One of the virtues of Chuck Klosterman’s take on 1980s heavy metal in Fargo Rock City is that, once you’ve read it, you’ll never look at metal the same way again.
Born and raised in Wyndmere, N.D., Klosterman had already covered music for the Fargo Forum and the Akron Beacon Journal before writing it, and has since gone o to write for GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and The Washington Post, as well as a number of bestselling books.
Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, first published in 2001, was his piercing, hilarious take on a musical genre so derided after it fell from popularity in the early ’90s it would be hard to even take a book about it seriously.
(Deena Weinstein’s 1991 sociological study Heavy Metal: The Music and its Culture, was a rare exception.)
Klosterman makes his look at the music deeply personal, recounting vignettes from his adolescence in rural North Dakota and mixing them with observations on what the metal subculture meant.
But it’s that odd combo that proves most of his points. What does a farm kid for whom “the big city” means a trip to Fargo have in common with Nikki Sixx, drugged out and getting into street frights in Los Angeles while penning “Too Fast For Love”? Maybe nothing, but there was something in that music that spoke to teens like Klosterman everywhere.
Maybe it was the glamorous, deliberately over-the-top excess of the likes of Mötley Crüe, Poison and Guns N’ Roses that made them logical choices of musical rebellion. Maybe it was the reckless chicanery of Van Halen — outrageous but basically harmless, good for scandalizing your grandmother but not anything that would actually hurt you.
If you love (or loved) the likes of Bon Jovi, Poison, Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Faster Pussycat and the many others who ruled the metal roost in the 1980s, you’ll howl as Klosterman pays tribute to them and hilariously skewers them. (The original title was to have been Appetite For Deconstruction — a brilliant if somewhat inside joke.)
Klosterman analyzes the types of music videos that kept a band in heavy rotation (the faked “live with no audience” was a favourite among bands trying to break into MTV, such as Van Halen with “Jump” or Def Leppard with “Rock of Ages”). Klosterman’s take on the video for Whitesnake’s melancholy “Here I Go Again” still makes me laugh out loud when I read it:
“Though the lyrics of the song are about forging one’s own path and being a loner,” he writes, “the director of the video interpreted the song far differently: He seemed to think this song was about watching a woman trying to fuck a car.”
Klosterman also compiles his own list of favourite hair metal albums, within strict rules any music fan will appreciate. (No KISS, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, or Black Sabbath records from the 1970s were permitted, he says, because “This is the material that created hair metal. There is no value in measuring teachers against pupils.”) His analyses of each of his choices is worth far more than the list itself, which he frankly admits other fans may disagree with. (I don’t, for example, agree that Appetite For Destruction belongs where he places it; but I don’t dispute for a second his reasons for why it’s brilliant.)
That’s perhaps my favourite thing about Fargo Rock City. Klosterman eloquently, hilariously, intelligently legitimizes real criticism of ’80s metal, refuting attempts to write it off or forget it ever happened.
As he puts it in discussing whether Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil may actually be a concept album, “It’s one thing to recognize that something is goofy, but it’s quite another to suggest that goofiness disqualifies its significance. If anything, it expands the significance, because the product becomes accessible to a wider audience (and to the kind of audience who would never look for symbolism on its own).”
And that may just capture the entire genre right there: goofy, loud, dangerous music that changed the lives of millions. Whether you thought it was merely one of those things (or all three), Fargo Rock City is a fantastic read.
Fargo Rock City
A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota
- by Chuck Klosterman
- Touchstone / Simon and Schuster
- 273 pp