A Whore Just Like The Rest
The first thing I read in this book, opening at random, was Meltzer's review of Sticky Fingers from 1970. It's a negative review. Not vindictive, just dismissive, mediocre. When you read some of the curmudgeonly stuff from writers like Meltzer, Lester Bangs, or Mike Saunders,
you wonder what the hell they wanted from the bands. I mean, if "Brown Sugar" and "Bitch" don't do it for ya, can you claim to have ever loved rock-n-roll in the first place?
Turns out you have to read the whole thing to really get an idea of what was going on in Meltzer's mind. And reading the whole thing isn't always easy. This book is sometimes hilarious, occasionally insightful, but often frustrating.
Meltzer had several pieces published in SPIN around '85-'86 (all reproduced here), including a rambling but hilarious bunch of stories about Lou Reed, The New York Dolls and other rock stars; one riff based on the fact that he shared a birthday with Sid Vicious, Fred Astaire and Donovan; a requiem for his friend Lester Bangs in the form of a review of Psychotic Reactions and Carbuerator Dung; and an essay on Bruce Springsteen. The latter was part of a cover story on Springsteen at the peak of Born In The USA's success, which included essays by about 10 different writers. Meltzer's was the only anti-Springsteen rant, enough to win me over forever. This was my first exposure to R. Meltzer, unless he had some stuff in Creem in the early 80s that I don't remember (actually, there were the liner notes on Pebbles Vol. 2, credited to A. Seltzer, which may have been Meltzer using a gag name, but more likely was Greg Shaw
parodying Meltzer), and I immediately deemed him my favorite rock crit. Granted, his hyperbolic, self-promoting comedy played alot better when I was under 18, but there's still plenty of great stuff here.
In the earliest piece included here, Meltzer is raving about Are You Experienced? in stoned, beat language, in what he "reckons" was the first published piece of American writing on Hendrix. It's a funny piece, but also an obviously passionate bit of writing about being blown away by the sheer force of music. What happened in the less-than-five-years between this and Sticky Fingers? One advantage of this book is that Meltzer has written a new introduction to each piece, putting them into context (something we'll never have from Lester). In one introduction, he quotes a letter published in Rolling Stone: "R. Meltzer's reviews are always the same. They never tell me anything I want to know about the album, and he always writes about things he more or less has contempt for. That's one sorry, useless cat." It's hard not to sympathize with the composer of that letter. For the most part, Meltzer's reviews from the 70's are useless, even if some of them are entertaining as hell. The latter category includes a roundup of fanclubs for relatively obscure acts of the time, an entirely fictional account of what went down at Altamont, and his review of an album by a band called Black Grass (who?) which has to be the funniest record review I've ever read. In Meltzer's own words,
What I did was (more or less) listen to nothing, sell every promo album that
came my way (mentioning this any chance I got), dash off daily or weekly quotas
of "reviews" and whatnot based on having eyeballed various LP covers (if even
that), always looking for ways to shuffle in fragments of bulk text from the
backs of cereal boxes, grocery lists, gratutious scattergun rants about this
that and the other--in a word, hoot up my sleeve, broadcast my abject contempt
for the food tube of the music industry, and "invent" Dada Rockcrit in the
So getting down to the why of this, what exactly it was that had this guy so annoyed about the state of rock, and it turns out that it has little to do with the music itself. In that first SPIN piece, placed at the front of the book, he laments not the decline in quality of rock music, but the disapearance of a unified rock "scene." In the mid-late 60's, rock critics were writing for fanzines, writing out of love, writing for fun. They paled around with the bands, being perceived by musicians as part of the same revolution, the guys who would get the word out about this music that was gonna change the world, the guys who would put it in context, or at the very least, as very passionate fans. By 1970, music journalists were viewed by record companies, and very likely by musicians themselves, as little more than advertising agents at best, or (as in Almost Famous) as "the enemy" at worst. Music was now a product, being pushed by a gigantic corporate machine, and the job of the rock critic was to sell the shit. Most were glad to do it, for the money, the prestige, the opportunity to meet the puppet monarchs of this world--becoming the whore of the title. And, even though Meltzer was accomplishing little beyond his own career suicide in rejecting that situation, the stance is pretty admirable.
