Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fargo Rock City

Dis here be my review o' da book "Fargo Rock City - A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta" (2001) by Chuck Klosterman. Bought it last week, on a 90% sale at the campus bookstore.

I've read one of Klosterman's books before - "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs", which I bought at Stockholm airport Arlanda in January 2005, and despite the back cover blurb's promises of tie-ins to 80's rock music and musicians, the book turned out to be mostly about how Klosterman can only deal with eating cocoa puffs the day after a severe bout of drinking, his drug habits, and most of all, endless tales of how this and that girl dumped his red-haired ass. So; a lot of cocoa puffs, and a little drugs. The book promises rock stars, and ends up describing a red-haired rock journalist nerd and the continuing saga of his being dumped and/or kept on a leash. Which by the way ain't what I signed up for, so I was only willing to buy this book due to it being sold at a severely reduced price.

This book tells the story of Klosterman growing up in Nowhere, North Dakota, and also tells the legendary tales of the heavy metal hits and artists he adored during his adolescence. Most of the book I really enjoyed, due to it's sheer nostalgia factor. I listened and listen to many of the same bands, and I'm a sucker for any book containing trivia on Ratt, Skid Row, Poison, etc. So far, so good.

However, the book suffers from a number of shortcomings, to paraphrase what I frequently write in my referee comments. First of all, it should be mentioned that Chuck Klosterman is a rock journalist/rock critic. And it shows. The first sign of this one encounters in the book, is his obvious subscription to "Word A Day" calenders and annoying penchant for inserting rather pretentious phrases and big words liberally throughout the manuscript. Mostly out of context. The second sign is that he takes himself very seriously, and everytime he makes a joke out of something involving him, he uses the plural "we", to drag down either his buddies or age segment with him. The third and final sign is that he uses his status as rock critic/journalist to legitimize his personal taste without having any music credentials at all. Even according to his own admission, he is not trained as a musician, doesn't play any instruments, and hasn't taken any steps to learn more about his trade. What especially bothered me was that he attacks several of the so-called "shred" guitarist, especially Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. What he accuses them of is to use technique to mask a complete lack of musicality and songwriting skills.

Now; this is just about the biggest red flag you can possibly wave in front of me when it comes from somebody who wouldn't know the difference between a scale and a mode if it jumped up in front of him and hit him over the head with a two-by-four.

What Klosterman does here is the typical rock journalist/critic douchebag move of faking knowledge to back up his own musical preferences. Given the subjective nature of their trade, you can't really say that "The Rolling Stones is the best band of all time", because you'd have to specify some objective criteria where TRS shine, AND everybody else would have to agree with those criteria for this statement to have any basis in reality. Obviously, it's impossible to design and carry through such criteria, so a listing of "The Best Song Ever" is just a ranking of one's own personal preferences, which is completely ok. The problem comes when some douchebag tries to fake actual knowledge in order to legitimize his or her preferences, but that kind of comes with the trade. It is kind of expected that a rock journalist is going to have something to say beyond "I sho' nuff did like dis heah record. As a matter o' fact, dis heah be my favorite CD in all of da unaverse of dis heah yeah, yo. Did I mention in dis column dat I once talked to Elvis Costello?" At the very least, they're supposed to back up criticism with something stock like "this is a blatant rip-off of New York Dolls", or something pointing to a similar band of the not-so-distant past so as to feign whatever which can transcend the aforementioned fanboi personal preference. I guess this makes sense too, because if it was generally acknowledged that a music critic had no other credentials than liking one certain form of music, I sincerely doubt that anyone would listen to their recommendations.

