Fargo Rock City



Fargo Rock City, by Chuck Klosterman – This book about eighties heavy metal was practically written for me. Wow! Metal! High school! Awkward teen geekiness! Nothing to do and nowhere to go on a Saturday night! Budding writer!

I loved the first 20 pages, it described my world of that time perfectly, even if I wasn’t into more than 50% of the bands mentioned – I couldn’t believe it!! It starts with Motley Crue, dwells on Def Leppard and Vinnie Vincent’s Invasion and Van Halen and Bon Jovi and Warrant and Cinderella and especially Skid Row, and eventually kinda stops at the Bullet Boys (which not even Klosterman can defend).

The last 10 pages were a pretty good denouement too, in their deconstruction of Queensryche.

The pages in between, though, are problematic.

Structurally, the book is set up very well, with short chapters that are about the length of a long-ish newspaper article (in other words, short enough for the author to write at one sitting, and also short enough for a distracted reader to finish in a brief sitting). They are all titled after significant dates in glam rock history that chart its rise and eventual fall: “October 26, 1983 – the worldwide release of Motley Crue’s Shout At The Devil” is chapter 1, “March 24th, 1984 – Van Halen’s ‘Jump’ holds off ‘Karma Chameleon’” is Chapter 2, and there are also chapters titled “’99 Luftbaloons [SIC]‘ for a fifth consecutive week to remain America’s No. 1 single”, “October 15, 1988 – Heavy metal’s finest hour: the three best-selling records on the planet are Bon Jovi’s New Jersey, Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, and Def Leppard’s Hysteria”, etc. The best title is probably “October 10, 1987 – Whitesnake’s “‘Here I Go Again’ is America’s No 1 single, ousting Whitney Houston’s ‘Didn’t We Almost Have It All’”. The chapters cover issues such as the presence of metal on MTV, the nature of heavy metal videos, interpreting heavy metal through video, absorbing heavy metal in rural America, the under-estimation of sales and chart positioning of heavy metal albums in the pre-SoundScan days when sales were rough guesses by executives (and therefore the presence of significant anti-metal discrimination), the influence of older bands on glam, random lists of great metal albums (with Kosterman-ish descriptions of their contents and significance… to him), an analysis of Guns N’ Roses pretentious trilogy of videos from Use Your Illusion, any many other worthy topics. Klosterman keeps his personal anecdotes to a relative minimum, but at one point goes on at length about a trip he took with his debating team where conversations about Lita Ford featured prominently. Thankfully, he hardly writes about sports, a topic that will permeate his later writings (and one that I care not a jot for – but read through anyway).

To spice things up, Klosterman puts in a chapter about alcohol and drinking, which is refreshing, in a way, by being quite a fair bit less pretentious than the rest of the book, if not a bit sad. “I am drinking each shot [of cheap tequila] over my kitchen sink, just in case I vomit.” This is the chapter that he didn’t want his mom to read, but at least it seems fairly honest.

At least the book starts off very well (despite mentioning Stryper twice within the first five pages), and it naturally it jumps straight into Chuck’s gods, Motley Crue. Well, they’re his gods, but maybe the boys were even mightier than gods in Klosterman’s impressionable teen eyes. “Compared to Nikki and Vince, Zeus was a total poseur.” But even a fanboy like Klosterman can’t deny that this story doesn’t have a happy ending and he is quick to jump to the ending:

Sadly, the Crue proved to be ephemeral, coke-addled deities. Rock critics spent an entire decade waiting for heavy metal to crash like a lead zeppelin, and – seemingly seconds after Kurt Cobain wore a dress on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball – they all got their shovels and began pouring dirt on the graves of Faster Pussycat, Winger, Tesla, Kix, and every other band that experimented with spandex, hairspray and flash pots. Metal had always been a little stupid; now it wasn’t even cool. This was the end. Yngwie Malmsteen, we hardly knew ye.

Some of the points he makes are pretty interesting, if a bit cagey.

For reasons no one will ever understand, Van Halen took the majority of their influences from Grand Funk Railroad. This is not to say that Grand Funk wasn’t a decent group; it merely means they didn’t seem to influence anybody else. And – apparently – this is too bad, because there are about a kajillion horrible bands who claim they were influenced by Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. Maybe Grand Funk Railrosd knew something everyone else missed.

We are left to assume that Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut was the first speed metal album ever recorded (that is, if “we” are “a bunch of idiots”).

