A PARTY! A FISHING PARTY!

Rock-write pioneer RICHARD MELTZER takes questions from wide-eyed novice/hack EMMET MATHESON on where it all went wrong

When Richard Meltzer's The Aesthetics of Rock appeared in 1970, nobody had ever dared to write so seriously and passionately about rock 'n' roll music. Since then, Meltzer has supposedly given up on rock several times, writing about ugly buildings, golf, and boxing, even producing a novel. But 2000's A Whore Just Like the Rest: the Music Writings of Richard Meltzer, which showcases the best (and worst) writing of Meltzer's 30-odd year career, brought him back to the limelight in the world of rock-write. And with rock 'n' roll (and culture in general) in a state of complete awfulness, his presence and insight might be needed now more than ever. Meltzer spoke to me from his home in Portland, Oregon.

EM: In A Whore Just Like the Rest, you talk a lot about how you have to blow your own horn, that you've been under-appreciated. Since the book came out, you've been the subject of some favorable write-ups. Are you feeling any better about your place in history?

RM: For one thing, I've gotten better play off this book than any previous book I've had out. So just for that alone, it's felt like a good ride. But I've gotten some really wretched reviews from this one too.
I got a review from somebody who said "Not only isn't he a rock writer now, but he never was a rock writer." And, because a Lester Bangs bio [Let It Blurt, by Jim DeRogatis] and The Nick Tosches Reader were also out, sometimes people reviewed all three of them. There were reviews that would say "Nick is the only good one," or "Lester is the only good one." I got the full gamut of reviews.
But I did get, I'd say, eight or ten that really warmed my heart. So, to some extent, mission is accomplished. And then in six months no one will remember it anyway. Which is what history is these days.

I first heard of you when your novel, 1995's The Night (Alone) , came out. I read a few reviews, and thought this is something I could really get into. But I looked and looked...

You never found it?

No. And when A Whore Just Like the Rest came out, I asked my local independent bookseller about it, and he said all of your books were more or less out of print.

Yeah, that's what happens. The Night (Alone) got remaindered and my editor was supposed to let me know when that was going to happen, so that I could buy like a hundred of them for like four or five bucks apiece or whatever. And then it happened while my editor was on vacation...so they all went out to stores and I never got to see them.
But it's my best book, it's the one I would use as my calling card. It's just a big long piece of filth, smut.

It seems like in both rock and book-selling the trend is toward these super-mega-chain stores, where it's just, well, overwhelming.

It's an ocean of books. It's like there are too many books, but at the same time, the only ones that are being marketed are bestsellers, coffee table books, text books, kid books, how-to books. Supposedly, in the United States at major publishing houses, there is no longer a category "literature."

How did your time as a philosophy major in college train you for writing?

If I lived a thousand times and, forced to choose a major, I would choose philosophy all of those thousand times. It's the only training for this thing called Life. You could minor in history or minor in art history or anything...but philosophy, that's where you get the rigour. You know, I never took a literature or writing class, and I'm glad I didn't.

Early on in your career, there seemed to be a sort of rock-write community (Meltzer, Tosches, Bangs, etc.). Does that still exist?

I wouldn't know. I think not. Somewhere in the seventies, I lost sight of whatever the whole scope of it was in New York and I moved to L.A. There was no such thing in L.A. L.A. was every man for himself and I kind of sense New York is that way now too.
One reason a community was possible at the beginning was there wasn't yet really a style sheet. These papers and mags didn't have one way they wanted everyone to write. So everybody was kind of clowning around and trying to find their way.
It was like everybody going fishing. Y'know, a party, a fishing party! There was a kind of cumulative effort towards "what is this thing called rock writing?" And somewhere in the mid-seventies, it really wasn't in general allowable anymore. The rock mags that survived survived by cooperating with the record companies. Not only did they want positive reviews generally, but they wanted them written in a certain very stiff sort of way. And so it went from being like making art, or even just simply playing, to where it felt like going to school. To get published in those venues after a certain point was like writing boring school papers.
At the very beginning these mags would print anything you gave them because they weren't paying you-if they were paying you, it was like $12.50 for a feature-so they would pretty much take whatever text they got. Somewhere, '72 or '73, they were getting very fussy. So my basic approach wherever I wrote was, "Editor, take this!" It was trying to pull it off, y'know, trying to slip 'em a fast one.
Mischief was really my overriding motive.
It's gotten harder. In my own progression as a writer, I don't even know how to do mischief anymore. I've gotten bogged down in the mission of writing clearly. It gets to the point where something that was play becomes work. I would like to once again figure out how to do mischief.
Is there even any point in writing about rock music anymore?

