Sunday, June 25, 2006

Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman first showed up on my radar when I saw Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota years ago in a bookstore. I once had relatives in North Dakota, though all have wisely abandoned that frigid land over the last two decades. That book isn't actually about Fargo so much as it is about growing up as a heavy metal fan in the 1980s. It looked interesting... but not interesting enough to purchase. It seemed perhaps too focused for my taste -- I liked some metal in the 1980s, but I liked a lot of other music, too. I made a note of it and even looked at it again several times over the years but never bought it.

When I saw Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story a few weeks ago, I instantly recognized the author as "the guy who wrote the Fargo heavy metal book that I didn't buy." This book seemed more my style: a road trip to visit places where famous rock stars died. On the surface, it was the sort of book I'd like to write. As I started reading, however, the book turned out to be more about Klosterman's past and present romantic relationships than dead musicians. That was okay, though. While the book lacks the factual depth I would have given my own version, it is written in a very engaging style by a "regular Midwestern guy" with whom I can identify on some level. Much is written about memories. Some stories seem familiar since we are of the same generation; it's amazing how life at one high school is similar to every other high school, no matter how unique you think yours is/was. Other tales are more fitting to a rock critic's lifestyle, though not excessively so (i.e., there's pot and coke, but it's not Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Naturally, Klosterman makes lots of musical references from many sub-genres of rock. Someone who isn't into music probably would have a hard time with this book. Although its focus is different from what I expected, I enjoyed it because I have taken so many long road trips (5,000+ miles) alone with my thoughts. And Killing Yourself to Live is really about those thoughts.

While the entire narrative is funny and entertaining, there are a few mini-essays interspersed that are brilliant. For example, Klosterman explains how every white male born after 1958 experiences Led Zeppelin the same way at some pivotal point in his life. The only thing I would add is that many men, once their "Zeppelin phase" (which lasts from days to years) is over, can't stand them anymore. I know I can't, and I think my brother feels the same way.

Late in the book, Klosterman waxes poetic about KISS. That must be a North Dakota thing -- the only KISS fan I ever knew was my cousin who grew up in Grand Forks and later Bismarck. Are there any KISS fans in Chicagoland? I've never met one. Regardless, I could identify with the absurd and hilarious way he matches members of the band to women in his life.

Killing Yourself to Live is a very quick read. I finished it in less than 24 hours, and I spent plenty of that time doing other things. Be forewarned that it's more of a memoir than a rock star death guidebook (if you are a publisher looking for the latter, let's talk). It is a road trip, but much of the book is about internal dialogue. Maybe I'll give Fargo Rock City another look now.

Note: The article Klosterman wrote for Spin magazine about the trip is still online here. Much of it is repeated verbatim in Killing Yourself to Live -- in fact, the article contains 90-95% of the book's "dead rock star" content (the book also has five solid pages about ten other dead rockers including Marc Bolan, Falco, Michael Hutchence, and Randy Rhoads).

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