have saved their lives already. That’s the book’s big dopey hope.

Read Part 1

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