Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, or Encounters With Steve Almond’s Annual Meat Hoard
May 7, 2010 § 2 Comments
A few years ago, while living for a time in Providence, Rhode Island, I met and became friends with the writer, Steve Almond. I still have a mix CD Steve gave me labeled “Providence Shuffle,” emblazoned with a quote from my son, “I made a bad choice,” written in blue Sharpie.
At the time he gave it to me, Steve had no children besides his books and the one at the moment was a collection of stories dubbed The Evil B.B. Chow. I’m pretty sure he and his girlfriend, Erin thought of my son mostly as a charming oddity, sort of like a snow globe from Iraq or a talking monkey. EVERYTHING he said was funny. Steve was working hard to be known as a fiction writer (he is, by the way, one hell of a short story writer) and not as much as a nonfiction writer, which is what I hoped to become, and what I now try to teach people how to become, and what I’m convinced everyone wants to become.
I happened to meet Steve during the time in his life that makes up much of the present action in his new nonfiction book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, a laugh-out-loud-on-the-airplane, smart, and sweet-sounding tribute song to the music Steve has been foisting on others for years. Though I can’t be sure, I’m fairly confident Steve made the Providence Shuffle CD for me, which includes several bands and artists mentioned in the book, after I’d just witnessed to something I will call the annual “Steve Almond Meat Hoard.”
This festival of sorts occurs just before the first really hard freeze of the year, after which grilling meat on your rusting Weber Smoky Joe becomes, in Boston, not just inconvenient but a potentially life threatening choice. At this point, his girlfriend Erin had already moved to California to complete an MFA in writing, leaving him to his own bad choices, some of which included large quantities of meat.
I’d occasionally just drive from Providence up to Boston under the some pretense or another but really just because I was desperately lonely and wanted to hang around in Steve’s apartment full of chocolate and music. It was dumb luck that I showed up for the annual Meat Hoard. Each year, just as the winter was practicing its first howling approach, Steve would load the Weber with charcoal and cook pounds and pounds of meat—chicken, sausage, steaks, and shrimp. When things got rough in the dark days of January, he’d thaw his bags of grilled meat and enjoy the taste of summer amidst the long press of winter that seemed to me to end sometime around July.
The night I was there, Steve froze everything except for a few select cuts, one celebration of his downfall—his so-called “verboten pie,” a homemade pizza no “good” Jew would eat, a pizza covered with sausage and shrimp, truly a “bad choice,” but one that tasted delicious and sacrilegious . . . but I digress into memory and story, pictures of that day, laughs and other tangents, perhaps because on some level I’m thinking like Steve.
This is what the best essayists do. They let you think like they do and allow you to watch their mind at work on the page. They create a conversational style that invites you into their thoughts. I’m not sure Steve gets enough credit as one of the best essayists working today. For years I’ve been raving publicly and privately about the genius of his Kurt Vonnegut essay in his last book, Not That You Asked—a truly stunning piece of . . . what? Criticism? Memoir? Essay. Just essay. A meandering, poignant dallying of thought, a critical celebration of Vonnegut that will make anyone want to go out and read everything the man has written.
With his new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, I’m calling Almond out as a lyrical critic, a daring poetic gadfly of the best kind who reveals both the heights and depths of human endeavors by turning a mirror upon our selves through the sort of self-reflection that essay aficionados crave. He’s like the mutant love-child of Montaigne and Mark Twain, a writer of the sort of books that (believe it or not) nonfiction patriots like David Shields should embrace. The book cannot be easily categorized or pigeonholed; it’s a meditation that moves at the speed of Almond’s consciousness–a mad, bouncing, digressive journey through his love of music.
This book is not a collection of rock star profiles or, I would argue, even a collection of essays, but is instead a book-length essay, one long talk on Rock-and-Roll. It’s neither sycophantic nor ironically distant, rarely flippant or silly but frequently hilarious. Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is not an “insider” book or tell-all memoir but still somehow deeply personal. It’s not journalism but it is journalism. It’s not a novel, not even terribly plot driven or scene-heavy, but still moves like a great blues jam with freight-train intensity. It’s a book about music, of course, but also about love, friendship, and the power of fatherhood to change forever the kind of choices you make. It is simply a damn fine book. You should read it before midnight.
In case that doesn’t convince you and you need a more personal reason to read this book, how about this: I recently shared Steve’s book with a poet friend, who consumed it in a day and, somewhat overwhelmed by the experience (evidenced by his frantic downloading of music) asked me, “What’s it like hanging out with Steve,” and I thought about all the stories, the choices I could make in what to tell him, but instead I just pointed at the book and said, “It’s pretty much like that.” And it is. Reading this book is like listening to the electrified surge and flow of Steve’s stories, hanging with a good friend as he’s turning shrimp on a grill with a salad fork, hickory smoke billowing up into his face from the wood chips he sprinkled over the fire.