Book review: ‘Fargo Rock City,’ A book report on a neo-classic and why heavy metal matters

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Chuck Klosterman
began writing “Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta” in 1998 while working for a newspaper in Akron, Ohio. In a 2011 interview with the Nervous Breakdown, Klosterman claimed that his intent was to write “Fargo Rock City” from an academic standpoint to legitimize the subject matter, because at the time, there was no “I Love the ’80s” marathons on VH1, no reality TV shows attempting to defibrillate the careers of aging rock stars and not all that many people who even admitted to liking heavy metal in the first place:

“…Nowadays, Mötley Crüe puts an oral history out and it’s a huge seller, greeted with all this love and nostalgia. In ’98 no one felt that way. I knew all these people who listened to Guns N’ Roses and Kiss and Bon Jovi and lied about it. They said they listened to the Cure. People would actually lie about their past.”

The burning out and fading away of ’80s heavy metal was complete when Klosterman sat down to write “Fargo Rock City,” and in a way, this barren landscape allowed Klosterman to emerge as a voice of authority.

“Fargo Rock City” is about growing up loving rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s also about loving it before the Internet or immediate access to Circus or Kerrang! to tell you what you were supposed to think. This book is a combination of memoir and encyclopedia, informed by both an adolescence-worth of cassette tapes and the kind of career that allows a person complete access to important moments in rock history, from Vince Neil’s involuntary manslaughter of Razzle Dingley to the midnight release of “Use Your Illusion.”

A warning: “Fargo Rock City” is not a book about heavy metal for people who are really into heavy metal. Klosterman is witty and inclusive but for reasons we’ll get to later, purposefully un-thorough. If you want to know about the sociological implications of Scandinavian death rock or the (possibly?) complicated substrata of industrial grindcore, then I’m sorry. My Netflix queue reveals that “Until the Light Takes Us” is still available for streaming, so maybe start there. This is not your kind of heavy metal. This is not the book for you.

Klosterman chooses to illuminate what heavy metal was to the kind of person he was when he first discovered it on a tape his older brother brought home from college. This is the meat of “Fargo Rock City,” which, as I mentioned earlier, is as much about the music as it is this person who loved it. To Klosterman, heavy metal expressed most — if not all — of the following characteristics:

Fashion

Klosterman begins “Fargo Rock City” by touching on what he means when he says “heavy metal.” For him, heavy metal was mainly about hair. By “for him,” I mean that the type of heavy metal Klosterman loved as an adolescent and had the kind of Top 40/record store/MTV exposure necessary to get the material to a farm kid in Wyndmere, North Dakota. And for this type of metal, hair was important.

The topic of hair is apparently a touchy one for many of metal’s onetime stars, several of whom are quoted in “Fargo Rock City” and are offended that critics were (or still are) obsessed with their hair. But really, try to have a discussion about heavy metal without mentioning hair. Try to picture heavy metal without those teased-out, feathered-over, fried-up halos of virility perched atop a flowy scarf, ripped t-shirt, and studded Italian leather pants. It was the perfect storm of high fashion and low concept, which, come to think of it, today’s hipster bands are achieving with each $70 pair of Tom’s. Mainstream music is ultimately a product, and with few exceptions, ’80s metal just happened to be a genre that embraced this. That’s the point, as Klosterman explains: “Arguing for the aesthetics of hair metal probably seems like an impossible task…There is no high road.”


Sex

Like fashion, sex is one of the topics that ’80s metal musicians can seem resistant to discussing because it cheapens their art. But like hair, try to visualize metal without the implication that everyone involved was having sex all of the time and with anyone who wasn’t a troglodyte (and even they had to get some play because have you seen Vinnie Vincent Invasion?). “Rock sluts” get mentioned a lot in “Fargo Rock City,” and Klosterman means both the kind on the stage and the kind under it (Def Leppard’s famous under-stage harem, where band members would go on breaks during instrumental solos to be serviced).

According to Klosterman, sex is one of the biggest definers of heavy metal music, the other being volume. Unfortunately, this combination isn’t what a lot of people consider to be credible. Music can be soft and sexy or loud and sexless and still be called legitimate, but once a rock slut gets his hands on an amp, all bets are off. This is a cheap assessment, really, because nobody ever accused Tommy Lee of being a celibate genius, but you can’t deny that a rotating drum kit is all kinds of badass.

