Monday, August 4, 2008

Fargo Rock City is hair metal heartache

Give Chuck Klosterman a lot of credit: It takes talent to write a book that is so compulsively readable, intensely personal, and relentlessly engaging it's almost impossible to put down, and at the same time is so close-minded, indecisive, and well, flat-out incorrect on some matters that you also want to toss it through the nearest window.

These were the emotions I wrestled with while reading Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota. Would I recommend the book? Absolutely. The nostalgia and Klosterman's insights are worth the price of admission.

But if you're a fan of "real" heavy metal, be prepared to get angry.

Let me start by saying that Fargo Rock City is mistitled. For one, it's not actually set in Fargo, but details the author's years as a teenage rocker in the nearby town of Wyndmere. But that's hardly important. What is important, is, well, it's not really about heavy metal. It's about hair metal, and for anyone who knows a damned thing about metal, there's a big difference.

Klosterman's purpose for writing Fargo Rock City was to write a book about the cultural impact of heavy metal from a fan's perspective. It's a great concept, except that Klosterman only likes bands like Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, Poison, Warrant, Def Leppard, and Cinderella. He does a terrific job explaining why their music deserves greater recognition and played a huge role in his formative teenage years, and continues to do so. He takes long overdue shots at pretentious music critics who turn up their noses at metal and try to pretend the whole damned genre never existed. He exhorts fellow metal fans, now in their 30's and 40's, to shed their guilt and proudly proclaim their love for metal.

Awesome! I'm on board!

But then Klosterman essentially slags all of the rest of metal, the real stuff at its best. Bands like Judas Priest, Motorhead, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Slayer, and Megadeth, not to mention death metal, power metal, black metal, etc. are either overlooked or treated with outright contempt. Which kind of groups Klosterman in with the same types of pretentious music critics that he himself takes delight in skewering.

Still, I do highly recommend this book as a fun, lively, engaging read. It's certainly $12 I don't regret spending. As I read it, I felt compelled to jot down or highlight some of the stuff that got my head nodding in agreement or my blood pressure soaring (which is generally a strong sign of a worthwhile read). Here are a few:

The Good

It evokes intense bouts of nostalgia. For the record, I don't hate hair metal. Far from it. I'm a big fan of KISS, and there's lots to love about Guns and Roses, Def Leppard, and Motley Crue. Klosterman's passion for this style of music is contagious, and his recollection of the 1980's small-town metal lifestyle--cruising aimlessly around in cars, listening to tapes (not CDs or records, but tapes, damn it), feeling bad-ass without actually being bad-ass, being on the "inside" of a genre of music reviled by not only your parents, but radio stations, mass media and all "those people" that just didn't get it--rings true. I remember those days with fondness.

He nails the definition of glam metal. Klosterman calls it an appeal to an unspoken lifestyle, that of living the life of a bad-ass, hard-partying rocker. I'm still convinced that metal fans were as much in love with the image and the idea of metal as they were the sound.

He has a good taste in glam metal. Klosterman sings the praises of Cinderella and Guns and Roses, undoubtedly the two best bands in the hair metal genre. His favorite album and one he feels best represents what glam metal is all about is Appetite for Destruction (agreed). He says Long Cold Winter may have been one of the best albums of the 1980s in any genre. Again, no quarrels from me.

His criticisms of alternative music are dead-on. The "Seattle wave" may have knocked metal off of its pop culture pedestal and sent it sprawling on its bloated ass, but the grunge/alternative message that replaced metal was, at its core, hollow and phony. And, unlike Poison and Winger, it wasn't even fun: Says Klosterman:

"Bret Michaels was important because he never tried to be; he just wanted to be cool, which was once the single biggest goal in my life. Too many of those indie bands were consumed with the misguided belief that their destiny was to recalibrate the American mind; they tried to hard to seem significant."

The Bad

He consistenly conflates hair metal with heavy metal. Klosterman: "Every style of music has its own philosophy of ethics. Heavy metal's philosophy was about getting wasted as possible and walking into a room with a bimbo on both of your arms." Um, excuse me? Not that I'm opposed to that philosophy, and it may be true of hair metal, but it's not true of a great number of heavy metal acts. I love to party and act stupid, too, but I like to think that metal--or at least some metal--is about something more than "Don't need nothing, but a good time." But it seems that bands who don't drink themselves into oblivion or bang everything that moves are beneath the author.

He misunderstands and often trashes real heavy metal. Klosterman describes Iron Maiden as "boring and self-consciously complex," and the lyrics "more comedic than poetic." He also claims that Maiden became an elite band due to Eddie, their mascot. He cannot seem to grasp what makes Maiden a great band, and why they've been at it successfully for 30 years while burying his favorite bands (GNR, Def Leppard, etc.) in the process.

Sure, Klosterman admits to liking the occasional Priest, Sabbath, and Metallica song. But you know it's all an act when he makes statements like "The Mob Rules was the only decent post-Ozzy Sabbath tune." Tell that to the crowds still turning out to see Heaven and Hell, Klosterman.

...and the Ugly

He has bands like Warrant and Bon Jovi on his "desert island" list of must-have albums. Remind me to bring a straight razor the next time I take a cruise, in case I ever get marooned with this guy. Suicide is preferable to "Down Boys" anyday.

This statement: Klosterman actually wrote that "Idiots always say that Metallica "sold out" between ...And Justice For All and their eponymous 1992 Black Album, but that's nothing compared to their evolution from 1983's Kill 'Em All to 1984's Ride the Lightning."

This is so dumb, I don't know where to begin. First of all, Metallica did sell out on the Black Album, and it's not even debateable--it's a goddamned scientific fact that can be proven in laboratory tests. Second of all, there is a big difference between an evolution in sound, which is the result of maturity (Metallica was extremely young in the 'Kill Em All days), and a conscious decision to abandon one's sound and metal roots in a blatant attempt to sell more records. Which is exactly what Metallica did in 1992.

He is a mass of contradictions. Klosterman sets out in Fargo Rock City to elevate heavy metal as a genre as worthy of study and respect as any other era/style of music. He has no problem psychoanalyzing Ozzy or Axl Rose, and at one point he even compares (seemingly without irony) GNR Lies to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But he backtracks on this stance several times, often settling for weak and ironic self-deprecation. For instance, he claims "serious" metal fans are unlikeable. He takes shots at the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBM) movement, claiming it was not fresh, not likeable, and needlessly complex. He claims hair metal is superior because it's more fun and more rocking.

In other words, when you get right down to it, Klosterman frowns on the act of applying rigor to an analysis of metal. He later ridicules most rock fans for being idiots, because they don't understand that they're consuming a form of media made to appeal to the masses. What we have in the end is author who undercuts his own high-minded arguments for why he wrote the book in the first place. And finally:

He thinks Animalize is the best non-makeup KISS album. Enough said.


In summary, how can Fargo Rock City claim to be a treatise on the defense of heavy metal while completely leaving 3/4 of heavy metal out of the discussion, save for taking a few cheap swipes at it? Klosterman is brilliant when he writes about hair metal and its appeal--the girls, the booze, the fun, the empowerment, and the idyllic, wild lifestyles of singers like Axl Rose and David Lee Roth. But he totally whiffs on what makes bands like Maiden and Dio great. If glam brought the fun, the real metal bands delivered fantasy, imagery, power, storytelling, incredible singing, and superb musicianship--in other words, a very different form of entertainment than that offered by hair metal, but certainly no less worthy of respect or analysis.

It's really too bad, and in the end it's a severe shortcoming of a book that could have/should have struck deeper power chords.

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