Chuck Klosterman launches Killing Yourself To Live: 85% Of A True Story at the Horseshoe Tavern (370 Queen West), Wednesday (August 31), 6 pm. Free. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
We all have rules to live by. One of mine is that I could never fully trust anyone who hates Bon Jovi or who loves Alanis Morissette.
Now, normally when I tell people who are not my bestest friends about this rule, they either stare at me blankly or contest it. But not Chuck Klosterman. Chuck gets it. Even if he doesn't live by the same rule.
"I used to base my opinions on musical taste when I was younger," he tells me. "But if somebody consciously likes and hates all the right bands and wants people to have an understanding of them through their music - then I question it."
Klosterman is lying in bed in a hotel somewhere in Texas and has just woken up, so it would probably be easy to make him agree to anything. I am not in bed with him. We are on the phone.
"But if I meet somebody," he goes on, "and they have very specific tastes, like they only like alt-country music but think the Cardigans are really good and are interested in early-period Stones and occasionally admit that Gretchen Wilson is okay, then I see they like certain music but can see outside of it."
Nobody understands identification through pop culture like Chuck Klosterman. This is a man who equates each of the women he's dated with one or another of the members of KISS.
Klosterman spent his childhood in rural North Dakota, close to but not even in the town of Wyndmere, which has a population of 500 people. In 1983 he discovered Mötley Crüe. He really wanted to rock, but his mom never let him grow his hair long, and eventually he became a writer because, he says, "It makes me happy."
Klosterman, now a senior writer and editor at Spin and columnist at Esquire, first came to my attention when I read his 2003 release, Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto. The book featured essays about the cultural importance of Billy Joel, MTV's The Real World, Saved By The Bell and Pamela Anderson. Klosterman also wrote about spending some time as a Sim and going on the road with a Guns N' Roses tribute band.
It was hilarious and insightful and basically spoke right to me. Then, of course, I had to read his first book, Fargo Rock City, which is all about rescuing 80s hair metal from the status of cultural laughingstock and giving it the credit it deserves. Jeezum crow, I thought to myself. Could this guy get any smarter?
And then he did. Klosterman's latest literary offering, Killing Yourself To Live: 85% Of A True Story (see review, this page), is the account of his road trip in search of rock 'n' roll death landmarks.
Over three weeks and 6,557 miles, Klosterman visited, among other death-related spots, the sites of Sid Vicious's and Nancy Spungen's ridiculous catastrophe, the location of the Great White fire, the apartment where Bob Stinson (of the Replacements) drank himself to death, the site where the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane went down and the crossroads where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the Devil.
He had no hypothesis when he set out on the journey. It was just work, originally an assignment for a Spin article.
"If I had an intention, it was to give people the feeling of what these places look like, because normally they see graves. I was hoping that because it was death-oriented I would find some unifying principle, and when it became a book I tried a lot harder to do that.
"We all compartmentalize, the knowledge of our lives being finite. What would happen if I thought about this all the time for three weeks - every song I heard, every experience I had? What if I thought about the idea that I was going to die? Would that affect the way I view the rest of my life? Would I then be able to understand living better?"
The answer is a resounding no.
"It feels like there should be some sort of sweeping revelation at the end, but there's not. You can't go to where Buddy Holly died and go, 'Aha!' This is something that's confusing forever."
Killing Yourself To Live is terribly funny, astute, canny and yet incredibly sensitive. I read it. Then read it again. Chuck Klosterman is a fucking genius, mainly because I agree with almost everything he says.
Much of it is not about death or landmarks at all but about Klosterman's reflections on his own life. Reflections on your own life are bound to happen when you think about death. Some critics, however, see this as a shortcoming. They go in expecting a road-trip book and get Klosterman's navel-gazing.
"I don't know where they got that idea," he says. "Sometimes I think people review the book they wish you had written. When I wrote Fargo Rock City there were people who thought it was about the rock scene in Fargo."
I found out only after reading his books that certain members of the intellectual community, including some people I know, think Klosterman is irrelevant at best. This does not surprise me, but it confounds me.
This is a man who managed in Fargo Rock City to make a compelling statement about how GNR Lies compares to the four Gospels.
He gives our existence meaning through the allegedly inane medium of pop culture. Yes! You can find meaning in rock. And not just weird, avant-garde rock that nobody's ever heard of and that makes you a distinct and important individual because you know it and are therefore a hipster. There is meaning, he reminds us, in common ground.
Klosterman calls us on our bullshit. In Fargo Rock City he points out that 80s metal was a huge cultural force at one time, and now even the people who once appreciated it like to pretend it never existed.
In Killing Yourself To Live he observes that post-mortem Kurt Cobain became much more relevant to many than he was just before his death, and that Nirvana was slipping in popularity prior to his suicide.
"I remember the three months before his death, and sometimes I feel like nobody else does, but Nirvana was really unpopular at that time. After his death, people just convinced themselves that because the media said Nirvana was the voice of this generation and they saw themselves as part of that generation, they wanted to make sure that he was their voice, too."
Let's not forget that at the time Pearl Jam's Ten and Vs. had outsold Nirvana's Nevermind and In Utero in 1991 and 93 respectively.
Ask him what location affected him most deeply and Rhode Island, site of the Great White tragedy where 100 people died in a fire, comes up.
"People would concede that it was tragic, but no one could discuss it without the fraction of a smirk. People were sending e-mail one-liners while the cops were still counting bodies. Somehow, it was acceptable to condescendingly chuckle at the overtly uncool people in Rhode Island."
So many people, he muses, go to concerts just so they can say they were there and that it either rocked or sucked. But these were people who were unironically trying to experience music that meant something to them. We have no patience for earnestness. Unless it comes in the form of emo.
"I think it would have been much different if it had been a PJ Harvey concert. But because it was a Great White show it was acceptable to raise the question of what kind of person is going to Great White in 2003? That was depressing."
This is what makes Klosterman so likeable and accessible as a writer. He comes from a generation that's entrenched in both affectation and indifference, to the point where we often can't even tell where irony begins and ends. As a writer, he embodies all the qualities you might expect of someone steeped in this conundrum, yet he also manages to remind us where our humanity begins, if not where it ends.