He makes funny comments about Def Leppard, and how they lost their way with their fourth album Hysteria (their follow-up to Pyromania, which Klosterman rightly describes as “one of the cornerstones of the genre”). Unfortunately, Hysteria was an album that was just a bit too popular with girls, and took something away from the guys.

When girls named Danielle who wore Esprit tank tops sudenly embodied the Def Leppard lifestyle, it clearly indicated that Def Leppard no longer represented the people who had comprised the core audience for (first album) On Through The Night. As a shooting guard on our high school bsketball team, I recall travelling to an away game and listening to our vapid cheerleaders sing at the front of the bus; they were singing ‘Armageddon It’ and ‘Love Bites.’ That alone was indisputable proof that Hysteria sucked.

Klosterman often gets his perspective on things just about right. “[1981] was the year John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan, and I wasn’t surprised at all (in fact, it seemed to me that presidential assassinations didn’t happen nearly as often as one would expect).” Other comments seem just about right (but we can’t really know because we weren’t in the same space he was at the time): “the first two Poison records were the sonic equivalent to the best masturbation imaginable.” He also gets great quotes from guys like Gene Simmons that sort of put things into interesting new perspectives: “You don’t want a large female audience. If you depend on women to buy your records, you end up going the way of New Kids on the Block. Female audiences tend to be unfaithful.” Maybe this is what happened to Def Leppard. Interestingly, he gets the same quote out of Lemmy (“I’ve never seen anyone become a better guitar player by dying than Randy Rhoads. Nobody ever talked about him when he was alive, but suddenly everyone started saying he’s some kind of genius. He was a nice guy and a very good guitarist, but he wasn’t a Hendrix or a Clapton or anything like that.”) in 1998 that the producers of the Lemmy documentary got, showing just how long Lemmy’s been repeating that particular line about Rhoads (Klosterman eventually has something to say about Rhoads, and it’s not pretty – more on that later).

Klosterman includes a hilarious quote from Dokken percussionist Mick Brown:

Drinking is my profession. Drums are just a hjobby. I have to admit that I’m a pretty bad influence on a lot of people. The girls who hang around me will take a couple of days off from their jobs, and then find out they’ve been fired when they return to work. And they get really torn up. I go, ‘Listen, if you can’t handle it, then don’t hang around me. I don’t want to ruin your life just for having a good time.’ I’m a party professional. I stay in on New Year’s Eve because all the amateurs are out.

Klosterman likes to effect a similar sass about himself: “I like to drink, and I like to rock. You think I”m an idiot? Fine. You don’t have to come over.”

He makes dangerous statements that may actually be good criticism:

It’s very common to see an album panned because “there’s not much beyond the single.” I don’t think that kind of logic matters. For example, “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba has proven to be a more important album than Bob Dylan’s Grammy Award winning Time Out Of Mind, simply because Chumbawamba’s disc offered one great song that defined the moment of its popularity. I don’t think there’s any question about which of those two LPs will be more fun to find in a jukebox twenty years from now.

Not sure why he’s comparing a single to an album, but I guess there’s something there nonetheless.

He has a great description of a Slayer show where he saw people enter crazed states where they punched random strangers in the face (usually with the opening chord of “Raining Blood”).

Slayer would be Spinal Tap if they possessed even an ounce of irony, but – as it is – they are [SIC] most serious band that ever lived. The result is absolutely punishing. Slayer is kind of like a guy who walks up to you in a bar and says he’s going to rape your wife, burn down your house, shoot all your friends, cover your kids with acid, and then slowly starve you to death while rats nibble at your emaciated flesh. Now, if this hypothetical guy is merely a drunken goofball, that kind of complex depravity seems hilarious (almost endearing). But if he’s the one guy on earth willing (and able) to do all those things, you’d suddenly realize you’re talking to the craziest, most sinister motherfucker who ever lived. Slayer is that one guy.

I get the rest of it, but not “endearing”. Oh well.

