Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story by Chuck Klosterman (2005): Klosterman’s second full-length non-fiction look at rock and roll sees him travel across America in a Ford Taurus (which he dubs “the Tauntaun”) to visit the deathplaces of an assortment of rockers, musing on his own troubled love life all the while. He also gets in a lot of fascinating observations about celebrity culture, rock and roll, and assorted bands major and minor along the way.
The major problems here are two-fold. The relationship material started to wear on me after awhile, as funny and rueful as some of Klosterman’s observations may be. Like a lot of writers, Klosterman spends a lot of time inside his own head, but not everything going inside that head works all that well on the printed page. He may be self-puncturing and self-deprecating, but he’s also self-obsessed. Self-obsessed, and intensely self-aware that he’s self-obsessed.
Klosterman’s second problem, his tendency to generalize from personal experience, sometimes runs out of control herein. It can be quite fascinating and thought-provoking, but generalizing that, say, every man in history has at one time or another thought Led Zeppelin was the greatest band doesn’t actually ring true. I can think of a lot of men for whom it isn’t and never was, and I can think of a lot of women for whom it is or was. Is Klosterman self-fashioning what manhood really is around the question of Led Zep’s greatness? I’m not sure. I think he’s just making a sweeping generalization. On the other hand, Klosterman passive-aggressively pushes his heterosexual cred throughout, like a teenager worried someone’s going to call him gay because he reads and writes too much.
If you’re going to enjoy Klosterman, you’re going to have to put up with the generalizations. You’re also going to have to put up with a relentlessly intelligent writer whose aversion to the ‘highbrow’ and to ‘high culture’ often leaves him over-analyzing and over-emphasizing the merits of pop culture. I’d be interested in seeing Klosterman analyze something challenging, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen anytime soon. He’s got a great brain, but all that brain wants to chew on is the popular and the junky. Sometimes this results in fascinating, populist musings about the importance of Kiss; sometimes this results in over-intellectualized wankery about, well, the importance of Kiss. I’m not sure any music critic has ever worked so hard to justify the musical tastes of his youth.
Nonetheless, there are brilliant observations and some very funny stuff here. If you’re like me, you’ll nod in recognition at the rewriting of critical and popular taste that occurred just after Kurt Cobain’s death, as In Utero went from interesting but off-putting semi-failure to signature artistic statement. You may even laugh out loud as Klosterman discusses his deep-seated disappointment at discovering that while he likes blues-based rock, he can’t stand the actual blues. Recommended.