Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story
Scribner, 256 pages, $23
A mediocre Chuck Kloster- man book is a lot like a Woody Allen
film 10 years ago. Delightful in parts, disappointing as a
whole but still sadly superior to the greater dessert tray
of cultural offerings.
This is no longer true of Allen, whose sporadic bouts of mediocrity
are elevated to near genius by an army of nostalgic critics,
but it’s very much the case with Klosterman’s third book,
Killing Yourself to Live. Born of an assignment from
Spin magazine, its premise is as gimmicky as any of
that organ’s Greatest Albums of All Time (Part VIII) features,
and yet it manages to speak to the heart of rock folklore.
Here’s the gist: Star writer rents car and visits the places
where American music has died. That is, the way music dies
in America: young and hard. From the Rhode Island nightclub
where more than 90 fans of the band Great White perished in
a freak fire, to the Macon, Ga., intersection where two Allman
brothers died in motorcycle accidents, Klosterman is on hand
to “get his death on.”
This is no solemn cemetery crawl, but an irreverent investigation
into why death alters the music canon. Because in the vicissitudes
of the pop hierarchy, where 1999’s headliner is lucky to be
VH1’s talking head, what separates the ephemeral from the
iconic is often just a pulse. As the author notes: “Somewhere,
at some point, somehow, someone decided death equals credibility.”
So whether it’s overdosing on the narcotic of the day or the
poor stewardship of planes, automobiles and tour buses, death
offers what every artist strives to attain, but can’t really
appear to be trying for: perpetual authenticity.
It’s worth mentioning that Chuck Klosterman is a geek of staggering
magnitude. Readers of his last collection of pop culture essays,
Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, might’ve noticed this.
Now one has to wonder if it hasn’t devolved into something
of a shtick. Witness this bit on the K section of his music
I bought all 26 Kiss releases on tape, and then I bought them
all on disc, and then I bought them all on disc again when
they were digitally remastered in 1999, which really just
means somebody went back into the studio and made them louder.
Wait, there’s more! For Klosterman suffers from a most irritating
generational affliction, which is a chronic inability to relate
to life without a pop-culture guidepost. Here he is describing
two former girlfriends and an unrequited love of the moment:
If Diane is Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Lenore is a fusion
of the Big Bopper’s libido with Nikki Sixx’s scariest wet
dream, Quincy is akin to the girl in Ben Folds Five’s “Kate,”
multiplied by the woman described in Sloan’s “Underwhelmed,”
divided by the person Evan Dando sings about in The Lemonheads’
slacked up, Raymond Carver-esque dope ballad, “Buddy.”
Makes you glad he took the trip alone.
As for the larger point to this contrived odyssey, well, there
really isn’t one. Yes, it’s ironic that the Mississippi crossroads
where blues legend Robert Johnson claimed to sell his soul
to the Devil can be located via a rental car’s GPS, but so
what? It’s still just a road. And Klosterman knows it.
To make up for a paucity of there there, we’re treated
to countless diversions. One minute we’re discoursing upon
the respective merits of cocaine and pot culture, the next
we’re exploring why the author no longer spends each afternoon
watching Saved by the Bell. Don’t get me wrong—many
of these side trips are amusing, if not hilarious. But they
don’t add up to much.
Travel is such a wonderful genre because every journey comes
equipped with a built-in narrative. However, it can also facilitate
lazy writing. In his essays, Klosterman stayed focused on
a single idea and mined its every implication. (Don’t get
him started on The Real World.) Too often in Killing
Yourself he puts his finger on something really interesting—like
the idea that Graceland represents “the religiosity of garbage
culture”—only to abandon it because, hey, the road beckons.
And even for a professional rock critic, much of his ramblings
are oppressively indulgent. Take the three-and-a-half pages
on why Radiohead’s Kid A was actually a vision that
foretold the Sept. 11 attacks. Nevertheless, Klosterman’s
humor continually bails him out. Even on tired subjects like
the cultural sludge that is Los Angeles, he can find a new
twist. Stay too long in L.A. and “you start to see an integrity
in networking.” Spend too long in Killing Yourself to Live
and you start to see a book in what should’ve clearly remained
a magazine article. At least the ride is good for some laughs,
which is more than I can say for most Woody Allen projects.