As a part-time humorist, he also occasionally he hits the mark with weird, non-sequitar stuff:

Here’s a list of what types of girls the premier metal groups liked (or at least seemed to like)…

GUNS N’ ROSES: Bixesual models; submissive women; girls who would buy them booze.
MOTLE CRUE: Stippers; women who have sex in public (particularly elevators); lesbians.
DEF LEPPARD: Femal vampires only.
W.A.S.P.: Magician’s assistants; women with rape fantasies; lower primates.
BANG TANGO: Faster Pussycat rejects.
BON JOVI: The girl next door.
VINNIE VINCENT INVASION: The dominatrix next door.
SLAUGHTER: Girls who couldn’t make the cut as Bon Jovi groupies.
WINGER: Whoever Bon Jovie groupies used to baby-sit.
KISS: Any girl who wasn’t dead.
IRON MAIDEN: Dead Girls.
METALLICA: None of the above.

As for the rest of the book, it is full of plenty of bummers, including more sarcastic remarks about Canada (like when he say that Motley Crue’s “Looks That Kill” video “is probably the most ridiculous video ever made, unless you count videos made in Canada”). You get similar comments in Klosterman’s other books – it makes you wonder if he only makes comments about Canada because it’s such an easy cheap shot (everybody else does it), or maybe because it is in fact the only country he’s been to outside the US (I don’t recall him mentioning trips to the UK or France or Japan – he did go to Seattle once, though).

Klosterman fills a lot of space with cruel comments about death, and this is how he goes about describing Led Zeppelin’s mephistopholean world when he notes that John Paul Jones was “the only Zepster who was never penalized by Satan’s power; the other three were all struck by evil (John Bonham choked on his own vomit, Robert Plant tragically lost his son Karac, and Page would go on to collaborate with David Coverdale).”

He makes similar comments about the death of Razzle, the drummer of Hanoi Rocks:

At the time, the event did not seem like a tragedy. Before the death of Razzle, I had never even heard of Hanoi Rocks. Hardly anyone had; I’m sure the untimely death of their drummer was the greatest thing that ever happened to their commercial viability. My main concern was that Vince was okay – that is to say, okay enough to finish the new record.

Again, what’s an “untimely death”? Is that the opposite of a “timely death”. Creepy. And there’s more of the same in his next book, Killing Yourself To Live (when he’s not talking about himself).

He is also incredibly insensitive to Randy Rhoads, who he says “gets a little extra credit for having died in a plane creash. Nonbreathing people get all the breaks. CLear, the easiest way to become ‘great’ is to get ‘good’ and then get ‘dead.’” Huh? It starts to get stupid after a while: “After years of research, I have come to the conclusion that animals enjoy being eaten; they think it’s fun” (and this, in a section on Ted Nugent, is where he gets pretentious, referring to deer as “ungulates”, and horses as “equine”).

Some day, when Klosterman actually dies himself, these quotes will all seem poignant.

He can also be amazingly stupid. “Judas Priest supposedly made kids point guns at their heads; Cinderella made me do the same thing with a hair dryer.” And he can be cruel about other things than death: “What we were too dumb to realise was that the guys in Def Leppard hated the term ‘heavy metal’, and any member of the band would have given his right arm to avoid the label (except for [one-armed drummer] Rick Allen).” But here, I guess the joke’s on Klosterman, because Allen still has his right arm – it was his left arm that he lost in a car crash!!

He gets riled up about the craziest things: “[Dolphins] are the most overrated mammals on the planet.”

He describes Iron Maden as “unattractive, they weren’t prototypically cool, and it was impossible to sing along with any of their songs.” Pardon?!?! I guess he’s never been to a Maiden concert, or seen them perform “Heaven Can Wait.” Dumbass.

He gets the lyrics of an Ozzy Osbourne song all wrong (“Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebel”, quoted on P142, “They say I worship the devil/ They must be stupid, all right.” – it’s quite clear that he says “They must be stupid or blind“… please!!!). He also gets wrong the name of one of the bands that (he says) influenced Metallica, the “Tygers of Pang Tang” (actually Tygers of Pan Tang).

With all of these mistakes or misinterpretations of his subject of choice, I’d say that Klosterman’s probably just too lazy to do his research (either that or he just wants to rile people up); how else would you explain the many errors this pop culture-obsessed geek makes? The biggest/weirdest one is about a Canadian band called Rush:

Most people (or – more accurately – all people except me) do not consider Rush a Christian rock band. However, this fact is virtually indisputable. Aren’t pretty much all of their songs about Jesus? It certainly seems like it. At the very least, Rush albums promote some sort of bass-heavy Christian value system. ‘He’s trying to save the day for the Old World man,’ proclaims the soaring vocals of Canadian spiritualist Geddy Lee. ‘He’s trying to pave the way for the Third World man.’ Isn’t that the entire New Testament in two lines? Didn’t Jesus teach us to big ‘A Farewell to Kings’ and to watch the humble

‘Working Man’ inherit the earth? And I’m sure God likes ‘Trees’ and hates racism at least as much as Neil Peart does.

