Chuck Klosterman: Pop Evil

Books Features Chuck Klosterman

In the index, you’ll find “Van Halen” listed immediately below “Vader, Darth.” And the voice remains one-part pop-savant, one-part hyper-intellectual and one-part down-to-earth North Dakota farm kid.

Yet, in many ways, the Chuck Klosterman who penned the collection of 12 new essays in I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined), is a different scribe than the wunderkind who slung lightning-bolt prose about Lita Ford and Shout at the Devil in his 2001 debut, Fargo Rock City, and The Real World cast, Pamela Anderson and the Celtics-Lakers rivalry in the breakthrough 2003 follow-up, Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.

There’s less cursing, for one.

“If you read my books in order, you would sort of see the maturation of my life,” Klosterman, 41, says. He’s in the living room of the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his wife, Entertainment Weekly journalist Melissa Maerz. “And the way I have matured is probably not that different than any normal person. And most critics are not like that. Most critics write from the perspective of that they don’t want to sort of use their life as a way to illustrate how they understand the world. They just kind of want to say, ‘I like this,’ almost as if, ‘This is how I’ve always thought.’”

Klosterman’s Black Hat examinations of real-life and fictional baddies obvious (O.J. Simpson, Hitler, Omar from The Wire, Fred Durst) and not so obvious (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mark Knopfler, Charles Bronson in Death Wish) also get to the point quicker than those in his early tomes.

And cut deeper—much like how a mid-career Kobe Bryant deployed less razzle-dazzle than his younger self, but sliced to the hoop or buried a fall-away jumper more successfully.

The most compelling Black Hat passages find Klosterman riffing on WikiLeaks mastermind Julian Assange, mysterious hijacker D.B. Cooper, larger-than-life Internet piracy kingpin Kim Dotcom and New York subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz.

“I think there were probably five or six lists,” Klosterman says of determining who he’d address in Black Hat. “At least one of them was a Word file. Another was on the ‘Notes’ app of my iPhone. A few were handwritten in notebooks. All of them are roughly close to what ended up in the final book, but none were identical. But what I was really looking for was sort of the abstract themes that caused people to view someone as villainous or problematic. My books are really just sort of me working through the things that I’m already interested in.”

Perhaps the most eyebrow raising Black Hat material concerns boxing great Muhammad Ali using “racial invective to humiliate” his rival Joe Frazier, a man who petitioned for Ali’s reinstatement to boxing after Ali was banned from the sport in 1967 after refusing military service; and Ali bragging about attending a Ku Klux Klan meeting in 1975 “because they agreed on the issue of interracial marriage (both sides saw it as an atrocity).”

“Muhammad Ali is a real meaningful figure in this kind of discussion because he is almost universally perceived as heroic to the point where the problematic things about his character, you wouldn’t even want to use them as character balance. They almost want to wipe that off the historical record. And I mention this in that section of the book, it’s a little bit like how when Beatles fans talk about John Lennon, there were always really discomforting rumors about the way John Lennon treated women, but no one wants that to be part of his legacy because overall we know that John Lennon was good for society. Overall, we know Muhammad Ali was good for society.

“Nobody tried to dissuade me from writing that (Ali passage). I feel that I’m pretty … cautious about forwarding ideas that I know will be controversial. I’m sure somebody will read that and they will be offended or upset by it.”

A recurring qualifier in the 224-page Black Hat, out today (July 9), is “a villain is the person who knows the most, but cares the least.” Several memorable pages explore why recent TV drug dealers—such as the aforementioned Omar and Botwin, as well as Breaking Bad’s Walter White—are often depicted as somewhat moral, a stark deviation from evil, past portrayals. I ask Klosterman if he’s more interested in TV these days than current popular music, and if that’s because there’s a lack of villainous rock stars, a la Jimmy Page, Slash or even Kurt Cobain. While artists such as Jack White and Alabama Shakes are making vibrant guitar-driven music, they’re not villainous, and the decidedly non-threatening Taylor Swift probably receives the most Black Hat ink of any contemporary artist.

“Television has gotten much better over the last 10 or 15 years in my opinion, than it’s ever been,” Klosterman explains. “So that’s part of it. And another thing is, I love all music but I’m fundamentally kind of a rock person. And rock is essentially not disappearing, but it’s certainly rapidly fading from the public consciousness and certainly doesn’t play the role in culture that it used to. If you were actually looking for the sort of figure we’re talking about, it would be an analysis of Kanye West or something.

“The idea of rock being important … I don’t know. Anything can have a revival, but I am under the impression that when I am an elderly person the role of rock ’n’ roll in America will be like the role of jazz now. It will exist but it will just sort of be like an arcane thing that a collector is interested in.” (Lately, Klosterman says he’s been listening to the new Kanye and Black Sabbath records, vintage Beach Boys, INXS, John Denver, Sweet, Rush and UFO, as well as punk upstarts Parquet Courts and California X.)

