Killing Yourself To Live, by Chuck Klosterman

KYTL

KYTL


Killing Yourself To Live, by Chuck Klosterman – I’ve read most of Chuck Klosterman’s books, and have enjoyed many long passages of his stuff, typically in his essays; I think he loses the drift in his longer works (which typically feel patched-together, as this one does), and his novels are terrible. I would use three words to describe him: Heavy mental diarist.

And in this book he’s definitely all three! This is reinforced in the way he outlays his unconventional theories on music, his method of describing his arcane (yet not-too-detailled) knowledge and analysis of music, and in his aloof comments about his life. Yay, Chuck!! Killing Yourself To Live is ostensibly about Klosterman’s trip around the USA to visit the sites of rock ‘n’ roll deaths for a series of articles in Spin magazine and takes its title from a song by Black Sabbath, a band he never mentions throughout the book (although he does mention them regularly in his other books); the title is important because it’s about living and dying, and the impact of death (be it accidental or deliberate). Unfortunately, despite the interesting premise, the book is less about the rock ‘n’ roll sites he visits and more about what was going on in his personal life at the time. This makes the book thoroughly self-centered, and somewhat dishonest since the rock ‘n’ roll title implies that rock ‘n’ roll will be taking place but it’s actually meant to be taken more at face value (ie Black Sabbath has little do to with the book, while the act of “killing yourself” does). Of course, I now realise that this was actually an assumption of mine, and that rock ‘n’ roll was actually not promised, neither in the description nor the title itself. So if anyone reads this expecting rock ‘n’ roll, beware – there’s hardly any in this book (he does fluff out the page count a bit with a long tacked-on chapter on KISS and another one on Radiohead). And this reminds me of the sub-title for the book: “85% of a true story”. I guess this means that the book is 85% honest, which is probably a good rule of thumb for anything Klosterman writes – his facts are 85% accurate, his analysis is 85% relevant, this book is 85% about Chuck Klosterman and 15% about other topics, his autobiography is 85% truth, 15% fiction…

Chuck is enamoured with three women, two of whom he has had some sort of relationship with, and from time to time he meets new girls he’s attracted to. He meets strange people in the countryside, he thinks about his life, the thinks about music (especially KISS and Radiohead), he meets old friends in North Dakota and other places, and he takes us along for the ride. Klosterman continues the strangely conversational habit he used in Fargo Rock City of starting paragraphs off with the word “ANYWAY”, and brings up quirky new stylistic devices, like putting the dictionary definition for the word “foreshadow” into the book (I think it’s meant to be ominous). Not sure why, maybe he was 85% sure it would be a good idea.

There’s a fair amount of hip writing, and he has a funny passage about doing cocaine in a Manhattan night club, and the ensuing discussion of the difference between cocaine people and marijuana people. In some cases, random strangers and strippers are involved. Every now and then he says things that are actually pretty funny, like when he talks about living in a town that had a Dyke Avenue, and how he used to drink “Boone’s Farm wine with seven alcoholic slackers who were somehow even lazier than me.” He also has an interesting description of “American Pie”:

I’ve noticed that nobody changes the station when “American Pie” comes on; they always listen to the whole thing and sing along with the chorus. However, almost no one listens to “Stairway To Heaven” all the way through. We need some sociology grad students to look into this.

Klosterman regularly displays what an irrational hipster weirdo he is:

My best friend, Mr Pancake, always wants me to visit him in Arizona so that he can show me the Grand Canyon, but I know I’ll never go. I mean, I’d love to see Mr Pancake, but I have no desire to see the physical manifestation of erosion. The Grand Canyon is just an attractive accident; it has no inherent meaning. I’d be far more impressed if a collection of civil engineers used dynamite and laser beams to construct a perfect replication of the Grand Canyon on a one-to-one scale; that would show mankind’s potential to master nature. That would speak to man’s desire to overcome five million years of adversity.

Don’t that just beat it all – “the physical manifestation of erosion” “has no inherent meaning.” Of course, a good editor would have removed the “a physical manifestation of” stuff, since no reader would think that Chuck was talking about figurative erosion in a discussion of the Grand Canyon. Amazing that he’d prefer to see an artificial Grand Canyon than a real one, and that he’s macho enough to talk about “mankind’s potential to master nature”.

