August 27, 1998
Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio
Chuck Klosterman lightly misquoted me once, but I've never held it against him.
It was the second day of my senior year of high school, and I was standing outside a Pearl Jam concert when the rock critic from the local daily newspaper approached. My buddy Tim and I had been traveling to see the band that summer. We'd just gotten back from a huge outdoor show in Barrie, Ontario—in those days it wasn't unheard of for 17-year-old kids to drive across an international border to see a rock concert.¹
Klosterman didn't care about any of that, though. He had his Pearl Jam story, and he just needed a couple of saps to pin it on. He asked us a couple of prodding questions, formulated other questions in ways that invited replies, namechecked things he wanted namechecked and then twisted our answers just a little to fit them into the box he'd carefully built.
The payoff was classic Klosterman, a counterintuitive argument that the survivors of grunge meant something different to us Xennials: "To these kids, Pearl Jam is not the angst-ridden voice of alienated youth; Pearl Jam is an uplifting, feel-good band with insightful lyrics."
At the time, I was a little confused. Not now—now I know that Klosterman was Klosterman and he wanted to Klosterman. And so he did.²
No great harm was done. Klosterman didn't misrepresent our ideas or opinions, and his essay was much better than any concert review you'd expect from a mid-sized Midwestern daily newspaper.
His options were pretty limited. The Akron Beacon Journal had brutal deadlines on concert reviews, which meant that Klosterman could either half-write something intelligent in advance or fart out a piece about how the crowd reacted to "Jeremy." The shape of a feature story demanded by daily newspapers of the era required quotes, so he stuffed his words in the mouths of some random kids. I'm sure there are people all over Akron who Klosterman lightly misquoted while sharing his own ideas about Lilith Fair and Shania Twain.
Funny thing is, everyone now claims they loved Klosterman during his years at the Beacon Journal. A review of one of his recent books in the local sports newsletter, the Plain Dealer, opened with a complaint about how Klosterman used to be funny but isn't anymore. "As a longtime reader of the Akron Beacon Journal, I can't forget Klosterman's brilliant stint there…" the writer wrote.
This is a shameless and obvious lie.
No one liked Chuck Klosterman during his stint as the Beacon Journal, because no one understood what the fuck he was doing. Not his editors, not his colleagues and surely not some random Plain Dealer freelancer—who further diminishes his credibility by being a full professor of literature at Kent State University.
Before Klosterman, there wasn't any Klostermans. And now you look around and there are so many Klostermans. More than anyone, Klosterman has shaped the voice of the contemporary High Internet.³
Klosterman is, if not the originator, than certainly the foremost populizer of the genre of the 6,000-word essay that involves drawing tenuous comparisons between something random that pop-culture followers vaguely remember (Darko Milicic!) with something else more or less equally random (Liam Gallagher?).
He's also the most fearless interjector of highly detailed personal anecdotes that American Letters has yet known—I should know, I've been reading him since I was a teenager driving my black Ford Taurus to see concerts he previewed in the newspaper.
He’s also indisputably the greatest-ever user of simple adverbs. Klosterman blends hot takes, absurdities, factoids and accepted knowledge with such blazing velocity that you can’t pause long enough to consider whether he might be wrong before your head is nodding along in agreement again. When he tells you something is definitely true, as if by magic it seems more true—this is a rare and precious gift.
October 23, 2004
A few years later, I interned at the Beacon Journal. I got to sit at Chuck Klosterman's old desk. This was not an honor, though Klosterman was at that point already very successful, a senior editor at Spin and a well-known essayist about to release his third book.
Rather, it was the worst desk in the features department, and, thus, the one available to interns. Klosterman's old desk faced a wall in the back of the room right next to the entrance, so that everyone who walked in the room could not help but look over the shoulder of the person seated there. For any writer, this is hell.
Taped to the wall above the desk was a snippet of an envelope, cut out carefully and hung like the little brass historical plaques you'd find at the county's oldest tree:
Gay & Lesbian Writer
The Akron Beacon Journal
44 East Exchange St., Akron, OH 44308
My memories are fuzzy, but in my mind this was the handiwork of Rich Heldenfels, the paper's other pop culture writer, who hated Chuck Klosterman more than anybody—though certainly everybody except David Giffels hated Klosterman at least a little bit.⁴
This wasn’t just jealousy, though obviously that was a factor. These were smart, hard-working professional newspaper people with guild cards and pensions. Stern, decent, patrician people with degrees from colleges that label themselves “Harvard on the Hocking,” who were flown to Japan to cover the Olympics with “a local angle.” These were people in pleated khakis, and Klosterman was obviously not one of them. Also, as you might expect from his prodigious writing on widely divergent subjects, he’s somewhat notorious as a loudmouthed know-it-all.⁵
November 24, 2004
Writing concert reviews for the Beacon Journal was tough sledding given the early deadlines. I did it only once, while interning, with help from Klosterman's replacement, a guy named Malcolm X. Abram. Abram and I went to the show together, the Pixies reunion tour at the college basketball arena.
