The Klöstermän Weekend

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Life gained new meaning when I discovered Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta, a memoir written in conversational episodes by Chuck Klosterman, a critic–écrivain at some paper in Akron.

Typographically, the book is a bit of a trial: Surely Fargo Rock City is the only volume yet published to combine Electra, Trebuchet (first-ever usage on paper not issued from a Windows laser printer), Cæcilia, and Goudy Text.

I overcame the matter–antimatter typography. Having read the book, I feel like the truth has finally been told about rock music. I wanted to fucking cheer half the time.

I can now offer superexclusive excerpts.

If someone wrote an essay insisting Thin Lizzy provided the backbone for his teen experience in the mid-1970s, every rock critic in America would nod their head in agreement. A serious discussion on the metaphorical significance of Jailbreak would be totally acceptable. I just happen to think the same dialogue can be had about Slippery When Wet.

And now Chuck begins his irresistible habit of bitch-slapping twee intellectual rock critics.

The decade of the 1980s is constantly misrepresented by writers who obviously did not have the typical teen experience. If you believe... Douglas Coupland..., every kid in the 1980s lay awake at night and worried about nuclear war. I don’t recall the fear of nuclear apocalypse being an issue for me, for anyone I knew, or for any kid who wasn’t trying to win an essay contest....

I think this has to do with homosexualism. Not a single day passed before, during, and after puberty where I came from without expecting the Bomb to drop. Yet as if presaging my divided loyalties, the following rings just as true:

In the attempt to paint the 1980s as some glossy, capitalistic wasteland, contemporary writers tend to ignore how unremarkable things actually were. John Hughes movies like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles were perfect period pieces for their era – all his characters were obsessed with overwrought, self-centred personal problems, exactly like the rest of us.... I remember when Newsweek ran a cover story introducing a new breed of adults called Yuppies, a class of people who wore Nikes to the office and were money-hungry egomaniacs. No fifteen-year-old saw anything unusual about this. I mean, wouldn’t that be normal behaviour? The single biggest influence on our lives was the inescapable sameness of everything, which is probably true about most generations.

“For us, everything seemed normal. I remember wondering why people were surprised that prices were going up. I thought, That’s what prices did.”... From what I could tell, the world had always been a deeply underwhelming place; my generation inherited this paradigm, and it was perfectly fine with me (both then and now).


The problem with the current generation of rock academics is that they remember when rock music seemed new. It’s impossible for them to relate to those of us who have never known a world where rock & roll wasn’t everywhere, all the time.... As long as I can remember, all good rock bands told lies about themselves and dressed like freaks; that was part of what defined being a “rock star.” Mötley Crüe was a little more overt about following this criteria, but that only made me like them immediately.

Eddie Van Halen has taken to citing Eric Clapton as the man who made him want to become a guitar player. This is probably true. Of course, it’s almost impossible to hear Clapton’s influence in Van Halen’s music. I’ve searched for it, and it’s not there.... Listening to Clapton is like getting a sensual massage from a woman you’ve loved for the past ten years; listening to Van Halen is like having the best sex of your life with three foxy nursing students you met at a Tastee Freez. This is why rock historians and intellectuals feel comfortable lionizing Eric Clapton, even though every credible guy in the world will play Van Halen tapes when his wife isn’t around.

And they even included an advisory: Caution: This record may contain backwards messages. What the hell did that mean? Why would anyone do that? I wondered if my brother (or anyone else in the world, for that matter) had a tape player that played cassettes backward. ¶ Humourless Jesus freaks always accused Mötley Crüe of satanism, and mostly because of this record. But – if taken literally (a practice that only seems to happen to rock music when it shouldn’t) –

and that is all we need for today. The next snippet is a biggie.


