RM and Kimberly Anderson
End of the road for writing?
Interview by J. HIllenburg
Richard Meltzer's mother hoped her only son would, like her, become a math teacher. So much for that. Meltzer, instead, picked philosophy as his major at Stony Brook University and he told me in a recent phone conversation his mom clammed up about life goals for the next three decades and change.
Only mid-20th century postwar America could have produced Meltzer. I'll be frank and cop that there are several individuals you can point to and say, "Only in this time, this place, could this human being happen." The cultural and societal forces that shaped Meltzer into one of the first "rock journalists" are no different from those that transformed many of his peers. We always like to imagine, however, that the important figures of any generation, movement, or artistic school, even gang, are steered towards their destiny. It happens, yes. Even broken clocks are right twice daily.
However, more often than not, these unique individuals blundered into the rest of their lives. Perhaps they are hitting targets no one else can see rather than finding their mark where others miss but few will dare pretend to know how or why. In the early 1960's, Meltzer was on his way to class, on his way to a party, on his way to a concert, art exhibit, or Madison Square Garden boxing or wrestling. He's on his way to nowhere and everywhere in those days, except the as-yet-non-existent burg of Meltzer the Writer, USA.
It's at Stony Brook where he first became a writer. The genesis for his first and best-known book The Aesthetics of Rock is in the papers he writes for school. There are periods in Meltzer's past when he squirms discussing it; it's an old story. The enfant terrible producing a "classic" before they are twenty-five then spends multiple decades fielding questions about it until they want to piss on the sacred tome from a great height. It's twilight time now, though, and even Meltzer looks back and sees how The Aesthetics of Rock sets the table for everything thereafter.
It isn't hard picturing a young Jann Wenner wanting Meltzer for his fledgling magazine Rolling Stone. How was it in those early days, Richard? He responds, "it was terrible. At first, it was still such a small operation. Jann Wenner even oversaw the record reviews. I remember I reviewed Cactus' second album, I think, and finding nothing reasonably acceptable about it and I remember Jann Wenner calling up himself and saying, cCould you reconsider it and say something good about it, please?'
"Because they relied on the record companies' advertising, and everything was on that level. You were expected to write stuff that was good for commerce. Little by little, Jon Landau became the record review editor, and... he was like a snarling marionette in his editing of stuff. If he didn't like what you did, he'd insist on rewrites and whatever. At some point, [Nick] Tosches and I went to a press party for Commander Cody. We got very drunk, and we were like, 'Wow.' It was probably an introduction to country music for both of us.
"We decided to review the first Commander Cody album under each other's names. The one I wrote under his name ended up at Fusion. The one in Rolling Stone was under his name and so he got the check. It was a much bigger check than Fusion was paying. We didn't make any adjustment for that. Landau found out about it and he says, 'Don't you ever put on my public again!' Aw, sorry. Essentially, we were thrown out for the duration of his tenure as review editor."
The countless music fans reading Meltzer in magazines and picking up a copy of The Aesthetics of Rock aren't tweed-clad academics spending their evenings spinning any of Nixon's Silent Majority values. It's the hippies who read it, the creative writing majors attending Your Local University, U.S.A. and hitting the local head shops for new issues of Crawdaddy, Creem and Rolling Stone. They are the ones hailing Dylan as a poet, Clapton as a God, joining in Woodstock's "Fish" cheer, and recoiling in horror when Meredith Hunter goes down at Altamont. They are the Beat Generation's children.
There's the rub, as Shakespeare might say. If you want to slap a label on his work, Beat will do. He belongs much more to Kerouac, and his ilk than bell-bottomed longhairs or edgy academics. Meltzer's contemporaries, the careerist writers standing ready, are evangelists for the Church of What's Happening Now while he casts his net wider. Meltzer teaches you to take nothing for granted. Many confuse it for a tendency to goof on readers; it isn't a goof, but more on that later. Everything from Bob Dylan to the Trashmen shares a common significance because, in the end, it's honest. In a life where you often come in crying, live weeping, and leave the same, the man writing about music in that book loves what he loves because it's real.
Many say Meltzer didn't live up to his promise, that he churned out too many assignments that paid rent and concocted too much for seemingly shock value alone. Meltzer really didn't "promise" anything, however. There are warring elements in the man- there's the writer, yes, but there's the put-on artist too, a literary Lenny Bruce who distrusts it all. He wants to trust. He wishes he could; behind every cynic is a disappointed optimist. However, much of Meltzer's work seesaws between amusement, disgust, and despair that there are no Gods to believe in. Readers may see "promise" in Meltzer, but that's our problem, not his. My problem.
