“Stop me if I sound pretentious, please,” chirps Neal Pollack. He’s barreling down the highway toward New Orleans’ famed Circle Bar in a van full of stinky dudes. Pollack’s interpreting his maiden voyage as a rock singer with giggly bursts that drip with irony, and as he lectures on “living the rock ’n’ roll dream” it’s clear that he’s a man in love with the sound of his own voice. As far as stopping him on the grounds of pretension … impossible.
But I should have expected no less. From the verbose title of his first book, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, to his self-applied status as the “greatest living American writer,” it only takes a dime bag of buzz words to start saddling Pollack with the “post” prefixes. With no short supply of postmodern tongue planted firmly in cheek, Pollack’s self-love shtick is all about taking a deconstructed piss on myriad topical subjects by steeping things in enough irony to humor his post-grad compats and go over everyone else’s head. And he’s quick to point out the boring nature of contemporary of American literature — so why not go for rock ’n’ roll?
“When you go on a book tour, you don’t get to have a van full of amplifiers,” he says gleefully. “I’ve also noticed the fact that you tend to get free beer. People will buy you drinks and the places you go give them to you for free. I guess there is also the phenomenon of people asking you to sign their bodies. That doesn’t happen on a book tour.”
Technically, Pollack’s on a book tour as we speak, promoting his latest, purposely self-referential opus, Never Mind the Pollacks: A Rock and Roll Novel (HarperCollins). The book is devoted to the history of rock music and the genre’s criticism — but since book tours are a drag, why not put a rock band together and hype the new book by doing a mock rock tour? Talk the multizillion-dollar publishing conglomerate into footing the bill and let the body signing and free beer commence.
For any other misdirected smart ass, this could be a dreadfully bad idea. But part of getting your head around Pollack’s slippery facade is being able to concede that every once in a while he reveals himself as a man with a reserve of good taste. Pollack didn’t just get any band; he put together a backing cast led by Jim Roll, a Michigan-bred twang songwriter with undeniable talent. You’d be a sucker to think there’s going to be a hint of sincerity in the show, but, knowing Roll’s past, it’s going to sound good.
“In a way, working with a band is something that actually has a genesis,” Pollack says. “When I was on a book tour with the anthology, there was a moment in Chicago when I was with John Langford from the Waco Brothers. I was reading one of the stories from the book, and there are all these section breaks in it. At one of the section breaks I started improvising. And it sounded like a chorus. And it became a semi-song. So I turned more and more of the piece into songs — it naturally evolved like that. I had written some liner notes for Jim and when I got the idea to write more songs, I asked if he would help with them.”
Said liner notes to Roll’s beatific and literate record, Inhabiting The Ball, inject the relationship between the writer and the songsmith with some real heft. Pollack opens with the question: “How many nights have I stood in a dank, smoky room, drinking a cheap local beer, my sneakers sticking to the floor, my hand stamped, my coat in a pile in some vomit-drenched corner, trying to avoid the elbows of some chucklehead or another, water dripping on me from overhead, earplugs protruding, bobbing my head, watching a bunch of heroin addicts rock out until 2 AM, wishing I were up there on stage with them? Pretty often.”
Being introduced to Pollack through Roll’s liner notes is almost enough to get one a little misty. It’s almost enough to wade through Pollack’s piles of snarky, analytical BS to empathize with the real him — just a chubby white guy from the middle of nowhere with an unrequited crush on the rock spotlight. I see one of those every morning in bathroom mirror.
But when the needle drops on his “Memories of Times Square (The Dildo Song),” and over a purloined riff of the Velvet’s “Walk on the Wild Side” Pollack launches into a tuneless ditty about a midget juggling dildos, a little sincere empathy for Pollack is quick to turn into an egg on the face. Maybe therein lies Pollack’s real power, in his ability to introduce us all to a “post” word that he’s mastered all too well: post-sincerity.
Neal Pollack will have a book reading Wed., Oct 15, at Shaman Drum Bookshop (315 S. State St., Ann Arbor, 734-662-7407) and will perform with Jim Roll at the Blind Pig (208 S. First St., Ann Arbor. 734-996-8555) later that night.E-mail Nate Cavalieri at firstname.lastname@example.org.