Interview by Jason Gross (August 2000)
As one of the first people who decided that rock and roll was something that could and should be something that could be seriously written about in the sixties (instead of repeating press releases or glorified fan letters), Richard Meltzer helped open up the whole discussion for hordes of people to join in on. Meltzer embodied the out-of-control, rebellious spirit of the music in his words as he thought aloud and shared (very) intimate, rambunctious details. Along the way, he became confident to performers such as Blue Oyster Cult (writing lyrics for them), Patti Smith, Jefferson Airplane and Minutemen among others, all of whom would take his hard-edged outlook to heart.
Age did not mellow him or his work at all- as he continued to write and fight into the '70's, he lashed out at an industry that he saw eating the soul out of the music he loved. His reviews turned into brilliant narratives that usually had tangential relations to the record in question. Just as John Cage would open up what could and couldn't be considered 'music,' Meltzer would do the same for the way that people thought about music journalism. This unique style would be taken up by many 'writers' even today who show a fraction of the skill and intelligence of Meltzer.
Just to set the record straight, a wonderful collection of his works has been published by Da Capo, charmingly entitled A Whore Just Like the Rest. It covers everything from his earliest reviews for Crawdaddy up to recent essays, including hilarious, creative narratives that mask as live reviews. I had a chance to talk to him about everything from the connection between Little Richard and Greek Philosophers to why he thinks rock music must now die.
Special thanks to Michaelangelo Matos, who reminded me who much we all still owe RM.
PSF: I've noticed that throughout your writing, you've had an interesting preoccupation with Greek philosophers.
To say "preoccupation," it's like saying "having a preoccupation with words--or food." Basically, I was a philosophy major. (laughs) So I absorbed that stuff and have retained enough of it though I haven't read any of that stuff in 25 years. That stuff gave me a systematic orientation towards everything.. Reading all these people and as an undergraduate, I'd say around my sophomore, junior year, in '64, '65, I had professors who let me write papers about rock and roll. The content was referenced to current stuff in rock and roll. I'd have a chance to talk about Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit in terms of the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun." People would say to me those days, "Do you REALLY see that stuff in there or are you READING it in there?" My take was simply that it was so conspicuous. Something is there as opposed to something else. It's not that these people read Hegel--they're not referencing this stuff. Philosophers talk about BEING and so do silly musicians.
I also wrote about comic books and things like that, Pop Art. Rock and roll was certainly the "most exciting," most relevant of all these elements of culture at the time. So I found myself writing after a while almost exclusively about that. Whenever I felt the need to lace a paper with current stuff, after a while, rock and roll was what it was.
PSF: Do you still see the connection today?
Absolutely. It's like etched in stone. My favorite philosophers after a certain point were the pre-Socratics--Heraclitus, Parmenides, Thales, Anaximander. All these people who were not necessarily, or not entirely, systematic at all but had just left a bunch of aphorisms like "You can't step in the same river twice," "The way up and the way down are one and the same." My sense of rock and roll, in the '50's and the '60's, was that there were some figures who were themselves very pre-Socratic in their spew.
PSF: What about that question you brought up before that someone like Little Richard wasn't thinking of pre-Socratic philosophy when he did "Tutti Frutti"?
I don't know that even philosophers thought as much as they evinced. There's something very classist in saying that Little Richard never thought. Little Richard was wiser than Lou Reed, Johnny Rotten and Thurston Moore put together.
Charlie Parker never wrote lyrics. He was someone I listened to in the early '60's, when rock and roll was pretty much nonexistent--it had been dead since around 1958. Nothing came back in any sort of big way until the British Invasion. In between, I listened to jazz. Parker is greater than Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, and a hell of a lot "smarter." But to deal with any of this stuff in a way that a readership could understand means you have to talk about lyrics. "A womp bomma a lu mop, balomp bam boom" is to me as important a statement as "The way up and the way down are one and the same." It's just a statement about primacy, from primacy. You had pre-Socratic philosophers who would say that we don't speak about God, we speak from God, or we speak to God. (laughs) Rock and roll was about, essentially, once upon a time, this absolute union of I and Thou, object and subject and so forth. It's hard to really articulate that stuff now that it's just a bunch of product--here, there and everywhere. There was once something rare, precious and beautiful about the utterances of rock and roll people.
PSF: What happened that you think disconnected it then?
