The Bird Is the Word

There’s creation and there’s listening—one has eight letters and one has nine.

—Richard Meltzer

For what it’s worth, Richard Meltzer is the greatest rock critic so far, and over the years he’s developed an ability to write—to get the prose alive on the page—that probably surpasses Burroughs’s or Twain’s or Faulkner’s. But hey, maybe this is only faint praise, and not because rock critic is a pejorative, but because as Meltzer has improved his ability to write he’s let his thinking—at least about rock’n’roll—go into reverse. And so much of his writing comes from anger, he’s gotten such energy from it, that to accommodate the anger he’s allowed his ideas to go stupid. So anyway, now he’s a great writer, a great word-on-the-page man (“A powerful, scabrous work . . . by one of the great stylists in English”—Birdcage Weekly). Rate his collection, A Whore Just Like the Rest, an A PLUS. But that grade conceals several Everests of ambivalence.

For one thing, to get to the thought behind some of Meltzer’s early work—which contains his first real flow of brilliant ideas and the purest joy he’s ever felt in the subject matter, but which is also very elliptical and cryptic—is like trying to stare through to the other side of hieroglyphs. And this book’s most crucial stuff, his great ACTING OUT of his ideas in the early ’70s, tends to be trash-it-out, mannered flippantry. So you get the full voice of Meltzer later and the full ideas of Meltzer earlier, but you rarely get them together. And anyway the ideas are just a start; Meltzer never finished them. Profound contradictions are left unexamined, social ideas are stated in unwieldy philosophical terms, and, though he’s written more and better social detail than any sociologist of music has, social analysis is nonexistent (unless you count, in his later writing, his calling fellow critics shills and whores or his taking sub-sub-sub-Frankfurt School clichés almost down to the moron level; e.g., his calling post-’60s rock “crowd control for the post-puberty (under 40?) masses”).

So lately—and this includes the little intros he’s tacked on before each of the old pieces—he’s been doing a real shitsucky version of presenting his own ideas. For example: When he says, “I aspired to the SPIRIT of rock,” he’s just going along with the vague mysto-sentimentality of his most thoughtless fans. Yes, spirit is nice (rah-rah), but Meltzer also—once—aspired to the mind of rock’n’roll, chose rock’n’roll as his intellectual activity—chose to do rock’n’roll on the page, since what rock’n’roll did was to mix up, flummox, challenge, test everyone’s sense of what was relevant or irrelevant in the world; to create a space where just anything could be pertinent. (Isn’t this what real thinking is: to test what’s pertinent? To question what matters? To act out your questions? To flummox, test, reinvent social relations? And if you’re a thinker, isn’t testing your own ideas what rocks you?)

As an undergrad student of artist Allan Kaprow’s at Stony Brook, Meltzer noticed that environmental art and happenings did with great effort what rock’n’roll simply did, which was to include the context—and therefore the audience—in the artwork. Context includes “money, competition, survival, acceptance by adolescents, reaction by standard adults,” not to mention screaming teenies, fan magazines, girls holding signs (“We Love You Paul”), radio countdowns, marketing strategies, etc., and when you add to this people’s lives (I dare you not to listen to music in the context of your life), it also includes joking and gossiping and flirting and fighting and whatever (e.g., there’s this pet bird that likes to hear this Johnny Rivers song, and the girl who owns the bird has nice tits). And it also includes the listener who writes about music, e.g., Meltzer or me or you, who—duh!—has the same right as any fan or musician to use music in any way that he or she wants, to create context in any way he or she can; which in Meltzer’s case, after rock seemed to him to have calmed down and normalized itself in the late ’60s, meant mangling, altering, reinventing, and being the context. On the page, in his writing. And if the rock’n’roll mind had gone dead in the music—pertinence now seemed to stay where it was told—pertinence could still be anywhere he wanted on his page. For instance:

Meltzer at the Metropolitan Opera: “Real pindrop conditions and somebody rattling keys was told ‘Stop rattling those keys’ and another somebody really worked overtime slowing down a fart.” These are social points, obviously, and obviously relevant. The transgression against standard journalism isn’t that Meltzer includes farts but that in doing so he includes his own stance toward the subject matter and includes enough info for the reader to infer Meltzer’s own stance toward him or her and for the reader therefore to (involuntarily, spontaneously) react, to come up with his/her own attitude toward not just the subject matter but toward Meltzer. All of which is as relevant as the fart, if you want it to be.

