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Author and cultural commentator Chuck Klosterman was insightful and thought provoking in his selection of songs with both personal and cultural relevance. He shares the track that opened his eyes to the vast musical universe beyond metal - his favorite genre as a teen - as well as gems from Akron, Ohio’s most popular band and a Brit-pop favorite. Chuck now writes The Ethicist column for the New York Times Magazine and has a new book called The Visible Man.
EL: Hi, this is Eric J. Lawrence from KCRW and I am here with Chuck Klosterman -- the New York Times' best-selling author and one of America's top cultural critics. We'll be playing some excerpts of some songs he selected -- songs that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW's Guest DJ Project. Chuck, thanks for coming down.
CK: Thanks for having me.
EL: What did you bring for us?
CK: Well, the first song that I brought was "The Right To Rock" by Keel.
Song: Keel’s The Right to Rock
CK: When I was in high school, I listened to exclusively metal, and specifically hair metal. And when I say exclusively, that's really all I listened to. I didn't listen to the radio for about four years because sometimes they didn't play metal songs. I only listened to metal on cassette -- if it was in my car, if it was in my bedroom -- it was the only music that I had a relationship with. This song by Keel, "The Right To Rock," … Keel was never that successful. In fact, it's kind of weird, the lead singer in the band, Ronnie Keel, is now a country artist. But this song, I believe, was my favorite song when I was a ninth grader. I think, because the lyrics, to me, really sort of synthesized both the way I thought about culture at that age, and I just also think that his delivery of the lyrics is really engaging. I really liked songs that seemed to imply that I was being persecuted for liking heavy metal.
EL: And do you think that people's favorite songs are very much attached to their youth? Is that just sort of an obvious thing?
CK: I think that if you ask somebody what their 100 favorite songs are, it probably is an aesthetic choice. But if you ask somebody what their favorite song is, inevitably it will have some connection to who they used to be, at a time in their life when they were either extremely unhappy or extremely elated and the song sort of allows them to reenter this negative period of their life or sort of recapture maybe the happiest they used to be.
EL: That was a little bit of Keel and "The Right To Rock." Alright, well what's the next selection you got for us?
CK: The next song I picked, actually, is "Nightswimming" by R.E.M. and this, weirdly is related to metal still. As I said, I listened exclusively to metal and I wouldn't listen to anything else and I actually had issues with people who had eclectic musical tastes because I thought that they just wouldn't make up their mind and they were somehow faking or being pretentious. I bought the R.E.M. record, Eponymous, their first greatest hits -- the I.R.S. greatest hits -- used and I felt really weird about it. I wouldn't even put it in with my other CDs -- not because I thought people would make fun of me, it's because I didn't like seeing it next to these other records. But I really liked it and I thought 'Well, maybe I like R.E.M.,' but then I somehow convinced myself it was a greatest hits so it didn't count. However, I then wrote a term paper for another kid, which is how I used to make money in college, I wrote a term paper for him about One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, even though I, admittedly, had not read the book, I did write the paper about it. And he was supposed to pay me $30, but he had no money, so he said 'Well, I just an Edie Brickell record and Automatic For The People, so I'll give you those instead.' And I started playing Automatic For The People, and when you listen to a lot of metal, you don't associate music being beautiful and some of these songs were really beautiful to me, especially "Nightswimming" which, even when I hear it now, I just think it's an incredibly evocative song, almost a perfect example of what is great about R.E.M. -- that even if the lyrics don’t necessarily have a narrative, it feels like it does.
Song: R.E.M.’s Nightswimming
EL: That was R.E.M. with "Nightswimming", as selected by our guest, Chuck Klosterman. Well, keeping in sort of a metal vein, the next selection you got for us is "New York Groove." Tell us a little bit about that.
CK: Well, though The Beatles are my favorite band to listen to, Kiss has always been my favorite band to think about. And Ace Frehley, who sings "New York Groove," which is actually a cover of a disco song, was always my favorite member of the band. And the reason I picked "New York Groove," in this trajectory of my musical life, was because I had never been to New York, and it's interesting to think about. I try to relate to this and, I view disco during this period at a time when I had never been involved with any disco culture. I think I knew two gay people, I think I had never really done drugs before or anything, so, what I thought disco was, was closer sort of, to like, the depiction on Saturday Night Fever -- which really isn't what disco culture is. So Kiss plays this song and it's a disco song and because Kiss does it, it's okay. And he mentions streets in New York and now, because the city of New York has changed so much, like the corners of the streets, like 43rd Street or whatever -- are totally un-rock n' roll, but this was probably my first conception of what I thought New York was like and now when I hear this song, it seems totally different to me, but I always liked it the same.
