Review(ish): FARGO ROCK CITY by Chuck Klosterman and TWILIGHT OF THE GODS by Steven Hyden

KlostermanC-FargoRockCityUSChuck Klosterman and Steven Hyden are great guides to the worlds of rock and metal music, and their respective (and oft-overlapping) fandoms. In the two books covered in this feature, they examine the bands that meant the most to them, how their music fandom shaped their youths, and also the changes in the industry and soundscapes of the years that forged their tastes. Klosterman’s book is more connected to his own biography, while Hyden’s takes a more in-depth, long-view examination of what makes some rock music “classic”, and how the genre’s mythology has become ever more contentious and troubling. Both authors are passionate music fans and eloquently opinionated. As a result, they are also great guides to rock and metal music. If you have any interest in rock and metal music, then I would certainly recommend these two books.

Music is an incredibly important part of my life. Invariably, I am listening to it, reading about it, or attempting to create it (the less spoken of the latter, the better). Important memories can be recalled vividly with the appropriate soundtrack. My first months living in New York City, for example, come rushing back to me, when I listen to Fuel, Finger Eleven and Full Devil Jacket – apparently, I didn’t stray too far in the alphabetized racks at the Virgin Megastore (RIP). To me, these moments and musical triggers are interesting. Perhaps they might be interesting to someone who was either there with me, or someone who experienced something similar.

However, reading other people’s histories with music, regardless of how gifted they might be as a writer, can be a very mixed experience. When an author discusses familiar bands and/or events, it can provide a blast of musical nostalgia, understanding and connection. It also influences what one takes away from this kind of biography, what resonates the most, and, as in the case of this review, what is written about the most. At other times, when the reader’s and author’s tastes diverge, the memoirs can feel bloated and/or self-indulgent. This is unfair, to be sure, but if you go into personal music history memoirs with that in mind, you can tease out some fantastic threads, observations, as well as be entertained.

HydenS-TwilightOfTheGodsUSThis was certainly the case when I recently read Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota (2000) and Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods (2018), back-to-back. I had bought the former a long while ago, but kept forgetting about it, inevitably distracted by whichever new book I picked up, the latest shiny ARC that dropped into my mailbox. I then listened to a Celebration Rock episode during which Hyden (the podcast’s host) and Klosterman discussed their books and generally discussed the state of rock music. They were eloquent, amusing, and clearly able to draw on a vast body of knowledge and experience in listening to and writing about music. Both books offer differing and shared impressions of fandom, music devotion, rock and metal’s changing place in American culture and society, and many amusing or troubling stories about well-known bands and musicians.

Note:Because of my own passion for the genres, and in particular many of the bands Klosterman and Hyden write about, I took waytoo many notes while reading these books. Both authors are excellent writers, and the two books are near-endlessly quotable. I have resisted (barely) the temptation to pepper this piece with long quotations, and tried to keep it short. The authors include many favourite jokes about rock, as well as amusing interpretations and observations about what one imagines when one hears “rock band” and “rock star”. For example…

Hyden: “the Who epitomizes what a real rock band should look like: muscular blond lead singer, angry-genius guitarist, stoic playboy bassist, and lunatic alcoholic drummer.”

Hyden also has one of the best parenthetical asides in a book about music, ever:

“It should also be noted that drummer Phil Rudd wasn’t with the band, either — he was forced to exit AC/DC in 2014 after he was arrested and charged with attempting to set up a murder and possession of meth and weed. Rudd still found time to play on Rock or Bust, but that album wasn’t nearly as AC/DC-like as Rudd’s private life.”

Both authors explain how they categorize “metal” (in the case of Klosterman) and “classic rock” (Hyman), although there is plenty of overlap – as Hyden explains, some of Klosterman’s metal is now quite firmly categorized as classic rock. This is a perennial discussion and argument among rock and metal fans (see Andrew O’Neill’s A History of Heavy Metal for another recent, amusing take on the subject), and one that is unlikely to ever reach a true consensus – “metallurgy,” as Klosterman writes, “isn’t an exact science”. Klosterman clearly finds the inability for the fandoms to come to an agreement amusing: Clearly, the ‘hard vs. heavy’ argument is an abstract categorization. To some people it’s stupidly obvious, and to other people it’s just stupid.” He’s not wrong, and he offers many more thoughts on the various sub-genres of metal throughout Fargo Rock City.

Fandom ain’t what it used to be…

What does it mean to be a music fanatic? In particular, a rock and metal fan? “Males have a weird sense of loyalty toward the bands they like; they sometimes view record buying as a responsibility,” Klosterman writes at one point. This certainly struck a chord with me. There are many bands whose albums I will pre-order without hearing a single new song. For the main, I know which bands won’t disappoint, but it does also mean that for some others I have wasted my valuable, limited financial resources on some pretty dull albums. Even in these instances, I’ll inevitably return for the next album. Just in case. (I usually give bands two duds before dropping them.)

