"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Chuck Klosterman is, in nearly every way, exactly as I expected him to be. A precociously talented writer who came out of nowhere in 2001 with “Fargo Rock City,” an oddball memoir about growing up listening to heavy metal in North Dakota, Klosterman quickly went from working for the daily in Akron, Ohio, to penning compulsively readable celebrity profiles for New York’s glossiest magazines. In just six years, he has produced two memoirs (in addition to “Fargo Rock City,” there was also the 2005 memoir “Killing Yourself to Live”), two essay collections of deeply populist criticism (2003′s “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs” and 2006′s “Chuck Klosterman IV”) and a novel, “Downtown Owl,” published this month. During the years of 2005-06 alone, he juggled three columns at once — for Spin, ESPN and Esquire, tackling topics ranging from the collapse of the American farm to the weirdness of American celebrity.
For this, he has been both wildly overpraised (People magazine called him “the new Hunter Thompson”) and almost pathologically reviled. An infamous New York Press takedown of Klosterman, following the publication of “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” was the media world equivalent of a hissy fit: “I have found the metaphor for everything vile in my generation, and its name is Chuck Klosterman,” wrote Mark Ames, his professional jealousy seething from the page. He continued, “Klosterman is, quite simply and almost literally, an ass. His soft, saggy face bears a disturbing resemblance to a 50-year-old man’s failing, hairless back end.”
For those of us who toil in the trenches of alt-journalism, music blogs or the velvet coffins of midtown Manhattan glossy magazines, there was something both heroic and demonic about Klosterman’s meteoric rise. For old-school music critics, he appeared glib, his fame unearned. For those of us who suspiciously eyed the hallowed world of cultural criticism as insular, elitist and frustratingly cold — and I stand firmly in this camp — Klosterman (like Dave Eggers before him) was a thrilling antihero, someone who talked more about Billy Joel than Sonic Youth, more about “Star Wars” than Godard. He was not Greil Marcus — scholar, aesthete, historian. He was a state-schooler from North Dakota who chugged beer, wrote fantastic prose about his romantic misdeeds as related to his favorite music and movies and TV shows, and somehow struck gold. He was just like us — except for the fame, money and accolades, which also created a twisted kind of resentment even among his fans, because if he was so goddamn much like us, well, then, why weren’t we him?
So, it is not surprising that, even before I met him, I felt that I already knew him. He was like so many 30-something male critics I have worked with over the years — the nerd disguised as hipster, with his scruffy beard and clunky black frames and thrift-store clothes, the guy who knows sports stats as fluently as he knows KISS albums and episodes of “Saved by the Bell.” And so what I found most interesting about Chuck Klosterman, when we met at an East Village bar one afternoon, was not the things I expected — the deliciously skewed observations, the playful combativeness, the way he thumps out the drum line of a song he likes on the side of his arm — it’s what I did not expect. His height, for instance (I would guesstimate it at 6-foot-2). The way that, for someone whose calling card is his relatability, he seems kind of hard to know. Like, emotionally detached. When he leaves to go to the bathroom, he does not say anything — just gets up from his bar stool, comes back, and picks up where he left off. Like, when I ask whom he’s dating, he says, “a writer,” and stonewalls. This from the guy who wrote a memoir, “Killing Yourself to Live,” that perseverated on his entanglements with the opposite sex.
But Chuck Klosterman seems to be getting a little sick of Chuck Klosterman. Even his most distinguishing quality — his ability to ramble endlessly, but meaningfully, about the ephemera of American culture — is wearing on him these days. In his September 2008 column for Esquire, he writes, “I find myself growing more and more depressed about all the things I used to love … It’s not difficult to be the cop in the car watching the meth lab, but you will drive yourself sad. You’ll find yourself thinking, Maybe the meth lab will blow up … But it doesn’t blow up. It just sits there, falling apart and declining in value, while the people inside lose their teeth and get crazy high.”
He’s no longer going to be writing his Esquire column, by the way.