Song: Kiss’ New York Groove
EL: That was Ace Frehley of Kiss, with "New York Groove." Well, moving onto another band who has a very distinctive look, it is your next selection and it's Devo with "Girl You Want."
CK: I picked this because I moved to Akron, Ohio in 1998 and, on my first day at the job, I'm meeting people in the newsroom -- I'm working at the Akron Beacon Journal -- and they're asking me questions about Fargo, because I was coming from Fargo and they had never met anybody from North Dakota before. So I, not knowing much about Akron, was like 'Who's the biggest band from here?' and even more so than Chrissie Hynde, who's from kinda the area, it's totally Devo and they were almost shocked, because in Akron, Ohio, Devo is like The Beatles! And in the four years I spent in Ohio, I heard more Devo music than I ever had in the previous 28 years and in the time since I left.
Song: Devo’s Girl U Want
CK: To be honest, I was gonna pick "Gates Of Steel" and then I just picked this one. It was kind of arbitrary. You know, the thing about Devo songs is, while they're not like the Ramones or something, making the exact same song over and over again, there is definitely a unifying quality to their music. If you like one Devo song, you probably like all of them.
EL: What's interesting, too, because like Devo and even some of the other selections -- the metal selections -- do you think that they are of their time? Do they last? Do they have sort of an eternal life in the minds of music fans?
CK: Well, that's a good question. A song like "The Right To Rock" obviously doesn't sound contemporary, it sounds like a period piece. But to me, that's just as valuable as a song like "Nightswimming," which does seem universal. I think it's really cool when a song can really evoke a specific period, not just in your life, but in the culture at large. I think of my favorite songs, they don't always fit into one of those two categories. As an artist, you probably want to make a song that always seems new. But I'm always sort of on the side of people who could've only made this song at this specific time, in this specific place.
EL: That was a selection from Devo; "Girl U Want" from their classic Freedom Of Choice album. Well, the next song you picked must be one that you happened upon much later in your life -- it's from Pulp and its single "Common People".
CK: I just think Jarvis Cocker is sort of a genius lyric writer, and there's a very specific reason why I like this song so much. When Britpop first happened, I was totally into Oasis, and that was about it. People would say there was an Oasis-Blur rivalry and it seemed idiotic to me. For every record that exists in the world of Blur, Oasis has 400 fans. But Pulp was always sort of third and I didn't pay that much attention to their music because when I would listen to it, when it was new, I really couldn't relate to it in any way. And it wasn't until I moved to New York and I started, for the first time in my life, to meet people who were authentically rich, that I start realizing that this song might be, at least in the rock genre, the best sort of analysis of class dynamic that you're going to find. The big irony to me, and the thing that I just can't get over, is the kind of girl who loves "Common People" the most, is inevitably the kind of girl Jarvis Cocker is criticizing in this song. When you don't have any money, you try never to think about class -- I mean that's the irony, sort of -- it's like when you're broke, you don't wanna sort of think that the world is really split up or set in these tiers that are monetary. It's only when you're sort of able to look back, or economically, down, at these different classes, that you realize how central it is to how you look at the world. And the people who seem to be most aware of this paradox and this sort of dichotomy between the rich and the poor, tend to be the people who are least troubled by it, considering their economic condition.
Song: Jarvis Cocker’s Common People
EL: Do you think makes the song a failure, in Jarvis's eyes?
CK: Well, I don't think so. I don't think that he wrote that song, with the intention that people from the lower class would be like, ‘Yeah, this is how it feels when somebody wants to slum in your world.’ I think that he probably is self-aware enough to think, I love the idea that this song that mocks my audience is going to become the song that sorta defines their generation, or their ethos.
EL: Well, Chuck, I want to thank you for coming down and sharing some of your selections with us.
CK: Thanks for having me, man.
EL: For a complete track listing and to find these songs online, go to KCRW.com/ DJ Project.