Words: Jeff Jetton + Corey Kuntz
Pictures: Alyssa Lesser
We’re back with the second part of our Chuck Klosterman interview. (In case you missed it, here’s Part I). Let’s get right into it…
Chuck Klosterman is an American author and essayist who has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, and The Washington Post, and has written books focusing on American popular culture including Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and Eating the Dinosaur. His latest novel, entitled The Visible Man, comes out October 4th. Preorder it here.
BYT: How would you solve the current crisis in college athletics. If you ran the zoo, what would you do?
Chuck Klosterman: Well, boy. That’s a tough question that I’m not really qualified to answer. I think that the players should probably receive a small stipend that increases with every year they participate. So you’d make a little money as a freshman, a little more your sophomore year, etc. But you can’t just pay football players. The guys on the golf team and the women’s volleyball teams need that, too. I don’t really know how it can be fixed.The Olympic model is one possibility. But then this could be a problem with really big schools like the University of Texas. Every player who comes in, say ‘hey, you could run a podcast for a local used car business, and you get a free car!’ I wonder if it would actually create more of a gap between the major schools and the mid-major schools. I don’t really know if there’s a solution. I would not want to be the person to solve this problem.
BYT: Fair enough. How about solving another problem. Did you see Bob Dylan’s Christmas video?
CK: No. I heard his Christmas songs though.
BYT: What’d you think of them?
CK: It’s funny. I mean, he’s in the perfect position. He can get away with anything. He could do an ad for Victoria’s Secret and everyone would think it’s awesome. He could appear on Dharma and Greg. Bob Dylan could like, do a duet with Justin Bieber, and everybody would say it was awesome. I guess I’m part of the class that thinks it’s interesting he does things like this.
BYT: He could do a sex video.
CK: He could. People would be like, I’m happy that Bob Dylan is still having sex.
BYT: Do you regret putting Christina Aguilera as #10 on the list of sleaziest rock stars of all time while simultaneously failing to mention Luke Skywalker (couldn’t catch this part)?
CK: That was like a column in an issue of Spin. I didn’t fucking run Spin! I did a Marilyn Manson interview for that issue, and I think I wrote probably some comedic pieces. The way lists are in magazines, I think people would be surprised with how arbitrarily they’re done.
BYT: Off the cuff?
CK: Well, when I was growing up, I would get Rolling Stone and Spin, and they would list the 25 best records of the last ten years. And I might agree or disagree, but I would always think, what did they base this on? How much time did they put into this? What kind of collection of geniuses were these? It’s actually five guys in the room, and whoever has the biggest personality wins. That’s how these lists exist. Or maybe somebody is on the cover that month, and they get to make them number one on those lists! What prompted that question?
BYT: I thought those were your ten picks for the sleaziest rock star.
CK: They may have given me the list and I did the writing. I think we based the issue around sleaze, it was the sleaze issue. At the time, Spin was in a complicated position. There were three magazines. And part of the deal is that, you make agreements with the artist. Like if Thom Yorke is going to be on the cover of your magazine, he can’t be on the cover of Rolling Stone or Blender. Or if say, Karen O was going to be on the cover of Blender, she’s not going to be on their cover. Rolling Stone is the most aggressive about this, you can’t even appear in the other magazines if you’re with them. So we’re in this position where we have a limited number of people that we can put on the cover. And, at Spin, it was worse. There were artists we didn’t put on the cover because we deemed them not cool enough. Like, we could put Radiohead or Eminem or another Kurt Cobain, we put Weezer, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And as a result, we didn’t have more than twelve people big enough for the cover that we could use. So we had to manufacture themes. So we thought of ‘the Sleaze Issue’; we thought it was funny.
BYT: Why have there been no celebrity jockeys since Willie Shoemaker?
CK: I mean, at one time, horse racing was the third biggest sport in America. There was a period in the twentieth century where baseball was the biggest sport, then boxing, then horse racing. I don’t know where you put horse racing now, but it’s gone way down. So he made himself more of a celebrity. The only way there would be a celebrity jockey would be if the best jockey was a woman. Like, the Danica Patrick of jockeys. I think there’d be interest in that. Anytime someone outside the demographic not only succeeds, but becomes the best…
BYT: Do you think there will be a renaissance in horse racing?