Record companies decided suddenly that they wanted to own and control it, all of it. By late 1967, it was all "product." From 1965 to 1967, there were no more than 20 bands in the world that mattered. You had an audience that was immense already, that knew all 20 of these bands and had all the records. Then suddenly, about the time of the Monterey Pop Festival and Sgt. Pepper, record companies decided that there were mega-bucks to be made here. They put so much money down on the waters that it got to where...if record companies didn't necessarily want band A, they didn't want another company to own them, so they'd sign them anyway. Suddenly, you went from having 20 bands to having thousands, all with albums, not singles. The idea of an independent record company...well, accidents happen and so forth. But once you created a food-tube down from the record industry, you got not only the "debasement of art" but you had hundreds and hundreds of shills, rock writers, pretending to be innocent by-standers when they're part of that food tube.
PSF: But ideally, wouldn't you think that it would help music thrive to have a lot of bands instead of a few of them?
I don't think that any time in any genre of American music could you have thrived with that kind of simultaneous spotlight put on so many things. For the last few years, I've been listening almost exclusively to old blues records. It seems to me that rock and roll has existed about five times. You had Delta blues in the '20's and '30's. You had some slightly blander Chicago version in the later '20's and the '30's. Post-War in Chicago, all these Mississippi people had moved there--Muddy Waters. A renewal of primitive. You had jump blues in the '40's, R&B in the early '50's. All of this was five times before rock and roll "as such" happened. You had the exact thing, though not on as mass a level. Instead of a spotlight it was candle light. It didn't have so much of a white audience. Rock and roll has happened many times and it's burned out many times. That's part of what it's about. It EXISTS to burn out.
The whole '50's with the white participation in it, Elvis, the Everly Brothers, was dead in the water by 1958. No matter what Happy Days or Bruce Springsteen would like to make you think. Rock and roll was never very continuous until all of a sudden in the '60's, the record companies decided "We will make this permanent. If there's down-time, we'll pretend there isn't." Rock as a massive THING IN THE WORLD was once quite liberating--mind, heart, body, soul, the whole thing. And without missing a beat, the record companies started orchestrating it, and it became a ring through your nose connected to master program central. And it seems to me it's been that way since maybe 1970.
Punk was something outside of rock. It lasted about three years and then it circled back and rejoined the marketplace and became the same thing. But the thing is, as far as burning out on itself goes, in the '60's...every time Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks did an album, they were so conscious of dealing with new turf, innovation was so crucial to what they were doing. New material, new plagiarism, whatever you want to say. By about '66, '67, they had strip-mined every continent of source material, of available musical, y'know, concept, idiom. By the time the U.S. "Psychedelic '60's" kicked in, there really wasn't much left to do except, well, stand still, perfect your shtick, score bigger budgets, get fussier about your mix and take six months to do an album. Like the Doors, who were a great, great, GREAT live band--I saw them about 40 times before their second album came out--I don't think they did 1-1/2 good albums. It was very rare after about 1967 for a band to be capable of doing two or three decent albums. It just wasn't do-able.
PSF: Most bands can't even do one.
Right! Oh yeah. With CD's, you have to do all these extra cuts.
PSF: You were talking before about the late '50's, early '60s, when you were just listening to jazz. What happened?
I've gone to jazz two or three times. The first was when I went to college in '62. I'd been listening to Ray Charles. At the time, he had a big hit with "I Can't Stop Loving You" on ABC/Paramount. I went to record stores and realized that most of his recordings were on Atlantic. So I got some of these older, much more blues-drenched recordings. The inner sleeve on Atlantic albums had the covers of lots of their back catalog. I started buying albums just for the covers. The greatest cover art there ever was is Atlantic jazz in the '50's and '60's. So I got Ornette Coleman and Coltrane--the covers just looked so good! I'd say by about the beginning of '63, I was very hooked on jazz. Then within a year the Beatles happened and I went back to rock and roll.
In the '70's, I was very much a mocker of ALL this stuff. I was part of the food tube of the record industry and I got all these freebies all the time. I was so cynical after a certain point, when even the jazz records that came in, I would sell them. I went to live shows, but essentially I was drunk most of the time and I had contempt for the industry to the point where I ignored real music.
Then somewhere around '75, I decided "Fuck this" and I went back to jazz. I totally ignored rock and roll. All the recordings that I missed by paying no attention through most of the early '70's--like Cecil Taylor, who had a lot of albums out by then, and Art Ensemble of Chicago--I went back to that whole-hog. Then punk happened. I found punk and jazz so compatible. Punk and the most cacophonous avant-garde stuff--to me, they were the same thing. They were both concerned with the primacy of sound in a way that rock hadn't been in years. The style sheet for production of rock LP's during the early '70's was just airless. Sound that would suffocate you. Jazz and punk were the physics of sound and feeling. I would say that I've never stopped listening to jazz since then. What I listen to now almost exclusively is jazz and the blues.
