Saturday, September 27, 2008

Diagnosing the diagnosis of Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman is one of a handful of younger, hip 20 and 30-something writers that I read, attempting to remain rooted to an earlier, less complicated time. Actually, stripped of nostalgia, my own 20s and early-30s were probably just as complicated—I just didn’t pay enough attention. Now, I’m reaping what I’ve sown, a complicated mess of being a 40-something, somewhat late to the game of stock portfolios, melting 401ks, and now paying too much attention to a world spinning out of control.

I had plans this weekend of scoring a copy of Infinite Jest (see David Foster Wallace) and finally plowing through the 1,000 plus pages while the remnants of another tropical storm dumped rain on New England. There’s nothing better than an anticipated book and no alternative to hours sitting, sifting through a book with some girth.

Unfortunately, the qualities of living in a remote northeastern state—lack of population density, urban development, and blight—also mean that we don’t have a fucking bookstore in the state that has a copy of IJ; so much for supporting your local, independent bookstores. I would if I could, but every time I try, they never have the book I’m looking for. The local libraries I have access to, own one copy per, and they are checked out until late fall. Futile searches for alternatives to IJ have once again come up empty, so I’m stuck with McCullough’s book on Truman, which at any other time might be worth a try, but I’m so sick of politics and thoughts of the presidency that even a gifted writer like McCullough can’t entice me back to a more palatable time, just after WWII.

Klosterman, like countless white males growing up in rural outposts similar to his native North Dakota, found respite from their boredom, in music. For young CK, his fifth grade introduction to metal (albeit the glam variety) came through a cassette that his brother brought home, while on leave from the Army, and Fort Benning, Georgia. Rather than damning young Klosterman and millions of other young boys, like Tipper Gore, and other faux-moralists predicted, Shout at the Devil, by Motley Crue changed young Chuck’s life, and gave it some meaning.

From the NY Times book section, June 3, 2001, rock critic Eric Weisbard writes about Fargo Rock City and Klosterman’s paean to metal, calling it “part memoir, part barstool rant, and it is ridiculously engaging.” I might add, engaging, if like me, you grew up with a similar penchant for the “rock of ages.”

Recognizing that Klosterman’s book isn’t high art, or criticism, but him fawning about the music that mattered to him, Weisbard concludes;

The point is that Klosterman is implicated: he has no interest in writing from a place ''above'' his subject, the usual pitfall for studies of popular culture. He's at his most convincing insisting, however defensively, on the validity of everyone's pop experiences. ''I think it was Brian Eno who said, 'Only a thousand people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but every one of them became a musician.' Well, millions of people bought 'Shout at the Devil,' and every single one of them remained a person (excluding the kids who moved on to Judas Priest and decided to shoot themselves in the face).''

Concerned about often lamented sexism and homophobia of metal, not to mention its often cited mediocrity (as if Bruce Springsteen’s rock is something much higher because he apparently is channeling Woody Guthrie, Weisbard continues:

Klosterman claims that the piggishness of these bands was so transparent that they inherently mocked sexism. And the gay baiting, though unfortunate, came about because, unlike alternative culture -- which celebrates diversity -- metal pumped up alienated teenagers with the message ''You're not different at all.'' And if style firmly ruled over substance, at least it was deliberate.

Yet hair metal wasn't just flashy: it was craven. Guns 'n' Roses aside (and Axl Rose flattened his mane early on), bands followed rigidly proscribed rules for how to sound and act, parading stereotypical white masculinity to please radio programmers and record labels in love with a cookie-cutter genre. The result was that for a decade the most innovative rockers had little chance to succeed commercially. Even contemporary metal has benefited from the lifting of these restrictions, though Klosterman has little time for it minus the cheesiness.

Not without his critics, which apparently comes with the terrain associated with the kind of success and following that Klosterman has achieved, he does more than just rock and roll. For a couple of years, post-FRC, he was juggling a trio of columns for Spin, ESPN, and Esquire, no mean feat.

Sarah Hepola’s article, just out for Salon, provides a readable profile of CK, which in my opinion is a great place to start if you're reading this and don’t know who the hell he is. Hepola comes at Klosterman as someone who has been both “overly praised” ("a young Hunter S. Thompson"), and as she writes, “pathologically reviled,” like this putdown from Mark Ames. (who is Mark Ames?) What is it that they say about critics, to which I plead “guilty as charged,” from time to time?

With age and supposed maturity also comes something else—tension, or better, the realization that the things that once got you off, no longer pack the same kick.

Klosterman is done writing his Esquire columns and had this to say (taken from the Hepola piece):

"AC/DC did the same album over and over again," he says at one point, "and I love AC/DC, but I don't want to be Angus Young. I want to be Jeff Tweedy." As every 30-something nerd-disguised-as-hipster knows, Jeff Tweedy is the much-adored frontman for Wilco, a gifted singer-songwriter who could have spent a (lucrative) career crafting perfect three-minute pop songs but decided to dissect them instead, upending (if only temporarily) his own career with the controversial and brilliant 2002 album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."

The Tweedy/Wilco reference isn’t lost on me, as a longtime fan of Uncle Tupelo, and the post-Tupe Wilco story and of Tweedy's musical journey.

Klosterman, whose books have all been nonfiction, has just penned his first novel, Downtown Owl, a book that one Canadian critic describes as “a literary postcard from a town that could exist, but does not.” (or maybe it does)

So here I am, without Infinite Jest, or even Downtown Owl to satisfy my reading jones this rainy September weekend. I will remedy that situation, however, by acquiring both for the coming reading season. Read an excerpt here.

[For fans of DFW, here is a postscript that lends some perspective to the tragic end of a great American writer, and quality human being.]

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