Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Untimely Reviews: Fargo Rock City

At the end of the summer, I started doing this “Untimely Review” series because, well, it seemed catchy and shit. If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll note that you probably recall the series, and if you’re real familiar with this blog, you may have noticed that I’ve, at least temporarily, abandoned my efforts to write profanity-free content. I blame the kids with whom I work now. They have this brand of cursing that includes the four-letter words we’re all used to, only it manages to work them in more often and with a sense of emphatic disrespect.

It’s pretty awesome. (Update: No, not really. Contagious. Yes, “contagious” was the word I sought.)

Anyway, they curse a ton. The music they listen to –- mostly Eminem, some old-school gangsta’ rap, and a slew of all the new rappers that seem to aim for nothing shy of a discography riddled with absolute garbage –- was all crafted at the International Who Can Cuss the Most Challenge, and so it has rubbed off on me. At the end of the day, they cuss more; I cuss better.

The last book I finished was Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City. It was a book I dove into with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I crushed Killing Yourself to Live, the last (and first) book by him I read. I mean, I hammered that shit out in two and-a-half days flat, which is fast for me. By comparison, the book I’m reading now, I started right after I finished Fargo, and that was in late October. Of course, I don’t have my awesome paid-to-read/check-IDs job anymore, but that’s another story.

So on the one hand, I was stoked to read Fargo. Killing Yourself to Live was about, among other things, areas of the country in which famous musicians died. Fargo, as the unofficial subtitle suggests, is "a heavy metal odyssey in rural North Dakota." I fucking hate metal. With a passion.

To steal and butcher a line from Office Space, I think that most metal bands are “no-talent ass clown”s that have a fan base because this country is loaded with idiots conceived in hot, incestual, meth-riddled trailer parks and those idiots will lap up whatever garbage (insert name of preferred metal band) records, releases, and plays live. So, yeah. On the one hand, I was eager to read this book, but on the other hand, I was like, Fuck this book.

Spoiler alert: It’s a pretty rad God-damned book. It didn’t change one iota of my opinion of metal. I still think it’s all a bunch of cocaine-and-whiskey-juiced anal-fissure pus, but that’s just my opinion.

Anyway, to the notes…

On page five, the words, “’Wanted Dead or Alive,’ the best Bon Jovi song there ever was” sent a lump like swallowed chewing tobacco to the depths of my stomach. For a moment I felt like I wouldn’t be able to turn another page, as if furry, lovable, ol’ Grover was telling me there was a monster at the end of the book, and that continuing to read would only lead to both of our demises.

A terrible start.

Having read that passage, I somehow tabled the rise of hate-fueled adrenaline and got past the moment, but many years ago, I crafted this theory, and I stand by it today: If you compiled a list of the top 100 worst acts in music history, Meatloaf and Bon Jovi would be forced to fight to the death for spots one and two. And by “fight to the death,” I mean that Meatloaf lands the two spot based solely on the fact that he is a giant pussy.

This is a serious issue, and here’s how tough it is for me: I try not to hate. I try not to say the word “hate” and on countless occasions, I corrected social-work clients of mine to attempt to refrain from using the word. There is little that I hate, but Bon Jovi, and the popularity that continues to swarm them, will forever be chiseled into the scorn section of my soul.

I could be out at my favorite bar in the world. The tavern could be full –- but not packed; I'm too old for that -– with nothing but my greatest friends and staffed with a dream team of service-industry employees. I could be having the time of my life. Then, at any given moment, the words “Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame” come through the jukebox speakers. You know what happens next: Every fluid-buzzed knucklehead in the joint retorts in unison with, “You give love…a bad name,” and my night –- eh, my entire week -- is ruined.

You get the gist: I fucking hate Bon Jovi.

Anyway, 20 pages later, we get to a more important issue, and let’s just get this out of the way: I grew up a pretty massive Def Leppard fan. I’ll own that statement. I owned it in grade school, which was easy, ‘cause most everybody loved the Lep’ at that age.