What Klosterman does in this book, and I suspect he also does in his other writings, is quite reprehensible, and a clear indication of douchebaggery. Let me illustrate this by providing some examples of how he uses faked knowledge to try and inject an objective argument for his personal preferences. The following list is in no way exhaustive.
  • Quite early in the book, Klosterman mentions Eddie Van Halen as a guitar hero, and how "Greatest guitarist ever" polls invariably rank EVH and Hendrix as either number one or number two. As these polls are conducted by fan surveys, they reflect popularity rather than any objective criteria, but this does not faze Klosterman at all. Non-guitarist Klosterman is fully capable of stating that without a shadow of a doubt - and without a trace of humor, Hendrix was by far the better guitarist of the two. Right. I've never heard anyone else even trying to argue that Hendrix was anywhere close to the technical level Van Halen is at - usually the factors of "composing abilities" and "legacy" are injected into these polls, which makes it more vague, but nobody who's ever listened to Van Halen and Hendrix records should doubt for a second that in terms of sheer technique, EVH far surpasses good ol' Jimmy James. Unless he played sloppy on purpose, that is, which is probably what Klosterman would argue...
  • Klosterman describes in great detail how annoyed he gets at journalists who mislabel Motley Crue as "rock'n'roll" when it's clearly heavy metal, and he doesn't understand how a journalist can be so ignorant of the topic that he or she would mislabel a band in such a way. This doesn't stop Klosterman from labelling Helloween as a glam metal band (Helloween initiated the subcategory of "power metal" back in 1988 due to the extremely fast yet melodic sound), and he also refers to Megadeth and Slayer as "speed metal". Whatever, Chuck - Megadeth and Slayer are two of the big four of thrash metal, which is a different category altogether. The other two being Anthrax and Metallica......
  • Chucky boy points to Iron Maiden guitarists Adrian Smith and Dave Murray as prime examples of classically trained guitar players who infused classical music into heavy metal, the influence of which can be found in songs such as "The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" and "Run To The Hills". Two things Archie; One: both of these guitarists are self-taught. Moreover, they are prime examples - especially Murray - of players who have mode-shifted stock blues licks and made that their signature. Two: None of the songs you mention are penned by either Smith or Murray. They are written by bass player Steve Harris, who by the way is also self-taught.
  • According to the author, Iron Maiden songs are so complex that nobody can sing along to them, with the possible exception of "Can I Play With Madness". Guess he's never been to or seen an Iron Maiden concert, then. Nor can he have listened to many of their songs.
  • A lot of the criticism directed towards shred guitarists in general and Yngwie in particular is difficult to answer for me without coming off as being overly subjective, but let me just comment on this: Klosterman accuses Yngwie of using the technique acquired from his classical training to mask his inability to either play or compose, and his music is not recognizeable as heavy metal. Again, Klosterman has done no attempts to research, as Yngwie is another example of a self-taught guitarist, whose music is referred to as "neoclassical heavy metal", and while it's possible to launch arguments to the effect or berating his songwriting, stating that what he does cannot be recognized as heavy metal is an argument I've never heard before. And trust me; I've stood up for YJM on many an occasion...
  • Klosterman makes the blanket statement that people who listen to opera, or even worse - go to see operas - are doing so for the sole reason of appearing high-brow, as nobody actually likes the music. Classic "I Am The World" delusions from a Carrot-top looking douchebag.

The most disturbing part of the book deals with how Klosterman describes how he during his tenure as a music columnist for his college newspaper felt that he had to appear drunk in public in order to live up to the persona to which the fans had been accustomed. Dude; you're at best a guy who writes about what other people do - you don't in any way, shape or form participate in the stories you report. Which I guess is the definition of something which in its plural form rhymes with Unix.......


Anders said...

Somehow I knew you gonna be offended when he said shredders only play fast to hide their lack of musicality. That's such a cliché. Shred isn’t dead. It just smells funny…* Everybody knows shredders play fast to get the attention of their way to small and tight pants.

But seriously, what is this book really about? Ego-trip of a rock journalist, or is there actually some good stuff in there to enjoy, even for those of us who never experienced the 80's?

*Nope, no bonus points for guessing who I paraphrased there…

Wilhelm said...

I somehow doubt that you'd enjoy the book if you don't have any nostalgic feelings about 80's bands like 'Crüe, Van Halen, Poison, Trixter, etc.

But if you do, or if you remembah' their hits, it's an ok to good read.