In 1965, Roger Daltrey sang, "I hope I die before I get old."
Forty years later, The Who's Daltrey and Pete Townshend (who wrote the lyric) remain alive and well. But in a way, they might have been better off living up to (no pun intended) their proclamation.
"Unless you're Shannon Hoon (of Blind Melon), dying is the only thing that guarantees a rock star will have a legacy that stretches beyond temporary relevance," writes Chuck Klosterman in his new book, "Killing Yourself To Live: 85 Percent of a True Story."
"I want to find out why the greatest career move any musician can make is to stop breathing," he pronounces.
Klosterman, a music critic for Spin magazine, sets out to tour the U.S. and visit the places where tragedy befell some of rock's greatest stars. He begins at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen. (Vicious died of a drug overdose only months later.)
He then traipses across the country in a rented car to destinations including the swamp in Mississippi where Lynyrd Skynyrd's airplane crashed, the Rhode Island nightclub where a fire killed 100 at a Whitesnake concert in 2003, and the soybean field in Clear Lake, Iowa, where the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson went down Feb. 3, 1959 - "the day the music died."
This is Klosterman's third book, following 2003's hip pop culture manifesto, "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs." In the tradition of Nick Hornby, Klosterman has emerged as the witty rock geek of a generation - "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs" even made a cameo appearance on TV's "The O.C."
In "Killing Yourself to Live," he is mostly up to his usual tricks, which include extensively identifying each of his former girlfriends with a member of Kiss. He remains one of few writers who can make a reader laugh out loud. In Nashville he writes, "Line dancing reminds me of the way Great Britain used to fight land wars."
The subject of Klosterman's book may seem depressing, but it's seldom handled that way. One brief list of 10 memorable rock deaths reads more like those annual Darwin Awards that make jokes out of unusual demises.
Eventually he concludes, "I am not a serious person."
The real problem with "Killing Yourself," however, is the large subtext Klosterman has inserted about the women in his life. His constant contemplation of his love life history nearly takes over the book. Worse, he tends to write about people in his life as though only to communicate with them, simply curious about their eventual reaction.
One suspects Klosterman wouldn't even deny this, but no one likes to feel like a middle man.
His point is that "it seems like love and death and rock 'n' roll are the same experience." That is, our experience of each is entirely predicated on context; we love a song because of what it makes us think about, we fall in love because of our own mind-set.
Finally, Klosterman makes his way to the mecca of rock-star death: Seattle. Kurt Cobain's suicide, he says, is the ultimate rock death in altering memory.
"His death changed the history of the living. Suicide gave sorority girls depth; nihilistic punk kids, a soul; reformed metalheads, a brain," he writes. Cobain was "that popular-yet-unpopular kid who died for the sins of your personality."
Whether "Killing Yourself To Live" should have remained a magazine article (as originally planned) is debatable. But his general approach to music is captivating enough to warrant the pages.
"Killing Yourself To Live: 85 Percent of a True Story." By Chuck Klosterman. Scribner. 245 Pages. $23.
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