A lot of that credit must go to David Lee Roth. Roth is not exactly a “musician,” but he always understood the bottom line.... Roth demanded that Van Halen had to be about a lifestyle, specifically his lifestyle (or even more specifically, a lifestyle where you tried to have sex with anything in heels). Philosophically, his sophomoric antics limited Eddie... [but] in tangible terms, it made Eddie better. Instead of being an artist trying to make art, Eddie was forced to become an artist trying to make noise.... Within the stark simplicity of “Jamie’s Cryin’,” you can hear the shackled complexity of a genius. It has more artistic power than anything he could have done consciously.

Yes, this does come up. Does this passage indicate that the effect only holds for bombast, screeching, and excess or for restraint, dispassion, sangfroid? For Van Halen or the Pet Shop Boys, in effect?


Here’s the biggie, by the way:

One of my best friends is a gay rock writer named Ross Raihala, and Ross once told me he always suspected straight midwestern teens looked at Axl Rose the same way closeted gay teens looked at Morrissey.... Rose did mean something more than his glam peers, especially for people who lived in the middle of nowhere. For rural kids who were too smart for where they were, but still very much a reflection of rural culture – a “redneck intellectual,” if you will – Axl... was an iconoclast.... He didn’t speak for us, but he sort of represented us. [... W]hat the culture lacked (and still lacks) is an emphasis on ideas – especially ideas that don’t serve a practical, tangible purpose. [...]

So let’s say you are the smartest 16-year-old in town; let’s assume you’re creative and introspective and philosophical. You still have a finite number of social tools to work with. You may indeed be having “deep thoughts,” but they’re only deeper versions of the same ideas that are available to everyone else. [...] If the thoughts of the redneck intellectual only gravitate along one linear path (and I’m arguing that they did, at least for me), Rose resided on that path’s most cognitive extreme. This wasn’t because he was necessarily smarter; it’s just because he offered a little more to think about. [...]

Morrissey was “their voice” – a person who spoke from their minority perspective and was able to inject his feelings and ideas into the mainstream culture.... Raihala now owns thousands of CDs and listens to new music every day, but he says he can still sing along to all seven Smiths studio records in their absolute entirety. ¶ Interestingly enough, Appetite for Destruction is probably the only record I could karaoke from beginning to end.

I suppose this is not a dramatically new revelation. Just as I write this, I watch the opening moments of Velvet Goldmine, in which, yet again, another glamourous youth discovers there are others like him. Really. What a surprise. As though I don’t know that already, having been online ten years. When I can’t find glamourous others like me, I make them find me by posting things. Glamourous boys are versatile; we can be fly or trap.

The contribution Klöstermän makes here is transferring the common knowledge of gay growing up – and it really is common – to the secret history of “redneck intellectual” youth, a concept explored at some length in Fargo Rock City but inadequately explained nonetheless. The distinction is made between:

Such experience is not at all like the typical queer youth’s. In both cases above, you’ve got lots of friends right in your town who share your taste. The commonality is a kind of interior life, however different it may be shared by redneck intellectuals and glamourous boys. (Not “Glamour Boys,” by the way, a song Klöstermän likes but cannot take seriously. Should it even be taken seriously?)

The interior life of the glamourous boy reassures him, valiantly, against raging hurricanes of white trash, that he is better than these redneck intellectuals he cannot get away from even as he counts the days till he actually can.

The glamour boy lives a tortured contradiction:


[I]t’s become very chic for hard rockers to credit Bowie as a major influence, and it would be cool if he had been – but most of these bands are lying. All that adoration is coming retrospectively. When hairspray bands were developing in 1983, Bowie was putting out records like “Let’s Dance” and dressing like a waiter from the Olive Garden. At the time, it was certainly not cool for any self-respecting metal dude to emulate David Bowie (even the old Bowie).

...Music critics consistently make the mistake of thinking that the “dissonant” (read “tuneless”) albums they appreciate are somehow influencing culture. No normal listener gives a hoot about any goddamn song the New York Dolls ever made. The only people who have even listened to their material are (a) rock journalists and (b) the people who read books written by rock journalists (and half of those people are lying). But those shoes! The album cover from the Dolls’ debut record is more important than any song they ever wrote. It’s the purest, sexiest example of constructed glamour in the history of the world.