CK: No. I think that horse racing is a sport where the experience live is so much greater than watching it on television. And our culture is moving away from live events. Because the ability to enjoy things in your home has increased so dramatically. If you own a sports team or a concert venue, I feel you need to accept the fact that high definition television has changed the enjoyment of experiencing things in your own time and in your own place. I think in five years, 3-D television will exist without the glasses.
BYT: Which of the following of Dennis Conner’s books would you be most likely to read? No Excuse to Lose, Comeback: My Race for the America’s Cup, The Art of Winning, Sail Like a Champion, or the America’s Cup Cookbook?
CK: That’s an interesting, bizarre question. I would say probably Comeback. It’s crazy how famous he was. It was a time when ESPN didn’t have much to cover, so they said let’s cover the shit out of this yachtsman and for whatever reason, people were like, this is interesting. I think he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek.
BYT: Are you ready for a grunge revival?
CK: Well I just read the grunge oral history, Everybody Loves Our Town by this guy Mark Yarme. Which I wonder how many times, when he was compiling the interviews, everyone was like Mark Armes, the guy in Mudhoney? No, Mark Yarme. But I was shocked by how great the oral history is. So interesting. It got me into some grunge bands that I had not listened to during that time. And also, I did not know that right after Kurt Cobain died, by chance, Pearl Jam had been invited to the White House, with Mudhoney a few days later. The people in the White House were going up to them being like, “We know how you’re going through a tough time, Vince Foster just committed suicide as well.” And then, Clinton took Eddie Vedder aside and said, “should I inform the nation about this?” And he said “Don’t do that, it’ll incite copycat suicides.” Really, interesting, weird stuff. No other president will be as invested in MTV as Clinton was. He loved MTV. And MTV isn’t as important now.
BYT: Do you think Kurt and Courtney’s marriage would have lasted, had he lived?
CK: No. No way. I think that had he lived, they probably would have filed for divorce within the year.
BYT: So do you believe any of the conspiracy theories about it?
CK: No. Although I like to read about them, although I believe none of it.
BYT: What’s the best conspiracy theory about Cobain?
CK: There are some pretty weird details. I hate even bringing this up, but it involves an investigator named Tom Grant. Courtney had hired him to track down Kurt after he ran away from rehab. There are some weird inconsistencies though. I think she hired him the day after she knew where he was. There’s a lot of weird things surrounding his death in their marriage, but they had a bad marriage at the time. And things seem contradictory. For instance, his suicide note. Part of it at the end seemed written differently than the top part, but then again, that could have been attributed to the shitload of heroin. It’s interesting to think about.
BYT: What about inconsistencies surrounding the death of Bernie Mac?
CK: Are there any?
BYT: I thought he was murdered.
CK: By who? Cedric the Entertainer?
BYT: Would Hunter S. Thompson have been better off dying young?
CK: Well, better off for who?
BYT: His legacy.
CK: For his legacy, yes. For him, probably no. I also think that, actually, even though the last part of his life he didn’t do very good writing, it didn’t hurt his legacy because he didn’t contradict himself. He lived on a farm and got crazy high and crazy drunk and fired guns and said nutty things. So I don’t think his legacy was at all harmed. If anything, it proved the authenticity of the character he portrayed and then became.
BYT: So who’s an example of someone who tarnished their legacy later in life?
CK: Any member of the Beatles is in a tough position. They created some of the best rock music to ever exist, and they have to live their lives and there was no way that they could do anything to be in that class.
BYT: Is it weird to you, as a reporter/storyteller, that you become part of the story.
CK: Hm. Yeah, it is. If people read a lot of your work, they’re going to see one clear identifier in it, and that’s the person who wrote it. They then become interested in that person. So that just happens. It does make interviewing easier sometimes, sometimes it makes it harder. It’s weird but not problematic.
