June 12, 2010 by The Citron Review
by Antonia Crane
Critical Review: Nonfiction by Steve Almond
“At what point does convenience become spiritual indolence?” –Steve Almond
Once upon a time, particularly the 70’s and 80’s, I snuck into my big brother’s room (where he grew pot in his closet) because he had “Rush” and “AC/DC” on vinyl. I only owned one 45 record and it was “Gypsy” by Stevie Nicks. I was eight-years old and had bought it with my allowance. I had memorized and destroyed the album, “Flashdance” like a catnip mouse at the pound. I was hungry for new music.
Everyone I know has a similar story of an older sibling or a babysitter who held the skeleton key of forbidden songs. The rest of the story goes like this: after gaining access to the shrine of our elders who deemed us dorks, we studied those secret songs as if our lives depended on it. The musicians that were cemented into our souls were our priests and priestesses. Then we got older and live shows became our collective church where we stood, shoulder to shoulder, and screamed and danced and held our fists into the air. The albums we’d coveted contained prayers to be yelled at the top of our lungs. With the yelling, we tasted freedom from the torture of our troubled youth and became, according to Steve Almond, drooling fanatics. In “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,” Almond belts out the emotional truth: music transported us out of ourselves so that we could sink more deeply into ourselves.
In “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life,” Almond describes a time before the immediate gratification of iTunes, iPods, or even CD’s, when there was longing, there was waiting and there was rewinding. Our rock icons were not selling Mayonnaise on YouTube. They lived deep in our souls and sang to us from there. We waited by the radio to hear, “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” by The Police or “Another Brick in the Wall,” by Pink Floyd. When our songs were played, it was Nirvana. At that same time, albums were held in our hands and cuddled. There was a delicate needle placed on Goat’s Head Soup that could be lifted a hundred times in order hear the exact phrasing of “Angie” until we knew every aching beat and could sing it all the way through without weeping.
I’ve been thinking about what is critical about “Rock and Roll” and I think it’s this:
Music makes us feel extreme emotions, even as every buy message in today’s marketing culture tries to strangle it out of us at every turn. Because of that, music still saves our lives.
“At what point,” Almond said (at a reading at Skylight) does convenience become spiritual indolence?” It’s a question I can’t get out of my heart, like Sparklehorse’s cover of“So Sick of Goodbyes” or Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.”
In the chapter, “Nil Lara Was Our Messiah,” Almond described one key moment of spiritual epiphany where the notes of “Another Brick in the Wall” became prayer:
And this was the holy shit of all holy shits, the moment when every single person in the Talkhouse (right down to the brooding bartender) felt the delicious howl of high school-the endless fascism of parents and teachers and The Man-come roaring out of our throats, like we were bricks, man, like we were the ones marching into the meat grinder and getting our soft hearts cranked into ground chuck; we didn’t even look around, we didn’t do anything but scream and scream and dance and Nil (Lara) got a frank look of pleasure on his face and shook his head because without meaning to he’d lead us all back to the garage where fifteen years earlier he had played these exact notes and sung these exact words and dreamed of this exact moment, of a hundred souls ready to join his crusade and carry his banner into the world.
There are many spiritual moments like that in “Rock and Roll;” moments where there’s a universal nodding of our heads to the beat, an unsaid but binding agreement to love music and to keep longing alive. That critical piece of “Rock and Roll” stuck with me along with Almond’s brave and relentless urge to melt the varnish that insulates us from feeling extreme emotion.
Rock and Roll does save our lives. Perhaps it is our only hope.
After graduating from Mills College in 2002, Antonia moved to Los Angeles. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. Her forthcoming memoir is titled Stripped: Tales of a Sexual Outlaw. Excerpts have been published in the Black Clock Journal and The Coachella Review. She completed a novel titled Kill the Day. Excerpts have been published in The Sylvan Echo. She has received scholarships from College of the Redwoods, Mills College, Antioch University and The Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She is a contributing writer for The Rumpus. She can be spotted hanging upside-down in precarious positions.