Also see sexism, and the difference between the two so hilariously illustrated in “This Is Spinal Tap.”

Power

Rob Halford said that the most important part of heavy metal was power, and Judas Priest was certainly a powerful band. Klosterman expands on this by explaining that even if the metal songs he loved weren’t directly powerful on their own, they still encouraged listeners to feel powerful, or to take power, or to see that people who had power over them were not really as powerful as they thought. Also, a song could sound powerful even though it was either completely nonsensical or, really, very sad (see: most of Ozzy Osbourne’s catalog that isn’t explicitly about LSD).

A type of power commonly seen in heavy metal is menace, although this is mostly reserved for bands — Iron Maiden, Slayer, Megadeath — that don’t get a lot of space in “Fargo Rock City.” This is because menace and its various forms of violence, sadomasochism and friendliness/casual acquaintanceship with Satan can very easily turn into caricature, with Klosterman naming Iron Maiden’s seeming humorlessness and the unintentionally hilarious song title “Bring Your Daughter…To the Slaughter!” as an example.

Substance Abuse

Because Klosterman is a music journalist, some of his source material for “Fargo Rock City” included interviews that he conducted with artists during his career. One of those interviews was with Rob Zombie, who claims to hate “Behind the Music” because it allows regular people to watch famous people ruin their own lives, and also most of the famous people who do so are idiots. There’s no reasonable excuse for spending $20,000 a week on cocaine or drinking away your gold records, but both are metal staples and commonly celebrated in song.

Rags, Riches, Relationship Between

Excess was a popular theme in the heavy metal of Klosterman’s day, evidenced by videos that, along with “Scarface,” helped teach rappers how to behave once MTV Cribs was invented. No video was more effective in communicating superstar status than a concert video, and no concert video was more effective than the ones where people wore white leather suits onstage and slugged from magnums of Champagne while relaxing on the tour bus (or, later and way more effectively, the tour plane). It’s arguable that Whitesnake was only popular because Tawny Kitaen humped a Jaguar in its video, and I wonder how convincing those gyrations would have been had the prop guy come to set with a Ford Escort.

Of course, nobody expected that these rock stars had always been rich. This is America, where we can be as wealthy as we want but we’re still expected to claim to have existed on a diet of ramen noodles at some point in our lives (just ask Ann Romney, she’s got a ton of free time these days). In this country as well as in heavy metal, successes should be earned and then enjoyed, which is why so many A&R types flooded the Hollywood flats looking for hungry musicians living in squalid studio apartments and booking the occasional show at the Whiskey. Heavy metal stars were expected to come from nothing, have everything, but still like the same regular things (booze, boobs, cars) and behave like Poison at the height of their fame, who Klosterman asserts looked like “a bunch of baby-stealing gypsies” but still acted like unemployable alcoholics from Pennsylvania’s mining country. Which they kind of were.

Krokus

Much of “Fargo Rock City” concentrates on a handful of metal superstars (Mötley Crüe, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses to name a few), but Klosterman does include a couple of lists of lesser-known bands for reference’s sake. At least one of these lists names Krokus. As someone who unabashedly loves ’80s metal to the point of being super into Bon Jovi for years, please be assured that I’m not trying to be cool here, but I have never ever heard of Krokus. I guess I just thought they should be mentioned here.

Pentagrams

As a teenager, Klosterman stuck a Mötley Crüe pentagram sticker to his headboard and slept peacefully beneath it until he left home for college. Later, he marked the footnotes in “Fargo Rock City” not with asterisks, but with pentagrams. Pentagrams are totally metal.

Not Really Thinking About It All That Much

Klosterman does make a few half-assed attempts to explain heavy metal, or break it into explainable parts. For me, this is one of only two times that “Fargo Rock City” drags (the other is when he shortens band names to monikers like Zep, Sab, and Scorps, which is silly and doesn’t even make sense as far as paragraph length is concerned). After an entire book of examples of heavy metal and an audience that probably knows what it is to them anyway, trying to parse out the subgenres of metal (glam, speed, death, hair, etc.) is tedious. Klosterman eventually admits that identifying metal isn’t even the point, and anyone who tries is wasting their time.

Heavy metal fans didn’t grow up loving the most artistically sophisticated or culturally significant bands, but their opinions still mattered. “Fargo Rock City” proves that they were real. The people who held them loved the music, and Chuck Klosterman is their prophet.

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