On Chuck Klosterman’s ‘Killing Yourself to Live’
1,500 hundred words about art, music, exes, and douchebags
Has it really come to this? Have I become so reliant on popular culture that it’s the only way I can understand anything?
Klosterman asks this 214 pages into Killing Yourself to Live, and it feels a bit late for him to be wondering this. On the first day, he describes a woman by quoting lyrics from a Dolly Parton song and by referencing a Guns N’ Roses music video; on the tenth day, he illustrates a scene from Security, Colorado to ruminate on the monotony of life; on the thirteenth day, De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater serves a catalyst for his confession that he rarely reads. What I’m saying: It seems like popular culture—music primarily, but also movies and books and such—is Klosterman’s jumping off point to understand and explore real life.
When he makes this delayed revelation, it’s because he’s driving through Montana and realizes that he can organize his past lovers by comparing them to the history of KISS. This sounds awful, I know. Whether this 2005 book could be published and appreciated today is an interesting conversation to have also, considering his depictions of women: “I dated a photographer in Ohio who was incredibly earnest about liking me,” he writes on page 215, “but I never appreciated her when she was around and probably took advantage of her sexually; she was like guitarist Bruce Kulick (who played on Crazy Nights and Revenge and a few other sans-makeup records that nobody likes but me).” This passage reads even worse in full; this sentence is tightly shoved in a three page long block of text which lists his ex-girlfriends, ex-hookups, etc. That, on its own, showcases the difference between 2005 and now. That’s not the only dated part of this book; there’s the fact that he just started at Spin, and he’s sent out on a road trip across the country to investigate and contemplate the intersection of death and rock’n’roll. Would that happen today? My bet’s on no.
ANYWAY, he expands on this idea—of popular culture as a way to understand life—a couple of pages later: Art and love are the same thing: It’s the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you. It’s understanding the unreasonable.
This is something I think about a lot—when I read or write personal essays about music, and try to describe the way a song can have a texture, have a feeling, have an aura. Songs can often be portals through which we can step and relive moments from our past. Klosterman explains, in terms of Ace Frehley’s 1978 solo record: “On paper, the songs would be meaningless. But if you had my brain and if you had my ears and if you ever spent an autumn afternoon on a balcony with Quincy, talking about how our day-to-day life would be different if werewolves were real… well, you would love ‘New York Groove’ more than you would love yourself.”
It’s this kind of personal music writing that I think a lot of readers are drawn to—even if it doesn’t apply to them. It’s why I think a lot of Klosterman’s writing is magnetic and absolutely successful in everything it tries to do. If you’re going to write about music, you must accept and acknowledge the fact that he stated earlier—that music is a way of understanding, a vessel for ourselves, a connection to everyday life. You must embrace the subjectivity—that the way people interact with music is the same way people interact with people. You’re either compatible with certain songs, or you’re not. Depends.
Anyone could use that little quote as a template. For instance: On paper, the songs would be meaningless. But if you had my brain and if you had my ears and if you ever spent summer afternoons driving through the Hudson Valley alone while weaving through cars and not caring about anything at all… well, you would love ‘Baby Alligator’ by Ovlov more than you would love yourself.
I picked up this copy of Killing Yourself to Live when I was on a one-off rendezvous with an ex. I’d owned other Klosterman books already—I got Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs at a used bookstore on my cross-country road trip, and I was given Fargo Rock City by another ex.
Fargo Rock City was compelling, despite my lack of interest in the subject matter. I liked his voice and anecdotes while diving into ’80s hair metal and such. However, I could not ignore the fact that the entire book focused on this weird era that I do not give a shit about (I know. I worked at Kerrang. I am a disappointment.)
When I started Killing Yourself to Live, my ex and I were smoking, sitting outside at a coffeeshop in Brooklyn, reading our books in the cold. “This chapter is about Sid and Nancy,” I said to him. He had watched my Sex Pistols phase engulf me a year or so before this moment; we’d drive around and blast Never Mind the Bollocks, and we watched the 1986 film about the destructive couple. I still have a postcard with Sid’s drooling face hanging up next to my bed. “Do you like him?” I asked my other ex when he came into my room for the first time. He looked over, laughed, said: “No.”
ANYWAY, this book starts with Sex Pistols, then goes on to talk about a myriad of bands: KISS, Radiohead, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin—all interspersed with discussions of women, drugs, and profound questions of all sorts (e.g. “Artists who believe they have any control over the interpretation of their work are completely fooling themselves” pg. 58).
Re: Drugs, “At Spin, for example, there are two diverse camps: the ‘Pot/Creedence’ Contingent, and the ‘Coke/Interpol’ Contingent” (pg. 37). A lot of people praise Meet Me in the Bathroom by Lizzy Goodman for revealing the realities and dramas within the music scene; Klosterman does a great job of portraying the weird inner workings of the music journalism industry back then.
And drugs are also used as a tool for Klosterman to talk music. On pg. 148, he rambles this fantastic monologue:
“When separating the seeds out of marijuana or chopping up freshly purchased cocaine, you generally use the jewel case of a compact disc as the base of operations. Jewel cases were designed for this process. And when you’re young and enthusiastic and entirely recreational about your drug use, you always pick a CD that is somehow symbolic of the experience: With marijuana, you will select Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here or My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless or Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak. If you’re chopping up coke with your Capital One VISA card, you’ll use the jewel case from Sabbath’s Vol. 4 or Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night or Be Here Now by Oasis. But if you ever reach a point where you no longer care about the aesthetic of the album you select, and you don’t even consider what album you’re pulling off the rack, and you find yourself pouring $70 worth of cocaine onto Men at Work’s Business as Usual, you have a problem. Get help.”
It was interesting to see how much of this book I could relate to and enjoy when it does, like I said, feel dated in terms of what it’s willing to admit and the way the industry functioned. It’s also surprising considering I don’t smoke weed and a lot of the epiphanies in this book sound like they befell him while he was stoned.
Example: His relationship with nostalgia was a floating motif, materializing the most on pg. 130: “There are so many things that will never happen to me again, and I never even noticed when those things stopped occurring. And this does not mean I wish I had my old life back, because I like my new life better; I was just shocked to discover how much of what used to be central to my existence doesn’t even matter to me anymore.”
This sort of realization has hit me many times. Once: Senior year of high school, I was a depressed motherfucker. BUT, I finally had a car. I was a depressed motherfucker with a car. I fell into a daily routine of skipping my fifth period math class to go on a drive by myself, and then returning before sixth period. Then, after school, I’d drive to the same Starbucks in Melville and sit on the drive-thru line and always order a hot white chocolate mocha. I never went to a different Starbucks, never went inside, never ordered anything else. It was simply for comfort. I looked forward to it every day.
When I graduated, I never thought about that routine. I remembered it randomly one day, a while after, and realized that that era of my life was over, that routine would never continue again. Why would it? I wasn’t in high school anymore, I got new friends, I had new hobbies, I was living a new life pretty much. Yet I missed the oasis of that little routine.
Killing Yourself to Live is about Klosterman, but I found myself in a lot of his revelations. I couldn’t help but adore him for it. It was all very genuine, too. I told my friend that I think he’s the music journalism version of Ben Lerner, though Klosterman is probably a little bit less of a douchebag. He is, though, still kind of a douchebag.