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Q&A: Chuck Klosterman

By: Jessica Grose

I once had a professor who said the two things everyone will always want to read about are sex and death. A preoccupation with precisely those subjects is exactly what makes Chuck Klosterman’s new book of (slightly tweaked) nonfiction infinitely readable. Killing Yourself to Live follows Klosterman on a cross-country journey where he makes pit stops at infamous sites of rock star death, working on a story that appeared in Spin‘s December 2003 issue. In between funeral pyres, Klosterman manages to fan some old flames and ignite some new ones.

Klosterman sat down with to talk about New York, the state of rock criticism, and — what else — Foghat. In the beginning of your book, you say that you’re not qualified to live in New York. Have you figured out what does qualify one to live in New York City? Do you meet the parameters?

Chuck Klosterman: I still don’t feel like I’m a “New York” person. I feel like I’m a person from North Dakota just living here. I don’t know what the qualities are that make a person a New York person… Living in New York makes you younger and older at the same time. It makes you younger because everyone who lives here is a drunk, and everyone stays out late, and everybody goes to shows, and everybody cares about rock bands, and movies, and generally things in America that only young people are interested in. It makes you a little bit older in the sense that everyone is jaded and has a cynical view of the world and is very distrustful.

Death is the major theme in this book. Do you think your journey changed the way you think about death?

Everyone is going to die. It’s the one unifying element in humanity. But we can’t consciously think of that all the time because we’d be living with a sense of doom. We all have to compartmentalize the idea that life is finite… What I was thinking about [with this trip] is that if we’re able to overlook the fact that we’re all dying, what would happen if I went on a trip and did the opposite? What if instead of overlooking the fact that I was dying, I actually focused on it, so that I was thinking about it constantly? That’s sort of how it plays into the book.

Did you really think about it constantly?

Things like love and death are things that people always think about intangibly…whereas because I was writing, I was thinking about it in a very direct and conscious manner.

Do you think the constant mental occupation with death affected decisions that you made either on the trip or afterwards?

No. I think probably the opposite happened. If anything, I came to realize that all my feelings about mortality and about love and about rock music…they’re not concrete, they’re just something that’s created. You know, people just create these things. So, if anything, I realized that my view of death or my view of love or my view of, you know, Foghat, is something that I have the power to control at any time… That might seem obvious, but I think there’s a lot of situations where people don’t realize…that people can really think with a full awareness of the potential of what they can believe or think.

I think my favorite part of the book is the part about Great White. You strike a great and delicate balance between pathos and humor. Was this the most moving stop of your journey, or did each stop have its poignant moments?

That one [the Station nightclub fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island] was the most moving simply because it was the most recent. It had happened less than a year ago and there was just a lot more death in it. It was a hundred people and it was in a small place. So it wasn’t like people reacting to the celebrities dying; they were reacting to people they knew dying. So that was definitely the most visceral location. It might be a personal thing. Maybe if I had a different mindset I could have been more moved by Kurt Cobain’s house or something.

The idea of very personal beliefs seems to lead into your views about rock criticism in general. A lot of more literary writers have been dabbling in music criticism tinged with personal essay, and your work is like that, too.

I think the conventional, traditional style of rock criticism is very dull, and I’m rarely interested in music writers talking about music. What is valuable about writing about any kind of art is being able to see it through the prism of the culture, or how one responds to sound, or how one responds to images. People who want rock criticism to be less personal…I don’t really understand that. They seem confused about the import of criticism, which is that it’s opinions that, for the most part, serve as advertising. It doesn’t matter what people say about a Stones record or a Beatles record or a Zeppelin record. It doesn’t change the music at all, and most of the time it doesn’t change the experience of the listener… To me the goal about writing about music is to be as entertaining as the music itself… There’s no way to quantifiably say that this band is good, or this band is bad. This isn’t science or math. This is listening to music and deciding whether it’s cool or uncool.