Book Notes: One man’s experiences with rock 'n' roll

Rae Francoeur

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life By Steve Almond. Random House, New York, 2010. 222 pages. $23.

“Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life” comes at rock ’n’ roll from every angle. Fans, musicians, artists, the impassioned among us will nod wildly as we identify with and devour Boston writer Steve Almond’s new and unashamed study of another of his many consuming passions. Passion is messy, so you’d better watch out. Almond, smart and funny and gifted as a writer, has the proverbial probe in hand and he’s unafraid to dig.

An earlier book, “Candyfreak,” about Almond’s blazing ardor for candy, used sweets to transport us to the best aspects of childhood as if we were there again. Both of these delicious narrated time travels unite us with long-suppressed passions, entertain and amuse us, and bring us to surprising insights. Almond’s journey for understanding becomes our journey. We close these books a tad wiser and with our laugh lines a bit more deeply etched.

“Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life” is storytelling interrupted frequently by lively asides and sobering interludes, like “Fade to Black,” a brilliant three-page biography of his wife in her scary coming-of-age years — with music as her backdrop. Almond is a writer who compensates for our era’s attention deficit disorder by breaking it up. It’s a party in a book.

Almond’s life as a “Drooling Fanatic” begins as piano student but then expands to encompass the roles of fan, devotee, album hoarder, DJ, maker of pilgrimages to musician’s homes, music critic and spreader of musical gospel. All of these aspects to his passion are revealed here rather nakedly. You don’t always like Almond. On the 1-to-10 squirm scale, he hits 10 regularly.

This rabid fan’s life is lived to an ever-changing soundtrack with historical benchmarks, such as the stoned visit to Graceland, the chaotic shift to CDs and the (inelegant, it seems to me) acquisition of a wife and family. All of it informs the heart, coincidentally the target rock ’n’ roll aims to savage with fearless passion.

About vinyl vs. digital, Almond writes that the large, flat discs with visible tracks allowed for a “concerted sonic experience.” Listening was reverential in those days. Whether solo or shared, the experience was focused on the music and very intense. About sage older siblings, the ones who first turn you on to new and important music: All that the younger sibs can hope for is to trail in their brilliant wakes like the “Casey Kasem of their existence.”

With “Candyfreak” you got free candy if you attended one of Almond’s readings. This book comes with a giveaway, too, but you don’t have to leave the comforts of home. The streaming CD (, featuring songs from the musicians Almond describes, should be played as you read. Ike Reilly, Boris McCutcheon, Dayna Kurtz, etc., are in Almond’s book and on his playlist that he gives to us. Listen as you go, but try not to jump ahead even though this music is as awesome as the book implies.

Almond, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, positions himself, within the world of working authors, as a midlist toiler — not such a bad thing after all. To ascribe success to those acts of imagination that strangers will pay for, he realizes, is wrong. “It’s a vile form of regard,” he writes. He discovers his own role in his unhappiness as he processes the ordeal he had attempting to interview Dave Grohl. Grohl, former drummer for Nirvana and Foo Fighters frontman, blew off Almond’s scheduled SPIN interview to vet nannies. This artist, a man of grace and compassion, had his priorities intact. It’s myth, says Almond, that the artist’s happiness must suffer in order to achieve success.

Rock ’n’ roll, especially for men but also for women (or boys and girls), is sanctioned access to passion and emotion. Music is a passageway, writes Almond, to locating our feelings. On these matters, he’s eloquent. When discussing the value of lyrics, he acknowledges that words are second to the music itself. But as Almond tries to understand what makes lyrics great and why he, as a writer, is drawn to them, he realizes: “it was truth that lifted the language into beauty and toward song.”

What we universally wish for, he says, is self-expression, “the chance to reveal ourselves and to be loved for this revelation.”

Who would have thought all that screaming and writhing on stage, all that sweat, all those shattering guitar riffs dug so deep? The passionately inclined may now flick on their lighters (or cell phones) in sublime affirmation, thanks to Almond.

Rae Francoeur [@RaeAF] can be reached at Her new book “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair” is now in bookstores. Check out her blog at and her website at