Halfway through a stupefying freshman-year American studies lecture, I decided that my college education could best be furthered by inscribing the complete lyrics to Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health” (don’t pretend you’ve forgotten—”bang your head!” and onward) in my notebook. Now, at nearly twice that age, I can still do the entire first verse, to the mingled amazement and horror of the teenage punk rockers I teach. Not to mention my own.
Admittedly, I made a piss-poor metalhead, with hair that never ventured much below my ears and a selection of corduroy overshirts that would have gotten me laughed out of any respectable high school smoking area. Even so, metal, particularly the spandexed screechers who ruled the airwaves and MTV from the mid ’80s to the early ’90s, feels both like something I have to apologize for, a generational inheritance that was to the Beatles as N’Sync are to the Temptations, and something to cherish: If only for a couple of months, it was my crap, dammit.
Rather than embalming the music in VH1 kitsch or, conversely, frosting it with too much historical significance, Chuck Klosterman wants to see it for what it was—for him, Jon Bon Jovi deserves to be as iconically ’80s as, say, John Hughes or Ronald Reagan. To that end, Klosterman, now a music and culture critic for The Akron Beacon-Journal, structures his memoir, Fargo Rock City, as a series of loosely connected riffs, centered around the major dates in metal history (“April 18, 1987: MTV Premieres Headbanger’s Ball at 11 p.m.”) but branching out into musings on matters both large and small: metal and power, sexism, the sociology of small-town hero worship. (What the Notorious B.I.G. did for urbanites, John Cougar Mellencamp did for farm kids: He kept it real.)
Though the promo copy positions him as the mook’s Nick Hornby—the book’s weakest parts proffer uninterestingly annotated lists of bands’ presumed preferences in women and non-metal songs acceptable to metalheads—Klosterman works much better as, to choose an earlier role model, the small-town Frederick Exley. He speaks for millions of smart-enough rural kids (in Wyndmere, North Dakota, “life was boring, just like it was supposed to be”) who defined big-city terms for themselves because their surroundings granted them so few resources, and whose relationship to this music, as a result, acknowledged both longing and distance. Had he ever met his heroes in Mötley Crüe, Klosterman remarks of his then straight-arrow self, “we really [would have] had nothing to talk about.”
On those terms, he can be hilarious. Shambling loopily from one topic to the next—his principle of composition might best be summarized as “bear with me”—Klosterman refutes, not altogether convincingly, metal’s reputation for sexism; anatomizes live-performance videos (“sneaky men wearing trench coats” and horses walking through fog, for starters); ponders the mostly metaphoric invocations of Satan (though not as well as Donna Gaines); and explains how loudly Axl Rose’s “redneck intellectualism” spoke to hordes of kids with places to go and no way to get there. More than a simplistic populist, Klosterman makes a smart case that the music’s phallic strut shouldn’t conceal its generosity to the weak and unpopular: “Quite often, ’80s metal was about power. But sometimes it was about wishing you had some.”
Klosterman is less great when ripping off moves from Dave Eggers (what-does-it-all-mean? angst, plus anguish that leaks in artfully around the story’s edges) or Chuck Eddy (his indispensable-albums bit hits the same gonzo riffs). The book’s truest presiding spirit is Ozzy Osbourne, whose sincere, drunken befuddlement gives Klosterman a model of stumbling survival. Yet that identification also leads to his most troubling artistic move. Late in the book, seemingly without warning, he announces a serious-sounding drinking problem (“it’s certainly going to destroy me”) and gives us no assurance that writing about it has done the least bit of good. While claiming that Klosterman drank too much as a way to add savor to his memoir (the autopathography remains a commercially viable genre) is repulsive, an uneasy tension lingers between rock criticism and personal pain. If this is a book about alcoholism, why leave the main topic until the end? If it’s about a youthful metal obsession, much of which took place before Klosterman began to drink, why include this chapter, then follow it with a set of observations about post-grunge hard rock as if nothing has changed?
How to read this gesture? Maybe it’s art: You could see Klosterman’s drinking-problem section as the truest expression of the metal mind-set, the air guitar to Eggers’s air quotes. Most metal kids struggle with a passel of fucked-up, incommensurate impulses without necessarily resolving them, so this messiness is the only available way to capture that muddle. Or maybe it’s commerce: an imposition by editors eager to score another major hit through cutting-edge dysfunction. Either way, that confusion undermines the jokey goodwill that runs most of the way through here. The result is an ultimately unsettling glimpse not just at how hard it is to grow up, but at the contortions our culture demands of everyone who tries to come of age in public.