CK: Sometimes fun, sometimes not fun. Everything becomes normal, that’s the thing. Initially having a degree of notoriety is extremely exciting. In a negative way, it’s extremely awkward and uncomfortable. Then, after a while, it’s just become the normal way things are. I have no other life to compare it to, so this is just how it is. It’ll always be a little weird to be interviewed as I do with celebrities. But if I hated it, I would change it. But I really love writing. If I publish what I write, I can make a living and have a good life, eat steak whenever I want. It’s better than wishing my life was better.
BYT: If Cocoa Puffs hadn’t taken off and your career hadn’t flourished, what do you think you would be doing?
CK: That’s an interesting question. I took a six week sabbatical from the Akron Beacon Journal to write that book. And in that time, I got hired by Spin because of my first book, Fargo Rock City. So I move to New York and take this new job, and the entire newspaper industry collapses. My first job was for a newspaper and I was under the impression that I was going to write for newspapers. The first book didn’t sell great, but it was read by the right people. And for whatever reason, my second book was incredibly popular. The title was probably part of it too, because it can be sold in places like Urban Outfitters. It’s like a real book that’s almost like a novelty book and a weird thing. I wonder if the original title would have been used, if my old life would have been different. The original title was American Minotaur.
BYT: Who made that executive decision?
CK: My editor and my agent. I had reasons for wanting the original title, and I still do and still think it’s a great title. But they were like, this is going to confuse people. So then I really casually called it Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, which I still think is an idiotic title for a book. But I shouldn’t really be complaining.
BYT: What’s the worst thing you ever wrote?
CK: There’s two ways to answer. I could literally say the worst thing I wrote, which would just be going back in time to something in high school or college. Something in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs probably, a paragraph or something. There’s something also in Fargo Rock City that has poor punctuation. Articles don’t last. You’re writing with the intention that it’s in the present tense for newspapers or magazines. No one can be a bad blogger, because it’s just a present tense thing. The thing I wrote about soccer, I wrote that to be entertaining. There are obviously flaws in the logic I made. If I had any idea that many people would read it, I would go back and change it if I could. But then again maybe that’s why the book is popular.
BYT: Where were you when 9/11 happened?
CK: I woke up in my bed, and on the radio they said that one plane had hit one of the towers. At first they were behaving as if it was an accident, so I went in the other room and was watching television just to see if it was on. Then the second plane hit. And for a split second, and I think this is really funny in retrospect, I thought, this is an insane coincidence! So I get in my car and go to work. I hear that they’ve hit Washington when I go to work. When I got in the newsroom, then I noticed how serious it was. I remember this so vividly, and I remember as I opened the door from the parking garage. And have you seen Poltergeist? They open this door and everything was flying around. That’s kind of what the newsroom was like. This girl grabbed me and said, there’s a Tom Clancy novel that’s kind of like this, you have to find Tom Clancy and ask him about this. So I fucking tried to find Tom Clancy, we were putting out a special issue at noon, so I just remember working that day. Then I had to drive around and look for people in Akron and hear their experience.
BYT: So you never got a hold of Tom Clancy?
CK: How does one contact an author like Tom Clancy? So I basically described the plot of a book I’d never read.
BYT: Billy Preston AND Pat Smear? Is it a coincidence both the Beatles and Nirvana brought in African Americans at later in the life span to try and save the band?
CK: I would guess coincidence. What, you think Nirvana was seen as a racist band or whatever?
BYT: Would you think members of Nirvana, as they age, will get this sort of mythical status around them, like when Dave Grohl dies will they call Kris Novoselic ‘the last remaining member of Nirvana’?
