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Fargo Rock City

Boosting the street cred of ’90s “hair metal”

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Anyone born between 1970 and 1975 who reads this book will inevitably have to come to grips with the reality that everything contained within the text actually happened. The experiment that was “hair metal” was something that many people who lived through it the first time, and were of the age targeted by the record companies producing it, would just as soon forget. In certain instances, the act of sweeping something under the carpet in order to hide the fact that you were at least partly responsible for its existence, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many people of this age (roughly ages 26-32 now) probably spent most of the ’90s doing exactly this when the subject of their teenage musical tastes was brought up, especially among people outside of their age demographic. And understandably so, because maintaining even an ounce of musical credibility in the post-Nirvana era is impossible when, in a moment of complete honesty, you find yourself admitting to really liking the band Faster Pussycat. If you do fall into this age group, and you owned anything by either Poison or Motley Crue, Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, a heavy metal odyssey in rural North Dakota was written for you.

In the opening chapter Klosterman, a rock critic for Akron Ohio’s Beacon Journal, acknowledges the insecurity he sometimes feels for his own credibility because of his heavy metal past: “I became a cultural exile; I wandered the 1990s in search of pyrotechnic riffs and lukewarm Budweiser. It didn’t matter how much I pretended to like Sub Pop or hip-hop – I was an indisputable fossil from a musical Bronze Age, and everybody knew it. My street cred was always in question. Like a mutant species of metal morlocks, my fellow headbangers and I went into hiding, praying that the cute alternachick who worked at the local coffeehouse would not suss out our love for Krokus.”

Growing up near the small farming village of Wyndmere, North Dakota, Klosterman’s fascination with heavy metal began when his older brother returned home from the army with a copy of Motley Crue’s Shout at the Devil. The initial shock of seeing the four band member’s picture on the cassette cover was enough to both disturb and excite the author, enough so that he actually listened to the music. It can be imagined that for a rural teenager growing up in a Catholic family, the sight of four long-haired men wearing makeup, dressed in leather, and singing songs about the devil, could have a significant impact on that teenager’s psyche. In Klosterman’s case, the impact was severe, and would last for the next fifteen years. He became an instant convert, born again into the Church of Heavy Metal, taking his sacraments from W.Axl Rose, Vince Neil, and Pastor Osbourne.

The book’s purpose, as far as I can tell, is to legitimize the phenomenon of heavy metal. After reading it, it becomes apparent that this genre of music has truly been discredited as illegitimate by virtually every “serious” rock journal for far too long, and Klosterman is rather pissed off about it. The main argument made by the author is this: How can something like heavy metal that has sold records into the tens of millions of copies, be unworthy of a certain amount of praise? It’s a good point, and something he passionately and intellectually defends. He does this very well, and he does it with an extreme sense of humor. The language in the book goes from intellectually sardonic to a raw offensiveness that the author feels no need to defend, and actually encourages. Like the art form he is defending, the language avoids any shackles that the politically correct may see fit to use. This does seem fitting considering the context and the subject matter. Potential readers should be forewarned, however.

The book, although it is primarily about “hair” bands, does give kudos to some of the more serious and makeup-less bands like Metallica and Slayer, wherein the author gives a brilliant head-on observation of what made those bands tick. Klosterman writes: “Slayer would be Spinal Tap if they possessed even an ounce of irony, but – as it is – they are the most serious band who ever lived. The result is absolutely punishing. Slayer are kind of like a guy who walks up to you in a bar and says he’s going to rape your wife, burn down your house, shoot all your friends, cover your kids with acid, and then slowly starve you to death while rats nibble away at your emaciated flesh. Now, if this hypothetical guy is merely a drunken goofball, that kind of complex depravity seems hilarious (almost endearing). But if he’s the one guy on earth willing (and able) to do all those things, you’d suddenly realize you’re talking to the craziest, most sinister motherfucker who ever lived. Slayer is that one guy.”

The book is about heavy metal. The author is from a very small Midwestern town. He and all of his friends adored the music for its raw intensity, and they also loved the high-profile lifestyles of the musicians who made it. It can be assumed that many of heavy metal’s most dedicated fans probably came from small towns all over the United States similar to Klosterman’s. The music and the lifestyle portrayed by the musicians was for many small town teenagers, an accessible way to explore a different reality, without having to leave the comfort of the passenger seat of a friend’s pickup. The book is a hilariously opinionated tribute to some of the bands that one of those teenagers loved.

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