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Use Your Allusion: Book Review of Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman

by matthew webber

Before anyone can accuse music critic Chuck Klosterman of rosy-eyed nostalgia or critical objectivity (or pseudo-ironic pretension), he admits the un-hip truth: Mötley Crüe's Shout at the Devil changed his life. Not The Clash, not The Velvet Underground, but a 1980s metal band whose members wore hair spray.

His picture on Fargo Rock City's book jacket illustrates that he might be telling the truth: in his Black Death Vodka T-shirt and eyeglasses, he looks like the dude who sat in the back of your algebra class drawing pentagrams on his desk - a dude whom you knew was smarter and funnier than he looked. This is also how he writes: smart, funny, and unapologetically a fan.

While a lazy book critic could call his book a "valentine to heavy metal" much like unoriginal movie reviewers called Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous "a valentine to rock 'n' roll," Fargo Rock City is more of a valentine to the unpopular girl with whom you were always in love, even after all your friends ripped your valentine to shreds and laughed at you.

When Klosterman published his book (Scribner, 2001), his once-favorite bands were threatening to become relevant again. VH1 programs such as Behind the Music and Where Are They Now? were profiling Mötley Crüe and other 1980s metal bands, and the Crüe's autobiography (The Dirt, with Neil Strauss) was a bestseller. Poison, Winger, and others were touring across the country, albeit playing in smaller venues and state fairs instead of the arenas of their heyday. Guns N' Roses (or Axl Rose, studio musicians, and Buckethead) was supposed to release its long-awaited Chinese Democracy album - for which aging music critics, myself, and maybe four other fans are still waiting.

However, in 2003, the limited love shown these metalheads seems ironic and kitschy. To today's pre-teen record buyer, Whitesnake(s), Ratt(s), and White Lion(s) are extinct. Unlike deified 1980s rockers such as U2, 1980s metalheads are stuck in a moment they can't get out of. Nowadays Tommy Lee's and Bret Michaels' only new moments come courtesy of homemade porn videos with Pamela Anderson. For critics and radio programmers, these bands are not "classic rock." They are "hair metal." In the immortal words of Beavis and Butt-head, "Winger sucks."

Klosterman is acutely aware that liking hair metal has never been cool, which is exactly why he felt he needed to write this book. Klosterman, who now writes for Spin, is the C.S. Lewis of glam metal, a readable apologist for a much-maligned music. He disagrees with the critics who accuse 1980s metal of not being real and not saying anything: "It was certainly real to me and all my friends. And more importantly, it did say something. It said something about us." Since people experience music most vividly when they're young, of course he loved the Crüe when he was a kid!

Fargo Rock City is the writer's own history as much as it is heavy metal's, and we probably learn more about Klosterman than we do about music trivia. Heavy metal was the soundtrack to his crushes on girls, his crimes (there's a particularly poignant chapter about bank errors), and - as cliché as this has become - his life.

Klosterman is more subjective than almost any critic you will read in a mainstream music publication, and this is why his book is more interesting and re-readable than another bland band exposé.. His book is a much more fascinating look at a sub-culture than some sociological study in an academic journal.

In fact, Fargo Rock City is the most heartfelt and hilarious book about music I've ever read. It was so good I was tempted to call him at his home phone number, which he actually includes in the intro.

Most of all, I loved the book's comedy. The book's subtitle alone - "A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta" - is wittier than entire issues of Rolling Stone.

Klosterman, however, is no one-umlaut pony. The dude knows his heavy metal. He riffs (as quickly as Randy Rhoads) about, among other topics: wanting long hair but always cropping it short, the impact of metal music videos on Midwestern adolescents, the relationship between alcohol and metal, his love for Lita Ford, the connotative differences between "heavy" and "hard," the powerlessness of most power ballads, and why Def Leppard may or may not be metal.

He lists his favorite metal albums in ascending order of their "Jack Factor" - how much somebody would have to pay him never to play that album again. (Cough up $5,001 and he'll forgo Appetite for Destruction.)

In one chapter, he deconstructs Guns N' Roses' video trilogy from the Use Your Illusion albums.

Fargo Rock City is a book I wish I'd written. Substitute Vanilla Ice for Ratt and it's a book I've written in my head. It's cool for the very reason it's uncool: loving heavy metal this much, without regrets, apologies, or embarrassment, is 666 times bolder than saying you dig The Strokes.

If you've ever hidden a guilty pleasure CD from your holier than thou music critic friends, you'll get the jokes. If you've ever wondered why you'll never love music as much as you did when you were a teenager, read Chuck Klosterman and reminisce.

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