Music News

Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta

If Greil Marcus, the dean of intellectual rock-as-pop-culture journalists, had grown up in some repressed, oppressive, cold and remote farm town up on the Canadian border, subsisted on tallboys and fried food, read Mad magazine instead of Heidegger, and kept Whitesnake's debut album in heavy rotation on the boombox, then he very likely would have written a book like Chuck Klosterman's Fargo Rock City.

Let's get the truth-in-advertising complaint out of the way first: Klosterman's book has almost nothing to do with Fargo, a burg whose name is evoked, presumably, to remind book buyers of Joel and Ethan Coen's similarly titled 1996 noir-comedy flick; the title also hints at another movie, Adam Rifkin's 1999 KISS homage Detroit Rock City. With apologies to the ghost of Michael Landon, I Was a Teenage Metalhead would have done just as well, especially considering that '80s metal, the subject of Klosterman's endlessly entertaining stroll down memory lane, is riding a rising wave of nostalgia and bands like Def Leppard and Poison are turning up on VH1 -- for unplugged concerts these days, and not as fodder for the "Where are they now?" shows.

Klosterman, now rock music critic for the Akron Beacon Journal, grew up in a North Dakota farm town, sure enough, and was raised on a diet of heavy metal, the soundtrack for angry, dispossessed rural kids then as now. A "beautiful combination of virtuosity and imbecility," metal gave meaning to their lives; as Klosterman writes, "regardless of its artistic merit, Guns N' Roses' 1987 Appetite for Destruction affected the guys in my shop class the same way teens in 1967 were touched by Paul McCartney and John Lennon." The music said something, in other words, even if that something was sometimes a little dumb -- which is just the role that music should play in the lives of kids, no matter what the pundits say.

And for those pundits, Klosterman has wise words. "If art is stupid," he writes, "then it can't really be harmful. If it's not stupid, then it can't be dismissed as socially irrelevant." Dotted by similarly commonsensical detours into rural sociology and cultural criticism, his romp through the collected works of Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, Iron Maiden, Warrant and their big-hair ilk ("There's only so much you can do with long hair, assuming you're not a Rastafarian -- you can braid it, or you can poof it up. Willie Nelson went one way, and Cinderella went another") makes for smart, fun reading. It may even prompt you to spin "Rock You Like a Hurricane" or "Cat Scratch Fever" again -- God help us all.

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Gregory McNamee