“Nobody ever believes me when I start talking about Rush’s hard-line Christian stance, but every time I hear their music, it becomes more and more clear. Listen to the song ‘Freewill’: I have a hard time understanding exactly what Lee is talking about here, but I can tell it has something to do with being a good person (or with being an honest person, or a stoic person, or holding some vague personality trait that God would probably support). ‘Freewill’ also implies something about agnostics going to hell, but that’s just par for the course when it comes to Rush. I even have some suspicions about the metaphorical significance of ‘The Spirit of Radio,’ and that goes double for the cover art on Grace Under Pressure, Fly by Night (a fucking owl?), and – most notable – the homoerotic purgatory imagery on the sleeve for Hemispheres. Who is in the Temple of Syrinx? Perhaps it’s Jesus.

It’s a totally silly passage that Klosterman embarrasses himself with – the “me against the world” argument – when all of the rest of us are wondering which Christian band has a Jewish frontman, and an atheist drummer? Chuck, Chuck, Chuck… do we really know ya? Do you even know yourself? He even says grandiose things like “Few people listen to entire albums, even when they’re released by their so-called favorite band.” Excuse me? Speak for yourself, I mainly listen to entire albums!!

Of course, people who makes mistakes will make some excuse about why they make mistakes, especially writers who have a wordcount quota to fill and not really much of anything to write about, but I don’t buy this argument – you’re a writer, you know that people will read what you write (sometimes paying good money for the privilege), and therefore if you present facts they should be accurate. Also, writers whose books get released by major publishing houses like Scribners have access to editors, fact checkers and other support, something not all of us have.

Did you ever notice how Chuck Klosterman likes to start sentences with conversational points like “ANYWAY”, and “As I mentioned earlier”. Chatty things like this make a person wonder if he gets stoned, dictates books into electronic recorders, then them transcribed, lightly edited and rushed to the printers. I know people who like to pepper their long stories with “As I was saying earlier” in conversation, and Klosterman is one of these people. Sheesh! He even goes so far as to admit in a 1988 anedcote about Lita Ford’s “Lita” release. “Talking about the music was more interesting than hearing it (which is still the way I feel about most rock ‘n’ roll).” A telling confession – write (or dictate) your little heart out, Chuck, I’ll listen to music and you write the books.

He also misunderstands words (beyond just the mis-use of “unconscious”, as in the the way some people say “unconscious decision” – I once read Madonna say this in an interview, actually), when he says “Maybe Tesla turns kids into mindless deadheads (which I suppose is a pretty blatant oxymoron).” If he’s referring to “mindless deadheads” as an oxymoron, then he doesn’t know what the word “oxymoron” means. At another point he says “most metal said nothing (and sometimes even less).” What is less than nothing?

He embarrasses himself even further when he writes “I have never met Satan, but he actually sounds like a pretty cool guy. A bit geeky, perhaps, but I’m sure we could still hang out and play Scrabble or something.” Say what? But Chuck’s too clever for me, so I’ve missed the obvious ironic statement here (I got the reference to the “angel dust” that he likes to smoke, and how “he probably has a framed poster of Ronnie James Dio on his living room wall”… Dio… God… Dio… Satan… Dio poster… I get it).

Going on the defense, Klosterman writes many a long passage about why people hate heavy metal for all the wrong reasons, but he’s never really convincing. He makes the lame point that “people who take rock music seriously in a literal sense always seem to be missing the point.” He’s missing the point if he thinks his readership understand what he means with the phrase “to take something seriously in the literal sense.” How could seriousness be anything but literal? He also makes fun of Michael Azerrad for believing that Black Flag fans had to work harder to be Black Flag fans than Warrant fans did, since they didn’t have their bands handed to them on a platter by the media. Sorry, Chuck, that makes sense to no one except you.

