JUNE 14 - 20, 2002 Is Rock Criticism Dead?
Richard Meltzer, Noise Boy
by Alec Hanley Bemis
Without music, life would be a mistake. --Friedrich Nietzsche
RICHARD MELTZER IS ONE OF THE best rock writers there ever was. He lives in Portland. He moved there from Los Angeles in 1995. It's cloudy most of the time.
"Gray is the color the sky should be most of the year," he says. "Los Angeles has less existential reverb than cardboard."
Meltzer, 57, has taken to Portland like a native. The city is an odd backwater where beatniks, hippies, punks and hicks effortlessly coexist. In Meltzer, the four styles merge. Recently, I spent three days' time trailing him. His "look" did not change. It's modified lumberjack -- red-and-black flannel shirt, black jeans, black Nikes. His hair is gray and pulled back into a short ponytail. Even with a beard, Meltzer looks a bit like a young Robert De Niro, and he won't hesitate to tell you that.
These days his is a quiet, suburban life. When I visit him at his little yellow house in Burnside, a bohemian part of town, the first thing he does is show me his pussy, Hooper. The cat is in his lap. He pierces the flesh over the animal's spine with a catheter needle, inserts a length of rubber tubing into the drip chamber that feeds it, and squeezes on the IV bag that delivers the 17-year-old animal sweet relief.
"Up until two years ago he was a hunter and a fighter," says Meltzer. "But now he's sick. Once a day, for the last year and a half, I've had to give him 115 cc's of fluids. He got the way he is today because for his whole life he was a street cat, and from fighting he got abscesses all over his body. His kidneys are completely shot. In the morning, I have to give him a dose of thyroid rubbed in a gel in his ear. I do that at night too. So three times a day, I have to deal with the cat."
Hooper does not protest. He freezes when Meltzer makes his first gentle jab, sliding the needle in, but soon enough the tension dissipates. The cat unwinds. He's almost relaxed. Meltzer tells me that Hooper sometimes purrs through the procedure.
"These days I'm stuck with this life-and-death shit every day," he says. I can't help but sense he finds a kind of peace in that.
THOUGH SOME MAY QUIBBLE, RICHARD Meltzer was the first critic to make a serious effort at understanding rock & roll. The Aesthetics of Rock was the first book about rock music. Sort of. It wasn't published until 1970, but it made the rounds of various New York publishers in '68. To quote Meltzer in the forward to the 1986 reprint, "Aside from happening to be my own first book, this here whatsis was/is the first 'serious rock book' ever written (though hardly the first one published), an achievement which I must confess has yet to make me sick."
Reporters and critics had been trying to get at the meaning of rock music before Meltzer came along. Richard Goldstein, an editor at the Village Voice, began writing critical pieces about rock in 1966. Three newspaper columnists -- Jane Scott of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Al Aronowitz of the New York Post and Ralph J. Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle -- all came before Goldstein, and are contenders for the title of "first." (To this day, Gleason is memorialized at the bottom of Rolling Stone's masthead: "Ralph J. Gleason 1917-1975." Jane Scott just retired this spring, at the age of 83.) None of these writers, however, had the same depth of engagement with the music as Meltzer. His insights bordered on the spiritual, perhaps because he approached music with heedless passion. This is rare in critics, but it's crucial to both making and comprehending pop music. Others documented the phenomenon of rock in the '60s. Meltzer lived it.
"Although no empirical comparison is possible, Nietzsche's Dionysiac revelry has been utterly surpassed by the rock & roll frenzy," he wrote in Aesthetics. "The night following the 1964 presidential election, I attended an orgy of an election party partaking in the rock & roll experience . . . [Rolling Stones] songs such as 'King Bee' ('Well I'm a king bee, baby /Buzzin' 'round your hive./I can make honey baby; Just Š let me come inside') and 'Can I Get a Witness' (with its grinding piano) precipitated, after drinking, such actions as couples disrobing in obscure attic bathrooms and the successful seduction of a university coed by a university professor, in addition to general rampant cavorting on the floors and couches."
As this quote reveals, his early rock & roll life played out before an academic backdrop. The book started as a paper titled "A Sequel: Tomorrow's Not Today," which he crafted as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and later as a philosophy grad student at Yale. Retitled The Aesthetics of Rock, it was excerpted in the February 1967 issue of Paul Williams' Crawdaddy!, the first serious rock magazine. That same month, Meltzer was expelled for general rabble-rousing, though he explains that the decision was mutual.