Meltzer on the Doors:Absolutely Live is a great party album. And what makes parties what they are? Food, mostly.” Then he gives recipes for dishes to accompany the album, e.g., “Vomit à la Vitamin Pill” to go with “Soul Kitchen” (ingredients: “vitamin pill, any size or potency; Venetian blind cord”), “TV-Guide Pizza” (staple remover optional) to go with “Who Do You Love?” (“Dump the liquid grease all over [the pizza] and stick it back in the oven until it reaches desired crispyhood. And you can stick the staple remover on there too if you go for that. Yum-yum.”) Here he’s not reporting a context but creating one, though one obviously appropriate to the Doors. (Which makes this piece probably rock-magazine acceptable. When I read it as a teenager I was hit with this epiphany: Historians and archaeologists/anthropologists of the future would understand more about the Doors from this piece than they would from a description of the Doors’ music. Of course, there’s no reason they couldn’t learn from both—and a critic who could convincingly draw a connection between the musical notes and the vomit pill would be a great critic.)

Meltzer quoting highway patrolman Sgt. Jack Berry in regard to the traffic-jammed-and-abandoned cars at Altamont: “It’s really a beautiful sight to see, nothing moving except the people themselves, and it’s just like the cars are part of nature too, or art, like in a museum. It’s beautiful, really, and I sure hope the people don’t distort this in the press because it really shows us what travel is all about. These kids are hiking over there to the rock and roll, the music, but I can’t really understand why they don’t just stay here and have a party around the cars.” Meltzer made this quote up, made up the entire piece, fiction, avoided mention of the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, stabbing deaths, or anything else that made Altamont newspaper-important. No, there was one mention of the Stones: “Even after the Stones were finished and most people were home in bed there were still parties going on. The Bellport Country Club was the scene of a gay glamorous party as members of the Bellport Chamber of Commerce gathered for their annual dinner-dance.” And Meltzer did describe the performances of the Guess Who and Joe Cocker (neither of whom actually played at Altamont). So: imaginary context. Context completely at odds with the sense of importance attached to the main event. The context of the context: readers (and publishers) looking for insight on tragic event. Meltzer’s act: not to cooperate with their sense of what’s important, not to cooperate with their sense of the subject matter.

Meltzer about heroin: “And they oughta recycle all the used [fingernails] and use them in natural backscratchers. With replacements for when they get worn down and you could buy them in either sharp or dull as you all know even the dull ones get the job done too.” Well, the first three paragraphs of the piece had been about heroin, and then Meltzer just veered away to chewing nails and scratching backs. He doesn’t collapse the distinction between importance and unimportance so much as he simply walks away from the issue, leaving you to do the same, if you want. The walking away in the Altamont piece was still shaped by—was a reversal of—what was being walked away from (rock show to parked cars, freak party to chamber of commerce party). Whereas the heroin piece is more like: Any subject contains a multitude of tangents just waiting, like rabbit holes; here’s one, and down we go.

Meltzer’s review of an album by Ned: “Asphalt can be used to cover cobblestones. It can be taken home (if no one is lookin’). Asphalt should not be confused with, with, with, with . . . asbestos. Confuse them at your own risk. Insects will sometimes live in cement but never asphalt. Asphalt soup tastes like tar. Asphalt soap does not clean especially well. Asphalt dopes are QUITE dopey. They know nothing of asphalt (having never seen it); some live in Alaska.” And now, here, the subject matter is simply gone, erased; it’s not even a point to be walked away from. The screen, camera, page is blank, and Meltzer is just writing. How does it feel to be on your own?

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