IN MAY, I met with Chuck Klosterman at the Dakota apartment building in New York—the site where John Lennon was assassinated in 1980. Klosterman and I met to discuss his new book, Killing Yourself to Live, a hilariously morbid take on the American road trip novel, in which the author of Fargo Rock City and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs rents a Ford Taurus, packs 600 of his favorite CDs, and criss-crosses the country, visiting the locations of rock 'n' roll's most famous death sites. But while this death odyssey—which takes him from Magnolia, Alabama where Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane crashed, to Kurt Cobain's Lake Washington Blvd. house in Seattle—provides the narrative scaffolding of Killing Yourself, two other narrative threads constitute the bulk of the book, the first being Klosterman's juggling of three female relationships. These aren't all Snoop-worthy sexual relationships, but they all involve varying degrees of romance, and provide Klosterman with ample material to explore male/female dynamics. The most freewheeling and funny parts of the book, however, come in the final thread, which is simply the author's internal monologue as he traverses states like North Dakota and gets high in Montana motel rooms while meditating on subjects such as the Rod Stewart box set, hyper-Christian cinema, and a pretty incredible argument that Radiohead's Kid A prophesied the events of 9/11.
Klosterman is a witty writer with an almost autistic surplus of pop culture references that spill out freely. A few gems include "The sky was as dark as Johnny Cash's closet," "This is the run of a lifetime. I'm a driver. I'm a winner. Things aren't gonna change, and I can't feel it," and, while arguing that Eric Clapton is the most overrated rock guitarist of all time, the observation that "he also has an abhorrent (and I suppose, boring), neck beard."
One thing I noticed is that in your book, you're listening to a lot of really "uncool" music, like the Eagles, Soundgarden, and Def Leppard, and you tend to write a lot about these bands. But I've seen some best-of music lists you've made, and they include hipper bands like TV on the Radio and Fiery Furnaces. Where's that discrepancy comes from?
Okay, my favorite band is KISS. The best band is the Beatles. What I like to write about are bands that are culturally interesting, and for that to happen, the band usually has to be very populist. What I'm really into, more than music, is the audience for music—basically how people engage with culture in order to create the soundtrack for their own life, or how music informs their worldview. As a rock critic, your natural reaction is to hone in on music that's interesting and new. But when I'm honest with myself, the music I like to listen to most is '70s arena rock.
Is writing about music essentially a vehicle for writing about yourself?
One thing that drives me nuts is to read music criticism where the writer seems to be under the impression that their opinion is almost mathematical or scientific, and that if they say that the Beach Boys' Wild Honey is the Beach Boys' second best album, that's exactly like saying that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. So when I write about music, I try to be very clear that I'm writing about how I personally think about it. So a lot of the writing comes off more memoir-y, but I think I'm just a lot more straightforward about it than some people.
Were any of the death sites from the new book not marked by sheer banality?
One conclusion that I came to is that everybody is going to die—no way around it. But you can't go around thinking about it all the time—you'd live with this sense of doom. So we compartmentalize death, and we're fascinated when famous people die. And when these musicians die, they become so much more interesting because we hear all these new, profound things in their music. So I'm driving around to these death spots like crazy, listening to these artists' music, and trying to find metaphors. And I get to [one of] the sites and I realize: It's a road. It's just a road. And all of the import that I've created was just an intellectual creation. The physical manifestation of death is the body's organs shutting down. But the intellectual manifestation is the basic question of what it means to be alive.