More Whores Like These, Please
Richard Meltzer, who claims to have written the first American feature on Jimi Hendrix, wasn't in Seattle last weekend for the grand opening of the Experience Music Project--the Frank Gehry-designed rock 'n' roll museum recently launched by Microsoft cofounder and Hendrix fanatic Paul Allen. Many of the nation's preeminent rock writers, including Neil Strauss of the New York Times, were present; Greg Kot's story for Saturday's Trib made page one. Back when Meltzer began writing about rock music, in the mid-60s, the very idea that the Experience Music Project or the competing Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or even "preeminent rock writers" would ever exist would have seemed patently ludicrous. Yet the increasing demand for rock history and memorabilia is one reason Meltzer, who's often been ignored in favor of more tragic or better-connected contemporaries like Lester Bangs or Greil Marcus, may finally be getting his due.
Last month Da Capo Press published the first anthology of his music writing, A Whore Just Like the Rest. The wildly throbbing heart of the collection, and of The Nick Tosches Reader, an anthology of the work of Meltzer's old friend and colleague that Da Capo is promoting at the same time, is that rock died a long time ago. When Meltzer "invented this shit," as he puts it in the first entry, "Rock-Crit Blood 'n' Guts," he saw rock as more than a spectator sport: by writing about it with the same irreverent brio as the people playing the notes, he was a full-fledged member of a diverse, daring, loose-knit community whose common bond was an opposition to the cultural status quo. As he saw it, he and someone like Lou Reed were on the same side of the fight. By the late 60s he realized that this good thing had already been corrupted beyond repair: when he playfully suggested that Reed employ some Mamas and Papas-style harmonies, the singer spat at him, "Whudda you know? You're no musician." But he still couldn't quite give it up, and in a way, the anthology chronicles his three-decade attempt to quit.
Even disillusioned, Meltzer wrote about music with uncommon conceptual audacity and attitude. His distinctive style was a complex web of anti-intellectual-qua-intellectual experiments (carefully constructed run-on sentences, intentionally incorrect spellings, idiosyncratic slang) and futile attempts to level the playing field--like "Patti's Pair o' Paps," a review of nude photos of Patti Smith. "First of all, a skinmag asked for this, it was NOT my idea--and I probably needed the hundred bucks," he writes in an introduction. "My prime motive, however, was to directly address Patti, as if to say: 'Pay attention to me, rockstar/former friend; we were once equals, remember?'" In the 70s he made a living making a mockery of rock: the music, the fans, the "journalism." A review of Creedence Clearwater Revival's Pendulum reads: "You you you kinda kinda kinda get get get the the the impression pression pression that that that Creedence Creedence Creedence Clearwater water water keeps keeps keeps doing doing doing the the the same same same thing thing thing over over over and and and over over over again again again," and a review of a Johnny Rivers album is mostly about how much the vinyl smells like plasticine. A review of an unknown singer named Denny Lile is a purely grammatical exercise: "A personal pronoun beginning with a capital letter, followed by a transitive verb in the present indicative, followed by a preposition, followed by a possessive pronoun...." Meltzer would accept a press junket and then spend most of the subsequent article describing the food, the booze, the drugs, the sex--everything but the band. When he did mention the band, he was in most cases blatantly insincere: "As I said before, three dog night's A GREAT BAND. Probably the greatest in the whole world."
Meltzer has been both celebrated and excoriated for making himself the subject of nearly everything he's written. But unlike his imitators (including, sometimes, Lester Bangs), Meltzer was almost never purely self-indulgent. Pieces like the Rivers review were a reflection of how vacuous and played out he felt the music had become; if the music had nothing to say, then why should he? Yet his best music writing, like the epic 1999 essay "Vinyl Reckoning," blows away his one-liners. In that selective tour of his record collection, his life, and his so-called career, Meltzer explains better than I can why the personal angle works for him, and also why it doesn't work for everyone:
"Then as now, on the street as at motherfucking Yale, my fundamental concern was with truth, THE truth (hee haw), i.e., for starters: what you can be surest of. If we're talking records and bands and whatnot, all you c'n be anywhere NEAR sure of is the shadow of this shit in your own playpen. Which is no easy ride--mercy! To confront and interrogate your merry ass, you've gotta be objective, impersonal, you've gotta go straight at your own jugular--mix a metaphor--and take furious notes while the blood is still fresh. If the initial calculus ain't perfect, you're nowhere, and anywhere you proceed is triple nowhere."
Nick Tosches's approach was quite different from Meltzer's--he relied much more on traditional reporting, and his best and most inspired music writing is about his heroes, the early icons of rock 'n' roll, from wild hillbillies like Jerry Lee Lewis to R & B shouters like Wynonie Harris, to whom he endeavored to give mythological stature. He never made as big a deal about messing with syntax as Meltzer did, but he would strategically toss colloquial wrenches into his otherwise smooth constructions. Describing the Screamin' Jay Hawkins song "I Put a Spell on You" in a 1973 issue of Creem, he wrote: "The collective pubes of the breathing universe were brashly tweaked by this human known as Screamin' Jay, a gent who not only puked forth one of the first truly rock 'n' roll retch-forms to sully the cultural doilies of America, but who also seemed to fuck, shit, piss, fart, and do the Dallas Two-Step with his larynx."
Both Tosches and Meltzer were fascinated and horrified by the speed and greed with which rock 'n' roll was tamed and groomed for mass consumption. In a piece called "Who'll Be the Next in Line," written not long after Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Brian Jones kicked the bucket, Meltzer coolly suggests that the blood of dead rock stars be made available to their thirsty minions; Tosches loves Jerry Lee Lewis in part because the Killer never makes it easy for fans to idolize him. But, as the title of the Meltzer book emphasizes, both men have taken their cut of the profits. "I never forgot what [film director Don] Siegel told me," writes Tosches. "'If you're going to be a whore, be a high-priced whore.'"
To which I might add: the highest-priced whore isn't always the best. Admission to the $240 million Experience Music Project is $19.95. Tosches's book will set you back a buck less, Meltzer's almost three less, and while you're getting your fair share of rock history you're also getting arts criticism that doubles as real literature, something no other rock writer--not Greil Marcus with his long-winded academic analyses and certainly not Neil Strauss with his Jewel profiles and Marilyn Manson biography--has delivered over the long haul.
Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at firstname.lastname@example.org.