Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Rich People Died

The Hollywood Book of Death by James Robert Parrish
Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story by Chuck Klosterman

A few years back, I worked as a volunteer manager for a traveling Titanic exhibit, and each and every weekend, thousands of well-fed tourists poured into the Memphis Pyramid to gawk at stuff, and generally make my life miserable. One day, after a particularly grueling shift during which a visitor handed me a headset, and said, "I threw up on this," I was complaining bitterly to a friend, and asked, "Why? Why do people insist on being interested in this gruesome spectacle?" She shrugged and said, "Rich people died."

And there you have it. So long as rich people die, people will insist on being interested in it, gawking at it, and books will be published about it. Bad experience aside, I am forced to admit that I, being no more noble than anyone else, am also interested in celebrity deaths. And living in Los Angeles, I certainly have access to a number of them. I can go to the Viper Room where River Phoenix overdosed or to the Biltmore Hotel, the last place Elizabeth "The Black Dahlia" Short was seen alive. Heck, if I walk four houses down from mine, I can see up into the apartment where a washed-up silent film star named Karl Dane blew his head off.

The Hollywood Book of Death is pretty straightforward - brief biographies of the famous, the obscure, and the tragic. The book is divided into chapters including "Drugs and Alcohol," "Murders," "Puzzling Deaths," and "Accidental Deaths," but despite its sensational subtitle, "The Bizarre and Often Sordid Passings of More Than 125 American Movie and TV Idols," the biggest hunk of the book is given over to "Natural Causes."

In addition to being sometimes sordid, it's a pretty well-researched little book that includes lots of tidbits I never knew (e.g. John Barrymore's drinking buddies Errol Flynn and Raoul Walsh swiped the body and played a little Weekend At Bernie's with it) and debunks lots of gossip I'd always believed (e.g. Jayne Mansfield was not, in fact, decapitated - her wig came off).

Killing Yourself To Live differs from The Hollywood Book of Death most significantly by not being remotely about what it purports to be about. Theoretically, Klosterman is on assignment with Spin, embarking on a whirlwind road trip across the United States to visit the sites of notable rock n' roll deaths. But pretty quickly, he realizes that nobody at the Chelsea Hotel wants to answer any more questions about what happened between Sid and Nancy in Room 100, that the swamp where Skynyrd's plane went down is infested with cottonmouths, and that when you go to the beanfield where the music died, there's really not a whole lot you can do except stand around in a beanfield.

As a result, Klosterman's whole experiment devolves into a memoir of music he's loved, women he's loved and lost, and sometimes both at the same time. At one point, he realizes that he is best able to understand the role that these women played in his life by casting them as various members of KISS. Hey, we've all done it (although maybe not with KISS).

Is this more than a little self-indulgent? You betcha. Does that make it a bad book? Not by a long shot. Klosterman perfectly captures what it's like to be in your early 20s, and even more perfectly, how hard it is to remember what that time was like once you're no longer in your early 20s, except that it was depressing, spent shiftlessly, and probably wasted on you. The book is quirky and funny, and filled with the kind of thoughts you have on a long car trip by yourself, if you are a music geek. How do I feel about Rod Stewart? Why does everyone go through a Led Zeppelin phase? What motivated Eric Clapton to steal his best friend's wife? Things like that.

If you want a celebrity fix, and are feeling shameless about it, go for The Hollywood Book of Death, but if you want to get some poignant reflection and pop culture nostalgia out of the deal, Killing Yourself To Live should be just the ticket.


johnmurry said...

I picked this up in the Dallas airport. You're so right, it absolutely meanders away from it's stated goal, but I loved it the more for doing so. Chuck Klosterman is hilarious and absurdly self-conscious. It really feels like sitting around with you and Brady and the P&H talking shit about music. I love the portion where he snorts coke with the redneck at the site of the Great White club fire and comes to the conclusion that our generation simply despises authenticity. Brilliant. I took great pleasure in it partially b/c I knew others would hate it.

mary_m said...

Yeah, I also liked the part where he talks about how much it annoys him when people assume he listens to certain music ironically.

"Why would I pretend to like music that I hate?"

Yeah... I miss sitting around the P&H talking about music. Nobody out here listens to anything good.