Welcome to a new feature called "Curious Guy," in which I e-mail questions to somebody who is successful -- whether it's the GM of a baseball team, an author, a creator of a TV show, another writer or whomever -- and we just start trading e-mails for the rest of the week. In case you missed the last edition, we featured Josh Schwartz, the guy who created "The OC."
This week's exchange was with Chuck Klosterman, the best-selling author and pop culture guru who released his third book, "Killing Yourself To Live", earlier this summer. Chuck also writes monthly columns for Spin, Esquire and Honcho. All right, I made that last one up ... but he really does have columns in the other two. Somehow he found the time to exchange e-mails with me. Actually, who am I kidding? He's always online, just like me. Here's what transpired:
Simmons: All right, you're a much bigger sports fan than some people realize ... and yet you grew up in North Dakota. How does somebody fall in love with pro sports while living in a state without teams? Do you have a favorite team in every sport? How did you end up deciding on each one? Were you one of those kids who jumped on the bandwagon of every championship team when you were like, 7 years old? Please tell me you weren't one of those kids. I hate those kids.
Klosterman: This is one issue you and I will never agree upon. I absolutely do not understand why you believe geography should have any significance on which teams you are somehow "obligated" to support. That will always strike me as the most irrational reason for liking anything. There is no inherent regional quality to pro sports, beyond the imaginary relationship created by fans. I remember when I lived in Akron, Ohio, during the late 1990s, and it was suddenly announced that the Browns were returning to Cleveland. People in Northeast Ohio immediately began insisting that the Browns were their favorite team; this was before the expansion draft. People were buying Browns' jerseys before they had acquired any players. They didn't even have a coach or a GM. It was a wholly theoretical franchise. So -- essentially -- these people were rooting for (a) an incorporated municipality with a shared tax base, and (b) a color best-described as "burnt orange." These things have nothing to do with football, and you should never like any specific team more than you like the sport itself.
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"Killing Yourself to Live"
"Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs"
"Fargo Rock City"
When people ask me who my favorite NFL team is, I always say, "The 1978 Dallas Cowboys." I still have some interest in that particular franchise, but I don't feel any loyalty to the organization; I mean, it's not like I'm a stockholder. Nobody asked me about firing Tom Landry. Nobody consulted with me about the acquisition of Drew Bledsoe. I have always liked the Packers (especially during that brief James Lofton-J.J. Jefferson era), but mostly because I grew up surrounded by hordes of Viking fans, virtually all of whom I despise. No Packer victory has ever made me as happy as the Vikings' loss to the Falcons in the 1999 NFC championship game; that was among the greatest days of my life. I generally have a modicum of interest in the Broncos, which (I think) was spawned by my affinity for a 1979 Rick Upchurch football card that recognized him as the NFL's all-time leading punt returner. The photo was of Upchurch adjusting his face mask; it was relentlessly cool. But I was also 7.
Certainly, I was a Celtic fan during the 1980s. I had a lot of interest in the pre-Jordan Bulls (I really liked Artis Gilmore, for some reason), but that waned when they became dominant. I liked the Bucks from the '80s and the '90s Pacers, particularly when Bird coached them. I have always been interested in the Minnesota Twins, as they have consistently been the most likable franchise in baseball. My favorite college football team varies, but it's usually somebody who still runs the option (Nebraska used to be my default university, but now they suddenly think fullbacks are supposed to run pass patterns). In NCAA basketball, I support all the schools coached by the former players and assistants of Bobby Knight, although I have very mixed feelings about Texas Tech.
Basically, I am an intense fan of sports, but I am able to detach from the insane tendency of just rooting for any given team out of habit. And I'll never understand why so many smart people refuse to think critically about sports.
Simmons: Very interesting answer. But here's the problem: You grew up in freaking North Dakota! Of course you don't understand the insane tendency of rooting for a team out of habit -- you were never brainwashed as a little kid into supporting every local team, so you have the ability to examine sports objectively. If you grew up in Boston, you would be wearing a lime-green Varitek jersey right now, getting into Brady-vs.-Manning arguments and worrying if Schilling can possibly hold up over the next four weeks. I mean, you rooted for your high school teams, right? What's the difference? Or were you the kid who sat in the opposing team's section like Ronald Miller and his friends in "Can't Buy Me Love?"
See, you're carrying the sports fan gene, but it was never properly dragged out of you -- so you're a detached observer and enjoy teams based on whether they grab your interest at that particular moment. In a way, you're like the main character from your new book -- instead of being in love with one person, you're in love with three, and all of them provide you with different things you like, only you can't actually settle on one of them. You're right, we fundamentally disagree on this. You approach sports like you approach music -- you can like more than a few bands at once, and every band (or team) means something different to you.
