Readers of these pages (I mean the music pages, not the pages in general) have read at one time or another the writings of Richard Meltzer. Longtime readers of rock-jazz/blues-pop or miscellaneous contemporary (or even not-so-contemporary) music criticism will know who is all right. Many of you will have wondered, at one time or another, What is the deal with this guy? Well, I'm not going to tell you.
Not because I’m contrary or because he is a member of some too-hip-for-you clique, an inner-circle member of initiated prose pros I must protect or promote; it’s just that I don’t really know. I talked to him on the phone, however, last night, on the occasion of his new book, A Whore Just Like the Rest, and he seemed like a nice guy, a New York kind of guy, drinking a beer and talking about music. He would say things like, “Yeah? You think so?” sounding genuinely curious when I would offer him some choice theory of mine about his take on rock and roll, the dialectic of Meltzer and music.
I mention his review of a piece by John Cage included in the book. Here is that review in its entirety:
“4’33” (acoustic realization by Frank Zappa, on A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute, Koch International 3-7238-2 Y6x2; electronic realization by Peter Pfister, on Music for Five, Hat Art 2-6070), to be performed by a solitary musician (any instrument) sitting motionless and playing nothing for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, during which (in theory) all sorts of ambient sonic shit will get to be noticed.
“Hard to believe it, but dice don’t lie: six and one, compelling me to sit (but not write) at the computer keyboard while allowing my cat to contribute an ambient review:
kl,.............. yt7645566909———8iiiiiiiiiiiiiiuuuuuuuuuu=- lool9* +0…
“dp;’nmgftrvw b b b sx”
To say that this is typical Meltzer would be to say that the piece he is reviewing is typical John Cage. I might say that it is quintessential Meltzer though. Somebody is fucking with somebody here, and it’s not Meltzer or his cat.
As I’m speaking to him, his cat is ill and a girlfriend is giving the cat IVs of something. “My cat actually wrote that,” says Meltzer, and I have no doubt.
Meltzer has written for Rolling Stone, the L.A. Weekly, Creem, and Spin, to name a few. But the above review, like most of the last third of the book or so, was originally written for the San Diego Reader. Meltzer’s love-hate relationship with this place is longstanding, and he himself admits that much of his best stuff was written in, for, and about San Diego.
“All the Tired Geezers in the Sun” about Lawrence Welk Village is one of these, and — love it or hate it — one must grant its status as a unique document. Meltzer has written about San Diego’s peep shows and piano bars and covered the L.A. riots for a San Diego readership.
Meltzer on San Diego: “The people of San Diego get the best sampling of my precious bodily fluids. Now that I know how to write, where am I writing? For San Diego. When the response is, ‘Hey! I could write that.’ Maybe part of my gift [to San Diego] is, ‘Hey! Go ahead and do it!’ Maybe I don’t have the ego attachment to it I once did. So you wannado it, Everyman, Everywoman? Go ahead and do it. You’re welcome to it.”
The conversation gravitates from rock writing to rock and roll itself, or “rock roll” as Meltzer often refers to it. I confess I am in danger of losing my love for it and ask him if he does not also find this happening to him.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Just think about the whole theme of it. Once upon a time, rock and roll didn’t exist and the human race had to do without it. Today’s kids can’t imagine that there was ever a time before it. Even in the ’60s you had to go find it. It was not omnipresent. But after a certain point it became how you measured your life: song lyrics, riffs. You’d cross the street and think, ‘Break on through to the other side’ or whatever. But if you didn’t work at it, you could go for many days without hearing it.
“Somewhere by 1980, maybe? You got a situation I call ‘Rocksurround,’ where you couldn’t get away from it.”
“That’s about the time MTV came on,” I suggest.
“Even the volume on people’s car radios multiplied incrementally,” he adds. “It was used in commercials. It got so where you couldn’t shut it off. For myself, I would welcome silence over that condition. Silence would be more of a rock and roll mode than rocksurround.”
I agree and tell him, “Okay, I’m old. My opinion about rock and roll shouldn’t matter. My job should now be to just get out of the way.”
“My opinion about that,” he says, “is that at one time there were no rock writers either. Even after there were, newspapers didn’t have rock writers. There were rock mags, but it was a long time before the New York Times or the L.A. Times had their first rock review. And why did they have a second? Because they discovered they could get ads. By 1970 every [major] paper had a staff of rock writers. It got to where you had a food tube stretching from the industry to the writers. Now I get these stupid letters about my column [“Of Note”] asking me why I’m not covering the music, and I’m, like, ‘Cover it yourself. Why would you want it covered?’ ”
“Yeah.” I’m laughing. “I always read your thing just to see in what insane way you’re going to get out of writing about what may be the next Black Oak Arkansas or whatever.”
“To spill the beans.” He’s laughing too. “I guess what I’m doing is — I feel too many millions of words have been written about what the music is. I guess it’s time to start writing about what the music isn’t.”