I can remember staying up all night on sleepovers at buddies’ houses –- we never had cable –- watching MTV and virtually praying that we’d get to see the “Rock of Ages” video. The night my prayer was answered I was laying on my stomach in Jeff Barton’s living room, head in hands, mere feet from the Barton’s massive television. Jeff had already seen it. He’d told me about the amazing glow-in-the-dark sword Joe Elliot waves that ultimately turns into a guitar. I knew the song forward and backwards, courtesy of this record I had called Hot Tracks.

If you're unfamiliar with this compilation (Editor's Note: I was unfamiliar with the fact that they appear to have put out some 15 or so sequels to Hot Tracks, but I only cared enough to investigate the matter for about 90 seconds. I did come across a copy of it at the record store a little over a year ago, but I wasn't about to own it on vinyl for the second time in my life.)

it had some gems on it: Styx's "Mr. Roboto," Bryan Adams' "This Time," Hall & Oates' "Maneater," "Maniac" by Michael Sembello, "Don't Pay the Ferryman" by Chris DeBergh, and Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio," just to name a few. That Flashdance song by Irene Cara may or may not've been on there, but anyway, "Rock of Ages."

The cut was eerie and intriguing, invoking yet frightening. From the goofy German-sounding vocal intro to the sheer awesomeness of a chorus that boasts “Long live rock n’ roll!” to the crisp (and in hindsight less-than-moving) guitar solo, to the match-strike/cackle that closes it out, I simply had to see this video. That might’ve been the only time I ever saw the video from start to finish, but it delivered everything I’d hoped for and more. Of course, we are talking about 1983, and we all know now that the video is actually pretty terrible:

If you give Elliot a pass –- and there’s nothing to suggest that you should -- for being nothing more than a vocalist, then there are serious issues with this video, namely the stupidly shaped guitars and the abundance of bandanas around necks, but hey –- sign of the times, I guess. None of this, however, is the point. This is:

“…whether or not Def Leppard was a ‘metal’ band or a ‘rock’ band (the latter term being an insult). Looking back, the answer seems completely obvious: Of course Def Leppard was a metal band.”

Throw a flag. Call timeout. Check the tape.

Agree to disagree, Mr. Klosterman, and I mean that in the meanest possible way.

There is absolutely no reason on the planet to ever think, even for a second, that Def Leppard was metal. (Note: For a small dose of coincidence, "Love Bites" came trickling in through the satellite-radio speakers at work today, right as I got to this passage. Cooky, I know.) Here, then, is my rough, completely biased-and-stubborn theory:

In the world of rock music, there are three categories: rock, hard rock, and metal.

I’m not going to flesh this out any more than these examples, in order: the Beatles, AC/DC, Anthrax*.

*Major irony: I actually like Anthrax (and even had a small Iron Maiden interest for a short minute) but it was too cliché to say Metallica. So on second thought, let’s say Megadeath, but stick with the driving force that metal, as a whole, sucks. I’m not interested in divvying up into glam metal and hair metal and speed metal. It’s all frickin’ metal, which can be summed as such: speed drumming, power chords, screaming. And it sucks. Except for the part about Anthrax and small doses of Maiden.

Of course, the rock family is extensive, one with many cousins, some of which are second, some are once-removed, etc. Okay, one more circa-1983 point: Rock is what you hear on the radio, be it oldies or classic rock; hard rock is what you heard on hard-rock stations and in your friends’ older brothers’ bedrooms; metal is, well, for the most part, a waste of time and something only nerds and small packs of loners listen(ed) to.

If anything, Lep’ was hard rockish with High N’ Dry and On Through the Night, shifted to rock with Pyromania, to pop rock with Hysteria, and finally to irrelevant with Adrenalize and beyond.