"I went to the hall of graduate studies, and all these guys were looking at me," he reminisces. "So they say to me, 'What drug are you on today?' and I take out this tin of nutmeg and say, 'Ha ha ha!' And I wasn't really flying on it yet. But within an hour, I was seeing every molecule in the sidewalk, and it's spring semester, and I just somehow in the course of that walk decided that I guess it was time to leave."
When Aesthetics was finally published by artist Emmett Williams' Something Else Press, it was an odd beast, filled with nonsense, non sequiturs and a hundred dead ends. "So what is it?" Meltzer wonders in his forward to the '86 edition:
Well, as long as you're asking, The Aesthetics of Rock [get your felt-tipped marker] is the nearly verbatim transcript of my first three years, 1965-68, of beating my head against various walls, personal and systematic, in an unguided, utterly ingenuous, unrestrainedly passionate attempt to make even provisional mega-sense out of something, far as I can tell even today, no one previous had particularly cared to "explore," verbally, much more than the frigging surface of: rock rock rock (and ROLL). Of which I was -- gosh -- a frigging, unwashed "disciple."
His book raised more questions: Is music a religion? Is rock & roll philosophy? Can it be a way of life? Ê
TO UNDERSTAND HOW MELTZER PROceeded to live, you first have to know more about Aesthetics' contents. It served as his blueprint.
He opens the book by quoting the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" in its entirety, i.e., "Papa-ooma-mow-mow/Papa-oom-mow-ma-mow/Papa-ooma-ooma-ooma-ooma-ooma-mow-mow." In some quarters, it was received simply as parody -- a joke sprung on the increasingly self-important brand of rock criticism first championed by Crawdaddy!
"When he unleashed his manifesto . . . too many rock writers were literary types who focused on the words: the 'poetry of rock,'" writes New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles in an e-mail interview. "Meltzer rightly tore that approach apart. He was brilliant, he was cantankerous, and he was just about always hilarious to read. And he zeroed in on why people love rock so passionately. People love the noise, the thrills, the inarticulate stupid genius that blasts out of a loud three-minute throwaway. Meltzer saved rock criticism from trying to make the music respectable, and by doing that, he gave an incalculable gift not just to writers, but to the music too."
The book was more than a joke. Yes, trying to read straight through all 338 stream-of-consciousness pages is harder than parsing Heidegger. But try it sometime. Though couched in esoteric language, Meltzer's masterwork got at pop music's deeper meanings and effects better than any before or since.
He grafted Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band onto the rootstock of Plato. He proposed that rock wasn't a simple pleasure sold to teens, but rather the next logical stage in the history of art and Western philosophy. He was a philosopher of pop. Western art has always aspired to imbue audiences with vitality, he reasoned. Vitality is the feeling we associate with drunkenness and sex. Pop was great because it led straight to sex.
The Beatles provided his apotheosis. "So, as expected, it had to be the Beatles themselves to do the job of (one-more-time) summing up the recent by summing up the whole thing in a soft cataclysmic combination of death, sleep and multiplicity/variety, as if they hadn't done it before," he wrote, "so this time it would have to be a really real decisive end-of-culture/end-of-the-world thing. And that's precisely what Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was/is. Bringing with it the consequent death of art forever (until someone forgets) . . ."
As critic Greil Marcus explained in his introduction to the reprint, "The death of art is what rock & roll, as the brute actualization, had aimed for from the beginning; from the beginning, rock & roll had meant to change 'art' into everyday speech. In The Aesthetics of Rock, you can hear it happen."
The book has been alternately maligned and beloved. The back cover carries two notices: "One of 'The Best Rock & Roll Books Ever'" (from Britain's New Musical Express) and "One of 'The 10 Worst Rock Books'" (from The Book of Rock Lists). Its reception has positioned Meltzer as the successor to one of his primary models. He is the Friedrich Nietzsche of rock crit -- widely discussed, rarely read.
Meltzer forecast his own fate: "My critique may be of value relevant to the positive garbage heap of philosophy and art which has preceded, or it may end up on a different, smaller garbage heap, eaten by worms and forgotten; either way I will deem it similarly futilely triumphant and triumphantly futile." Ê
DANGEROUS PASSIONS BEGET UNSTAble lives. This, in part, explains the course Meltzer took. In the '70s he became associated with Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches as a trio of hard-living rock critics the Village Voice's James Wolcott dubbed "the Noise Boys." Bangs went out like a rock star and has been canonized like one too. He overdosed on Darvon in '82. Tosches went on to a prestigious career as a novelist and literary journalist who specializes in antiquated cool, i.e., Dean Martin, Sonny Liston, and the search for an opium high. Meltzer began the '70s writing for Rolling Stone, but grew increasingly contemptuous of the industry growing up around the music.