I don't think this is a bad thing or a good thing. At the same time, there's something honorable about loving a franchise through thick and thin. It prepares you for real life in a weird way -- sometimes your teams disappoint you, something they enthrall you, but they're always there, and you learn to support them whether they're good or bad (unless they're the Bruins and they simply stop spending money, then they're out). My favorite thing about a sports team is how if affects everyone in the community and becomes a common love that everyone shares -- that's the single biggest thing I miss about living in Boston. You should go there during the playoffs some time, the city's mood sways depending on how the Sox did the night before. I'm not kidding. Here in Los Angeles, there isn't a single team that everyone agrees on, and nobody cares that much to begin with (because it's 80 degrees every day) ... so the place always feels a little soulless. I think it's a little sad, actually.
Klosterman: I don't see why it would be "honorable" to support anything unconditionally. That kind of thinking has been the source of almost every significant problem in the entire world, except for maybe the hurricanes.
Simmons: See, now you made it seem like I inadvertently defended the Bush presidency. You're a devious man, Klosterman.
All right, next question ... your book (which was excellent, by the way) is semi-autobiographical, stemming from a trip you initially made for Spin Magazine in which you traveled to different spots where famous musicians had died, then tried to find some common link. First, how the hell did you come up with that idea? What kind of drugs were involved, and where can I get them? Second, the title says it's "85 percent of a true story." Please elaborate and discuss what it's like to put so much personal stuff in print (even if you did change some of the names). And third, now that the book is out, would you do anything differently? Did you feel like you shared too much in certain spots, or do you wish you had shared even more than you did?
Klosterman: My book is basically a synthesis of three things: (1) thinking about rock music, (2) thinking about women from my past, and (3) thinking about dying. Now -- obviously -- I'm not the first person who's ever saw a relationship between art, love, and death. But "Killing Yourself" ... is just my specific version of that experience, which happened to involve a lot of driving and smoking pot and listening to Black Sabbath and Fleetwood Mac. It's supposed to be funny, but I have no idea if it actually is. There's some decent information about mastodons and "Derek and the Dominos" in there.
The reason it's only 85 percent true is because I changed a few of the character's names and I made some minor adjustments to the chronology of the narrative. However, the main reason I gave myself a 15 percent window for error is because there are several elements of dialogue I actively recreated from memory (some of which happened in 1996). As such, I assume there are certain plot elements that were unconsciously manipulated by the passage of time and my own personal interpretations of what certain conversations meant (and/or how they were expressed at the time). Most of this book is how I remember things (as opposed to what really happened), which I concede is probably 15 percent flawed.
There are many things I regret about "Killing Yourself to Live." I would like to completely rewrite almost all of it; I feel that way about everything I've ever written. But here's the main thing I regret: When I first wrote this story, it was merely a 4,500-word magazine article for Spin. It was just journalism, and it was only about dead rock stars. When I expanded it into a 75,000-word book, I decided to add a bunch of information about my personal life (which is what most of the book ultimately is). Now, I fully understood that this was a self-indulgent, solipsistic decision. I was completely aware of that. So I thought, "Hey, I will just make it very clear to the reader that this is a self-indulgent, solipsistic story, and that I am using my own personal life as a literary device to talk about culture." And I stupidly thought that if I did this, people would understand the parameters for the story and consume it under those established conditions. However, it ended up having the opposite effect: By mentioning that I was totally self-aware of the book's narcissistic qualities, that became the ONLY thing certain people noticed. So it's almost like I actively went out of my way to remind people about why they should potentially hate this book.
I don't know ... it's just a predictably polarizing book, I suppose. Some people truly loathe it, but the people who love it seem to love it with an intensity I could have never possibly anticipated. In that sense, I'm hoping that "Killing Yourself to Live" will end up being my version of Weezer's "Pinkerton" album. But who knows? It will probably end up being my version of "Be Here Now" by Oasis. Either way, it was really, really fun to write.
Simmons: OK, a couple of reactions here. First, because your second book ("Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs") was successful, there was a certain group of people who were going to pick your next book apart no matter what it was. I liked that you went in a different direction, that's what you had to do -- Springsteen did it with "Tunnel of Love," Nirvana did it with "En Utero," DiCaprio did it with "The Beach," Dave Chappelle did it by moving to South Africa and becoming a crazy person. Not to compare you to those people, but you know what I mean. The point is, if you're screwed either way, why not pick a project that you like? What were you supposed to do, spend a year writing another collection of pop culture columns?