We are always listening for the voice in anything. It is one of the biggest reasons why we read, listen, and look, and Richard motherf'ing Meltzer, for better and worse, comes through in every line and page. This is a writer malingering outside the aforementioned Church of What's Happening Now but, instead, behind the building with a roll of newspapers and a can of gasoline. His smirking takedowns of Todd Rundgren and Grand Funk Railroad in 1972's Gulcher, "A Fatal Jerkoff on the Moon" and "Funktional" respectively, are unlike anything you'll find in modern writing about music.
The latter, in particular, is a miniature masterclass in near-seething disdain. "It sure as shootin ain't easy recording for Capitol Records, particularly if your music is all the colors of the rainbow..." begins the latter and Meltzer keeps riffing in this pose for the entirety of the piece. Even here, however, Meltzer keeps readers off-balance as he blends knifing the Grand Funk boys with flashes, however brief, revealing the man behind the piece.
It's a book that's stuck with him. To him. "There is one thing I've wanted to talk about for a long time because I don't think I've written about it, but it's certain aspects involving the publication of Gulcher. It's a funny story that took me years to figure out. I got this call from a guy named Alan Rinzler working at Straight Arrow, Rolling Stone's book division. This would have been '70, '71, something like that.
"He was what Lenny Bruce would have called a 'Hep Smoke a Reefer' type of guy. So it was like, 'Can you do us a book about all of culture?' I say, 'All of culture? Does that include sports?' 'Of course not! Who would want to write about something so unhip?' 'Okay, thank you very much.'
"A few days later, I get a call from him again. He'd just seen a fantastic new film Drive, He Said with some basketball context. He says, 'Sports is a go!' That movie showed him that sports could be dealt with by hipsters and perhaps he wouldn't mind seeing what I had to say about wrestling, and football, and whatever.
"So I proceeded to do the book and it had a very tight deadline. I don't remember what it was, but I actually put the book together in about three weeks. I basically wanted to write something that would stylistically be the opposite of what The Aesthetics of Rock, my previous book, had been. I had a bunch of pieces, so then I wrote a bunch more about Godzilla movies, roller derby, and so forth.
"Whenever I turned it in, he said, 'Woah, it really looks like you wrote this in three weeks,' like he was upset about that- he thought it was too easy. 'But we'll publish it, don't worry!' 'Eh, thanks a lot'. In retrospect, I think it's an important book. I think it's seminal, a book that's very anti-academic, and all of these young people who I've met in the years following that, they've seen Gulcher as a book who let them fight it out with their high school English teacher. It's anti-grammatical with its silly, pointless misspellings, and I think it holds up as an insurrection against academic coercion."
There are countless examples. The skewing observational eye of 1976's "No Waylon, No Willie, No Goat" pulls off milking them in the title but mentioning the outlaw country legends three times in 1,500+ plus words and twice in the last 200. The scorched earth scorn he unleashes on anyone daring to distort Lester Bangs with his 1988 article "Dead Men Don't Deconstruct" for Spin. There are countless others. He doesn't leave traditional literary pretense behind when he's waxing in that mode; Meltzer heaves it away with great force.
He can't play totally straight with his reader. It's beneath him. Too dull, too predictable. The "can't fool me" New Yorker burns through every page. Any respectable observer of the man's career, however, might agree that if Meltzer drank a little less, hit the right parties, snagged the right agent, and pecked out a misty-hued memoir of his days writing for music magazines and Blue Oyster Cult, paling with Lester Bangs, and rubbing elbows with rock royalty, some publisher would scoop it up in a minute. Maybe even he lands a movie for it. Adam Driver could play him, and the old man would get rich.
I remember reading a Norman Mailer interview where the interviewer, near the end, tells Mailer about a possibly apocryphal story he heard. One famous American novelist purportedly approached a peer and told them, "Look, it's time to stop. No more books." Mailer, seemingly incredulous, asked, "They said to stop writing?" The interviewer affirmed, and Mailer answered, "I'd say, hey, kidding is kidding, but get the hell off my pillow."
The ghosts of Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches aren't required to manifest their disembodied selves and tell Richard Meltzer to stop. He's already decided the finish line is in sight. Meltzer isn't writing longer pieces anymore. He told me that he has a short novel he wants to see published, perhaps another collection, but that's it. Meltzer's still writing short pieces. He read me a hilarious lambasting of Patti Smith's visit to the Nobel Prize ceremony on Bob Dylan's behalf. It flamethrowers one of rock music's now semi-sacred icons with his typical fire.
He's done though. No foolin'.
He said there are several reasons why. He hates computers and uses the devices under duress. Meltzer has had health issues over recent years, including a dental visit that devolved into a cardiac issue, and his energies are flagging. He told me longer pieces are impossible. Meltzer also married for a brief period, the lifelong bachelor throwing himself on matrimony's sword at long last. She hated his work, he said, wondering aloud why he would write the sort of things he does, and the effect of her carping cleaved his self-confidence away in wide and bloody swaths.
