Austin singer-songwriter/musician Bob Schneider is performing at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room tonight, Wednesday, March 24. To go along with this appearance, we're running an exclusive excerpt from author Steve Almond's new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, which Random House will publish next month. Part one was published on Monday, part two was published on Tuesday and part three is published below.
A Kingdom of One It was time, as they say in Reality TV, to take this bromance to the next level. Or at least to Bob's studio. He led me out past a small pool with leaves in it, to a shack inside of which were more instruments than I've ever seen in one place: guitars, banjos, mandolins, a baritone ukulele, what was either a xylophone or a marimba (Bob wasn't sure), an ancient Wurlitzer that made a mysterious buzzing noise, a small drum kit in the center of the room, a baby grand piano. The room's lone chair was surrounded by banks of synthesizers, mixing boards, and computer monitors. It looked like where a starship captain would sit. And Bob was, in a sense, a starship captain. Using this equipment, he could record, edit, and mix songs all by himself.
The studio doubled as the HQ of his record label Shockorama, on which he's released a dozen records in the past decade. In fact, he'd meant to release Fuck All You Motherfuckers months ago, but it was still sitting on his hard drive, along with hundreds of other unreleased songs. (The rumor was that Bob sometimes wrote a song per day.)
It will sound hokey, but I honestly felt like I was standing in a holy place. I had 559 Bob songs in my iTunes library. I had listened to his music for entire days at a time and thought about him, in some capacity, every day for the past five years. I recognized the chance that we would run off together was extremely low, but I also believed -- and I think Drooling Fanatics cannot help themselves in this regard -- that I understood Bob in a way nobody else on earth did, that we were soulmates and though he didn't know this yet he had a secret message to impart. This is perhaps the most annoying aspect of Fanaticism, from the musician's point of view. They owe us nothing beyond their songs, but we keep hounding them for more.
"How do you do it?" I asked. "How do you write so many totally ass-kicking songs?"
Bob replied that it wasn't really him, it was his unconscious, he was just plugging into it, like you might plug a fork into an outlet. "There's this weird thing that happens with songwriting," he went on. "When you first start doing it you're just doing your best with whatever comes into your head, but after a while you get this idea about what's good or bad and you start doing this approximation of what you think you should be doing and the only solution I've come up with is just to keep my standards low."
Yes, I wanted to cry out, that's it! You, Bob Schneider, have just identified the fundamental crisis (and resolution) of the creative process. Might I now briefly stroke your big beefy man hand? But Bob wasn't finished. He said, more to himself than to me, "Sometimes I wonder if I wasn't me, would I like what I do? Like, a few days ago I did a show and right before I went on, I started thinking, 'I suck, I truly suck, and I kind of got lucky on a few songs, but they're kind of worn and I'll never write anything good again and I'm washed up and what's the point and why am I doing this and if I had any other options, if I hadn't painted myself into a corner, I'd take them.'" He shook his head. "I don't have a life. I really don't. I spend as much time as I can with my kid, but the rest of the time I work, period. You see that pool out there? I've swam in that pool fifteen times in five years. You and me hanging out like this? I never do this. When you came and rang my doorbell this morning, I was like, 'Nobody comes to my house, nobody rings my doorbell. Ever. They just don't. Maybe it's the exterminator.'"
After a moment, Bob continued, "In every relationship I get into it's like, 'Why do you spend so much time working? I feel lonely. I want to interact with you.' And the reason I do what I do is that I feel I have to do it to justify breathing; I don't have the sense of self-worth that allows me to not do it. People come up to me at shows and they'll say, 'Your music means so much to me.' And I always try to be nice to them and appreciative, but I'm not doing it for them. I'm doing it so I can save myself from drowning." He added, quite softly, "We live in a society that puts a high premium on success and I learned, mainly through my dad, that salvation would come through success, and I carried that into my adult life and it's a total lie."
I was hit hard by all of this, not just the sudden darkening of Bob's mood, but the acute solitude he described. It seemed to me that his ambition had become a kind of Oedipal curse, a way of vanquishing his father while also clinging to the sorrow of his childhood. Music put him in the spotlight and, at the same time, it had become the instrument of his exile. He had pushed his wife away. He had no real friends. His studio was a monument to his musical invention, but it was also a fortress, so crowded with the tools of his trade that there was room for no one but himself. Wave Goodbye to That Man You Love And what could I say to any of this? It was the old story about being careful what you wish for. I wanted to comfort Bob somehow, to confess my crush in a way that would return to him some of the joy he'd given me. And then on the other hand I wanted to get the hell out of there and hug my wife and baby daughter. It's a strange feeling, to worship and pity someone simultaneously.
Later that night, more or less by accident, I would attend a raucous dinner party and wind up sitting across from a woman in the local music scene. I told her I was in town to interview Bob Schneider. She fixed me with a quizzical look. "How did it go?" she shouted.
"Kind of awkward," I shouted back.
From the book Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life by Steve Almond Copyright (c) 2010 by Steve Almond Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.