On the other hand, I can see where those same people are coming from -- for instance, when Pearl Jam released "Vitalogy," I was absolutely furious and felt betrayed by them because they included so many crap songs. Years later, I see what they were trying to do -- there's no way they could have topped their first two albums, so they went in another direction, enjoyed themselves and probably said, "Screw it, let's make this our third one." I listened to it a few times and chose not to like it. Other PJ fans love it; in fact, when I made fun of "Spin the Black Circle" once, the PJ fans went ballistic. So it depends on the person, I guess. And I think your third book was like that. As soon as you were doing your homage to Micheal Ray Richardson in Rhode Island, you had me. I didn't care what happened after that, I just wanted to find out as soon as possible.
That reminds me, as a self-proclaimed Celtics fan in the '80s, how could you ever snort lines after what happened to Tony Montana and Lenny Bias? The Bias debacle alone put the fear of God into me with coke for life. I mean, he single-handedly toppled the Celtics dynasty! If he doesn't blow those lines, Bird's back never goes, McHale doesn't have to play 20 playoff games on a broken foot, the Big Three wouldn't have logged all those minutes in '87 and '88, Magic's sky hook never would have happened, and the '87 team would have won between 70 and 75 games. Seriously, imagine the Lakers in the '80s if you just removed Worthy from the equation in 1982. Do they win another title?
Klosterman: This is a curious question to respond to, particularly since "Vitalogy" is almost irrefutably the best Pearl Jam album, its only major problems being (a) it had an oversized, environmentally conscious jewel case, which makes it impossible to file, and (b) that it was titled "Vitalogy," which sounds like the name of a riboflavin supplement.
Philip K. Dick wrote a novel in 1962 called "The Man in the High Castle" which speculated about what the United States would have been like if the Nazis had won WWII. You should write a similar book about what would have happened if Len Bias had lived; you could call it "The Man in the High Post." I sometimes wonder how good Bias would have been, though. I mean, he certainly seemed like the best player available that year and he destroyed the ACC, but there were a bushel of guys in that 1986 draft (Kenny Walker, Walter Berry, John Williams) who ended up having terrible careers. That had to be the highest class in NBA history -- Chris Washburn came out that year, Scott Skiles, Roy Tarpley, etc. It was like David Stern tried to simultaneously employ every member of The Eagles. Also, was Bias doing lines of coke? I thought he was supposedly freebasing. Freebasing is for crazy people.
Personally, it's hard for me to visualize what the Celtics would have looked like if Bias had been on the floor. I still can't see it. But it was still very disappointing, because it seemed like the Lakers would constantly just get new guys out of the ether. It seemed like they were constantly acquiring people like Worthy and Bob McAdoo and Mychal Thompson, and those guys were always the difference-makers. The only person the Celtics ever added was Bill Walton (who really only contributed for one season), and they barely even needed him, because L.A. didn't make the Finals that year. To me, that's almost more depressing than Bias' dying. The Lakers were defeated by the Rockets in the playoffs that season (on some ridiculous Ralph Sampson turnaround off an in-bounds play), which is a game I'm still convinced the Lakers lost on purpose. Because if the Lakers had met Boston that June, LA would have been crushed in five games. That would have been profoundly satisfying.
Two questions for you ...
1.) Why doesn't anyone care about college baseball?
2.) Why aren't you asking me about Gary Hogeboom being a contestant on "Survivor"?
Simmons: Hold on, I can't let the Rockets thing go. While I agree that the '86 Lakers would have gotten killed in the Finals, you underestimate that Rockets team. They had Young Hakeem (an absolute force of nature at the time) playing with Sampson (who was a top-15 player back then -- on basketballreference.com, if you look up Sampson's career, through 1986, he's closest statistically to Patrick Ewing at the same age), as well as some quality vets (Robert Reid, Rodney McCray, even Lewis Lloyd). Along with the '93 Suns, '87 Pistons, '98 Pacers and '82 Celtics, that Rockets team was one of the most dangerous teams that didn't actually win a title. Don't forget, they lost Game 1 against LA and swept the next four. Plus, half the team ended up being on drugs -- they nearly broke the record of the 1979 Atlanta Hawks. They just brought a ton of stuff to the table. Any team that could have two guys spring for 20 points and 20 rebounds in the same series has to be taken seriously.
On your questions: Nobody cares about college baseball because there are too many games and it's too hard to follow. With hoops, most people watch March Madness and that's it. With college football, you only have to follow one day a week. Also, the baseball uniforms always have too much yellow, orange and lime-green, making the sport a little USFL-y. And the aluminum bats are the equivalent of the smaller ball in the WNBA -- they inadvertently hurt the credibility of the sport. Aluminum bats are for Little Leaguers and potbellied softball players.
