Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story is a colossal disappointment, akin to finally getting that date with the town whore, only to be told that she’s suddenly celibate. I consider Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City to be one the most charming reads of recent memory (if only because he got a high school student’s love of 80s heavy metal just right), but with his latest mix of love, sex, and music, he deceptively paints a portrait of a cross-country “death odyssey,” only to spend most of his time ruminating about dull relationships that could not possibly hold meaning for anyone else. The book jacket and early reviews described a driving tour of America’s famed sites of musical tragedy (plane crashes, automobile accidents, suicides, and the like), but those visits are mere asides, as if he substituted his private journal for the cultural document that was initially promised. Trying to put the untimely deaths of talented and not-so-talented musicians into a larger context is fascinating and quite funny at times, but as it comes in fits and starts, I spent most of my two sittings waiting for him to move on from his obnoxious navel-gazing.
When Chuck actually gets down to the business at hand, he weaves wondrous tales of the pathetic and the sad, which is always another way of getting to the heart of why we can (and should) laugh at death. We open at the Chelsea Hotel in New York (where Sid Vicious murdered Nancy Spungen), and quickly move to the makeshift memorial in Rhode Island, where nearly 100 people lost their lives with the sounds of Great White ringing in their burning ears. Needless to say, that tragedy is the best argument yet for avoiding crappy movies, as I would hate to join the late Reggie White in the dubious distinction of having my last exposure to the art form I love above all else be some shit sandwich like Fat Albert. Klosterman then treks to Macon, Georgia, only to be underwhelmed by the intersection that took the life of Duane Allman. Perhaps he was expecting an obviously dangerous scene like the road where James Dean breathed his last, but when one is traveling on a motorcycle at a high rate of speed after having ingested more coke than Tony Montana, the straightest, smoothest road on earth quickly becomes a death trap.
As he continues to travel through the South, Chuck visits a rural Mississippi homestead that features the crash site of the infamous Lynyrd Skynyrd plane, taking Ronnie Van Zant before he gave us even more odes to segregation. According to the owner of the property, there are still pieces of wreckage about, but actually seeing them would entail a heinous journey through high trees, deep brush, and assorted creatures that could drop even the most hearty traveler. Instead, Klosterman continues driving, eventually settling in Clear Lake, Iowa, to see where “the music died” that winter evening in 1959. The markings are simple and unobtrusive, and one must walk through endless rows of corn to reach the final destination. By now, everyone knows that Waylon Jennings was supposed to be on that flight, which only proves that some higher power wanted the Dukes of Hazzard to have a proper theme song. And yes, there are also a few pages giving the quick and dirty facts behind the deaths of Randy Rhoads (Ozzy), Steve Clark (Def Leppard), Falco, Mike Hutchence (INXS), and Marc Bolan (T Rex). All well and good, of course, but if he didn’t visit, why bring it up? And why not take the suggestion of your editor and visit Los Angeles, the ultimate haven for celebrity carnage?
Klosterman, as usual, is very opinionated about popular music, especially bands and songs that seem indefensible, but manage to warm his heart just the same. Certainly, one of the best things about Fargo Rock City was the nostalgia I felt hearing about obscure bands I hadn’t considered in many years, but here, it all seems mannered, if not inauthentic. Klosterman is more popular these days, so one expects him to devote numerous pages to Led Zeppelin and Kiss, all without revealing much of anything save his often bizarre tastes. Perhaps I am negatively affected by his forgettable columns in Esquire, or the fact that he works for Spin — arguably the music industry’s worst magazine — but as with his last book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, he seems to be on auto-pilot, as if his role as ironic, tongue-partially-in-cheek critic of kitsch has become an identity to uphold, rather than a genuine expression of his feelings. Fine, I can appreciate a lengthy discussion about the differences between “Slow Ride” and “Free Ride,” but I don’t need to hear about your 25th phone call to some unshaven chick named Quincy.
These three great loves – Quincy, Diane, and Lenore – have clearly infatuated Chuck for years on end, but they sound like the sort of women who would drive you up the wall with pretension and obscene narcissism. Chuck himself has an inflated level of self-importance, but he’s not above admitting it in the book’s final pages. But his girlfriends bring the book to a screeching halt, as they don’t say anything worthwhile or even remotely humorous. Perhaps that’s the point — that Chuck obsesses over women who, in the light of day, are defiantly ordinary — but our culture has already bestowed suitable rewards on young hipsters who feel compelled to elevate their crushing banality to high art. Chuck whines, bitches, and trades in the juvenile much too often, but he’s a likable enough guy in the end, as he’s self-deprecating enough to convince us that it’s only partially calculated. And it’s telling that his drug and alcohol stories are largely dry non-events, rather than occasions for high comedy. That might speak to the reality that truly “great evenings” are few and far between on the road to intoxication, but I’d prefer to submit that when Chuck is talking about anything other than cheesy cultural touchstones, he’s hopelessly ordinary himself.
Personally, I quite enjoy graveyard visits or vacations of the macabre, so I sympathize with Klosterman’s original idea. He just didn’t go far enough with his connections. It may be of momentary interest to know how Chuck relates to the pathetic end of Elvis, but what about the rest of us? And while the final chapter about Seattle (and Kurt Cobain) is the best and most sustained piece of writing in the book, it seemed to come as an afterthought; an obligation to a generation that sees his death as a modern JFK assassination. But the music faded into the background far too often, and memoir took over when I knew enough about the man already from previous books. Instead, this should have been about those crazy, reckless young fools who tempted fate and usually lost; those hard-drinking, hard-living maniacs who dared to fly away on rickety rust buckets, or drive drunk through the pouring rain, all the while convinced that rock n’ roll makes one invulnerable to life’s tragedies. But as we’ve seen, death defines the music itself, whether we’re speaking of Altamont, The Who at Riverfront, or lonely souls in decadent hotel rooms, armed only with a bottle of Jack. Klosterman embarks on such a journey, but loses the rest of us by taking detours only he can understand.