“AC/DC did the same album over and over again,” he says at one point, “and I love AC/DC, but I don’t want to be Angus Young. I want to be Jeff Tweedy.” As every 30-something nerd-disguised-as-hipster knows, Jeff Tweedy is the much-adored frontman for Wilco, a gifted singer-songwriter who could have spent a (lucrative) career crafting perfect three-minute pop songs but decided to dissect them instead, upending (if only temporarily) his own career with the controversial and brilliant 2002 album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”
And Klosterman, a man who built his career on dazzling, antic nonfiction, has also done something unexpected. (And yet, at the same time, totally clichéd.) He has written a novel. A novel that is quite good, actually. Not overeager or hyperambitious, but a slow burn of a small-town snapshot that is more “Winesburg, Ohio” than Amy Winehouse, more “Last Picture Show” than “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Do not misunderstand. This book is still obviously written by Klosterman. As beautifully as he evokes these characters, there are moments when Klosterman can’t help being “Klosterman,” sometimes to incongruous results. In a passage about a Catholic priest, he writes, “his vocal style employed the soft-loud-soft pattern that would eventually be perfected by rock bands like the Pixies.” But more often, his trademark flourishes are funny, charming. They seem part of the fabric of these characters’ lives. Julia, a high school English teacher and secret stoner, muses to herself in the depths of a mellow buzz that the world can be split into two kinds of people: “People who said, ‘This joint is cashed,’ and people who always said, ‘Well, let me try.’ Julia placed herself to be in the second category, although she wondered if that made her an optimist or a pothead.”
“Downtown Owl” follows a cast of likable but doomed characters over the course of nine months in 1984 in the fictional town of Owl, N.D. Their stories unfold with sympathy and a careful eye for the rich peculiarities of small-town American life. “They had been drinking for seven hours,” he writes. “Ted was trying to drive off his buzz.” It is, at times, laugh-out-loud funny, but it is also poignant and sad. In one of the novel’s best set pieces, a widower named Horace recalls the death of his wife, Alma, wracked by a hyper-rare sleep disorder that sent her into a state of hallucinatory psychosis and desperation. “That night, Alma screamed at the television. She thought it was a panda bear.”
These melancholy passages tweaked with humor reminded me, surprisingly, of another young and controversially gifted author, Jonathan Safran Foer (author of “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”). Like Foer, Klosterman uses a rainbow of tricks from his verbal arsenal — shifting narrators, bulleted lists, play-style dialogue stripped of attribution, stream-of-consciousness monologues — to tell a story that nonetheless feels of a piece, not as scattered and grandiose as the trickery might suggest. This is a book about the claustrophobia and beauty of rural life. Klosterman knows about that.
Born in 1972, Klosterman grew up on a farm in Wyndmere, N.D. (65 miles south of Fargo), population 500. He claims he was neither popular nor unpopular, which may have to do with the fact that only 23 people graduated from his high school class. Apparently, when your school is that tiny, people are both popular and unpopular; it just happens in waves. So Chuck was an alienated teen, but he was also eighth grade president and captain of the basketball team, a preternaturally smart kid who watched David Letterman and listened to pop music and memorized the Hit Parader and Circus magazines to which he subscribed.
It felt good to memorize things, and it felt good to listen to the same songs over and over, and it felt good to play basketball four hours a day, and he didn’t care all that much about the farm, which made him different than the other kids in Fargo, who thought farming was cool. But the memorizing is what he thinks enabled him to become a writer (that, and not being a good enough basketball player to go professional). He absorbed all this text until he understood its rhythms and cadences and could replicate those rhythms and cadences with his own words, his own ideas. Klosterman is a prolific writer, and reading his prodigious output, I have felt a twinge of envy that writing seems to come so easily to him.
“Easier than what?” he asks. “It’s easier than working on a farm.”
Hard to argue there. Even a vicious case of writer’s block while sitting in an unergonomic chair seems soft-bellied in comparison to waking at 5 every morning and plowing the fields. But still. “Come on, you know what I mean,” I say. “Some writers talk about how writing is like pulling out their hair.”
