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Eating the Dinosaur

Eating the Dinosaur

Eating “Eating the Dinosaur” (Part 2)

Mar 5, 2013
[Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 4.5Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11]

Eating the Dinosaur CoverOne thing that makes these essays an engaging read is that, with some of them, it’s almost impossible to tell going in what the actual theme of the essay is going to be. Klosterman likes to start off with a little riff that relates to, but isn’t actually, his intended topic. “Oh the Guilt,” for instance, begins with a discussion of guitar-smashing. “People wreck guitars to illustrate how important guitars are supposed to be,” he writes.

But this essay isn’t actually about rock stars smashing guitars. Except that it kind of is. Specifically, Klosterman wants to talk about how the band Nirvana used to smash their equipment — what smashing their equipment meant when they were a poor, struggling, unknown band, and what it meant when they were one of the biggest bands on the planet.

But this is all just an extended segue into the subject of Kurt Cobain and his sense of identity in context of his fame, success, and mainstream popularity, studied against the backdrop of the recording of Nirvana’s In Utero album, which Klosterman describes as “the first album actively promoted as a product I needed to buy because I was not going to like it.”

Oh, and somehow this is all tied to David Koresh and the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco by the U.S. government.

Klosterman’s overarching thesis about Cobain is that he was miserable because he was ashamed of and could not deal with his commercial success. He believes In Utero was a product of that shame — he calls it “Guilt Rock” — an album that was deliberately conceived as a repudiation of the kind of success Nirvana didn’t want, and the kind of fans Nirvana didn’t need, and as a way to retain — or regain — Nirvana’s credibility as anti-mainstream champions of the punk ethos, even as they had become the most mainstream band in the world at that time.

When Nirvana released their Incesticide compilation of B-sides and miscellaneous oddities in 1992, early pressings included a liner note written by Cobain (Geffen removed this note from the CD sometime in the mid-90s), a lengthy, rambling collection of rants and raves, including a defiant defense of his embattled wife, Courtney Love, and an exhortation to any homophobes, bigots, or misogynists listening to his music to please go away.

The bulk of the text is a story of how Cobain got a vinyl record by the Raincoats sent to him from London, and a long list of experiences that receiving this album was as rewarding as: touring with Shonen Knife and Sonic Youth, playing with the Vaselines, Daniel Johnston sending him drawings, and so on. (Cobain probably would have had a pretty entertaining weblog if he’d stuck around for the Internet era.) This obscure recording made Cobain

…happier than playing in front of thousands of people each night, rock-god idolization from fans, music industry plankton kissing my ass, and the millions of dollars I made last year.

Much of Klosterman’s essay is taken up with trying to figure out what fueled Cobain’s monumental self-loathing and discomfort with his success. This note, I think, says as much as anything else about what made Cobain hate himself so much. To me, what this note says is that Kurt Cobain was a huge, ultra-sincere music geek. He never stopped being a wide-eyed fan of the punk bands he idolized in his pre-megafame years, as well as his contemporaries who embodied his own anti-commercial, anti-mainstream values. Yet Nirvana’s success isolated Cobain from his heroes and peers to a greater degree than any other rock musician I can think of.

For an ambitious mainstream rock band like, say, U2, achieving massive global success brings them closer to their heroes. But when your role models are bands like The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, there can’t be anything more confounding and non-validating than finding yourself ushered into the top tiers of pop culture royalty, where your new peers are the likes of Garth Brooks and Britney Spears. When you make the kind of music Nirvana aspired to make, and end up where they did, you have, in every important way, failed as an artist.

Which is not, of course, to say that artistic integrity and commercial success can’t coexist. Prince, as far as I can tell, has never wavered from his singularly strange musical vision, no matter how it’s evolved over the years. He may have changed courses many times during his career, but never, as far as I can tell, in order to appease a record label or his fans.

And the reason for that, I think, is that he’s so supremely dedicated to his vision, and confident in his abilities to realize that vision, that there just isn’t room in his ego to accommodate the desires or opinions of others. He’s supremely media savvy and concerned about being understood by his audience 1, but his concern is solely about being accurately seen, not about being seen a particular way.

Cobain, on the other hand, was unable to process his stardom in a way that would allow him to exist as both a rock star and an artist of integrity, because he lacked the necessary egotism to disregard the opinions and demands — or in some cases, the very existence — of his audience and critics, and simply follow his muse.

Klosterman illustrates his thesis in a pretty clever way. By putting Nirvana’s schtick of trashing their instruments during their concerts side by side with their attempt to record a deliberately abrasive, anti-commercial followup to their commercial smash, he makes the case that Cobain’s fatal flaw was his inability to not engage with his fans.