Anyway, I still owned my fandom in middle school, which was a move becoming less popular, and in high school, my affinity for these Brits had nearly vanished. I have no problem admitting all of that now, but I only do so to illustrate my own theory on how to genrecize music.

The point is that, less than 30 pages in, I’ve already had two severe, silent arguments with the author. I’d like to think most people would have given up. Hell, I’d usually have given up, but I had Killing Yourself to Live under my belt. I knew how brilliant Klosterman had been in it, and secretly, I was enjoying the hell out of this book, too. So far, anyway.

By the time I hit pages 48-49, I was pretty well sold. I’d definitely finish the thing, disagreements or not. Christ, who am I kidding? I was going to finish it before I even read the opening line. That’s what great writers do. They make you read entire books on shit you don’t care about. Nevertheless, there’s a segment on Rush in there, and I love me some Rush. If you don’t love you some -- I'm looking at you, Chris Jones -- you should flip to the therapy section of your yellow pages, and get into an office quick so you can iron out those issues.

Naturally, Rush is an easy answer if you subscribe to my theory and are interested in correctly placing them in the genre charts. Klosterman made the point moot, though, in this passage. I won’t quote what he said about the band because you need to read it for yourself. I will, however, quote what he said directly thereafter:

“So what does this mean? Well, it simply proves that attempts to categorize anything (rock groups or otherwise) have more to do with personal perception than reality.”

Fuck. Thanks a lot, dick. So, you’re telling me that decades of energy invested in categorizing, emphasizing, and dignifying my self-created theory was all for naught?

Those two sentences stripped my orbit of gravity, took the wind out of my sails, and de-magnetized my compass. They replaced my order with chaos, and in the same instant, injected my mental war ground with peace.

Okay, then. I was transported to a recovery room, and plowed to the next pages with newfound, perspectiveless perspectives.

Except: Bon Jovi still sucks. I’m gettin' buried with that one, Cheech.

Anyway, down the line, on page 121, I’m a totally new man, freed from the chains of detail and insistence, when, to my chagrin, example number two from my aforementioned theory appears: AC/DC.

Not only did this occur 70-some pages after being gifted freedom, but it also snuck up on me in a title that had something to do with Lita Ford. I won’t get into the details, save one: “And who could be more metal than AC/DC?”

Suffice to say that all of the tics, bad habits, and emotional scars I’d overcome, they were all back and swarming me like an army of orcs and goblins from a Lord of the Rings movie. This, to me, was the musical equivalent of giving women the right to vote, holding an election, then announcing the results with a just-kidding-we-only-counted-the-male-voter-ballots asterisk.

In the next chapter, which touches on George Michael, Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen, the Scorpions, and Poison (Note: If you're keeping score at home, Poison is/was/will always be terrible. Period.), there is an early sentence that reads as such:

“The goal was not just to hate pop singles, but to deny (or at least ignore) that they even existed.”

This notion struck me, because, growing up, if you removed the words “pop” and “singles” from that sentence, and replaced them with “metal” and “bands,” this was me, my mantra, and my motivation. And if you skip a few pages down the road, I think you have the reason why.

The phrase “killed off the hypocritical, self-righteous hippie mentality that was poisoning the planet” is followed, a few sentences later, with this:

“The devil intrigued me more than sex and drugs combined…”

The back story is that Klosterman is discussing Black Sabbath in this passage. For the record, I love Black Sabbath. I think they were wildly important in the spectrum of rock development and in case you were wondering: No, I never considered them to be metal. Clearly, they were the high end of hard rock, and the same goes for the key years of solo Ozzy.

I didn’t always love Sabbath, though. I think they probably scared me for a time, but that’s because, right around the time Def Leppard was recording Pyromania, Ozzy Osbourne was biting the heads off of bats or doves, or whatever it was at some of his concerts. And, well, I was nine. Also, I was (read: still am partially) traumatized by the fact that I killed a bird with a tennis ball during a game of driveway baseball, and on top of that, I’m Catholic. So, Satan and death and darkness didn’t have any form of a place in my mindset, musical or otherwise.