My first thought hearing Meltzer tell me about the slaughterhouse of his marriage is, "well, writing about this is above my paygrade." Or below it. It isn't though. There's a lot of posing in Meltzer's writing, and a lot of performance, but the man hasn't published an unintentional word in his life, and I doubt one has ever tripped off his lips.
My second thought is that there's a lot of woe is me in it. A meaningful part of me wanted to pipe up and say, "Richard, yeah, you're old, she broke your heart, and computers suck. As long as you're still above ground though, make use of it. Work." Instead, we talked about his collaboration and affection with Mike Watt, spielgusher, and he relates how much of it came at Watt's instigation. Meltzer's own efforts in the music world, much like the late lamented Bangs, are faltering, though they have their heart in the right place, as they say, and spielgusher is the best.
Meltzer's own self-evaluation comes out with Gulcher on top. Meltzer took the advance for the book, buys a new typewriter, and feels like a writer for the first time in his life. The Aesthetics of Rock and all that magazine work is a precocious, if not mildly ridiculous, apprenticeship. Meltzer's description of those salad days writing for Rolling Stone and other assorted rags of the day, including some completely unprintable words about Jackson Browne, reminds you this was an era where everyone was jockeying for status, real or imagined, and all bets were off about where this whole modern music thing was going. Or so it seemed.
He's been walking away a long time. Gulcher, the later L.A. is the Capital of Kansas, The Night (Alone), and countless articles scattered across the years often riff on his distaste for the music writer tag. He didn't have much use for it talking with me, it's clear he'd rather talk about his non-music writing, but it always comes back to music. He shared his joy that Dylan snagged the Nobel, his love for The Doors' "Yes, The River Knows" and the importance of early Delta Blues artist Garfield Akers. He meant every word when he pointed out Blue Oyster Cult's "Hot Rails to Hell" as the band's finest rock song.
We discussed his time working with the members of Blue Oyster Cult and his one-time friendship with the band's songwriter/manager/all-around conceptualist Sandy Pearlman. The two met in public school as kid and later attended Stoney Brook together. It's an oft-told tale about how Meltzer and Pearlman aided the onetime Stalk-Forrest Group, Soft White Underbelly, et al, with songs, shaping their early artistic direction, and landing them a deal with first Elektra, then Columbia.
Elektra had an enormous cachet with musicians back then as the label that released The Doors, the early uber-influential Paul Butterfield Blues Band albums, and Love, among others. Meltzer said all those guys ever wanted to be at first was like The Grateful Dead. They "settled" instead, for America's purported answer to Black Sabbath, but Meltzer's songwriting influence on those early albums provided a twist. The coded acid-trip fueled grandiosity of "Harvester of Eyes", the surrealistic fetishism underlying "She's as Beautiful as a Foot" and Meltzer's personal favorite, "Teen Archer," along with several others, including the band's later smash hit "Burnin' for You."
Smash hits and music business success destroyed Meltzer and Pearlman's friendship. They later had a falling out over considerable unpaid royalties and Meltzer's bitterness is still very real. He admitted a mild sense of satisfaction Pearlman shuffled off this mortal coil before him, derided him as a pampered pharmacist's son one step above corner conman but, as so often with Meltzer, there was a turn practically a breath later. He told me he still dreams about Pearlman. It's a typical touch for Meltzer however, that he's going to the old Madison Square Garden to see professional wrestling with Meltzer, an activity Pearlman hated. The grave may be closer now than ever before for him, me, YOU, but he's holding onto whatever's left.
Whatever is left is the third thing I thought about when he told me he was pretty much done. It reminded me of one of my favorite episodes of The Sopranos, "Another Toothpick" when Bobby Bacala Jr. pleads with Junior Soprano to not use his dying wiseguy dad for a hit saying he's been retired for almost a decade. Junior replies, "What's this? We're in the Navy?"
Writing, as I understood things going into it, was like joining the Mafia. You don't leave this thing on your feet. I told Richard that the idea one day I may not have the energy, the concentration, or even the basic willingness to write anymore scared the living bejesus out of me. It was like hearing a lion in winter too, cowed by the growing chill.
Richard Meltzer, who crashed PR parties, who upended the idea of what music journalism could be, fueled not by hippie ethos but by carrying the Beat Generation's streetwise hipster yawp of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, Corso, et al, into the blossoming music scene of the late 1960's and beyond that the literary movement helped birth. Richard motherfucking Meltzer, who saw The Beatles clearer than anyone in The Aesthetics of Rock, the last one standing of the Rock Crit Three Musketeers of Bangs, Meltzer, and Tosches. I heard him say he's pretty much done...
...But then the way plans started coming out of him again, the aforementioned novel, maybe a limited run. I could picture him, in a way, kicking himself, trying to rev himself up, and thought, he's not done. I don't have the energy for anything new, my ass. He'll be done when they bury him. Kidding is kidding, Richard, but get the hell off of my pillow.
Also see our 2000 interview with Meltzer
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