“I’m skeptical of all that,” he says. “I think people who say writing is easy, they want to make it seem like they’re raw, full of talent. And then people who say it’s so hard, they want to be perceived as making it out to be the hardest thing, so ultra-complicated.” He shrugs. “My father ran his farm for decades. For me to look at his life and think that anything I do is anything close to the work he did …” He trails off. But I get what he means.
Klosterman’s parents are retired now, but his oldest brother took over the family farm — wheat, corn and beans. (His other five siblings’ jobs run the gamut, from working as a professor to driving a snowplow.) There is a section of “Downtown Owl” that discusses the dissolution, in the early 1980s, of the American farm. (“It did not matter how successful farmers were at growing food; suddenly, no one wanted to pay for it,” he writes.) I ask Klosterman what he thinks of the movement toward greenmarkets and the new trend of farmers as cult heroes. I expect him to launch into a typical torrent of opinions and critiques. Instead, he says, “I know that I’ve never been to a greenmarket in my life. I know that I like processed foods. Processed foods taste good to me.”
Part of me suspects this is a pose — i.e., “I’m so authentic that I can’t be bothered with your trendy farm chic.” As a fellow New Yorker, I find it hard to believe anyone hasn’t been to the Union Square Greenmarket, if only to reach the McDonald’s on the other side. But part of me suspects it is not a pose. Part of me suspects it would be surreal and even painful, after watching your family toil in a dying trade, to see it elevated to “sophisticated culture” after it’s too goddamn late. Regardless, I don’t get the chance to ask.
He sips his Yuengling draft and turns to stare out the window. “I like that girl on the bike,” he says. “She looks like she’s going to meet Albert Hammond Jr.” Albert Hammond, Jr. is the rhythm guitarist for the Strokes. The girl on the bike is wiry and quirky, with an untamed mess of curly hair and a messenger bag. Klosterman is right in his assessment. She looks exactly like she’s going to meet Albert Hammond Jr. right now. And that is part of his gift — taking something fleeting and seemingly insignificant and embroidering it with its exact and glorious meaning, taking the passing shadows and reframing them so that they sit, smack dab, in the spotlight.
At three different points in our nearly four-hour interview, I try to diagnose Klosterman. As he is very much the son of a farmer, I am very much the daughter of a therapist, and it is hard for me to sit in the company of such a twitchy and fascinating character without feeling the need to dissect him somehow.
“Do you have OCD?” I ask him.
“Nope,” he answers, “just O.”
Later, I ask if he is autistic.
“My girlfriend thinks that!” he says, slapping his knee and laughing.
Later I will float the idea that he has a touch of Asperger’s syndrome — because I have a completely untested, working theory that many great rock critics have a touch of Asperger’s (whose symptoms include a certain social tone-deafness, obsessive routines such as the need to categorize and the ability to acquire and memorize scads of mundane details).
He enjoys debating, arguing, running over the details of a thing and viewing it from different angles, and he takes none of it personally. It’s a game. This doesn’t hurt his feelings, this strange woman with a conviction that something is wrong with him, that he is not simply odd and gifted and special.
Of course, he is all those things. Klosterman — for being a writer with whom people connect so easily, for being a writer with whom people identify so deeply — is really like no one else but Klosterman. We are on beer four out of five when he tells me the following story.
“If I’m on the subway, or in a crowded line, I always say to myself, ‘What if there were a terrorist attack right now? Who would be the leader?’”
I laugh and look around the room. The place is deserted. Just us, and two barkeeps. “What about this room?” I ask. “Who would be the leader?”
He scrunches his eyes, and though he probably does not stroke his chin, I remember him doing so. Finally, he points to the male bartender. “That guy, or me.”
I’m mildly insulted. “What about me?” I ask, clearly irritated.
He nods, considers this. “I think you’d listen to me before I’d listen to you.”
“But I’m good in a crisis!” I protest.
He downs the rest of his pint. “Well, then I’d give you a job to do.”
And what I am thinking is, this exchange is so Chuck Klosterman. Hilarious, smug, frustrating, singular. And, like so many things he writes, it’s also totally true.
Sarah Hepola is an editor at Salon.More Sarah Hepola.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)