“Loving classic rock has always been an act of faith,” write Hyden, in which albums are seen (or heard) “as sacred texts, live concerts as quasireligious rituals, and rock mythology as a means of self-discovery.” He writes about his commitment to studying “rock scripture” after discovering classic rock at in middle school, a time during which he “read all of the books, subscribed to all of the magazines, and watched all of the documentaries.” I also did this: mostly with grunge and bands such as Guns ‘n’ Roses, but also with classics like Springsteen, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith. It’s a common part of any muso’s fan trajectory: seek out “the most crucial LPs of the rock canon” and through heavyrotation learn the lyrics and absorb the genre’s mythology. I spent a lot of time and money investigating the standard-bearing bands, delving into back-catalogues and hunting down bootlegs and B-sides that were, for the main, not very good. The authors came of age before MP3s and Napster, as I did: before music was available at the click of a few buttons. In my case, living in the UK and Asia, I was reliant on imports (cripplingly expensive in the UK, peculiarly affordable in Japan) and saving up for record-buying binges during infrequent trips to the States.

There’s no doubt that this obligatory album buying mentality has changed in recent years. This brings me to the second major aspect of the two books: how the industry and fandom(s) have changed in recent decades. In some ways, Klosterman’s book is almost all about the question of what it means to be a fan, but he doesn’t shy away from critiquing the culture. Hyden, who seems to have come of musical-age about a decade after Klosterman, also discusses the impact of the aforementioned Napster and MP3s, and how they fundamentally changed the way music fans interacted with the songs, albums and bands they loved. For some, it devalued the album and even the individual songs – it wrecked the industry, to be blunt. That being said, there’s also no denying that Spotify, Apple and Amazon Music have made it easier for many (younger) music enthusiasts to easily try the classic (or long-gone) bands that Klosterman and Hyden mention. Indeed, while reading I would frequently turn on Crüe albums, Beatles and others based on who the authors were writing about at the time. There’s less joy in discovery, maybe, but the fact that it’s easier to find music is, I believe, no bad thing. In addition, Hyden writes that now “Listeners prefer the interactive musical experience of making a playlist versus the more passive construction of a ready-to-serve album. What passed for cokehead logic in the early eighties is now conventional wisdom.” This was a strange comment, as it completely dismisses the long history of mixtapes – a staple of music fandom for decades (most endearingly typified, perhaps, in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity – especially in the movie adaptation starring John Cusack).

The more things change…

Both authors recognize that some of the change that has affected the genres is good, while in other ways the rock and metal community’s inability to change enough has ultimately harmed the genres. This inertia is, Hyden argues, a considerable cause of rock’s diminishment in the charts and American culture as a whole. [This was the most interesting topic for me, so the rest of the review covers pretty much only this.]

Take this example of the fall of rock. “Top 100 Guitarists”-type articles are a dime a dozen, with so very many published each year in magazines and now online. They are also an interesting window into the changing impressions and tastes of music fans. On these lists, Klosterman wrote (in the early 2000s),

“Sometimes, Edward Van Halen is number one on the list, and sometimes he’s number two behind Jimi Hendrix. The Eddie-Jimi battle goes back and forth from poll to poll… (And for those of you who actually care which of these people is the better player, the answer is Hendrix. Van Halen remains the most influential guitar player of all time, but only because nobody can figure out how to rip Hendrix off.)”

Surely Jimi and Eddie remain in the top echelons on these lists? Certainly, but as Hyden points out, “Spindid a Top 100 guitarists list — normally the purview of Rolling Stone —  and included emblematic dubstep bro Skrillex, who does not actually play guitar.” This is incredibly depressing.

Aside from the encroachment of non-rockers into the rock sphere, the most interesting topic covered by the two books was how we look back on the history, mythology and cultures within rock and metal. Hyden is particular critical of the reprehensible aspects of the genres’ histories. Both authors admit that some of the legends of rock are, with hindsight, pretty awful – ultimately, the attraction comes from the romanticized and myth-building of the classic rock and metal giants, and how they were living lives of which we could never conceive.

“People rail against the posturing of metal,” Klosterman writes, “but the real problems begin when the posturing ends.” This has long been a problem with rock and metal. It is also what causes me a considerable amount of discomfort. I am not, in any way, a violent or angry person (grumpy and curmudgeonly, certainly – I’m Scottish, after all – but not especially angry). There’s no hiding the fact that some of the music I love is aggressive, and draws on certain phraseology that comes directly from the misogynistic playbook. At times, this language is meant exactly as society sees it (enough to make me drop a band), but at other times it’s used for shock effect, transposed on another situation (Shinedown’s recent use of “asking for it”, for example) that nevertheless calls to mind violence against women. “[W]hen people start to see aggressive music as a call to actual aggression, and the enemy becomes anyone who doesn’t openly embrace stupidity,” that is when rock and metal push people away or attract the least savoury members of society.