He’s still doing that annoying thing of calling horses “equines”. Huh? At another point he probes his importance by rambling about potential scenarios (his future wife is kidnapped, but the authorities don’t buy his story because “whenever I try to be ironic, people think Im’m serious – but every time I’m actually right about something, everyone assumes I’m crazy”), hypothisizing that “satellites purposefully give incorrect information to [GPS] operating systems within the District of Columbia, as such information could be used by lazy terrorists who intend to blow up the White House without the assistance of conventional road maps?” Wow, where did that come from? He also engages in conjecture about his early demise, such as when he imagines the chain of events following a hypothetical collapse in a remote location while jogging, or just the stuff that there’s no way he could know or understand if it were to actually happen:

I don’ want to die, but I certainly adore the idea of being dead. I know it’s pathetic to enjoy the notion of your friends calling each other to discuss your untimely demise, but I love it. Maybe Spin would dedicate an issue to me. Maybe they would run a one-page obituary, which would be written by either Alex or senior editor Jon Dolan. Maybe they’d each get to write blurbs about me; this would be fascinating because they both have unique blurbing styles. Jon would likely compare me to some dead genius I’ve never even heard of (possibly Joseph Mitchell). Alex would quote especially poignant Thin Lizzy lyrics (probably something from the second verse of “The Rocker”). I hope the blurbs are not too somber, though; I hope they stress that I had a great life and that I was already ready to die w hen I turned 27. No need to be maudlin about this. My death is no tragedy. I’ve climbed every mountain, really.

He then proceeds to quote Beck’s “Loser.” He wants it, even though he couldn’t enjoy it. Wow. But he’s right about one thing – it is pathetic. Why didn’t the editor catch this? And isn’t the term “blurbing styles” a bit precious? I know that it’s meant to be funny (the bit about dead geniuses he’s never even heard of who are actually Joseph Mitchell actually is kind of funny in a stoopid kind of way, but I can’t laugh at this. I’m sure that the staff of Spin were in hysterics when it was published, if they didn’t know about it ages before it was published, which makes me wonder why I’m reading stuff written for the benefit of a very small group of people.

His passage describing Radiohead’s Kid A being strangely prescient of the September 11th World Trade Centre attacks is interesting, and probably well thought-through, but he loses me when he says things like “Kid A ends: ‘I will see you in the next life.’ And maybe you will, and maybe you won’t. It’s always 50-50.” A coin toss is always 50-50, how is “seeing someone in the next life” a similar proposition? Sounds deep, but really it’s just specious. He then goes on to say “A genius can be a genius by trying to be a genius; a visionary can only have a vision by accident.” Wow – this is a genius thing to say; but wait – does that mean that Klosterman is trying? Or is this a vision he received? I wish he’d tell us, but he’d rather be cryptic (and I’d rather be sarcastic). Infuriating!!

More cruelty towards the dead:

If there was ever a band doomed to die by the side of the road, it was the Allman Brothers. And I don’t say this because of how they lived or because they deserved to be punished for unnamed sins; I say this because they only thing I know about the Allman Brothers Band is that they seem to die a lot. Still, they did record ‘Whipping Post,’ a song title that is ironically yelled at indie-rock concerts almost as often as ‘Free Bird.’ This counts for something.

This seems to be 85% un-edited – can you count the errors? He says “the only thing I know about the Allman Brothers Band is that they seem to die a lot”, then proceeds to name one of their songs. Oops. I also don’t believe him when he says that “‘Whipping Post,’ is ironically yelled at indie-rock concerts almost as often as “‘Free Bird,’” I believe that there’s 0% truth there, but since the anecdote comes from his experience we really need to take his word for it (and that’s mistake number one).

And so I also I have to wonder about his description of John Daniel Mote, the 21-year-old son of the owner of Mote Farms in Mississippi, where Lynyrd Skynyrd’s airplane crashed, and that Mote “punctuates every one of his sentences with the phrase ‘Please don’t quote me in your magazine’” – if Mote didn’t say that, then it’s a lie, if he did say that then Klosterman is being a horrible asshole because he quotes him saying he doesn’t want to be quoted. What did John Daniel Mote do to Klosterman to piss him off? Warn him about poison snakes? This time Klosterman may actually be telling the truth, since there is a Mote Farms in Mississippi (although the URL he gives for their website, mote-farms.com, is wrong – it’s motefarms.com), which means that he’s only a jerk-off this time and not a liar.

