Music saves lives

2010-06-18 00:00

MUSIC fan Steve Almond knew that he’d gone too far when he followed a beloved musician into a toilet and introduced himself while the performer, Dan Bern, was attending to other business.

But Almond said hello anyway, telling Bern about his favorite records and about his own life as a writer. The musician’s response was bemused, but polite.

Drooling fanatics — in Almond’s memorable phrase — sometimes cross the line, but they mean well. Such music acolytes own thousands of CDs, constantly try to win over new fans for their favourite performers, and refer to musicians by their first names, as if they were part of their family.

In a sense, they are, because for a fan, music­ is deeply personal. The drooling fanatic­’s devotion can teach even casual fans that Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.

That is the title of Almond’s memoir of musical­ obsessions, encounters with singers, both famous and little known, and adventures as a rock journalist.

Almond, who previously wrote about his sweet tooth in Candyfreak spoke about the book, music and Lady Gaga. QUESTION: Who is the drooling fanatic and why is he or she important? STEVE ALMOND: A drooling fanatic recognises that they need music to reach the feelings inside them that are inaccessible by other means. We’re susceptible to music emotionally, we need it. People are isolated in this era, trapped in front of their Blackberries and Apples and they’re looking for that one bigger narrative to connect to.

Rock and roll saves people’s lives one song at a time. Any person who’s honest must have one song in their life that has served that purpose in moments of sorrow and doubt. Other than drooling fanatics, everybody else takes music for granted. It’s there in the background, but they forget that at crucial moments of their lives it’s gotten them through.’’

Q: On your book cover, the words of the title are shaped like a cross. Is fandom like religion?

SA: That’s exactly what it is. John Lennon got in trouble for saying: “We’re bigger than Jesus,” but that was a factual statement. Amid a lot of fear about the way the world is moving, people are looking for reasons to believe, to put it in [Bruce] Springsteen’s terms. A lot of the reason why people go to church is to be in a public space where music is happening. Music is used to access feelings that we call sacred or spiritual.

Q: To what extent is fandom a two-way relationship, especially as touring becomes more important than CD sales?

SA: In the old days, you couldn’t get to the band, but now not only can you get to the band, but sometimes they can get to you. When somebody tries to make it in this fragmented world, they have to figure out who their fans are and almost market itself to individual listeners themselves.’’

Q: What is mainstream these days, when anybody­ has access to any kind of music, no matter how obscure?

SA: The mainstream is disappearing. Even 20 years ago, when a new U2 or REM album was coming out, a significant portion of the culture was paying attention. But cultural attention has become fragmented. There are certain big stars, like Beyonce, but 99,9% of the music that you and I like would be considered niche. Music exists as an adjunct to TV. American Idol is mainstream music today.

Q: What do you make of Lady­ Gaga?

SA: She’s a good songwriter. I don’t think anybody gets successful unless they can produce beautiful melody and rhythm. The words are not especially important. Gaga is a great songwriter and she intuitively recognises that it’s necessary to gin it up, like Madonna did. It plugs into that female flamboyance, that’s marketing dressed in self-empowerment.

It’s not too complicated or nuanced and it hits it on the nose, the way the Beatles hit it on the nose. You have to be ambitious and figure out how to create a person to which people are drawn. And you have to be lucky. It’s true of any art form, whether it be a film or a book or a band, that a whole bunch of things have to go right on top of talent and ambition.

Q: You make a provocative statement that music is the one thing that the United States has done right. What do you mean by that? SA: Our main export is violent, sexually exploitative films and video games and celebrity culture. The one thing the U.S. does better than any other country on Earth is music, and there’s a simple reason for that. We are an immigrant culture. Our music all faces back to the immigrant experience.

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