Meanwhile, Kiss sold themselves as warriors who walked the earth for no reason in particular. “Lick It Up,” the first video that showed Kiss without makeup, suggests that futuristic women will live underground and eat navy rations – but only Kiss can help them rock!

This impinges on my strongest complaint about rock critics. Well articulated in a GQ story I wish I could dig up, rock critics emulate the Hollywood movie system: Everyone makes the same movies, but each studio has its in-house maverick (Fincher) and/or its in-house intellectual (Allen); every rock critic likes the same records, though the mafia tolerates one or two dissidents. I was permitted, for example, in the twilight of my rock-critic careerlet, to nominate Very as the best album of 1995. Imagine if I told you it was the best album of the 1990s – yea verily, better than Nevermind.

This, of course, is a well-trod objection of mine. What is far worse, I think, is rewriting your own history. Today’s rock critics simply did not listen to this kind of shit when they grew up. It could not be found in small towns and certainly was not played on the radio. Canadians have an out: In the ’80s, Brave New Waves single-handedly improved the musical tastes of a nation. (How ironic that the show emanated from an epicycle-like set of interlocking nations-within-nations – English CBC Montreal.)

I listened to nothing but classical music while growing up to the point that I could identify composers and pieces. Much later, I consented to listen to Top 40 radio, plus a long-defunct Radio-Canada program called Sept heures bonhomme that ran all evening every weeknight. (That explains how I know both Diane Dufresne’s and Céline Dion’s versions of “Oxygène” by Plamondon, and why names like Offenbach, Plume Latraverse, and Plastique Bertrand are embedded in my being.)

I did not come to understand there was such a thing as pop music until music videos were invented. To this day I know next to nothing about pop music; there is too much to know, and indeed Klöstermän elsewhere documents how some modern rock bands deny that rock even existed before the Chili Peppers, a burst of honesty I can only respect. (Honest that they think that way, I mean.) It is possible to write about pop music the way it is possible to write about photography: By knowing enough.

I simply do not know what songs I liked when I was a kid, because I have forgotten. It happens to a lot of kids. The difference? I don’t make things up! I wasn’t that shit-hot when I was a kid, and I doubt they were, either.


Donna Gaines is currently teaching sociology at Barnard College, the all-female branch of Columbia University. She once told me that few of her female students think about culture as a concept, and they’re rarely interested in debating the significance of social iconology [sic]. Conversely, Patrick Springer is a news reporter who... once told me that whenever he talked to college-age males, pop culture was the only thing they seem to know anything about....

If I had to bust this down into one sentence, I’d probably say the ultimate difference is that guys like pop culture even when it’s not there; more specifically, they like music even when they’re not listening to it. Young males like rock music – and culture as a whole – both tangibly and intangibly. Young females are more vehement about the former and virtually indifferent about the latter [sic, incomprehensibly].

[This] seems to indicate that guys somehow like music “better” than women. It suggests that a male listener can appreciate the visceral sound of a Van Halen record, but he can also hold a high-minded discussion about why it’s æsthetically superior to Ærosmith; meanwhile, a female can only sustain some kind of mindless, fleeting obsession with Céline Dion that has no regard for intellect or taste. It preys upon the classic stereotype that men are fundamentally more analytical and women are fundamentally more emotional.

All of which is true.

I really don’t understand feminist rock bands, and understand feminist rock fans less.

When Le Tigre took the stage, the dynamic trio... gave a dazzling, no-holds-barred performance, a combination slideshow, dance routine, punk concert and feminist history lesson.... Hanna held the crowd in thrall....

By the time Le Tigre were done, lapsed riot grrrls and rave kids alike were ready to start a garage band or publish a zine.

Either way, you had to pity the fools who were left outside the club – they obviously knew what they were missing.