Of course, Klosterman doesn’t make it to the spot where the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crashed (and an altar is erected) in the dark – he chickens out (“I turn around, and the cottonmouth snakes gimme three steps toward the door,” ha ha, he meaninglessly paraphrases Skynyrd lyrics) That is, if he even went to the Mote Farm at all.

Klosterman builds a smart list of rock ‘n’ roll casualties that nobody ever talks about but probably should, then lists at the top Marc Bolan, whose death is not something people are quiet about (what universe does Klosterman inhabit?), Nico and Randy Rhoads (!!!!), while also listing genuinely obscure deaths such as the two guys from Badfinger, and two guys from Patto, a band I’d never heard of until then.

He makes the mistake of saying that Randy Rhoads died in a single engine plane piloted by the coke-fueled tour cook – wasn’t it the bus driver? Oops…

He re-treads his cruel “his death was the best thing that ever happened to him, career-wise” argument he mined in Fargo Rock City:

“Once could argue that both [Elvis Presley and Jeff Buckley] significantly benefited from dying: Presley’s career was collapsing when he died in 1977, so dying ended that slide and – in all likelihood – kept his legacy from becoming a sad joke (it is virtually impossible to imagine a ‘noble’ 70-year-old Elvis, had Presley somehow managed to live into the present). Meanwhile, Buckley’s death is precisely what made him into a star; he was a well-regarded – but relatively unfamous – avant-garde rock musician until he drowned on May 29th, 1997. Almost immediately, he became a messianic figure (and his album Grace instantly evolved from “slightly better than good” to “totally classic”).

Ouch… painful to read (picking on Presley and Buckley is something new – in the last book he gave Randy Rhoads the same treatment). “I walked around Graceland this morning, and it kind of made me embarrassed to be American.” More funny stuff, ha ha ha… or is it just naive?

Nonetheless, I like how he describes Eric Clapton: “he’s a talented, boring guitar player, and he’s a workmanlike, boring vocalist. He also has an abhorrent (and, I suppose, boring) neck beard.” But then he also says meaningless things like “He’s been inducted [into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame] on four separate occasions if you count the 2004 inclusion of Traffic, a group he was not a member of and has no significant connection with beyond the fact that they suck in the same generalized manner.” Why quip irrelevantly by stretching reality to count Traffic as Clapton’s fourth time… it doesn’t make sense… it’s not even bizarrely funny!

Oh yeah, he also has strange meta-fictional conversations with his girlfriends, some of them quite lengthy. How accurate are they? Are these women cringing as they read the words? It seems like an abuse of power to me, actually. I wonder how pissed off these women are that people all over the world are reading inaccurate depictions of them that even Klosterman admits are only 85% true (the real percentage is probably a lot lower – Klosterman’s unlikely to be honest about something like that, or too lazy to come up with a more accurate tally, but it’s interesting that he broaches the subject).

But these conversations do produce funny passages, such as one about the Eric Clapton-George Harrison-Patty Boyd love triangle:

“”The reason ‘Layla’ is moving has nothing to do with the fact that Eric Clapton should – or shouldn’t – be able to sleep with Pattie Boyd because he’s almost as cool as George Harrison. Having an attractive girlfriend is not supposed to be the reward for being cool.”

Then, ha ha, he quotes her as saying “That makes me think you’re either a moron or a guy who’s trying way too hard to create a persona for himself.” Hilarious!! I’d say he’s both, since he’s describing in his book someone (probably inaccurately) talking about something that’s on his own mind. And why should we care about this micro analysis of Chuck Klosterman supposedly coming from the mouth of another person, when the words are 100% controlled by the author, who is Klosterman himself? I sense a conflict of interest here. Fiction.

But, I must admit, it gets interesting when this hypothetical conversation in Klosterman’s head involves all three of his girlfriends (the stud), who have probably never met each other. Nutty. “You’re conflating unlike idioms in the hope that they will accidentally take on symbolic meaning.” I know that this is the idea behind the title of the book itself (where living comes from dying), but do real people talk like that?

Occasional a phrase comes out that seems completely poetically original, but even then he sabotages the imagery in the subsequent descriptor: “Friday morning in Missoula, and the sky glows electric Gray. The air on my tongue feels like smoke, but in a good way (it’s like the taste bacon leaves in your mouth after you’ve sucked on the fat).” Ewww!!!

As with all autobiography, be it true or fictional, we are informed of all sorts of things about CK that we really wish he didn’t tell us. “Generally, I am not a goal-oriented person. I tend to be more task-oriented, and I can only do one task at a time (I can’t read two books at once, for example, nor can I eat french fries while driving; for these reasons, I would never actively pursue a menage a trois).” Ewww!!!

