Chuck Klosterman Rocks

Two more entries into the summer reading fest, just under the gun: two by pop culture/rock ‘n’ roll cult hero Chuck Klosterman: “Fargo Rock City” and “Killing Yourself To Live.”

“Fargo” is a straight-ahead defense of ’80’s heavy metal: attach any prefix to metal you wish: glam, hair, speed etc. Klosterman grew up on a farm in North Dakota in the 1980’s and loved the metal that dominated rock culture for a decade. He noted that while the music dominated the charts, the music is considered juvenile and unworthy of even critical review, not to mention support. His attempt to rectify this situation is heartfelt, enlightening and hysterically funny: and I HATED almost all the bands he lionizes: Motley Crue, Poison, Cinderella etc.

His most interesting argument is to set critical detachment on its ear. Most critics set themselves up as arbiters of taste and the gatekeepers of inclusion into the rarefied realms of art. Klosterman takes the populist/commercial view, a work of art is important to the audience to which it speaks. Art is truly in the eye of the beholder, or record buyer. In Klosterman’s mind, the very fact that 80’s metal sold so much makes it an important cultural force, regardless of whether more hip and avant garde critics would consider it trash.

Which brings the books main point into full relief: Klosterman knows how much of an impact that 80’s metal had on American culture, he lived that culture. His writings on his childhood and the impact that music can have on youth (especially not-so-socially-adept teenage boys) resonate with me, even though the music of my teen years (1970’s) was different. Also fascinating is Klosterman’s insights into mass market culture on rural areas (where often mass is the only culture).

“Killing” is a book loosely based around an article Klosterman wrote for SPIN magazine on the places around the country where famous rock stars have died. The book is less a travelogue than an internal monologue that Klosterman has on his obsessions with death, rock and his romantic relationships, in no particular order. The book is addictive in a free association sort of way, bits of writing jump out and startle you, mostly into laughing and coughing fits.

Reading Klosterman is like having the kind of intense discussions you used to have with roommates and friends in college about music–at least the kind of friends that I used to have in college. Klosterman notes that he has more CD’s than 90% of Americans, but more than only 40% of his friends. When deciding what CD’s to pack for his two week trip around the country, he narrows his choices down to the Top 600!

I can narrow my amazement at Klosterman’s writing down to two reasons: 1) Truly interesting discussions about rock music, best exemplified for me by his long disquisition into the difference between “heavy” and “hard” (Think original Black Sabbath v. early Van Halen). 2) He’s funny as shit. My wife must have heard me read aloud more than a hundred excerpts from his books in the course of the single weekend it took me to plow through both books. My favorite excerpt? His take on the differences between two very different guitar gods: Eddie Van Halen and Eric Clapton: “Eddie and Eric are certainly among the greatest rock guitarists who ever lived, but for totallly different reasons. Listening to Clapton is like getting a sensual massage from a woman you’ve loved for the past ten years; listening to Van halen is like having the best sex of your life with three foxy nursing students you met at a Tastee Freez.”

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