CK: Well, yes, and the thing people need to be intellectually ready for is, since about 1960, the number of celebrities in America has gone through the roof. You know Glenn Miller would be famous, not his band. Now rock bands are huge. Every Beatle will be on the cover of Rolling Stone when they die, maybe the Stones too. There’s going to be this onslaught of people, you know, Ray Davies, Led Zeppelin, and there’s going to be this weird question in the future, and that’s, how much weight do we give to these obituaries? Right now, we give them a lot of weight because it’s still new. There’s going to be a lot of questions. Is it going to be a big deal when Joe Perry or Michael Anthony from Van Halen die? Is death still going to be noteworthy when all of them start to die? Like the people from television. When Dave Grohl dies, assuming he lives to be 75 or something, it’s going to be hard to know what a meaningful death is. Eight years ago, Nick Lachey is a pretty famous person. Well, now he’s gone. If he dies, I don’t even know if that makes The New York Times. I don’t even know, probably way inside and really short. So some of these things are going to get smaller, like reality stars in general. They have a jarring level of fame when they are famous, and disappear so dramatically and so deeply, they become something people joke about.
BYT: Like child stars.
CK: Like child stars, but there’s a sympathy with them. Something tragic, maybe their parents forced them into it. If you told somebody that you knew someone on MTV’s The Real World, people would look at you negatively, they would associate the two.
BYT: Do you still watch The Real World?
CK: I watch the challenges. No, I watched last season. I think every time it starts, my wife and I watch the first episode and if we find it interesting, we’ll keep watching it. Although I can’t even remember what city it was in now that I think back on it (laughs).
BYT: There’s this notion of 9/11, Nirvana and anticipating nostalgia, it seems.
CK: The earliest case of anticipating nostalgia that I can remember was MTV when they started showing The Monkees. Then they started replaying My So Called Life after it went off the air. It used to be difficult to anticipate nostalgia. When I went to college in the early nineties, it was really cool to be into ABBA. People were shocked. Now it’s the understanding that everything that is popular will come back.
BYT: Do you think there’s a time gap?
CK: There’s a nostalgia for the recent past. But nostalgia is taking on this negative connotation, people write about it negatively and miss it completely. People are nostalgic for film, and music, because it was important to them at the time. But to me, if those things became combined, like if your music and life came together, that’s a good piece of music because it helps me understand what that point of their life was like at the time.
BYT: So, there are no politics in your writing. A lot of what you write about happens in this popular culture vacuum, no outside forces acting on it. Are you interested in politics?
CK: Yeah, I am, although I follow politics the same way I follow sports. I’m very interested in political history, I’m conscious about not writing about it in the context of other things. Because it impacts the way the audience perceives things unconnected to politics. Anybody who reads anything is going to bring in their preconceived ideas, about how the world is, about that writer, about what that topic is, and that’s going to color their perception. I try not to add things that will distance from the idea I’m trying to focus on. As a reader, I find that the only kind of political writing I like tends to be very objective. I’m not very interested in someone’s perception of individual events. So I need someone to put their biases aside, and let me decide. One thing that I don’t like about the direction culture has moved is that, previously, the idea was you tried to be objective, even though it was hard to. Even though your view of the world filtered the story, you would still try to be objective about it. And then, it was somehow collectively decided and agreed upon that people don’t like attempted objectivity, but rather people that match their biases. Now you can’t have a conversation, because the two sides aren’t even dealing with the same base information.
BYT: Is there another social commentator or writer that is on the opposite side as you? Who is the Bill O’Reilly to your Keith Olbermann?
CK: I would assume most other culture writing typically has a pretty clear political agenda. Usually to the left, but I feel like it’s harder for people to say that about my work. I do that on purpose. It seems more valuable to be able to talk about pieces of art as free-standing entities as opposed to extensions of some other idea you’re already on board with or consciously against, you know. I only know how I am. I don’t know if people see things more or less politically than I do.
BYT: What if you believed that KISS was actually trying to kill children by playing the record backwards?
CK: No, that’s politicized. If I actually believed it was happening, it would be complex. Or are you asking basically if I thought if something was ethically and morally wrong, would I write something about it?
CK: Absolutely. Well the way this country is constructed, there are two poles of thought. It’s not really about ethics or morality, they all try to incorporate that. Both Democrats and Republicans think they’re moral, they’ve spent their lives where they’ve tried to socially match their views.
BYT: Ok, so tell us a little about the new book.
CK: Well, it’s a novel. Basically about what it would be like to be the psychiatrist for The Invisible Man.
You can preorder copies of the new Klosterman novel here.