85% of a True Story

By Chuck Klosterman

Scribner. 245 pp. $23

From the earliest days of the relatively short history of rock-and-roll, tragic deaths have been startlingly commonplace. Overdoses and car wrecks, plane crashes and suicides, murders and just the dumbest bad luck have snatched the lives of a boatload of guitar slingers, barroom belters and demonic drummers.

The briefest of roll calls would have to include the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, who all perished on Feb. 3, 1959, the "day the music died." And Janis and Jimi of course, tied together by alliteration, their addictions and 1970, the year of their deaths. Keith Moon and John Lennon, dead of very different causes, but dead all the same, would be on the list. So, too, half of the Pretenders and nearly all of the Ramones. Gen-X saint Kurt Cobain's name would be read, as would that of the less well-known Great White guitarist Ty Longley, who died in that horrific Rhode Island nightclub blaze in 2003, along with nearly 100 of the heavy-metal band's fans.

So what to make of all of these early exits? What is it about rock-and-roll that makes it so hazardous? And what possible meaning could all those deaths hold? These questions drove Spin columnist and post-gonzo rock writer Chuck Klosterman to gas up a rented Ford Taurus and embark on an 18-day, 6,500-mile trek across America to visit the death shrines of rockers who departed too soon.

"Dying is the only thing that guarantees a rock star will have a legacy that stretches beyond temporary relevance," he writes. "Somewhere, at some point, somehow, somebody decided that death equals credibility. And I want to figure out why that is. I want to find out why the greatest career move any musician can make is to stop breathing."

Readers of his previous books will guess rightly that Klosterman's search for an answer to this question will be as entertaining as it is unpredictable, as madcap as it is occasionally maddening. The author of "Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota" and a collection of essays, "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto," Klosterman is prone to indulge in lengthy and confessional tangents, riffs on drug-taking exploits and, most notably, obsessive self-analysis of his relationships with women. These are mostly amusing, occasionally insightful and, every once in a while, as when he compares the various merits of Foghat's "Slow Ride" to Edgar Winter's "Free Ride," tedious.

In other words, Klosterman is literally and figuratively all over the map in this book. So while we travel with him to the King's final resting place at Graceland and to the Iowa cornfield where Buddy Holly's plane landed "quickly and accidentally," and learn of his failed attempt to visit Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, where Sex Pistol Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, we spend even more time on this journey learning about Lenore and Diane, Dee Dee and Quincy and all of the loves, would-be loves or just plain lusts of this North Dakota farm boy turned New York City anti-hipster.

Because he is a rock critic, or more accurately, because he loves music, Klosterman's analysis of anything involves some reference to either a band or a song. At one point he even reveals that "the only way I can intellectually organize the women I have loved is by thinking about the members of KISS." He goes on for three pages to compare the women not just to Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley but also to every musician who has had even the slightest involvement in that band. The lengthy aside ends with his mordant conclusion: "It is a miracle any woman has ever kissed me."

If all this self-obsessed ruminating sounds reminiscent of Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity" or even Dave Eggers's "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," well, Klosterman thinks so, too. He warns the reader, "In all probability, you will also complain about the author's reliance on self-indulgent, postmodern self-awareness, which will prompt the person you're conversing with to criticize the influence of Dave Eggers on the memoir-writing genre." And at the end, he quotes a co-worker as saying she doesn't understand why he would want to write a nonfiction book that would be unfavorably compared with "High Fidelity." Klosterman responds, "Well, perhaps if I specifically mention that possibility, it won't happen."

Of course, it's an old trick for writers to anticipate criticism and attempt to deflect it by writing about it first. Klosterman does it cleverly and amusingly but that doesn't make the points less valid. On the other hand, his admissions don't make the book any less engaging or entertaining, either. He is funny, sad, tormented, insightful, ludicrous and occasionally precious in a way that is all his own. And his observations on American culture, pop and otherwise, are often trenchant and thought-provoking.

For all his hours on the road in search of rock's casualties, Klosterman seems no closer at the end of the book to understanding the meaning of their deaths. His visits to shrines don't produce any great insights into the people they memorialize, only a nonspecific nostalgia for the way things used to be. Or maybe just for youth itself.

In one particularly moving passage, Klosterman visits the apartment where the Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson died of an overdose. Leaving, he is bowled over by memories not of Stinson but of a dear friend who died of cancer a year earlier and was a huge Replacements fan. Now Klosterman can't listen to "Bastards of Young" without weeping.

Turns out it's not the deaths of rock-and-rollers themselves that cut deepest. It's how those deaths remind us of the fragility of our own lives and dreams and how they shake us into acknowledging our ephemeral natures. And that's not very rock-and-roll at all.