More to the point: Drugs scared me for a time, too. I mean, every school I ever attended –- believe me, there were a lot of them -- pounded the drugs-er-bad-mmkay? philosophy into my head to the point of literally being frightened that garbage-bag-full-of-drugs-toting criminals were certain to snatch me up on any given walk home. They didn’t always scare me.

Eventually, I grew to kinda like ‘em.

Sex, on the other hand, never scared me. Not a once.

On top of that, I’ve been called a hippie, let’s see, roughly 1,000 times. So, if I like sex and drugs, prefer to avoid Satan and death, and think bands like Slayer suck on slow-roasted pig feces, then I guess we’re in different camps.

And in case we didn’t need further evidence to support the different-camp supposition, page 148 brands it as fact to the ass of the cow on the cover of the book:

“Listen to any disco compilation...” or “98 percent of the ska bands that emerged in the mid-1990s (or most of the originals, for that matter). The overwhelming majority of what you’ll hear will be wretched.”

Chuck Klosterman –- You, sir, are a blasphemer, and should be committed. So long as, you know, you can keep writing kickass books from your institution.

Wait a minute. I didn’t even get off of that very page before wanting to alter the terms of your asylum sendoff:

“For example, Tubthumping by Chumbawumba has been proven to be a more important album than Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind.”

Let’s take a look at that again: “Tubthumping by Chumbawumba has been proven to be a more important album than Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind.”

I…I can’t even. I pity your poor, sick mind, sir, and I’m afraid that upon arrival to the institution you will come to know as "home," you will have to be shackled and placed in a padded room for a fortnight. Also, your editor should lose his credentials.

Yeah, Time won three Grammys, Album of the Year, and was part of Rolling Stone’s Top 500 of all time, but you wanna rock the Chumbawumba. I’ll say two more things about this sad little bit of scroll:

1) Phish covered it as a joke:

2) Time was also heralded in this internationally recognized blog as the third-best album of Dylan’s entire discography, so you go right ahead and sing about how you get knocked down, but you get up again while you’re doing time in the hole.

Now, then. My eyes have been slimed with some unwashable filth, and now armed with two weapons: retina sanitizer and pot shots. Let’s move to page 154 for the next installment of the latter:

“Unless you’re a serial killer, AC/DC will forever be remembered as a buzzsaw guitar band, and that’s mostly because Angus Young was so stunningly effective on Back in Black.”

Whoa. Not every spaghetti noodle sticks to the wall, man, and you’re gonna need to fish that one out from behind the stove. Clarification: I love the shit out of AC/DC. All of it. Okay, everything that preceded The Razor’s Edge, so most of it.

AC/DC rocked the pants off of everyone that ever listened to them, be that live or via album. They were massive, and their sound was huge, but that was so because of what they did as a unit. Mostly, said unit was the combination of Young and Bon Scott or Young and Brian Johnson, dependent upon era. But it certainly had less to do with the bass, the drumming, and the rhythm guitar of Malcolm Young, and almost never had anything to do with them being a buzzsaw guitar band.

I say that to take absolutely nothing away from the ax skills of Mr. Young. He was and is a fine, fine guitarist. He did not, however, do much of anything inventive with his instrument. He shredded. Make no mistake. And he was loud in doing so, but he’s going to fall far from the top of the greats list, and the only way you’d ever call him buzzsaw as a six-stringer, would be if you referred to the eardrum-melting volume through which his sound was conveyed. I mean, if calling Angus Young “stunningly effective” is not a nice way of saying he wasn’t creative, it should be.

Okay. Pot shots aside, Klosterman does some seriously solid listing in this book, but I must take issue with a portion of page 162, wherein he references that a couple of greatest-hits albums are better than some of the studio albums recorded by those same artists. I say that to say this: I deride greatest-hits albums because it typically detracts from the energy of the recording session.

