Chuck Klosterman: The Lost Interview

I had every intention of publishing this story in the magazine I was working for at the time, Cincinnati Gentlemen, but it wasn’t the right time, the place or the right magazine. Most of this has sat in a notebook for about four years. I remember most of the details, but the rest, well, I guess you’ll have to trust me.

He was something like 20 minutes late, which gave me time to sit and watch the people file in. The people at the book store had set up four rows of chairs on the other side of wooden podium. Behind that was fireplace. I don’t quite remember if it was real or not. I should have written that down.

I think I was probably surprised by the mix of people. I expected the twenty-something hipsters. I expected the aging rock geeks. He’s got to be some kind of God to people like that. Women? Yeah, okay. I can get that. For some reason, I always assumed Chuck Klosterman wrote more to a male audience. He writes about sports and music and pop culture. His areas of expertise cut a pretty wide swath. So, maybe. I was surprised by the kids, though. Definitely the kids. There were maybe four or five, spread among the 50 or 60 people in the crowd. Ten, maybe twelve years-old. Too young to be listening to a guy who wrote “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs.” Too young to listen to a guy who liberally admits to taking part in a post-9/11 New York drug scene where cocaine was cheap and plentiful.

I wonder if he’s coked up when he arrives. He’s bouncy, jittery and talking fast. Maybe. Maybe not. Could just be that the kid from Fargo who has become the pop cultural voice of a generation of media-savvy culture nerds is just excited to be here. He’s taller than I would have thought. Six-one, six-two and long. He’s leaner too than the guy he used to be. He writes about running in “Killing Yourself to Live” and is a basketball fan. Maybe stimulants, travel and exercise thinned him out. Red hair, red beard, tiny hipster glasses. A t-shirt and jeans. He’s been out with old friends from his days at the Akron Beacon-Journal who now live in Cincy. He’ll be heading out with them later, after he does this thing, after he feeds the many-stomached beast of a modern media iconoclast. 

“He’s written for Sports Illustrated and GQ…” the woman from the bookstore says in her introduction. He waits until after she’s done to correct her. The waiting is his Midwestern roots. The correction is the confidence of a guy whose big in New York.

“I write for ESPN the Magazine and Esquire,” he says. “Where did you get Sports Illustrated and GQ?” He adds a chuckle like, ‘isn’t that funny?’ but you get the sense Chuck Klosterman is the kind of guy who cares about the details. It’s not enough that he’s written for two of the widest read magazines in the country (among others), it was the ones he wrote for that were important. Then again, maybe the mistake is a curiosity to him. I’ve been reading his stuff for four years or so and curiosity is definitely a trade-mark, but so is this low-grade air of assumption. Combined they can be charming. Separate, grating. I think he’s got the mix right when he moves on to warn the father of one of the kids.

“Are you sure you’re okay with your son being here?” he asks. The man nods. “Really? Because I tend to talk about drugs and curse a lot.”

“It’s fine,” says the man. “I’m a big fan. He’ll be fine.”

He talked about drugs a lot. He swore a lot. None of it forced. None of it thrown in there for shock value. He talked about how the phenomenon of easy access to cheap cocaine in New York City inspired “Killing Yourself to Live.” He read from “Downtown Owl.” He gave advice to young writers about blogging – told them he had no idea if it would help them, that finding an opportunity to write 3,000-word features would probably do more for their career than blogging about their lunch.

He was taller than I expected. Probably six-one. Maybe six-two and lithe. Long, lean. A runner, probably. I tried to think of him not as the pop-culture oracle, but as the guy who sat down with Britney Spears and all but asked her if she felt like she was ruining young girls’ healthy attitude toward sexuality; the guy who hates the Olympics; the only guy in the world able to make academic arguments for KISS and Motley Crue. And I tried not to be impressed, but I was. I was impressed by his writing, of course, but more than that it’s tough not to be impressed by just how comfortable Chuck Klosterman seems to be in his own skin.

I would give a reading of one of my books in the same room a couple years later and it would be completely different. While his was all self-revelatory kinetics, I hardly left the podium and worried about what I might say with my mom in the audience. He reveals, Chuck Klosterman, he has figured out a way to be more than the kid from North Dakota who can string some words together. I don’t always like him – too self-congratulatory, too obsessed with being clever for every day reading – but I respect the hell out of him.