He could not stop himself from caring about people who would only appreciate his work if he were a mainstream failure, just like they were.

Why did Nirvana continue to destroy their instruments after becoming famous? It wasn’t a punk gesture anymore — Nirvana could afford to smash truckloads of guitars. Post-success, it was a totally meaningless spectacle. Yet they continued to do so, because it was expected of them. And instead of just making whatever the hell album they wanted to make, Nirvana tried to make an album that would elicit a specific response from their audience and their critics.

It’s conceivable, maybe, that Cobain could have pulled back from the abyss had he been able to say “fuck the audience, fuck the critics, I’m just gonna do what I do, and they can love it or leave it.” But he couldn’t do that. In Utero is the final product of that inability. Nirvana set out to create something abrasive, unlistenable, and uncommercial — not as a musical statement, but a cultural one. It wasn’t representing Nirvana the band so much as “Nirvana,” the rock-pop phenomenon. And this album, whose selling point was its uncommercial artistic credibility, ended up selling 4 million copies and being faintly praised as a decent pop product by a mainstream band.

Although I, along with practically everyone else in America, played the shit out of Nevermind throughout 1991 and 1992, I wasn’t much more than a casual fan. Reading this essay moved me to listen to In Utero in full for the first time since probably 1994, when Cobain killed himself and I, along with everyone else, dug out their CD to rummage through it for portents of his impending self-annihilation.

At the time the album came out, I liked the same songs everyone else did — “Heart-Shaped Box,” “Rape Me,” “All Apologies,” and “Pennyroyal Tea.” I think they still hold up pretty well. Listening to the album now, though, I find that the songs that really kick my ass are the abrasive, “ugly” ones. They’re the ones that still sound fresh and exciting.

The one that hits me hardest is the second track, “Scentless Apprentice.” Not so much because of the music or lyrics (inspired by Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume), as the way the song builds to the explosion of Cobain’s raw, throat-shredding scream — the actual words barely discernible — that comprises the chorus.

I know it’s cheesy, but I can’t help hearing the chorus as Cobain howling desperately, over and over, into an indifferent windstorm of guitar riffs and drumbeats, as if he’s projectile vomiting the demons consuming him from the inside only to have them flung back into his face. A howl of despair, agony, rage, and utter helplessness.

Next: David Koresh and America’s fear of the weird.

Eating the Dinosaur

Eating “Eating the Dinosaur” (Part 1)

Mar 1, 2013
[Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 4.5Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11]

Eating the Dinosaur CoverI thought I’d blog my way through Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman’s 2009 book of pop culture essays, because it’s a good read and as I go through it I find myself wanting to respond and generate my own thoughts about the topics he covers. This isn’t a review; I may well end up stripping the topics out of these essays and discussing them without saying anything about what Klosterman says about them. Okay? Okay!

I relate to Klosterman because he’s a classic overthinker as well as a contrarian. Fortunately, he’s engaging enough that his beanplating, rambling and convoluted as it frequently is, goes down pretty smoothly thanks to a breezy sense of humor, and he almost never comes off as a rantaholic crackpot, as contrarians are wont to do. (The one unfortunate exception that comes to mind is his grouchy dissection of tUnE-yArDs, in which Klosterman comes off as a crabby what’s-all-this-then oldster as well as a bit of a mansplaining dick.) He reminds me of a cool, geeky college professor, the kind who likes to spend the whole class speculating about stuff and going off on tangents, and never gets past the first third of the syllabus before the end of the semester.

What really endears Klosterman to me, though, is that he’s a master at something I love dearly — making sweeping, counter-intuitive assertions that appear ridiculous on their face. These kinds of statements — “Is there a commonality between the recording of Nirvana’s In Utero and the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco?” or “Football: the most liberal sport?” — seem to be asking for an actual answer, and that answer is nearly always going to be an irritated “No, of course not, and please stop saying things that are bullshit.” 2

Challenging these assertions, though, is missing the point. They’re questions that aren’t meant to be answered so much as pondered. They’re not requests to be coldly evaluated and given a thumbs-up or down, but invitations to journey down a road of speculation and analysis. The journey may or may not lead anywhere definitive, but it’s not about the destination. At the heart of each these meandering, sometimes maddeningly circuitous ruminations lies a koan, not a conclusion. Read with a generous spirit and open mind, they can yield fascinating insights. Or at least a few minutes of diversion while you’re on the toilet.

