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April 13, 2010

Book Notes - Steve Almond ("Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

The subtitle of Steve Almond's new memoir Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is the fitting "A Book by and for the Fanatics Among Us." A music critic himself, Almond's enthusiasm is infectious as he recounts music's impact on his life with cutting humor and the honesty of a truly devout music fanatic.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Almond deftly straddles the line between intellectual and fan. He's canny about the ways rock stars manipulate their idolators, yet happy to be seduced by them. He veers smoothly between funny, cruel takedowns of rock fatuity while registering its emotional impact (the song "I Bless the Rains Down in Africa" may be "the lovechild of Muzak and imperialism," but you can't help "sort of digging it"). Almond's snarky, swoony counterpoint makes for a hilarious riff on the power of music."

In his own words, here is Steve Almond's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life:

So here's the weird thing: my new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, (which comes out today) actually comes with a digital soundtrack. You can hear many of these songs by clicking over here. Having said this, I realize there's very little chance you're still reading. Ah, technology.

"The Green Wish" Boris McCutcheon & the Salt Licks

I tend to get over-involved with the bands I love, which is why I spent a couple of years basically managing these guys. I remember the first time Boris played "The Green Wish" for me. It was late at night and we were stoned (we were always stoned) and The Salt Licks had just destroyed some pub in Brookline and they and their various dogs were scattered around my apartment, slumbering amid the smeared chocolate and homemade bongs, and Boris was sitting on my green couch picking at his mandolin, sort of absently it seemed to me, until this monstrous riff resolved itself and he started in with his burred voice and I felt the holy shiver. This was how I got paid for my management: holy shivers.

"Commie Drives a Nova" Ike Reilly

Ike Reilly ought to be bigger than Jesus. He's a mean little punker who packs all the American musical idioms – the jigs and reels and rants and beats – into one blustering sonic boom. I'd put his 2001 debut, Salesmen and Racists, up against any record on earth for sheer joyous rage. Ike saw the nightmare of the Bush years coming while the rest of us were still gagging down Freedom Fries.

"Paterson" Dayna Kurtz

Listening to this song – the most devastating ode to an American city ever recorded – had the strange side effect of convincing me, about five years ago, to propose to my wife. It's not just Dayna Kurtz has a beautiful voice, or that she hurls that voice into the world with such exquisite desperation. It's the moment, about four minutes in, when she breaks into Italian. Oh, mio coure, she sings, and the only way your heart can't hurt is if you don't have one.

"B Movie" Gil Scott Heron

In the America I hope one days emerges from our current bigoted mess, Gil Scott Heron will take his rightful place as a Prophet. I can think of no other musician who has written so incisively about the moral tragedies of this nation. His most famous song, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," not only invented rap music, but did so in an effort to warn us about the narcotic perils of screen addiction – and that was four decades ago. "B Movie" does more to expose the bullshit of the Reagan Revolution than the mountain of books on the topic. And you can dance to it.

"Texas Isn't Big Enough" Bob Schneider

It's hard for me to settle on a single Bob Schneider song, because I have 715 in my iTunes library. This is an obscure track from his brief tenure with the Ugly Americans. I found the album in question, Boom Boom Baby, at the bottom of a dusty pile of castaways in a Goodwill outside Davis Square, undoubtedly the Miracle Find in 30 years of devout music scrounging. As with all things Bob, the song manages to be sly and ass-rocking and heartbreaking all at once.

"Sunshine" Nil Lara

Back in 1995, Nil Lara was going to be a superstar, we were sure of it. "We" being the pack of us who came out to the Stephen Talkhouse in South Miami Beach, where, each week, Nil and his band annhilated our vast reserves of twenty-something angst and sent us howling onto the tiny dance floor to sweat through our undies. He careened from bubbling Stevie Wonder covers to Pink Floyd space jams to Cuban torch songs. "Sunshine" was typical of his approach, an orgiastic pop anthem spiced with Latin funk. It made (and makes) rock en Español sound like the barfy marketing tag it is.

"Our Song" by Joe Henry

A few years back, Joe Henry sent me a poem he'd written on July 4. This was during the darkest of the Bush days, when it was just dawning on the rest of the country that they'd just re-elected a sadistic nincompoop. Joe's poem was full of the appropriate liberal rage, but it was (like so much of my own work) way too angry. I spent several days pondering how I might explain this to him. Before I could, he sent me a demo of the poem set to music. It was just him and piano, a somber melody worthy of Woody Guthrie. He'd ditched every trace of rage. It was a lamentation now, which remains the only proper Christian response to the years in question.

"Albuquerque Lullaby" by Dan Bern

Everybody knows (or should know) that Dan Bern is smart. He's been making witty and adventurous music for twenty years. But what people tend to underestimate is the vast tenderness behind all the brain power. This song is full of ramblings, but it's also a genuine lullaby, soft and swaying and illuminated by an abiding love for the least loveable of our frailties. "At the bottom of the ocean, you might find a pearl," he sings. "Don't let your heart get broken by this world." Exactly.

"When I Was Drinking" by Hem

Every once in a great while, you hear a singer and think: Yes! Yes! At long last: the truth! The deep, shivering yesness of it all! That's how I felt when I heard Sally Ellyson – her amber waves of piano, her haunted fiddle. I'm pretty sure God touched this woman, very softly, right on the throat. "When I Was Drinking" is such an awesomely sad song that it makes me want to be an alcoholic. It makes me want to be an alcoholic involved with another alcoholic. It makes me yearn for the perverse safety of all the self-defeating relationships I've ever been in.

"Summertime Thing" by Chuck Prophet

Back when me and the missus were yo-yoing around, fucking and breaking up with exhausting regularity, this tune was in perpetual rotation. It's music for advance frottage students, dipped in pop and soaked in funk, like the Beach Boys if they'd paid more attention to their lower 40. It still makes me hot enough to rub my Rumsfeld.

"Rachel's Song" James McMurtry

I remember listening to this song on a long, miserable road trip with a female pal. She'd just been dumped by her weaselly boyfriend and I showed the poor sense to pop this tape into the cassette player of my Tercel, a tape that had been made for me by the weaselly boyfriend in question. She burst into tears. It was the first time I really heard the lyrics, the way every abandonment leads us directly into ruin.

"Detroit 67" by Sam Roberts

This song opens with a piano riff that would level the Chrysler Building. Like a lot of Sam Roberts' work, it manages to rawk while also serving as an elegy for the lost city in question. I have no idea how a Canadian dude managed to absorb the crucial lessons of Motown so gracefully, and I could sort of care less. I'm just happy to be in the room.

"Ain't What You Think It Is" Dennis Brennan

I'm pretty sure you've never heard of Dennis Brennan, which is a lot of reason I wrote my book: because there's so much incredible music out there, waiting for you, ready to help you reach the feelings you need to feel. We're all carrying around a lot of disappointment, a lot of grief. But a track like this can seize four minutes of your life from those dependable blue meanies and remind you that being alive is also about joy.

Steve Almond and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life links:

the author's website
the book's streaming soundtrack
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Bibliokept review
BookPage review
The Faster Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Whatchamacallit Reviews review

Arlington Advocate interview with the author
Boston Globe op-ed on music criticism by the author
Knee Jerk interview with the author
Los Angeles Times op-ed by the author
The Rumpus contributions by the author
Salon essay by the author
So Good interview with the author
Vanity Fair interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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