Dean of American rock critics Robert Christgau, who edited him, called the guy an “antisocial jerk” as a person and “terrific” as a writer. Jackson Browne, all his dollars notwithstanding, never forgave him for referring to the singer-songwriter as “one hell of a prototype sex symbol for the gay rock underground.” And his take on working for the Reader: “The people of San Diego get the best sampling of my precious bodily fluids.”
Richard Meltzer, scourge and scandal of American rock criticism, sounds affable when reached by phone at his home in Portland, Oregon. Resigned, yes — more resigned than bitter, now — but affable. He takes a moment to say “goodbye to the wife,” who’s on her way out on an errand.
Spielgusher, Meltzer’s poetry/rant/rock collaboration with former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, is out now. Dig it, and look up what the cat wrote in the past.
Meltzer: How are things at that there paper?
Hamlin: You haven’t been with them for awhile.
Meltzer: They fired me twice, over the years, yeah.
Hamlin: For what and what?
Meltzer: In the late 1990s they dumped me just to cut costs, then they brought me back to write these silly concert blurbs — they had three or four people doing it. I wrote that till about 2003, and one premise was that I could write whatever I wanted. It didn’t have to be nonfiction. I think I insulted...whatever. Mr. Boss took offense at it, in its waning months. The autocrat in charge.
How did you first make contact with Mr. Watt about doing the Spielgusher project?
The whole thing goes back 25 years. I was going to record with the full Minutemen, and then D. Boon died. I’d run into Mike, and he’d say, “Eh, maybe we could revive it somehow.” Ultimately he wanted me to just record maybe an hour’s worth of texts, to which he would eventually add music. And so I think I was finished with that around ’03 or ’04, and he took his time — which was the right amount of time. These things need to lie low for awhile before they become genuine. And finally it happened, and I was very gratified.
How far back do the texts go?
Mike said he recently found, like, 17, which were in D. Boon’s pocket when [Boon’s fatal accident] occurred. Maybe 10 of them, from the original batch, are on Spielgusher, which means they would have gone back to the early ’80s.
Originally the notion of poetry to me was that I didn’t write much of it. And once I did, for the purpose of doing readings, people asked me to do these readings. So I had to write poems. I had to write texts that were readable off a page, and to do that you need all this white space. A poem is a spatial thing. Prose is harder to read, unless you reformat it, and so by the time of the original project, I had maybe 50 readable poems. I picked the ones I had the most affection for.
Did Watt tell you how his recording of the music went down?
He was in Japan...and these two good friends of his who didn’t know much English. They would just work up these rudimentary musical structures. He would sometimes explain to them what the texts were about, but I’m assuming in many cases they didn’t even know. Which is fine with me.
How did you get into listening to the Minutemen?
I had this punk-rock show on KPFK in L.A. from ’79 to ’81, and somewhere in the course of that the Minutemen put out some singles, some EPs. I thought they were great, and then I got a package from Watt containing some of the stuff…I still have it...wait a second. [Pause while Meltzer goes to look.]
I saved the letter that he sent me. It’s October 5, 1981, and it’s written in runny blue ink...it’s a little hard to read [he laughs]. It says, “Sorry for the fuckup with the ink, Mr. Meltzer. We’re a tiny label from San Pedro, close to Marineland, that has sent you promos of our first four releases. What we would like to know is this: Did you get them? Did you write anything about them? Do you think we’re assholes and should leave you alone? Please reply to the above and add any other questions, comments, if you want. Thanks, Mike Watt.”
So we slowly but surely became friends. By ’81 the whole L.A. punk scene, the first generation, had basically waned, and as far as I was concerned the whole scene just fell apart. The Minutemen were the next generation. I don’t even know what their colleagues of the next generation were. I got more serious about writing. I stayed home and wrote my stuff.
But the Minutemen were always, to me, the trench warriors that I felt were with the same basic principles that had been part of punk in ’76 and ’77. Here’s this guy [Watt] who still does 400 shows a year. Incredible to be that prolific, and for a lifetime. And he was in many ways an inspiration for me, to get my nose to the grindstone, write what has to be written. As opposed to what these crummy mags are asking of me. Doing my own mission.
What would you say is your mission?
In my early years as a writer I didn’t really think that writing was that important. Music was better, painting was better — what the hell is writing? And then one day I’d been writing five years or something, and I looked at myself in the mirror: You’re a writer! Dig it!
In L.A., nobody ever read a book. Literally nobody I knew ever read books. It seemed to me that the world was getting dumber and dumber, and there was a need to articulate...let’s call it “the truth.” Or at least the wider gamut of considerations about this thing called life.
Today, even that world is gone. I don’t have a cell phone, I don’t do social networking, I don’t even know what that stuff is. But I somehow imagine that it has nothing to do with writing, it has nothing to do with thought. It’s just an impulse, like smoking cigarettes [laughs]. But in those days, I thought there was still a little bit of light under the door.
We have no more light under the door?
The light is out. And so be it. ■