With jazz, the whole avant-garde American thing, once it hooked up with the European avant garde, which is not really that black-based, you get this...it's like somebody said that European avant-jazz owes more to Webern than the blues. Once the frontline of the American black avant garde is gone--Ornette, Cecil, Bill Dixon, Roscoe Mitchell--it will never be replaced. So there's a lot of stuff that's really on the verge of ceasing to be.
PSF: When you were starting to write about rock, there was no real precedent for it. All there was out there was gooey writing from teen mags. What kind of context did you see yourself in when you started doing this?
The only mags there were around then were Hit Parader, and Tiger Beat later. Most of the text in these was reprints of press releases. It's like the record companies dictated the text of these things. It was very nowhere, just hype. I was writing for Crawdaddy, which pre-dated Rolling Stone by about two years. Nobody got paid, so they couldn't very well tell you what to write. You wrote what you wanted and there were three or four people writing the stuff- me, Sandy Pearlman, Jon Landau, Paul Williams. Everybody picked his own little niche. I remember doing a piece at the time of Between the Buttons and "Strawberry Fields"/"Penny Lane" that was 20 pages long, talking about just those two events. At the very least, it didn't feel anything like journalism. If anything, it was like ringside coverage of the sun coming up. It felt like being nurtured, like being constantly invigorated, like the MAXIMUM hand you could expect to be dealt by Life Itself. It was such an occasion. The human race, it seemed to me, thrived for a moment. All those who were paying attention, at least. "Psychedelic," which was defined as mind-manifesting...suddenly you had the manifestation of mind in a very conspicuous way that you'd have trouble believing was there in Elvis and Buddy Holly but was certainly there in the '60s, in... The life-spew of the '50's was not so conspicuously mental, OK? But by the heart of the'60's, the center of gravity, it certainly was.
To be writing about this stuff just felt so normal. It was the easiest thing in the world to just think about it and let 'er fly. (laughs) Jimi Hendrix and others THANKED me for writing these things. Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane. These people dealt with me as a co-conspirator. Imagine writing about rock and roll! Wow, far out! For about ten minutes, writers WERE considered co-conspirators. By the eleventh minute, writers were just the service trade. "What can you say about us?" It was over in a flash.
PSF: During the '70's, did you see your work as being confrontational to the artists?
Yes. But the artists were very secondary to what was going on. It was like.... it wasn't MTV-ish already but the corporate mechanism was there. I would say that 99% of the people writing about it were owned, whether they knew it or not. In exchange for press parties and trips, free records and concert tickets. They could be had. Most people could be taken to lunch by a publicist and then go home and write on the dotted line what the publicist wanted. There were very, very few people... I have a section in my book called "Quid Pro Quo" which is five or six pieces done in direct exchange for things like that. But even in those pieces, I was certainly writhing around and refusing to do it on a dotted line.
Some people might have considered particular artists as worthy of contempt but I was more dealing with the whole mess. For one thing, it was rare that you could get an assignment writing about who you wanted to write about by, oh, about '72. You took what the magazines wanted you to write about. "Would you review an album with a purple cover?" "Sure!" It felt like trench warfare. The people I was contending with were record people, publicists, and even more than that, the editors of the mags themselves. But I felt that I had the SPIRIT of rock in my soul.
The function, it seemed to me by then, the DUTY of the writer was to keep up the good fight. It meant refusing to accept any rules whatsoever from the "authorities," the people who published and edited. I wrote intentional run-on sentences, misspelled everything on purpose, I would write a page of text and re-type it backwards. It just seemed to me that you had to do this. That if you didn't do it and you accepted, well... The kinds of reviews that pre-dated the rock press, the model was jazz in Downbeat or film reviews. Some of us were really trying to break that mold, in the '60's at least. By the '70's, it had gone to where you had a ROCK-review style sheet and I refused to have anything to do with it. Because I was an asshole and a bad boy and all of that. Part of it was simply that to surrender to the style sheet was to die. It was that much a matter of life and death!
PSF: Many times during then, you'd abandon conventional reviews and go into personal narratives. Did you ever worry that it was something of a disservice to the reader to do this?
