I was given Chuck Klosterman’s cross-country journal about locations where famous musicians died in the continental U.S., Killing Yourself To Live, by a friend, Flynt, who thought I might benefit, as a novice critic myself, from its expoundings on music intermeshed with the critic’s personal reflections and awakenings. The book impressed upon me the desire to respond, perhaps Flynt’s intent; though in an opposite manner, as I found Live somewhat difficult company to keep.
Klosterman, jovially but inattentively, plays a game in his text in which he tries to defy obvious judgments and interpretations he foresees readers coming to, namely that since he “hates reading … many intellectuals consider me irrelevant” and, as he has a character in the book query, “…who wants to read another book about some death-obsessed drug addict who listens to Fleetwood Mac and lionizes the women who used to drive him crazy?” It is rather like a chef warning his restaurateurs that they may dislike the meal he has prepared for them but he is at least aware that they won’t like it, which ignores their enjoyment because well, I know it is not literature and that many thinking people won’t like it but if I make the claim in advance that it is not literature then I can be absolved fromresponsibility to the craft. Any criticism has already been deflected and can be shrugged off as banal or, even, inappropriate.
Mr. Klosterman has here not so much written a book of criticism in which contemplative analysis is given to specific works in their own context but rather has written an episodic road trip tale with involved personal back story about old flames and times and the music he happened to be listening to during these episodes. A lengthy explanation about how “Thom Yorke accidentally predicted the events of September 11 on Kid A,” is proceeded by the admission that “anything I had been playing that afternoon [9/11] would have felt like a terrorist attack … Except that it wouldn’t have.” Then four pages are given to this “accidental prediction” and how Kid A is a timeline of the day for Americans.
The overall achievement is that Klosterman posits ideas that cannot possibly be true or genuinely intentioned. Thus, there is no real critic, no authority worth considering, only the personal. “There is no truth,” after all. “There is no culture.” The book is full of these grand statements and seem to be the extent of critical thought.
Late in the game it is claimed that “every straight man born after the year 1958 has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good band that ever existed.” That I and the six males I consider intimate friends report never having had this experience with Zeppelin must, according to Klosterman, mean that either we are all homosexuals (unknown to us as of yet, and also to five spouses) or that we weren’t born after 1958. But no matter, because the thought wasn’t meant to have any value beyond its immediate and transient impact. It is as though the book is gabbing at a party hoping that everyone else in the conversation is too inebriated or indifferent to think about what their fellow conversationalists are saying. The only value a thought has, then, is that it sounds “interesting,” not that it is correct or incorrect, or even relevant.
It seems obvious that Klosterman does not take his own grandiose claims seriously. Furthermore, his statements evidence a lack of careful, involved attention, which is what makes Live such a frustrating read and a discouraging example of contemporary rock criticism: a tendency to make convoluted, involved declarations that are not meant to be considered accurate or inaccurate but only heard and repeated, as though each concept is only important in the immediate now and need not be true or false at any other time. The whole experience loses even the attempt (in a practical sense) at critical omniscience and becomes totally subjective; not necessarily an awful situation but one in which serious criticism and thoughtfulness play no part and art is solely for subjective consumption, never collective interpretation. Klosterman is not a serious critic or writer – “serious” meaning valuable in thought and action – because he is not striving for any objectivity, however illusory objectivity may be.
Indeed, Klosterman claims, “Artists who believe they have any control over the interpretation of their work are completely fooling themselves.” This is true if the audience does not believe in the existence or significance of an artist’s intent or that any artist actually takes the time to carefully construct a story/song/painting in the hopes of communicating something that the audience can not only identify with but also understand the intended meaning of.
Reported “arguments” from Klosterman and Live’s cast of characters concerning “whether or not Boston had three great songs or no great songs” or “why the Creedence Clearwater Revival song ‘Ramble Tamble’ illustrates a larger truth about Vietnam, despite the fact that the lyrics of ‘Ramble Tamble’ are not about war,” are not at all meant as arguments or explanations but brief stories of lackluster introspection in the life of a kid who grew up listening to rock and roll, not much caring what it was supposed to be about but only that it was about something to him. There is a sense that the writer is not at all serious about the implications and qualities he claims to admire about the object of his love, rock and roll. Indeed, it is as though the writer is so flippant and indifferent that he is able to toss off explanations and ideas without having to evaluate them with any critical study or thought because who would bother anyway?, is the tone of the explanations and thus the tone the reader must adopt in order to read the book. This indifference leaves the whole venture void of tension or significance since the writer has gone out of his way to convince his readers that he both cares and yet does not care about interpretation.
Many sentences, if thought about for a moment before rushing into the next, don’t make much sense and prohibit the reader from considering Klosterman’s perceptions with any sincerity. “Technology,” he writes, “solves everything because technology is invulnerable. And this is what almost everyone in America thought at around 8:30 A.M. [on 9/11].” Or another pronouncement, this about Roger Staubach, “…whoever is your hero when you’re nine remains your hero forever.” It does not take much reflection to understand that these statements may ring true for the writer himself and perhaps for his friends, but can hardly blanket the population at large. (Again, if me and those whose opinions I sought on the topic are any sort of relevant counter-point. Perhaps me and mine live in a tiny pocket outside of the public for whom Klosterman reserves his proclamations, but it is doubtful.)
Klosterman’s unstated denial that people everywhere (or even limited to rock and roll fans, obviously his intended audience) are different in their behaviors and experiences is evidenced in a fantasy sequence envisioning his own obituaries. “Jon [co-worker at Spin magazine] would likely compare me to some dead genius I’ve never even heard of (possibly Joseph Mitchell).”* That Klosterman is able to name the genius he has not heard of is irrelevant; in the world of this book the author may set rules for his text which he does not have to follow. Or another instance: “September 11 is the one issue every American can be completely earnest and unguarded about.” How I do wish the half-dozen people I’ve offended with my own “earnest and unguarded” recollections of the infamous day I myself spent in New York had read Live and been appropriately instructed.
Live does on occasion spark a brighter flame and give cause for a chuckle. “Line dancing,” the writer observes, “reminds me of the way Great Britain used to fight land wars.” Unhappily, this proceeds his observation that, “It always fascinated me that the people who liked George Strait and Billy Ray Cyrus were equally enamored with linear, highly structured dance choreography that offered no spontaneity whatsoever.” Why is this puzzling, Chuck? The two forms – the music and the dancing – seem all too appropriately matched from this side of logic.
“‘Even when it’s merely an accident, dying somehow proves you weren’t kidding.” But that is all that Killing Yourself To Live seems to do: kid. In seeking to explain why dead rock stars have any significance the writer concludes that a) they don’t and b) they do. Wink wink, nudge nudge. “You’re killing me, Klosterman,” I thought throughout my reading. But it had little to do with living.
* For those, like myself, who in fact did not know who Joseph Mitchell was – as Klosterman didn’t? – our Britannica tells us he wrote for The New Yorker early/mid century and even claims “His vignettes … [about] eccentric denizens … were viewed as stylistic precursors of the subjective ‘new journalism’.” I’ll tackle that after I get to the rest of John Updike and Cheever. Not to mention the rest of Klosterman’s oeuvre. Cocoa puffs?