Klosterman pondered over Black Hat for about a year before spending about nine months or so writing it. Scribner’s Brant Rumble has edited each of Klosterman’s eight books, beginning with Fargo Rock City, a 45-page proposal of which arrived in a plain manila envelope on his desk in 1999 when he was Nan Graham’s assistant.

“It was the classic case of I went home and read it, and came in the next day and told my boss that I loved this and I want to try and get this guy signed up and I think he’s got a huge future,” Rumble says. He’s calling from his 12th floor Rockefeller Center office, where the original Fargo Rock City manuscript once lied somewhere within one of several piles in the room.

Fellow pop-critic fireball Rob Sheffield first encountered Klosterman in 2002, after Chuck moved to New York to work at Spin magazine. “I’m pretty sure we met in a bar where the song playing was the Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’ and he was the other guy in the bar who was into it besides me,” Sheffield says via e-mail, taking a break from recording the audio version of his upcoming book Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke which publishes Aug. 6. “I’d been a fan of his ever since I read Fargo Rock City in 2001. It blew my mind. It was like reading Ralph Waldo Emerson for the first time, except with a firmer grasp of the Slaughter discography. In a way all Chuck’s writing makes that same kind of demand—you have to let go of your preconceptions and prejudices.”

It’s well-documented Klosterman honed his skills at the University of North Dakota’s student paper, and, later, Ohio daily Akron Beacon Journal. But the bearded, bespectacled writer admits, “I hate to say something about myself that seems so cliché, but I was always like this. Always. When I was very little, I would create this fictional version of TV Guide, with all the show listings and plot synopsis, along with a bunch of programs that didn’t actually exist. I have no idea why I thought this was fun.”

By the 5th grade he was penning a one-page newspaper called The Daily Bugle (Yes, the same name as the fictional paper Spider-Man’s alter-ego Peter Parker worked for) just for his friends, featuring “lots of violent crime coverage” and sports news “about whatever we were doing at recess.”

By junior high, Klosterman’s nose was constantly between pages of metal-centric magazines Hit Parader and Circus, and sometimes he’d compose interviews with a made-up glam band called Leather Sasquatch. “But what’s weird is that these fictional Q&As were incredibly dull—it would just be the band members listing their musical influences and claiming their next album was going to be heavier than the previous album. For some reason, I always associated dullness with realism.”

By the time of Klosterman’s third book Killing Yourself to Live, the first-person narratives and gonzo journalism—and possibly the booze, weed and cocaine consumption detailed therein—made it hip to compare his writing to Hunter S. Thompson’s. These days, Klosterman’s libations of choice include red wine at home and Bass or Boddingtons beer when out-and-about.

“I think [Thompson’s] an awesome writer and I understand why the comparison was made. But I don’t think my writing was like that,” Klosterman says.

Although early on, Klosterman aspired to write like David Foster Wallace and Douglas Coupland, he eventually reached an epiphany that aping another’s voice made him “feel stupid, almost like you’re a cover band.”

While writing his first novel, 2008’s Downtown Owl, an undertaking he readily admits was “really hard,” Klosterman zoomed the first two seasons of Lost on DVD. “I had not watched it when it first came out, and I loved it. And I was like, ‘Okay. Why can television make people have this feeling, but books, for whatever reasons are still tied to the way they were written 500 years ago?’

“You want to still have a relationship to the tradition of literature—the idea of putting sentences together, all that—but in terms of the narrative, any modern person who reads a book now consciously creates it into a movie or television show in their mind. There’s no way around that. That’s a grammar of society now. A book can be whatever I want it to be. When I write, what I’m trying to do is make a book the way I wish other people did.”

Speaking of Downtown Owl, a few years ago Parks and Recreation actor Adam Scott purchased the rights to make a film based on the book.

“And it never came out and the option has expired,” Klosterman says. “I saw [Scott] give an interview he did recently where he suggested that he still wants to make it into a movie. But I don’t know. It’s always exciting when someone wants to make your book into a movie or whatever, but it never happens.”

Would Klosterman be interested in giving screenwriting a shot, whether for an adaptation of one of his works or a completely new storyline? “I don’t know, maybe I’ll do it at some point, but it’s weird: I’ve finally gotten to the point where I feel I know how to write books, and as soon you’re at that point, people are like, ‘Hey you’re good at writing books. ‘Why don’t you write a movie now?’ My thinking is: I want to write books as long as I can write ’em, and maybe at some point I’ll run out of ideas or nobody will be interested anymore.

“And then maybe I’ll write a movie.”

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