The first essay, “Something Instead of Nothing,” may be the most divisive of the lot, seeing as how it’s basically Klosterman talking about Klosterman, or more specifically Klosterman, Famous Author Who Gets Interviewed and Feels Angsty About Being Interviewed. But starting the book this way establishes what I suspect is the overarching theme of the collection — or perhaps it’s merely what Klosterman always writes about: our sense of who we are, our sense of how we think others see us, how others actually see us, and the many ways in which the interplay between the three can massively fuck us up.

Interviews, as a journalistic instrument, are interesting because they’re completely unnatural and artificial situations created for the sole purpose of prying open and examining a human being’s inner self. There is no naturally occurring social interaction — except maybe for dating — in which one person peppers another person with questions designed to open up their heads and allow the questioner to peer inside and gather whatever it is they’re looking for.

I’ve been an interview subject twice in my life. Once by a Toronto newspaper for being a vociferous fanboy of a massively popular but critically lambasted film — I will decline to elaborate on this — and once by the New York Times for a website I created (back in the early days of the Internet era, when any halfway interesting website was deemed worthy of notice). Both times, I found the experience intensely disturbing and strange.

When a complete stranger seeks you out and asks you detailed questions about intimate details concerning your history as a person and your motivations, assiduously probing your inner life, it provokes reflexive questions in the back of your mind. The interviewer obviously doesn’t know me personally, barely knows who I am, yet for some reason either cares or is pretending to care about me, my life, and my opinions.

We are not friends. We are not two friendly strangers getting acquainted in a social setting. And the questioning is almost entirely one-way — I do not know what this interviewer’s true motivations are, or what they intend to do with the words and information I am giving them. I don’t know what their feelings are about me — they might even dislike me. How often in life do you find yourself asked to reveal your inner self to someone who not only isn’t genuinely or personally interested in you, but who may in fact hold you in total contempt? 2

Given the unnatural, perhaps even hostile, strangeness of this situation, why do people agree to be interviewed? Aside from the obvious motive of self-promotion, perhaps being interviewed helps the interviewee understand their own self. Errol Morris, a Klosterman interviewee, says something interesting about “privileged access” to one’s own mind:

“My mind resides somewhere inside of myself. That being the case, one would assume I have privileged access to it. In theory, I should be able to ask myself questions and get different answers than I would from other people, such as you. But I’m not sure we truly have privileged access to our own minds. I don’t think we have any idea who we are. I think we’re engaged in a constant battle to figure out who we are.”

Do we really have a clear sense of ourselves? I’m not sure I do. I think thoughts about the world, experience emotions, feel impulses and desires, look back on my past and form plans for my future. I can “see” myself in past events and form impressions and opinions about that past self. That time I found a phone book on the front stoop of an apartment building, and set fire to it? I see myself hunched over that phone book, grinning maniacally while I hold a Bic lighter to the pages, and think, “wow, what a fucking dumbass.”

But for the most part, I suppose most of my sense of self comes from my interactions with other people and trying to see myself through their eyes, sort of an inversion of a blind person feeling someone’s face to get a sense of their form. I am blind to myself and can only know who I am by feeling out other people’s impressions of me.

Something stupid I used to do in college, in letters I wrote to my friend Kevin, was the “self-interview,” where you ask yourself questions about yourself, and go on to answer them. “How is your Weltschmerz expressed through your poetry?” I’d ask myself, and then I’d answer at length. Even at the time I considered this extremely stupid, yet I still did it. Why? What’s the difference between saying something about myself via this artificial device, and just, y’know, saying something about myself?

I think it’s because most people who aren’t narcissists feel some measure of embarrassment or even shame in talking about themselves, even though we very much want to do so. It’s probably tied to one’s self-worth. If you don’t place very much value on yourself or your significance in the world, talking to other people about yourself feels like an unseemly imposition. And yet, even people with shitty self-worth want to be known and understood. The interview, even if it’s a fake one you made up yourself, functions to mediate your desire to make yourself known to the world. 3

Since it’s stupid to interview yourself, people in a position to command the curiosity of large numbers of other people must rely on an outside party to interview them and to share that interview with that audience. But that of course puts you at the mercy of that interviewer, who may well misquote you or misrepresent you. Hence the ambivalence and mistrust and angst that people tend to feel about being interviewed.

If you’re not famous (or infamous), of course, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be asked for an interview, unless you’ve committed or witnessed a crime, or it’s for some minor but interesting thing you’ve done, or for being exceptionally ridiculous in some newsworthy way. Most people are very rarely, if ever, given access to this outlet for self-expression. Hence the massive popularity of Facebook and Twitter.

Next: Guilt Rock, smashed guitars, and Nirvana, failed punk band.