I think Chuck Klosterman is one of the more entertaining rock critics-slash-essayists today. He’s a combination slacker and philosopher, reminiscent a bit of Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers and Lester Bangs. He’s one of the few critics with whom I can completely disagree (he loves KISS, which I simply cannot fathom), yet I’ll read every word he writes.
Chuck’s latest, Killing Yourself To Live: 85% of a True Story, is his most honest, heartfelt book yet, a memoir and road trip that isn’t really what it starts out seeming to be at all. Chuck is assigned by a “Spin” editor to do an “epic story” that they decide will be a massive road trip across the U.S. to visit places where famous rock stars have died, from Sid Vicious to Kurt Cobain to Buddy Holly. Great idea for a book, right? Seems right up Klosterman’s alley, with his yen for pop culture and knack for making the trivial seem life changing. “I want to find out why plane crashes and drug overdoses and shotgun suicides turn long-haired guitar players into messianic prophets,” he writes.
Yet that isn’t quite this book, it turns out. Sure, he visits the Chelsea Hotel where Nancy of Sid and Nancy died, the field in Mississippi where half of Lynyrd Skynyrd bought it in a plane crash, the club fire where a Great White concert turned deadly, a Seattle garden where Kurt Cobain ate a shotgun, and these trips are all rendered in energetic, anecdotal and detailed prose. But a funny thing happened along the way — Chuck Klosterman started thinking about his love life, and three women he’s caught twixt and tween, each different and each unforgettable for him.
The road trip serves as a kind of purgative as Chuck waxes eloquent about his life — he’s coming up on the gap, the gap between slacker 20-something-hood and what we call “real life,” when things suddenly get a lot less informal and less surprising. I went through that gap myself about 7-8 years ago and know where he’s coming from. “This kind of life — a life of going to joyless keg parties and having intense temporary acquaintances and spending most of one’s time in basements and tiny apartments and crappy rented houses with five bedrooms — was once my life completely,” he writes. Where did it go?
I didn’t know quite what to make of Killing Yourself To Live as I finished it. It’s melancholy in a kind of deep, energetic and creative fashion. It’s a “quarter-life crisis” in print in some ways, a coming to grips with mortality. While it’s a fun, quirky read, such as where Chuck convincingly argues that Radiohead’s Kid A was a prophecy for 9/11, shows us how his entire romantic history can be compared to the musical lineup of KISS, or gives an utterly sincere defense of Rod Stewart’s career, under all the slacker clutter it’s about searching for something true, if wondering if life means anything behind how you relate to it from pop culture.
I don’t want you to think that Killing Yourself To Live isn’t a success – I rather enjoyed it, although I don’t think it’s Klosterman’s most enjoyable book. It ambles and rambles and is hugely self-indulgent, as Chuck himself admits in the final pages (“Exploitive, narcissistic and a bit desperate,” one friend calls it all). It reads as if he’s never heard of an editor. Yet he’s an enjoyable companion.
If you’re just hoping to read about the strange death sites of rock stars, you’ll be let down. But as a bittersweet road trip with one guy searching for his own peace of mind with several rock-star trivia stops along the way, Killing Yourself To Live works. Love, death, music and road trips. What else is there?