It is seen as OK to rock out if the band is overly political but a sin to rock out if the band is apolitical (as many male rock bands are – what are the politics of Queensrÿche?). Apolitical male bands are sequestered in the same category as male bands with disapproved politics (Ted Nugent, say, or any band in which a straight guy dares to act, sound, talk, and act straight).

I’m just imagining doctrinaire, hateful leftist Toronto girls, in their second-hand natural-fibre clothes, dramatic rectangular eyeglasses, and those dead-giveaway haircuts, squealing madly as though they so very rarely get to do so.

It’s an audience whose body language screams “I can finally justify rocking out!” Except they do not really know how to rock out; they lack experience, and their pained wooden dancing and fixed smiles come off all forced. The image projected is “I do too know how to have fun!”

Quite simply, they’re no good at faking it.

All of which is true.


I can’t remember any of the kids I coached and I don’t recall teaching them anything of consequence, but I always enjoyed the drive. It meant an hour a day in my brother’s shiny red pickup truck, and – as all metalheads know – pickup trucks have the finest acoustics in the world. Twenty minutes in the front seat of a Chevy Silverado is a better sonic experience than an entire afternoon at Abbey Road Studios, and the explanation for why is simple logistics: The speakers are right behind your head! That was a very loud summer. Lots of Ratt.

Then there’s driving to your roommates gf’s place in his Mazda B2000 pickup (now illicitly famous: Like Toyota pickups and old rear-drive Peugeots, their desert invincibility suits them to Afghanistan), listening to the mix tape he painstakingly assembled for said gf, and cowering into the B-pillar as the player eats the tape, triggering rage.

Yes, lots of misplaced anger, perennially.

I do occasionally get wasted in my living room to get “back to my roots,” which is ’80s metal and whatever alcohol I can find in my kitchen. “Drinking is my profession. Drums are just a hobby,” Dokken percussionist Mick Brown said in 1985, and some nights I can see where he’s coming from. “I have to admit that I’m a pretty bad influence on a lot of people. The girls who hang around me will take a couple of days off from their jobs, and then find out they’ve been fired when they return to work. And they get really torn up. I just go, ‘Listen, if you can’t handle it, then don’t hang around me. I don’t want to ruin your life just for having a good time.’ I’m a party professional. I stay in on New Year’s Eve because all the amateurs are out.” [...]

My problem with Ted Nugent is that guys who aspire to be like him – or just are like him by default – make me feel ashamed for liking hard rock. They have no sense of humour, and they beat people up and they kill cats for no reason. They get totally fucked up on Budweiser anytime they’re in public; if they smoke pot, they only do so when they’re already drunk, so they never get mellow (it just makes them a little less predictable, which isn’t necessarily good).

Once you become friends with these people (and if you’re from a small town, you will), you can never relax. If you get drunk with these guys and pass out, they will write on your face with a black Magic Marker. They will literally piss all over you. They will steal your car and intentionally drive it into a ditch. Ex-cons always talk about how the rules of society don’t apply inside the walls of a prison; I have to assume the penitentiary experience is akin to partying with a bunch of Nugent disciples. If you’re not consciously being an asshole to someone else, you will become a victim. And what can you do? Nothing. And why not? Because these are your goddamn friends.

Here Chuck summarizes my strongest objection to the low-rent working class I was forced to grow up with, and who heavily populate my current neighbourhood.

These vermin will let you walk around all day with your shirt buttoned up wrong, laugh and stare when you get stuck in an elevator, holler at their children in public, and inevitably mix off-the-shelf nylon hockey, football, or pro-wrestling windbreakers with filthy dilapidated jeans or stirrup tights, among a range of dead giveaways.

This group sheds light on Klöstermän’s neologism redneck intellectual. You can be poor and working-class without stooping this low. In effect, there are better and worse paupers. Klöstermän hits another nail right on the head: The worse paupers do indeed make you embarrassed to like heavy metal.

Imagine how I fucking feel.

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Updated 2003.03.23