Other times it’s just tryin’ too hard:

Flipping back and forth on the car radio between an “’80s Retro Weekend” and an ├╝ber-conversational classic-rock station, I heard the following three songs in sequence: “Mr Roboto”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and a popular ballad from the defunct hair-metal band Extreme.
Well, that settles it: Styx and Stones may break my bones, but “More Than Words” will never hurt me.

Once again, I don’t believe that he actually heard those three songs on the radio, then and made notes and a joke about it, before slipping it clumsily and incongruously into his book. I also don’t believe that this is an interesting and important observation, nor is it poignant as a matter of coincidence. But Chuck (or his editor) things it belongs, and that it should even be emphasised – he has the paragraph in its own section, making it a propos of nothing.

He writes bonkers stuff like “I’ve never had a bad drug experience. Actually, that’s not true; I’ve had two bad experiences.” Why does he write he’s never had one, then correct himself? Where’s the editor here? Oh, I get it – it’s for effect!!

Of course, he also stubbornly insists on doing things that people tell him not to do (and reporting on them, even though they’re irrelevant):

“Chuck, please don’t write a book about women you used to be in love with.”
“Why not?”
“Because that’s exploitive. And narcissistic. And a bit desperat, because it makes you seem like someone who can’t let go of the past.”
“But that’s actually true,” I say. “I can’t let go of the past. I can’t fall out of love with any of these women. I can only exist in the past and in the future.”
“I know, I know. We’ve talked about this before. But 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 strikes me as dubious. You’re going to become the male Elizabeth Wurtzel.”
“Jesus Christ, Lucy. You’ve really got it in for that bitch.”
“I just want to go on record as saying that the idea of writing such a book is dubious.”
“But if I don’t write the book, there will be no record of this entire conversation. Your disdain can only be voiced if I do the opposite of what you suggest.”
“Well, fine, ” she says. “Just don’t complain to me when all those idiot blogers write things like, ‘Ultimately, the author should have listened to his friend Lucy Chance.’ Because you know that will happen.”
“True,” I say.
“I’m just trying to be the voice of reason,” Lucy says. “I don’t understand why you would want to produce a nonfiction book that will be unfavorable compared to Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.”
“Well perhaps if I specifically mention that possibility, it won’t happen.”

Yes, all very meta indeed. So now I have to either resist the temptation to do what these people predict bloggers will do, like write “Ultimately, the author should have listened to his friend Lucy Chance,” or compare his book to Hornby’s (which I can’t because neither book is any good); so now I don’t know whether to shit or go blind.

Somewhere near the middle of the book is another interesting passage that’s quite illustrative. “The voices [of my girlfriends] inside my head never make me want to kill my mother. However, they sometimes make me want to kill myself.” As of this writing, Chuck Klosterman is still alive.

Interestingly, there are two pages of “Praise for Killing Yourself To Live“, some of the points made by some of the endorsers are interesting:

“I read it Then read it again. Chuck Klosterman is a fucking genius.” NOW Magazine (Toronto)

“Thank God Chuck lives the life he does and writes the way he writes about it. It’s not just autobiogrpahy; it’s a vital form of truth, and he’s the real thing.” Douglas Coupland

“I can’t think of a more sheerly likable writer than Chuck Klosterman and his old-fashioned, all-American voice: big-hearted and direct, bright and unironic, optimistic and amiable, self-deprecating and reassuring – with a captivating lack of fuss or pretension. He’s also genuinely funny and I pretty much agree with everything he says.” Bret Easton Ellis

Quite a coup to get Coupland and Ellis to provide endorsements, although it looks like he’s fooled Coupland (“truth” is the wrong word to use in the context of this book), and I wonder if Ellis has even read the book (does he agree with Klosterman on Ozzy’s cook, or any the other half-baked ideas he’s come up with?). Also, this doesn’t seem to be the kind of book you’d want to read twice, unless maybe there was a detail about Chuck Klosterman’s love life you missed the first time around.

Funnily enough, five pages before the end of the book, Klosterman gets it: “As I walk back to my car… it occurs to me that I am not a serious person, and that I do not have any understanding of death, and that I am looking for nothing.” And this is the reason you don’t need to read this book.

ANYWAY… I still think you shouldn’t read this book, unless you want to know 85% too much about Chuck Klosterman.

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