Killing Yourself to Live

Since Curt’s been providing book reviews left and right these past few days, I figure it’s my turn to say a little something about the book I’ve been reading recently, Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live. I’ve been a big fan of Klosterman’s ever since reading a little back-and-forth (ESPN Insider subscription required) he and Bill Simmons did on, which in turn encouraged me to read Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, which I’ve mentioned once or twice before.1

Killing Yourself to Live is, purportedly, an account of Klosterman’s road trip around the country to visit the Chelsea Hotel (where Sid Vicious almost certainly killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen), Memphis (where both Elvis and Jeff Buckley drowned; Elvis in his own vomit, Buckley in the river), a forest in rural Mississippi (where half of Lynyrd Skynyrd made an unscheduled landing), a greenhouse in Seattle (where Kurt Cobain swallowed a shotgun shell), and various other places where rock stars and their fans and associates died. It is, in his words, an attempt to discover why “the greatest career move any musician can make is to stop breathing”.

Which sounds like a reasonable and even sort of cool telos, but it’s telling that the only death-site Klosterman visits which evokes much of anything is in West Warwick, Rhode Island, where “the night pyrotechnics from the blues-metal sauropods in Great White turned a club called the Station into a torture chamber”. In fact, the entire scenario is sort of anamolous within the context of the rest of the places Klosterman visits: West Warwick is the only place on the itinerary where rock fans (as opposed to rock stars or their girlfriends) were killed, it’s the only place where the musicians involved didn’t rise in the popular esteem after the catastrophe, it’s the only place where the visitor doesn’t feel like, in the words of the Chelsea Hotel manager, he is “not serious-minded” and “looking for nothing”, and it’s the only place where a sort of community has developed around the site (friends of the deceased apparently gather there each night to drink, get high, and reminisce). Pretty much everywhere else Klosterman visits is either inaccessible, banal, isolating or some combination of the three. In other words, while the deaths of rock stars may be compelling, the places they died don’t seem to be. Klosterman himself admits in the prologue:

In the course of this voyage, I will stand where 119 people have fallen, almost all of whom were unwilling victims of rock’s glistening scythe. And this will teach me something I already knew.

That lesson? “Even when it’s merely an accident, dying somehow proves you weren’t kidding.” As Klosterman says, in the context of the Station fire, “people of [his] generation despise authenticity, mostly because they’re all so envious of it. It’s almost like they want to be burned alive, because that would prove they had grit.” However, true as this may be, it’s really not, in and of itself, enough to sustain an entire travel memoir.

Fortunately, Klosterman isn’t afraid of shucking off strict reporting in favor of entering into his own thoughts and experiences when reality doesn’t live up to editorial aspirations, so there’s more to the book than just a laundry list of relatively uninspiring and only quasi-famous places. Which should be all to the good, since Klosterman is the guy who, in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, blamed the inability of “dynamic, nonretarded Americans” to “experience the kind of mind-blowing, transcendent relationship they perceive to be a normal part of living” on John Cusack, is secretly ashamed to be attracted to Pamela Anderson because “[i]t’s almost like desiring Pamela Anderson is like admitting that—sexually—you have no creativity”, argues that “[t]here is no relationship that is not a [1980’s] Celtics-Lakers relationship”, and thinks born-again Christians are cool because “they want to be judged. They can’t fucking wait.” In other words, Klosterman is, at least in theory, interesting and insightful enough to carry a book on the strength of his observations, his musings, and the 600 CDs he brought with him for the journey.

At times, he thoroughly lives up to this potential, whether he’s noting that “[i]t’s like looking down from heaven and watching all the mortals majoring in philosophy” when he realizes that he, in hotel in Montana, knows that power will return to New York the next day (this was August, 2003) while the people there have no idea when or if the lights will come back on, or offering a delightfully self-indulgent paean to the hotel shower:

Hotel showers are flawless. Within the realm of your hotel shower, you are an emperor. A tyrant! Everything is designed solely for you: one little bar of soap, one little bottle of shampoo, and a circular heating lamp stationed above your skull.

Aside from these and similar interludes, Klosterman’s musings on Kurt Cobain’s suicide really form the highlight of the book, because they tie together most of Klosterman’s main obsessions: sex, love, death, authenticity, popularity and music. He’s not afraid to point out that Pearl Jam had supplanted Nirvana as the most popular Seattle grunge band by 1994, that Cobain was rapidly acquiring a reputation as a self-absorbed nutball and that people who didn’t even know or care much about Cobain or Nirvana turned his death into a retrospectively epochal event. Klosterman’s explanation for all this seems eminently reasonable: that Cobain’s death didn’t change the public’s perception of him so much as its perception of itself;

Cobain’s suicide was of the postmodern variety; his death changed the history of the living. Suicide gave sorority girls depth; nihilistic punk kids, a soul; reformed metalheads, a brain. All you had to do was remember caring about Nirvana, even if you did not. And it’s not that these self-styled revisionists were consciously lying; it’s more that they really, really needed that notion to be true. Kurt Cobain was that popular-yet-unpopular kid who died for the sins of your personality.

While these musings on Cobain form the climax of the book, Klosterman (in my mind appropriately) follows with a final chapter that is mostly anti-climactic, stepping back a bit (as it were) from the rhetorical ledge and refusing to ignore the “mildly depressing revelation that dead people are simply dead.” Unfortunately, he also needs to provide closure to by far the weakest narrative theme of the book, his obsession with three different women that he’s either in love with, or used to be in love with, or wants to be in love with, or something.

Klosterman’s (mostly imaginary) love life increasingly dominates the book, starting with a relatively innocent ride he gives to a co-worker and sometimes lover on the first leg of the journey, and ultimately metastasizing into an entire imaginary conversation/argument with the three women he’s obsessed with, a discursion on the KISS solo albums that morphs into an equation of each women he’s loved in his life to some member or former member of KISS, and a number of relationship ultimata both given and received. The KISS comparisons are weirdly compelling, but, although at times one can identify with Klosterman’s situation and mixed feelings of love, they’re ultimately all a little too personal and specific to really make the nut, to use a favorite phrase of the inimitable Hunter S. Thompson, who was a master of making the personal general.

That all having been said, Killing Yourself to Live is still a diverting and interesting book and, to be honest, I think its faults lie more at the feet of the editor than the author. Klosterman is, at heart, an essayist, social critic, and astute observer of minutiae who, at least at present, seems to lack the novelistic instincts required to maintain a narrative that his editor hopes will be “epic” (pg. 12). If it had been conceived as a collection of semi-independent essays, I think Killing Yourself to Live could have been a stronger, more focused counterpoint to the wide-ranging and scattershot brilliance of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.

1. An attack of honestly which may, perversely, prevent similar situations from arising in the future, compels me to mention that, although I would have bought and read the book anyway and this review is as honest as I can make it, I did receive a free review copy of Killing Yourself to Live. And if anybody else wants to send me free books, I’ll be happy to review those, too.

2 Responses to “Killing Yourself to Live”

  1. shonk Says:

    Extremely negative review that I partially agree with:

  2. lynn joines Says:

    I found a really interesting interview with Beverly Cobain (Kurt Cobain’s cousin). Judyth Piazza, the interviewer asked the question “Did Courtney Love have anything to do with Kurt’s death? Check it out at

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