Hey, while we're here, I was wondering, what did you think of Gary Hogeboom's Carl Spackler-like performance on "Survivor"? Do you think Jeff Probst should yank him for Danny White six episodes into the season, just so Hogeboom will have Nam-like flashbacks about Tom Landry and kill everyone on the island?
Klosterman: OK ... as I'm writing this, I've only seen the first episode of the new "Survivor" season, but here are my initial thoughts:
A. I honestly fear that CBS is now programming their network *directly at me.* First they make a reality program about a critically maligned rock band from the 1980s with a dead singer; now they're taking a reality show and adding a journeyman quarterback who nobody cares about except for me, you, Michael Weinreb and seven dudes who still get drunk at Gilley's and complain about the anachronisms in "Urban Cowboy." If this trend continues, CBS will soon debut a sitcom where Val Kilmer and Bijou Phillips portray alcoholic roadies for a Thin Lizzy tribute band who fight a futuristic war against tigers, robots and the Loch Ness Monster.
B. If Hogeboom gets voted off of the island, I hope Probst accidentally calls him "Danny Hogeboom," which is what Landry did when he benched White in 1984 and announced Hogeboom would be the starter, which confused the hell out of everybody (and for multiple reasons). That was really the beginning of the end for the Cowboys.
C. I like that -- almost immediately -- Hogeboom was perceived as the leader of his tribe. This seems to indicate that there is an inherent "field general" quality to playing quarterback, and this intangible sensation is even palpable to bozos who think the easiest way to make a million dollars is to eat rats.
D. Isn't one of the other contestants on this year's "Survivor" a female sports-talk radio host from Kansas City? Will she be embarrassed if she never figures out she is on an island with a former pro football player? Do you think she would recognize Christian Okoye?
(Ed. Note: In episode No. 2, she did recognize Hogeboom and "out" him, although both Klosterman and Simmons are convinced that CBS fed her the information to make the game more interesting. Back to the exchange.)
Simmons: I think if she spends the whole season without recognizing Hogeboom, she should give up her show and work for Oxygen. By the way, we're drifting away from the main topic, which is supposed to be you. Who were your biggest influences as a writer? When did you know you wanted to do this for a living? Describe how you felt the first time you walked into a bookstore and saw your book on a shelf. And do you like being called a "pop culture guru," or do you think it sounds like something Joy Behar or Elisabeth Hasselbeck would say as they were introducing you on "The View?"
Klosterman: I'm not sure who my influences are; I'd prefer to have none at all, but I suppose that's impossible. When I was in eighth grade, I remember going through this very intense "black literature" phase, when I was suddenly obsessed with reading "Black Boy" and "Native Son" and "Black Like Me" and "Invisible Man" and whatnot. But -- at the exact same time this was happening -- I was constantly listening to Motley Crue and watching David Letterman and Monty Python's "Flying Circus." So I suppose I am ultimately the kind of writer who was equally influenced by Richard Wright, Nikki Sixx and people who tell jokes without punchlines. I really liked George Orwell during high school, and P.J. O' Rourke. In college I read a lot of the books that everyone seemed to be reading at the time -- "American Psycho," "Generation X," "Bright Lights Big City," that sort of thing. I probably ripped off those guys a lot. But it always seemed impossible to be influenced by people like Kafka or Calvino or Salinger. That seemed completely beyond by ability. I feel the same way about David Foster Wallace and Malcolm Gladwell -- I wish I could write with that kind of intellect or that kind of clarity, but I'm just not sharp enough.
I'm also not sure how I ended up doing this for a living; it just kind of worked out that way. I mean, five years ago I was a complete nobody, and now I'm suddenly answering questions on a Web site that 9 million people are going to read. It's insane. And so is seeing your own book in a bookstore (and not just the first time, but *every* time). It's almost confusing. I often feeling like I am watching someone else's life. As far as that "cultural guru" thing -- that seems ridiculous. It's not like I give people cultural advisement. I don't live in Tibet and wait for weary travelers to ask me questions about Audioslave. In many ways, I think Americans have become confused by the term "pop culture." They seem to think "pop culture" only refers to "shallow trivia." When anybody writes about things in the modern world that are familiar to people, they are writing about culture that is popular. It's pretty straightforward, really; it's not like I'm working on the Jarvik 7.
Stay tuned for Part II, on Wednesday.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" hits bookstores on Oct. 1 and is available right now on Amazon.com.