Well, sure. The problem is not so much the music-the music has become a very non-specific thing. It's just a big inescapable aspect of culture now. We're in a state of what you might call Rock Surround. You can't get away from it! When I started writing about it you had to seek it out, you had to find it You had to meet it at least half-way.
In 1967 there weren't 20 good bands in the world. And then in the seventies, they realized they could make a killing off this and it went from 20 bands to a thousand. It was really hard to be focused anymore. You were forced to pay attention to just too much and it was impossible.
One of the problems now is you have to write your way out of the Rock Surround. You certainly have to write about how it impacts on your own life. But systematically, it's important to be distanced from it, not so much because you want to be an objective journalist-whatever the hell that is-for your own sanity you have to be not owned by it. Not under its thumb.
I just think that with the notion of truth, subjective, objective, whatever, the only thing you can be truthful about is what you know, the shadow of the stuff in your own playpen, things you have a palpable sense of experience of. That's what you should write about.
I think a lot of work has to be done in ignoring the immensity of it and writing about any little particle of it. It's a big monster, rock. And it exists for certain pre-ordained reasons that were not part of the package once. Part of what it's there for is to make people stupid. To make people cease to resist. It's crowd control.

Yeah, governments and armies even use it in armed standoffs, like Waco or General Noriega.

Yeah, it used to have something to do with liberation and now it has something to do with quite the opposite.

And it's not just rock that's gone this way...In your "The Last Wrestling Piece" you warned about the over-commercialization of wrestling, based on the first Wrestlemania, which was over 15 years ago.

It's funny; I don't watch a lot of television, but by accident I saw a WWF show this week. It was like a video game, and all the advertisers were video games. It was just insane. It used be for lunatics of all ages. Now it is specifically marketed for children and it looks to me like most of television is specifically marketed for children.
Rock and roll is certainly specifically marketed for children. As opposed to once upon a time, the term was teenagers. But I think the demographic has slipped to something very much earlier than that. It's cradle to the grave now.
But wrestling, once upon a time, was a real true geek show. There's just no aspect of that anymore; it's not even there by accident. I think the announcers are even scripted now-that doesn't even sound improvised. And they had these, like, hot-looking babes and one of them was wearing, like leather or vinyl pants with a fake ass. She actually had ass padding!
It used to be, at the very least, you could see the stink of humanity in the event. There's no smell anymore.

Did whatever powers-that-be in manufacturing culture always try to make it so safe and generic? They were always trying. It seems to me they've reached a point now where, not only do they have a better angle on it, but the leverage is much more functional. I think that the bottom line is that today's kids are regarded by every marketing think-tank as retarded, maimed! Emotionally maimed and intellectually retarded. And that's whom everything's being marketed to.
I just think that the internet is really sick in that it really has been the latest means. Kids get home from school and it's "Oh boy! I'll jerk off watching some smut off the internet" or "oh I can download etceteras." It's just another way of teaching living beings not to live.

A friend of mine calls the internet the world's biggest bathroom wall.

I just can't even stand looking at all the ads. Every time you click it on there's a billboard for something. And they're shabby- looking. It isn't even an elegant kind of con. It's like they don't have to be elegant anymore. It's evidence that the master plan has worked.

Killer Kowalski... and other things.