Axl Rose, for example, is one of the most lauded and exasperating frontmen of the past few decades. But, even if you love GnR’s music, as I do, one cannot deny that he is also a complete asshole. “He beat up camera-wielding fans and treated women like shit. It seems like most of the women he slept with eventually accused him of being a violent lover (ex-wife Erin Everly and ex-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour both filed abuse charges against him). And generally, this sinister weakness made him more alluring to redneck intellectuals.” (Klosterman)

Klosterman continues, “Some things are funny because they’re true. Ted Nugent would be funnier if I ever got the sense he was lying.”

“Rock started out as a subculture before it became a monoculture, and it can still matter as a subculture,” Hyden states. “The mythology matters. But the mythology must also change.” Too often, rock journalism and biographers glamorized “scumbag behavior”, and portrayed rock starts as “larger-than-life demigods”, while never examining the wider impact of this kind of myth-making. Both authors are very honest about the fact that, as teenagers, they didn’t fully understand this side of rock and metal, but also that as they got older and wiser, there was no escaping this side of their favourite music. Here’s Hyden:

“It’s undoubtedly true that the drugging and whoring lifestyle that Zeppelin epitomized is emblematic of the questionable white-male fantasies that have long animated interest in classic rock while also stultifying its ability to evolve with the rest of the culture. But, again, when I was in middle school, I wasn’t smart enough to see that.”

“Teenage boys are already the most solipsistic people on the planet,” Hyden states (wholly accurately), “even without a steady diet of classic-rock sexism…”

Some (but not all) of the sexism that pervaded the now-classic eras of rock and metal stems from the devil’s place in rock. There can be no discussion of classic rock and metal without mention of the Great Horned One. Satan/the Devil has been a cherished motif in hard music for decades. In turn, this made Aleister Crowley very popular, too. Hyden spends quite some time explaining Crowley’s broad popularity among the classic rock/metal elite, and the many rockers who dabbled in Crowley fellowship: Jimmy Paige, in particular, but also the Beatles, Bowie, the Stones, Ozzy, and Dio (to name a few). Crowley penned a great many sexist and racist tracts, and it’s no bad thing that he has fallen out of favour.

Mainstream culture has moved away from the rock and metal mythos, despite a brief resurgence in the 1990s and early 2000s – although, this revitalization needed, let’s be honest, the hybridization of rap/hip-hop in order to help it bridge the divide between subculture and pop culture. Rock’s decline, as already mentioned, was the product of its own issues and glaring flaws. “When the white male rock star, the protagonist of the classic-rock mythos, came to be viewed as passé in mainstream pop by the end of the nineties, there was no alternative to take his place,” Hyden writes. “Women and artists of color have flourished in pop, R&B, and hip-hop, whereas the restrictiveness of rock crippled the genre as demographics shifted. For so long, rock music operated on a ‘white males or bust’ policy. It never dawned on the gatekeepers of rock purity that the public might eventually choose ‘bust.’”

Hyden’s conclusion is entirely correct:

“The old classic-rock myth about the white-male superman who pursues truth via decadence and virtuosic displays of musicianship has run its course. The time has come for new legends about different kinds of heroes.”

We are starting to see this borne out. Classic bands have started to clean up their acts, chemically and substantively. Not two weeks ago, for example, I attended a Five Finger Death Punch gig in Toronto, and singer Ivan Moody spent a lot of time talking about sobriety and his own recovery. (Interestingly, FFDP are mentioned in Hyden’s book, and not at all positively.) The shift away from debauchery has been going on for a while, though. One of the best examples of this, as Hyden explains, is Aerosmith: once the exemplification of toxic debauchery, they are now celebrated for overcoming their decadent past and living the “right” way. Add to this list Bowie, Townshend, Jagger, Keith Richards, Lou Reed, and countless others — “the biggest libertines of the sixties and seventies professed to be living clean and sober at this time.”

This review has become rather lopsided. The books are about so much more than what ails rock and metal today. Klosterman and Hyden write very well about their love for certain bands, albums and musicians. The air of nostalgia is palpable in many chapters. While the books made me uncomfortable at times, they also reaffirmed my love for certain bands and albums. Rock music remains one of life’s greatest pleasures, in my opinion. Nothing stirs me more than a favourite song or guitar hook. But, it is also time that we rock and metal fans think a little more critically about our favourite genres.

RollingStones-VoodooLoungeTo finish up, I’d like to return to what I said earlier about familiar events creating the strongest connections with music biographies. Hyden mentions that his first big rock show was the Rolling Stones’ Camp Randall Stadium stop on the Voodoo Lounge Tour (1994). The Basel, Switzerland, stop on the tour (July 1995) was my first ever show of any size, when I was only 12. (And yes, it blew my mind and changed my life forever.)

*

Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City is out now, published by Scribner (North America) and Simon & Schuster (UK). Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods is also out now, published by Dey Street Books in North America and in the UK.

Follow the Author (Klosterman): Goodreads, Twitter
Follow the Author (Hyden): Goodreads, Twitter

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