"At a certain point, every rock writer in the country became plugged into a pathetic, binary yes/no marketplace-driven tale told wrong," he says. "Rock mags existed to get ads, so you had to like so many bands a year. You had to not mock the market." Meltzer was sick of writing record reviews. Instead he wrote around the records he was reviewing. Soon enough, his stuff was relegated to fly-by-night publications like Zoo World. The lack of editorial oversight was an opportunity. He began devoting his energies to a new topic: his rock & roll autobiography. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from a 1975 piece titled "Handsome Dick Throws the Party of the Century," originally published in a magazine called Zoot:
Lots of stray teen gash that no one was touchin at all. That you could reach your hand up, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19. As well as 20. But no one was touchin. F'in deadbeats cause they were f'ed up on quaaludes. Dick was only wearin a jock by now (9 ludes) and pink swastikas in lipstick all over his body. He requested a mouth on his pecker from any gal willing but no go. Maybe it was his party but they weren't about to suck whale meat. But that don't mean they wouldn't suck people meat so I made my move . . . Fine party, very fine and except at the very beginning music DID NOT make it possible. Time was music is what made parties possible. Kids don't f'in need "pop" music no more (any more'n they need soda pop), they get off on life itself: cookin with gas. Pop music is PLOP MUSIC. Nobody needs it.
A night out fueled Meltzer's cultural critique. Understandably this behavior did not endear him to people. Mention Meltzer's name to those who knew him in his prime, and they tend to cower or grimace. To paraphrase the comments of two: "Asshole." "I read some poetry of his, invited him over to talk, and he jumped me. I had to ask him to leave." During the '80s, Meltzer frequently received death threats from female readers of his column in the L.A. Reader. They were outraged by his perceived lack of feminist sensibility.
In 2000, there was a renaissance of interest in the Noise Boys. Rock critic Jim DeRogatis wrote a biography of Bangs, and Philip Seymour Hoffman played him in Cameron Crowe's semiautobiographical film Almost Famous. DaCapo published The Nick Tosches Reader and an anthology of Meltzer's music writing, A Whore Just Like the Rest. Robert Christgau, the longtime Village Voice writer known as "the dean of American rock critics," weighed in. "Meltzer has it 180 degrees wrong when he begrudgingly allows as how I liked him 'personally . . . and to some degree professionally,'" he wrote. "Truth is, I considered Meltzer an antisocial jerk, and please read 'Handsome Dick Throws the Party of the Century' before calling me a goody-goody. As a writer, however, I thought he was terrific. And it turns out he was only warming up." Ê
I'M REMINDED OF A QUOTE FROM George W.S. Trow's book Within the Context of No Context, which bemoaned the spiraling irrelevance of America's ahistorical television culture:
Adolescence: The culture, for reasons having to do with the working of the marketplace, did not make available any but the grimmest, most false-seeming adulthood. Childhood was provided. An amazing, various childhood, full of the most extraordinary material possibilities. That was it. Nothing more. Just childhood. An adolescence had to be improvised, and it was. That it was improvised -- mostly out of rock & roll music -- so astounded the people who pulled it off that they quite rightly considered it the most important historical event of their times and have circled around it ever since.
This is a withering critique. Essentially, Trow is saying that rock & roll was a pitiful refuge for those who had nothing else, a false God that baby-boomers would bow down to in reverence for the rest of their natural-born lives.
Meltzer, however, believed that rock could evolve. In New York, he wrote lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult, classmates of his at SUNY Stony Brook and one of the first heavy-metal bands. In the mid-'70s he moved to California and became a champion and guiding spirit of punk. In January '78, at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, he was invited by the Sex Pistols to introduce their last show with Sid Vicious. Their tour manager thought the crowd too placid and full of hippies. Meltzer was there to rile them up. (He was a bit too effective, and Bill Graham, the owner of the hall, kicked him out.) Back in SoCal, Meltzer hosted a freeform punk show on KPFK, encouraging the early exploits of the Go-Go's, Slash magazine's Claude Bessy and Germs vocalist Darby Crash. His own band, Vom (slogan: Vom Wants Your Mom), released a single entitled "Electrocute Your Cock." He was the reigning theorist behind nihilist punk.