Enough opining. Back to the event.

He reads and talks and answers questions for a little over an hour, his stuttering exuberance like a trail guide beaconing his audience forward. We were on Chuck’s journey. The anecdotes, the asides. The long ‘ums’ followed by a barrage of words, the way he fixed his glasses – never pushed up the bridge with his finger, always grabbed the side and adjusted like he was opening a beer, flick of the wrist. He paced back and forth and I could tell the thing was wrapping up. I had hoped to have some time with him, but I wouldn’t. The magazine I was working for wasn’t important for a full sit-down. I’d probably only get two questions and I’d only get those answered if I was willing to stand aside as he signed copies of his books. I remembered what he’d said in an interview once, about asking the most uncomfortable question first when doing a profile. If the person answers, that tells you something. If they don’t, that tells you something else. I tried to think of uncomfortable questions:

“Is what you do necessary? Why should people care what you have to say?” He’d probably deflect with Midwestern humility, saying something like ‘It’s a mystery to me,’ or ‘I’m as amazed by it as you are.’ Don’t attack, I thought, seek to understand this guy’s brain. I considered telling him how much his anti-Olympics piece pissed me off, though I wasn’t sure why it did and I didn’t want to come off as some obsessed fanboy. I decided against the uncomfortable thing. I had a brief window of opportunity to speak with one of the culture writers of our time and I decided to use it personally.

The woman from the bookstore introduced me and he gave me one of those ‘oh, hey man’ things – not warm, not cold, just fact. He is a writer. I am a lesser writer. He will do his best to answer my questions, but he will not be late for his dinner plans in order to do so. No, that makes it sound arrogant. It wasn’t. It was indifferent. I wasn’t expecting a brotherhood of the pen greeting or anything, but I wasn’t expecting this either. It made it harder to dive right in.

“I’m wondering,” I said. “Why is it that LIVE is my favorite band? I know Radiohead is clearly better. I know they make better music, but I can’t bring myself to love them. I listen because I like to, but I don’t love them.”

“How old were you when you got into LIVE?” He asked in return. It was instantaneous. He’d had this conversation before.

“Sixteen.”

“That’s why you love them more,” he said. “I’ve listened to thousands of records and I can identify the best bands in the world, academically. But my favorite band will always be Motley Crue because they were who I was listening to when I was 16. I know there are better bands. I know that they were actually kind of a shitty band. But I’ll never have an emotional connection with a band like that again because I’ll never be 16 again and neither will you. That’s why you know Radiohead is better, but you’ll never feel that they are.”

Deep man. It’s simultaneously prescient and utter bullshit. I loved it. An answer like that is why people read Chuck Klosterman’s books. It’s why they show up with their kids to a reading that will include references to drugs and casual sex and lots and lots of swearing on a weekday afternoon.

He gets distracted by people waiting in line and chats with them as he signs their books. I step to the back and wait for 15 minutes. His friends hover not far away. I have one more question and I want to get it answered. I want him to launch into a tirade. I want to get it all on tape. The last book buyer gets their autograph and he turns to leave.

“Chuck,” I say, “just one more question?”

He looks at his friends leaning against a shelf. They smile. He holds up a finger. Whatever they have planned, he’s looking forward to it, but I waited and he’s inherently polite, so he answers. I kneel down in front of the table he’s been signing on for the last half-hour.

“You’re a guy who seems to have strong opinions about authentic and good when it comes to music,” I say as a preamble. He nods along. “What do you think about Jimmy Buffet?”

I’m expecting his to talk about the dangers of mass commercialization in music and how it lowers expectations and keeps the masses in a trance, missing music that is better. He does not do this. He seems to know better. Either that, or I don’t know him at all.

“I think he’s a guy whose got it all figured out,” he says. “I think he’s a guy who had a vision for what he wanted his life to become – on the beach, traveling the world – and he figured out how to get exactly what he wanted without sacrificing any of it.”

I’m momentarily stunned. Chuck Klosterman shakes my hand. He thanks me for coming and as fast as he came, he was gone. Off for drinks and dinner with old friends, the writer as a rock star. And I realize his answer to my last question may just as well been about him. “What do you think about Chuck Klosterman?”

I think he’s a guy whose got it all figured out. I think he’s a guy who had a vision for what he wanted his life to become – music, fame, writing – and he figured out how to get exactly what he wanted.

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