I Like Trash

Chuck Klosterman wallows joyfully in cultural crap, while in the afterlife, Lester Bangs rises above it

Chuck Klosterman
Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto
Scribner

Lester Bangs (Edited By John Morthland)
Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste:
A Lester Bangs Reader

Anchor

Chuck Klosterman is that guy everybody knew freshman year: the resident crank. Never went to class, just hung around the dorm pounding a seemingly endless beer and spinning theories about lesbian subtexts in I Dream of Jeannie or whatever--more for the rant of it than because he believed anything in particular. His balance between irritating and entertaining depended on how many early morning hours you had to burn.

Chuck Klosterman: "I would sooner have my kid deal crystal meth than play soccer."
Lisa Corson
Chuck Klosterman: "I would sooner have my kid deal crystal meth than play soccer."

Well, a decade later, with a careerist savvy that belies his sad-sack writerly persona, Klosterman has gotten off the couch and spun his shtick into gold. In two years, his memoir-cum-hair-metal-manifesto Fargo Rock City took him from anonymity to national prominence and more or less the lead writing spot for Spin. Fargo will be the best thing ever written about hair bands--a better book than the genre deserves--but every good crank bestrides more than a few hobbyhorses. So now we have a collection of essays, only one of them directly related to metal. With Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Klosterman gives us appreciations of The Matrix (predictable) and breakfast cereal (entertaining for a while); a ride-along with a Guns N' Roses cover band (sympathetic and generous); a riff on the failure of his Sims alter ego, SimChuck, to get much play (sidesplitting); and scrutiny of Saved by the Bell (you kind of had to be there) and The Real World (offhandedly brilliant). Which is to say that what's on display here is not intellectual range so much as a narrowness that's both productive and disappointing.

From this evidence, Klosterman is the first--but assuredly not the last--major pop-culture critic on whom non-pop culture has exercised no pull whatsoever. He's simply not interested in literature, politics, or art (or should that be "art"?) Is this a bad thing? Exactly what media critics predicted two decades ago? No point in judging so irresistible a pop dynamic--one as implacable in its fashion as, say, the rise of prefab boy bands--so let us call him the high priest of What's On.

There are abundant pleasures here. As an attentive metal fan, Klosterman stands or falls by the polemical riff: "I would sooner have my kid deal crystal meth than play soccer"; "in a roundabout way, Boba Fett created Pearl Jam"; "What I hate are people who love punk rock. There has never been a genre...that has made more people confused about what art is capable of doing, and they all refuse to shut up about it"; "[Billy] Joel's best work always sounds like unsuccessful suicide attempts."

Klosterman may or may not believe all that, but he's too Midwestern for sustained snark, as one can observe in his entirely unironic and convincing appreciation of Joel's music. And he's serious, or at least in quest of seriousness, as his surprisingly passionate parsing of the cultural chasm of Celtics vs. Lakers indicates. In the midst of epidemic crappiness, more than anything he wants something to believe in.

Yet Klosterman has, after all, chosen to frolic in that epidemic crappiness. When he's 40, pop culture will have passed him by--or worse, it won't have, and the rot will set in. This is a problem self-destructive critical genius Lester Bangs solved by excessing himself to death at age 33 (you might say he, too, was saved by the bell). Much of the new collection, Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste, supplements the Greil Marcus-curated Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: early-'70s boogie-band hoodoo from Creem; forward-looking appraisals of punk from both sides of 1980; pissed-off love letters to Mick and Lou.

What is new, and well worth a non-cultist's time, is the material that suggests he could have grown up: unpublished autobiographical fragments (early ones typical '60s, later ones painfully good) and a long press junket to Jamaica, ostensibly to interview Bob Marley, that makes you wish for a whole book on the subject. More than that, it leaves you wishing that Bangs had managed to preserve himself and his wide-ranging appetites a little longer.

 
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