Did punk need a theorist? Trow dismissed punk as a greater tragedy than rock & roll:
Defacement: Punk art is allied to what an extraordinary prisoner might do in his cell. Not ask for parole, for instance, or bone up on his case, but etch crazy feather patterns into certain secret places. There's arrogance in it, and pride, too.
Meltzer may have agreed with him. He points to 1981, the year of Trow's essay, as the year he lost faith in music. He was kicked off his radio show. He ceased going to concerts. He stopped buying rock albums and began getting into jazz. Within a year, Lester Bangs had overdosed.
"What seemed like anarchy was in fact a bottomless sadness," Meltzer tells me. "The day Darby Crash died, John Lennon did too." Meltzer's life circa '81 would seem to provide fodder for Trow's analysis. His two pillars of faith -- punk and the Beatles -- were deceased.
But just wait a second. Trow was writing, admittedly, as someone raised to be part of the upper-middle class. Not everyone is raised in such enviable circumstances. Meltzer grew up in Far Rockaway, one of New York's least cosmopolitan communities. He has written of his parents, "My father was a prick. My mother was a cunt." His was not an "amazing, various" childhood. Rock was a way out.
"I'll say Elvis saved my life," Meltzer explains. "There was nothing in 1955, '56, '57. In the seventh grade, I was a four-eyed, four-foot-seven ugly little guy. At best, I would have grown up to be a math teacher in Brooklyn. Seeing Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show for just a few minutes let me know the world would never be the same. Supposedly they didn't show his hips -- that's the Š legend -- but I don't even remember. Just to look in his fucking eyes. My parents could never tell me how to dress, how to walk, how to talk ever again. He gave the youth of white America the warrant to be, to have a body, to have a mind, to laugh, to cry, to scream, and there wasn't that before. I mean, they used to ban comic books."
For some, music is as good as life gets. Ê
TO REPEAT, RICHARD MELTZER LIVES in Portland. We're in his little yellow house. There are Tucks Medicated Pads in the bathroom, mauve louvered blinds in the windows and roses printed on the wallpaper. On a table next to the living-room couch, an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award he won for A Whore Just Like the Rest sits atop two books -- William Burroughs' Word Virus and Eric Danville's The Complete Linda Lovelace.
Meltzer's legendary cantankerousness now has a veneer of Honeymooners-style domesticity. His longtime girlfriend walks into the living room with a four-pack of Slimfast shakes wrapped in Scotch tape on which he's written the words "100% Doo-Doo Water" in Magic Marker. "This is what DuPont used to call 'better living through chemistry,'" he says. Try as you may to live wild and free, your life may well end up including echoes of your parents'.
In the '80s and '90s, Meltzer wrote for the L.A. Reader, L.A. Weekly, Spin and the Village Voice. Today, he occasionally writes long articles for the San Diego Reader on topics such as getting old, record collecting and the 20th century. In '95, Little, Brown published his first novel, the experimental The Night (Alone), but it was quickly remaindered. He's currently working on a second novel made up of what he calls "modules" -- bursts of pure smut, single-page filth. He no longer cares much for new music.
"A few years ago I traded a bunch of shit for the blues," he says. Rube Lacy's 1928 song "Ham Hound Crave" plays on the stereo.
Don't want no huggin'
Don't need no kissin'
Mama got a hambone
I wonder if I can get it boiled.
Meltzer snaps on a rubber glove and prepares to rub thyroid gel in Hooper's ear. "I can no longer handle two major stressful things in a day," he says. "Poking the cat is one. There's always a second. I can't use a third."
Since I left him, Meltzer's had some hard months. In March, he sent me an e-mail: "It's Hooper . . . and he's just, well, DIED." In April, Linda Boreman, a.k.a. Lovelace, died of injuries received in a car wreck. His critical archetype, Friedrich Nietzsche, lived to the age of 55, two years younger than Meltzer is now.
My last night in Portland, Meltzer's in a bar, holding court, contemplating the songs that come out of the jukebox.
"It was something about the night," he says, explaining why the Doors are his favorite band of all time. "There's never been anything like it. Just in terms of sexual iconography, they were way ahead of Jagger. They weren't fake black R&B, and unlike the Beach Boys, they weren't truculent surfers. They were your dick."
He recites the lyrics to "When the Music's Over." Coming from his lips, they suggest he possesses an insight that others might not:
Well the music is your special friend
Dance on fire as it intends
Music is your only friend
Until the end