And, one page later, we’re back to pot shots:

“And in retrospect, ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ really isn’t as horrible as I’d like to remember (if nothing else, it undoubtedly inspired Firehouse’s 'Don’t Treat Me Bad,' which I sometimes think might be among the forty finest songs ever released in the U.S.).”

Yeee-ah. That's a serious allegation, there, fella. And by "serious," I mean: revokage of the credentialage. Yeesh. That was about as pleasant to read as getting a cinder block thrown against your shin. We’ve covered how horrible all things Jov’ are, and there’s no sense in revisiting it. Here’s the thing about that Firehouse song: It had a poorly produced video to go along with it, and the gal in it had cans the size of basketballs. I mean, if you wanna say that those boobs were among the finest forty things ever released in the U.S., then fine. The song itself, however, was nasally sung, obnoxiously redundant, and whiny at best.

Anyway, 20 pages later, we finally get some Metallica talk. I was eager to hear what the non-Louis C.K. would have to say about Metallica, namely because my own stance on them has, for decades now, tired anyone who's ever spoken to me about music, myself included. But...we appear to actually agree on Metallica (at least on this page), sort of:

“It’s my suspicion that when today’s new generation of rock writers matures into forty-five-year-old bastards and starts running the media industry, Metallica will suddenly become more and more ‘important,’ perhaps even on scale with Led Zeppelin and The Who.”

There’s um, a word I’m looking for to summarize such an assertion. Oh, yeah. Now I remember it: wrong.

A few page turns, and we get this:

“…conventional hipster wisdom is that punk was invented when some kid tried to play ‘Communication Breakdown’ in his basement and couldn’t figure out the chord changes.”

I get that this is a knock on hipsters, and I’d never heard such a philosophy before, but either way, I like it.

Same page:

“It is difficult to listen to any full-length Metallica record, or even to sit through an hour-long collection of the best Metallica songs played in succession.”

Now we're cookin’ with gas. Preach on, brotha’. Boometh wenteth the dynamite. Eth.

Moving ahead to 212:

“Satriani surfed with an alien, but mostly it was stupid.”

Calling Satriani stupid is -– based on what I learned from this book –- counterintuitive to what this book wants to be. It’s like saying that wanting to bang a hot chick is foolish and tiresome.

One page later is a nice little bit about The Nuge’:

“If Ted wants to ice a few thousand ungulates before he takes his own dirt nap, I won’t hold it against him.”

I’m’a nominate that for one of the best rock-writer sentences ever composed.

Near the end, things get pretty GN’R heavy, which isn’t a bad thing considering that they were pretty huge and pretty God-damned good for a minute. Regarding one video in particular, Klosterman writes, “I hated the conclusion of (it) with a passion that I usually reserve for highway patrolmen, inner-city panhandlers, and the WNBA.”

That’s it. Just a really great sentence. One I plan on stealing.

Also from the radical-sentence department on page 225:

“After a hard night of bloated commercialism and meaningless sex, Budweiser helped you unwind like a man, even though it’s made from rice.”

Budweiser, if I may, draws a lot of parallels to Bon Jovi. It's nasty and appealing to degenerates. In sum: Rice doesn't belong in beer, just as the Jov' doesn't belong in music libraries or discussions.

Not only was I stoked to read a chapter called, “I get drunk and go to a hockey game,” I am stoked to order a Witty Chuck –- you’ll have to read the book, people -– at my next opportunity.

And finally, 20 pages from the end, we get a Phish mention.

I mean, I can't really think of a better way to wrap up than that. A great book about music that waits til the close to identify, albeit in a fashion quite mysterious -- the greatest American band of the last 20 years.

Anyway, I've got two Klostermans under my belt, now, and he's easily one of the best contemporary writers around. Problem is, he writes a lot about music and his musical opinions are, for the most part, just awful.

I'll get over it, though. Up next for me, after a pair of torturous assignments: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.