The next chapter of the story is the punk scene. Meltzer gets deep into punk, not through the New York or London bands, but in Los Angeles. Already he's winning my heart. In the intro to the section on punk, he refuses to define the word, but acquiesces to listing the bands he does and doesn't consider "punk":
Re New York, my take is the opposite of that given by the compilers of Please
Kill Me, who feel that punk ends with the Ramones and includes Blondie. Punk
begins with the Ramones, certainly includes Lydia Lunch, James Chance, et al.
(and some tho not all of Richard Hell), but excludes Blondie, Talking Heads,
Mink DeVille and any band featuring Johnny Thunders. And the earlier
shit--Dolls, my friends The Dictators, Television, and of course Ms.
Smith--definitely not punk.
Of the Ohio people, Pere Ubu and the Cramps are
punk, the Dead Boys are just loud and snotty rock 'n' roll. (Devo isn't even on
Jello Biafra? Barely.
England: The Pistols, the Clash, and the
Damned, obviously, and at least two generations of others, from Wire and the
Fall to the Anti-Nowhere League, but not the Stranglers...[you get the idea]
Anything after, oh, 1983: nope. Doesn't matter if it's ostensibly punk--up
the yinyang--'cus by then the moment had passed, the world which gave it rise
had expired, the market was no longer resisted, and whatever it then was was no
longer anything remotely else. It was part of the same damn, same old rock
OK, let me start by saying that defining punk and listing who is and isn't punk is a waste of time at best, an unhealthy approach to music at worst, but an amusing parlor game from a removed perspective. Now I don't agree with everything in the above, but I'm more-or-less on the same page with the guy. What I like even better is this:
All told, it was arguably the most specifically anti-totalitarian U.S. rock-roll
ever, and the one true Southern Cal "underground music" after Central Avenue
bebop of the forties.
And the great shocker in all this, greater even than
the mere fact of anything so substantial 'n' life-supporting actually happening
in L.A., was its ultimate source. Basically this wasn't kids working factories,
or on welfare, but the lawnstained, hot-tubbed progeny of "safe middle-class
homes" in Endless Summerville. To which their basic measured response was--bless
'em, may their tribe increase--was fuck!-this!-shit! in Beast Town, U.S.A. Way
Which matches up perfectly with my experience of punk. But anyway, what attracts Meltzer to the punk scene is not just the music, but (as you've probably guessed from some of the hints in the paragraphs I've quoted) its removal from the market forces of the rock record industry. L.A. punk was a local scene, self-supporting, art-for-art's sake, and one in which the bands were just the fans who happened to be onstage (and the writers were just the fans who happened to write for local zines). Meltzer surprisingly didn't write much about the punk scene as it was happening, he was "too busy experiencing" it, apparantly feeling that writing about it would have impurified it, but what he does write is passionate, interesting, and on-point at all times. He GETS punk.
The section titled Lester consists of 4 seperate pieces written about Lester Bangs after his death. The aforementioned SPIN piece is the best of these, theorizing about what it was that actually killed Lester. The diagnosis (predictably) is disillusionment with Rock-n-Roll, from which Lester, unlike Meltzer, was unable to divorce himself. "When I began writing about rock, it wasn't like I could just as easily be writing about something else. There was nothing else. Rock was THE UNIVERSE...by the time Lester published his first review, in 1969, it was barely the state of Rhode Island."
Near the end are some very interesting pieces. "One White Man's Opinion" is as sober and honest an assesment of the Rodney King riots as I've ever read, an angry rant against the systemic racial violence in the LAPD that gave me chills. "Vinyl Reckoning," which I quoted at length in an earlier post, starts as a meditation on records, his record collection, his (or "one's") relationship with records, their place in one's life. There are passages within it, like the one I quoted, that read to me like perfect poetry of the vinyl hound's soul. Unfortunately, it digresses into the theme that comes up over and over, with more frequency as the years go on, in Meltzer's writing: that he "invented rock criticism" and never got his due (or even a fair paycheck), and that Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus had personal grudges against him and conspired to ruin his career, and were total assholes even apart from that anyways. The extent of bitterness this guy holds is enormous, and it doesn't help his case that most of his problems seem to be his own fault, but I can't help but admire him for stubornly sticking to his guns in a battle that he couldn't win, and probably wouldn't have gained much from even if he could.