June 16, 2010 / 10:16 AM / 9 years ago

Book Talk: A drooling fanatic's guide to life

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Music fan Steve Almond knew he’d gone too far when he followed a beloved musician into a bathroom 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: bemused, but polite.

Drooling fanatics — in Almond’s memorable phrase — sometimes cross the line, but they mean well. Such music acolytes own thousands of records, constantly try to win over new fans for their favorite performers, and refer to musicians by 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 to Reuters about the book, music and Lady Gaga.

Q: Who is the drooling fanatic and why is he or she important?

A: “A drooling fanatic recognizes 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?

A: “That’s exactly what it is. John Lennon got in trouble for saying ‘We’re bigger than Jesus,’ but that was a factual statement. Amidst 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?

A: “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.”

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

A: “The mainstream is disappearing. Even 20 years ago, when a new U2 or R.E.M. 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 percent 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?

A: 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 both a great songwriter and she intuitively recognizes 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 persona that people are drawn to. And you have to be lucky. It’s true of any art form, whether 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 America has done right. What do you mean by that?

A: “Our main export is violent, sexually exploitative films and video games and celebrity culture. The one thing America 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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