I felt it was a GIFT to the reader. At all times, I was ADDRESSING the reader. I wanted to help readers pull the ring from out of their nose and realize... Burroughs is always talking about Hassan I Sabbah, who said "Nothing is written, all is permitted." That's really what I was telling readers, that you do not have to accept the hand as dealt.
PSF: So you think you were entertaining readers?
Absolutely. Educating. Entertaining. Screaming at, sounding out, etc.
PSF: Since you did use these disparate narratives in the context of your reviews, why didn't you just write pieces based on the narratives themselves?
Because in those days, the only press that would publish people like me was the rock press. I was trying to write about other things--sports, sex, TV. But basically that was all you had. (laughs) It took me until '74 to get into the Village Voice, which in New York was THE blaringly conspicuous venue. I tried to write things for them about some Muhammad Ali fight or roller derby and they just said "No!" They wanted rock coverage. The Voice was basically on the same level as the New York Times in that they depended on record company revenue. They would fold if they didn't get record company revenue.
In '66, there was a moment when there had never been a review of rock and roll in a major paper. Then one week there was and maybe they went a month before the next one. Suddenly, the moment they smelled money from ad revenue, it became a fixture. Then they'd have entire staffs covering the stuff. Essentially, the Village Voice is identical to the Times in terms of the dynamics in New York of sucking up to not only these sources of revenue but the illusion of "import." If you were in the trade and had shown a proclivity, it was what these papers wanted you to write about and CONTINUE to write about. So, of course, I would put narratives that I would have rather used somewhere else in rock reviews.
PSF: In the book, you talk a lot about these confrontations that you had with editors. What did you learn from all of that?
I gained some chops basically. I learned how to write. I found my muscle. I was sparring all the time. I was hitting the heavy bag. If I had an easy ride, I would have gotten nowhere. I wouldn't have developed my moves, my punch, my reflexes. I don't think writing is something that can be taught--everyone has to come up with his own system or forget it. I was hardly aware of that aspect of things but it took me 8-10 years before I had the chops.
PSF: Did it concern you that you were burning bridges sometimes?
At first, it was intentional. It was WHAT I was doing. That's what they were there for. After awhile, I tried to avoid in some cases doing it. The last time I did it willfully, I had a radio show on KPFK, the Pacifica station in L.A., from '79 to '81. They had me reading a sensitive language disclaimer every half-hour so that I could say "shit, piss, fuck" and get away with it. Eventually, I didn't want to be up anymore at 2AM doing the show so I had to think of what would be the honorable way to get rid of it. I stopped reading the disclaimer and they finally dumped me. But that's probably the last time I burned a bridge completely by design. Maybe I have since, oh probably--but it's after all a risky business. Writing had better be.
It's just remarkable to think about rock and roll, which was once upon a time was about danger, and suddenly you have this press, this grouping of mostly young people writing about it: "Look ma, me in print! Ooh, boy!" And all they were concerned about was staying on mailing lists. Continuing to get Led Zeppelin tickets. That to me was never an issue. I hate to say in retrospect that I was "concerned with the truth" but I guess I was. It was just about keeping in touch with the primal ground from which all this stuff came. Even after it was no longer the ground, not for much of anything current, I was a keeper of the faith. To do that, you had to constantly risk burning bridges, pissing people off, being disbarred, sent to Coventry.
PSF: In the book, you talk about a lot of performers that you'd known for a while. Did it concern you at all as a problem with trying to be objective?
In the last long piece in the book, "Vinyl Reckoning," which I wrote a couple of years ago, I talk about philosophers and such crap. (laughs) There's this one line from Heraclitus--"Consult thyself." It's not exactly clear what he meant. This was before you even had a subject/object split in Western philosophy, but he was probably saying "If you're going to get in on IT, you have to see the shadow of the stuff in your own playpen." That's my take. There are phenomenologists and existentialists that say exactly that. The only things you can know FOR SURE are what people usually call "subjective" things. So it seems to me, to be a writer about some bizness you are actually living, and since you write from life, you have to deal with its shadow on and in your own life, its impact on YOU. I've always been very concerned with looking at things microscopically and getting at every micro-nuance as it impacts on me. It would be ABSURD to talk about how it impacts on others known and unknown. Yes, you can drop in references to how people behaved at a concert and so forth. What some prevailing vibe might or might not be. But all you can know with any certainty is its impact on yourself.
See Part Two of the Meltzer interview
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