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by Steve Almond
Author Steve Almond is a self-proclaimed “drooling fanatic” when it comes to rock and roll. That means he alternately, drools in the presence of rock stars, dreams of being a famous musician, but settles for collecting countless albums. Almond writes about his life-long obsession in his new book, “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.”
Note: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.
On a warm spring night three years ago, The Close called me up in a state of agitation. He had something I needed to see. This was a Tuesday, late, but I was at loose ends, meaning lonely and despicable. “Right,” I said. “Let me find my pants.”
The pants were necessary because The Close had moved across the Charles River into Boston proper, whereas I was still in Somerville, a city sometimes compared to Paris by people who have never visited either place. I suppose it’s important to know that The Close and I were writers and that we spent most of our waking hours sitting at our keyboards making poor decisions, or cursing those poor decisions, or avoiding our keyboards altogether and feeling crushed by guilt, or (most often, actually) sitting at our keyboards not making any decisions at all because we were too busy cursing the obscurity to which we felt damned. Hey, it’s a living. Also: while both of us had enjoyed years of misbehavior, the terrors of adulthood were now gently breathing down our necks in the form of our gentle fiancées, who were moving to town in a matter of weeks. Oh, and mine was pregnant.
The Close was smoking on the windowsill when I arrived. Nearby lay his binoculars, used to survey the windows of the building across the street for women in states of undress. He had one chair in his place, amid the Styrofoam take-out boxes and freshman compositions with titles such as “Why Raymond Carver Bores Me to Death.” He gestured for me to sit and clicked on his VCR. “This is Bruce
Springsteen playing the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975.”
“Since when are you a Springsteen fan?” I said.
“Just fucking watch.”
The Close was from Jersey and spoke the native tongue, a clipped, tough-guy patois that implied a life spent amid mobsters. This was (like so much else about The Close) patently fraudulent. He taught literature at a famous university and quoted the Terrible Sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins at least once an hour. Nonetheless, The Close was a creature of passion. He wasn’t going to shut up until I watched.
The lights came up on the E Street Band, several of whom were wearing white fedoras. Springsteen appeared in black jeans and a tattered leather jacket. This was not the Bruuuuuuuce of recent popular imaginings: the airbrushed hunk with ass by Nautilus, or the elder statesman in dignified soul patch. No, this was Primordial Bruce, the scruffy kid with a goofy underbite and toothpick arms.
“Understand: Born to Run has just come out. Bruce is on the cover of Time and Newsweek the same week. They’re calling him the future of rock and roll.” The Close had his tongue practically inside my ear, jabbering these hot words of praise and envy. “The guy’s got the world hanging off his dick and he’s twenty-five years old. Can you imagine?”
“No,” I said.
What struck me, in fact, was that Bruce looked frightened. He kept fidgeting with his cap and he refused to face the crowd. When he finally did speak, he sounded like a high school kid playing drunk. “How’s things going over here in England and stuff, huh? All right?” The crowd hooted and Bruce laughed so hard he began gasping for air. He wanted everyone to understand how outrageous he found the situation: all these posh Londoners turning up to see his little bar band. It was one of those awkwardly phony moments designed to conceal something awkwardly real. Bruce was stalling. He hadn’t quite answered the question that haunts all budding superstars: Do I have what it takes to be who they say I am?
In the background, Roy Bittan played a piano run straight from the Motown playbook and Max Weinberg cracked at his drum set. Bruce staggered back to the microphone, only this time he spoke in a hushed growl. Oh Christ, I thought, he’s gonna try the black preacher thing. “Yuh know, on the eighth day, He looked down on a bunch of drunks in this bar and uh—” Bruce wrestled the mic from its stand and again turned away from the crowd. “He looked down on a bunch of drunks in this bar on the eighth day, and, and with a wave of his hand he said . . .
Sparks fly on E Street when the boy prophets walk it handsome and hot
And suddenly Bruce was singing, urgent and raspy, and the crowd, released back into the music, erupted, because this was after all “The E Street Shuffle,” Bruce’s creation song, slowed to a half tempo, recast as an epic soul ballad, sent reeling back, that is, to its country of origin, the fuzzy AM radios in those big-finned cars he’d cruised as a lonely dropout punk, listening to Otis and Roy and Sam, dreaming he would someday be them: the man with the golden voice, the fearless band, who escaped his prospects not by forgetting where he came from but by commemorating its joys and hardships in song, and then, just in case anyone missed the point, Bruce steered his crew into a languorous version of “Having a Party.”
The crowd was plowed. They’d never seen anything like Bruce, never seen a rock star swan dive from naked terror into poise, never heard a band reclaim American popular music with such raucous elegance. They played for two hours solid, culminating in a doo-wop rendition of “Quarter to Three” that ended (and started again) half a dozen times. Bruce twirled in the rosy light, soaked through and howling.
“Why the fuck should he stop?” The Close shouted into my earhole. “He’s fucking killing those people. That’s what I want, brother. Seriously. Enough of this shit.” He gestured at the drafts scattered on his desk, the pitiful, noiseless words, then looked at me with his big sad Jersey eyes.
“Where the fuck did we go wrong?”
Excerpted from “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life” by Steve Almond
Copyright © 2010 by Steve Almond. Excerpted by permission of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.