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Death Obsessed
By John Dicker

Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story

By Chuck Klosterman

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 library:

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.

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