Killing Yourself To Live: 85% of a True Story
By Chuck Klosterman
Scribner, 245 pp., $23
A mediocre Chuck Klosterman book is a lot like a Woody Allen film from 10 years ago. Delightful in parts, disappointing as a whole, but still sadly superior to the greater dessert tray of cultural offerings.
This is no longer true of Allen, whose occasional mediocrity gets elevated to near genius by an army of nostalgic critics, but it's very much the case with Klosterman's third book, ''Killing Yourself To Live." Born of an assignment from Spin magazine, its premise is as gimmicky as any of that organ's ''Greatest Albums of All Time" (Part VIII) cover pieces, yet it speaks to the heart of rock folklore.
Here's the gist: Put your star writer behind the wheel of a rental car and dispatch him to the places where American music has died. That is, the way music dies in this country: young and hard. From the Rhode Island nightclub where nearly 100 fans of the band Great White perished in a freak fire to the Macon, Ga., intersection where two Allman Brothers died in motorcycle accidents, Klosterman is on hand to, as he puts it, ''get his death on."
This is no solemn cemetery crawl but an irreverent investigation into why death alters the music canon. For in the vicissitudes of the pop music hierarchy, where 2003's headliner is lucky to be VH1's talking head in 2005, what separates the ephemeral from the iconic is often a pulse. As the author notes: ''Somewhere, at some point, somehow, someone decided death equals credibility." So whether it's overdosing on the narcotic of the day or the poor stewardship of planes, automobiles, and tour buses, death offers what every artist strives to attain but can't really appear to be trying for -- perpetual authenticity.
Klosterman's reputation is less as an arbiter of pop culture cool (he's 33 after all) than as an advocate for its profundity. He came on the scene in 2001 with a heavy metal memoir, ''Fargo Rock City," and two years later followed up with ''Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs," an essay collection that argues, among other things, that Pamela Anderson has been crucified for our sins. It's not so much that he tries to hoist his cultural tendencies up the flagpole but that he infuses them with more personal and social significance than you could have imagined. In effect, Klosterman canonizes his record collection.
It's also worth mentioning that the guy is a geek of staggering magnitude. Witness this bit on a small but significant section of his music archive: ''I bought all 26 Kiss releases on tape, and then I bought them all on disc, and then I bought them all on disc again when they were digitally remastered in 1999, which really just means somebody went back into the studio and made them louder." So it seems like a feat of puritanical restraint that he contained his road trip CD library to a mere 600.
Klosterman suffers from a most irritating generational affliction: a chronic inability to relate to life without a pop culture guidepost. At one point he declares he can understand his relationships with women only as they relate to Kiss albums. This passage describes three former girlfriends even more inanely: ''If Diane is Dolly Parton's Jolene and Lenore is a fusion of the Big Bopper's libido . . . Quincy is akin to the girl in Ben Folds Five's Kate, multiplied by the woman described in Sloan's 'Underwhelmed,' divided by the person Evan Dando sings about in the Lemonheads' slacked up, Raymond Carver-esque dope ballad, 'Buddy.' "
As for the larger point to this contrived odyssey, well, there really isn't one. While it's indeed ironic that the Mississippi crossroads where blues legend Robert Johnson claimed to sell his soul to the devil can be located via GPS, well, so what? It's still just a road. And the Iowa field where the plane carrying the Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly crashed is a field. And Klosterman knows it.
To make up for a paucity of there there, Klosterman treats us to countless diversions. One minute we're snorting coke in West Warwick, R.I., with a guy who lost his uncle in the Great White conflagration, the next we're exploring why the author no longer spends each afternoon watching ''Saved by the Bell."
Travel writing can be a wonderful genre but it can also facilitate lazy writing. In his essays, Klosterman stayed focused on a single idea (like the cultural impact of ''The Real World") and mined its every implication. Too often in ''Killing Yourself" he puts his finger on something quite meaty -- like the idea that Graceland represents ''the religiosity of garbage culture" -- only to abandon it because, hey, the road beckons.
And even for a professional rock critic, much of his rambling is oppressively indulgent. Take the 3 1/2 pages on why Radiohead's ''Kid A" was actually a vision that foretold the Sept. 11 attacks. If that's merely awful, the imagined scenario in which he speculates about how his Spin colleagues would react to his hypothetical death is nearly unreadable. Yet even on tired subjects such as the cultural sludge that is Los Angeles he manages to find a new twist. Stay too long in LA and ''you start to see an integrity in networking." Spend too long in ''Killing Yourself To Live" and you start to see a book that clearly should have stayed a magazine article. At least the ride offers a few laughs, which is more than I can say for most Woody Allen projects.
John Dicker is the author of ''The United States of