"One thing I've learned in my life is, it's always good when you get a new job if everyone you work with hated the guy who had the job before you," he told me, an intern, while we waited to see the Pixies.
Malcolm was there to make sure I filed my review by 10 pm. The encore started at 9:50, so I was not done until 10:05 pm. I asked Malcolm to look over my review. Instead, he hit "send" without reading a word.
"Deadline is 10, you're already late," he said.
It's been 15 years, and Malcolm X. Abram is still the pop music critic at the Akron Beacon Journal.
September 21, 2005
The thing about Peak Klosterman is, it's pretty much perfect.
Perhaps you remember one of his most famous essays, "Appetite for Replication," about a Guns N' Roses cover band called Paradise City, playing a show at Mainstreet Bar and Grill, a dingy bar in college town called Harrisonburg, Virginia. Klosterman called Harrisonburg "a strange part of the country" which more or less describes a city full of Jersey Shore types sandwiched between the gentlemen farmers of the Piedmont and the meth cooks of Appalachia.
As it happens, I worked there as a features reporter. The Mainstreet Bar and Grill Klosterman visited with Paradise City burned down a few months after his trip. I was working there a year later when it reopened, and so it fell to me to cover it.
Here's the thing: Klosterman's description remained eerily precise. All of the people he described were there—the guy wearing a FUBU sweatshirt with a baseball hat that features the Confederate flag, the girl buying a $2.25 glass of Natty Light with her credit card and having it declined.
Chuck Klosterman can write about a club before the club burns to the ground. When the club reopens a year later, the things Klosterman wrote about the club will remain true.
October 22, 2007
My tastes and interests are very much informed by the mid-'90s. For whatever reason, I remember the most random of things from my middle school years in oddly rich detail. I can't remember what I ate for lunch last week, but I know a lot about Slobodan Milošević.
And so it was that I made my way to the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas, a few years ago. It's just a slab of concrete surrounded by brown dirt and dead bushes. But I wanted to see the place where all those people died—and where a piece of Klosterman died, too.
The thing is, if you read enough Klosterman, it becomes very obvious that this guy smokes a lot of weed and transcribes his thoughts more or less verbatim. He is very smart, so it mostly works.
But when you're a very successful writer whose weirdest ideas are given the presumption of credibility, there's a natural inclination to maybe push things a little too far and outsmart yourself. And so it was that Chuck Klosterman lost his cloak of plausibility by penning an essay comparing In Utero to David Koresh.
The problem? The comparison was so obvious—Cobain and Koresh do kinda look alike!—and yet so stupid. So stupid.
I owned In Utero on tape and listened to it while walking to school every morning for three months. I know every word and every note. I also followed the Waco siege in a weirdly obsessive way.
David Koresh and In Utero have nothing in common.
October 10, 2011
The second time I met Chuck Klosterman, I liked him less than the time he misquoted me.
The week I moved to Portland to start as the Culture editor here, he was reading at Powell's on his tour for his first novel, Downtown Owl. He was an inspiration, and this was a major milestone in my life, so it felt weirdly kismetty.
I went to the reading. I waited at the end of the long line, and when my time came I told him I was from Akron, and had read him growing up, loved his work had worked at the Beacon Journal and sat at his old desk, had myself become a music critic and had just moved here to start a new job.
I had a copy of Downtown Owl in my hands, but I also had a copy of the old Beacon Journal story.
"You quoted me in the lead, which was really cool to me at the time," I said.
(I did not mention the light misquote.)
Chuck was noticeably disinterested in my brief personal anecdote.
"So do you want me to sign that paper or what?" he asked.
I had him sign his novel. It sits unread.
GO: Chuck Klosterman will appear on LiveWire, Alberta Rose Theater, 3000 NE Alberta St., live-wire.org. 7 pm. $15-$60.
¹ The August 1998 Barrie show is somewhat infamous for Eddie Vedder introducing "Habit" by pandering to the Canadian crowd with criticism of Bill Clinton's recent military adventurism: "Speaking as a dumb-ass, beer-drinking, propaganda-believing, missile-shooting American…" America had, in fact, shot some missiles in Afghanistan that day. We missed the intended target, a then-obscure militant named Osama Bin Laden. Whoops.
² Klosterman has more or less admitted this tendency—to this very newspaper, in fact. Here's what he told WW music editor Matt Singer back in October 2011: "That's always the main thing that pushes me toward ever writing fiction: that I just can't get people in real life to say the things I want them to say, so I have to make up people to do it."
³ The only other writer you would make a case for is Chuck's good friend Bill Simmons. The main problem with that argument is that Simmons is such a shitty-ass writer that, well, c'mon.
⁴ "Heldenfels bitches about him to this day," my sources say.
⁵ Klosterman's direct supervisor, the deputy features editor, was a literal know-it-all—she later had a nice run on Jeopardy! My God, how her head must have ached from listening to him talk about Dio.