Perhaps one of my biggest frustrations with Klosterman is how he alternates between boring people with his navel gazing, and infuriating him with his misinterpretation, mis-analysis and factual mistakes about the very topics he takes on. Ironically, he has no respect for writers who make mistakes in their writing, and aims his tiny arrows at his fellow journalists:

I remember being mildly excited when I saw a nine-inch article about an accident involving Vince Neil Wharton, the lead singer from the “rock ‘n’ roll band Motley Crue.” To me, that line was the most offensive part of the entire article – Mötley Crüe was not a rock ‘n’ roll band.” Bruce Springsteen was in a “rock ‘n’ roll band.” Motley was a heavy metal band. I immediately questioned the reporter’s credibility.”

By Klosterman’s logic, we should definitely also question his credibility (he should too) over the many errors in his book. But I honestly believe that Klosterman is too knowledgable to get many facts wrong, which is why I think that coming up with goofy and controversial (and incorrect) views is merely a gimmick, one that a friend of mine told me Steve Albini regularly indulged in, which is to rile people just for the hell of it and see what happened.

This all makes Klosterman a very unauthentic person, kind of like those flawed characters we get in Wes Anderson movies that we all love. Maybe Chuck isn’t being cagey when he mentions that he’s actually a bad person (this exercise continues unabated in his second book, Killing Yourself To Live where he puts himself down by putting sentences like “my thoughts are unoriginal” and “I have no redeeming social value”, randomly at the end of paragraphs).

The book was published in 2001 (with a new epilogue written from the perspective of 2003). Sadly, his later chapters talk about the current (to 2001) state of glam metal and he spends time on rap rock/nü-metal by talking about Korn and Limp Bizzkit… awkward (the quote with Korn bassist Fieldy – the guy who became a born again Christian – where he says “I’ve never owned a Beatles record; I’ve never even listened to one” is hilarious. It seems that, for Korn, “our musical history starts with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and early Faith No More”); this despair for the future of glam leads Chuck to hypothesise about recent alt rock gods like Billy Corgan, where he decides that “we all know that Corgan is actually keeping glam rock alive, even through the rock press doesn’t want to believe it. And that’s why he can get away with it. Keep acting pretentious, Billy. We ‘understand’.” Funny quote, but I wonder what Chuck would have made of the downfall of nü-metal, the ironic popularity of the hilarious Steel Panther, or even Corgan’s worship of Rush in the documentary Beyond The Lighted Stage, not to mention the reunion of Black Sabbath and the huge resurgence of heavy metal… Oops, I keep forgetting that this book was written about glam metal/hair rock; oh well, at least there’s Steel Panther. I need to find out if Klosterman’s written more recently on the Panther, and if he’s okay with them or not (I suspect he has complicated views on Steel Panther…).

Given the passage of time (or otherwise), Klosterman’s not-so-very-old book still has a worrying number of unfortunate joke passages that just don’t feel right, like “There’s still a thriving death metal scene in Florida, so maybe the presence of old people makes the concept of death more pertinent.” He refers to Faith No More drummer Mike Bordin as “that ponytail guy” (Bordin is famous for his dreadlocks), and then dismisses the Black Sabbath Ozzfest performances as “How much can you really expect from three fifty-year-old Brits who spent half their life eating acid and pretending to worship the devil?” Yep – he’s really a dick. There’s also an unfortunate moment when he says that David Lee Roth “would look like a fool if the original Van Halen ever reunited.” Well, they did, and he’s right – but didn’t always look like a fool? Don’t guys who dress up on stage act like fools all the time anyway!!

Funnily enough, the endorsements (I’m amazed that he could get any) for the book are in many ways more interesting than the book (especially when they lump it in with other winning books, like Bebe Buells Rebel Heart, Dave Mersh’s The Heart of Rock and Soul, Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train, Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music and Gary Giggins’ Visions of Jazz). “It may even prompt you to spin ‘Rock You Like A Hurricane’ or ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ again – God help us all”, pants the Phoenix New Times. “His sly, swaggering prose struts across the page like Axl Rose in his prime,” author Max Wingerten writes, clearly proud of his zesty wordplay. “Either one of the saddest or greatest music books ever written,” says Q magazine.

The book is good for a few other things, among them making KISS seem interesting, and turning me on to videos that I think that I might want to watch, like that Whitesnake video with Tawny Kitaen in it.

Interestingly, a book that I’ve read recently that’s much better than this one is by a cook, not a journalist. Anthony Bourdain tells a better tale, and he also has better taste in music.

This book needs an index. Chuck Klosterman is clearly a lazy writer; and his editor (if he has one) is clearly also a lazy editor.

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