Meltzer’s Night at the Opera


June 30, 2011 by admin

In this brief review of the Ellen Willis anthology, Brian Joseph Davis writes:

“When Richard Meltzer, a one-time student of Allan Krapow, invented rock criticism as an art prank — applying the jargon of aesthetics usually reserved for the Met Opera to a review of The White Album –— he was only half joking. The serious part of his game, that pop music was a legitimate art, had enough legs to move on and alter critical discourse within a few years.”

The White Album reference is off — the dozens of pages RM devotes to the Beatles in The Aesthetics of Rock are decidedly (and crucially, I would argue) pre-White Album — but that’s a fairly minor quibble. The line that jumps out at me is, “applying the jargon of aesthetics usually reserved for the Met Opera.” Wow — really? I don’t know the first thing about opera or classical criticism, from the ’60s or any other time frame, but my guess is that the language such criticism is steeped in is about as far removed from The Aesthetics of Rock as you can possibly get. I mean, maybe there’s opera criticism that throws in a lot of references to philosophy or something — maybe that’s what Davis is getting at? Even so — I’d be very hard-pressed to believe that there’s any sort of connection there. It’s not that Meltzer (of all people) didn’t believe rock couldn’t hold up to the scrutiny of opera, but rather, that he knew rock had already by that point (mid-60s) traveled light years past opera, in terms of scope, ambition, awesomeness, triviality, etc. and etc. I’ve never ever gotten the sense that the hyper-inflated constantly-cancelling-itself-out language employed by Meltzer in any of his early criticism had any precedent — well, anywhere, really (or anyway, no clear precedent — he didn’t emerge out of nothing, obviously, and maybe his roots are the beats?).

6 thoughts on “Meltzer’s Night at the Opera

  1. Hell yes, i destitution pen something be pleased this but didnt have time, may i repost this Meltzer’s obscurity at the Opera « says:

  2. Richard Riegel says:

    Hey, Scott, have you figured out yet whether the Brion-Gysin-cut-up-method comment above is an actual pomo response to your posting, or another of those Russian spammers who doesn’t English so good the write yet? Usually the Russkies are drawn more to Lester Bangs threads, as they can smell the vodka on them.

    I agree with all your comments as to how “off” Brian Joseph Davis is in his discussion of the origins of rock criticism. In looking at the balance of Davis’s column, and some of his other stuff on the Toronto Standard website, I see that he covers everything with the old in & out, no time for niceties nor distinctions. His Meltzer-in-operatic-tie-and-tails was clever & fit the space, so who cares if it’s factual . . .

    My take is that Richard Meltzer was actually one of the first writers to divert rock criticism to LITERARY purposes, after the true primordials like Paul Williams and Jon Landau had birthed the beast. It’s been some time since I’ve read “Aesthetics of Rock,” but I think it’s an equal mixture of serious and put-on, as both the rock scene (and Meltzer’s riff on it) were evolving rapidly as he plowed through the uncharted jungle of his manuscript.

    But any migraine-headache-intellectual [phrase stolen from John Clellon Holmes] seriousness in the early portions of Aesthetics derived not from opera criticism but from the monolithic jazz criticism of the early ’60s, which of course coincided with the beat period that inspired Meltzer literarily. I’ve been collecting ’60s jazz LPs recently, and the liner notes on those jackets are so uniformly weighty & ponderous (and so paranoid that the reigning Kenyon Review crowd “won’t take us seriously”) that they make Dean Christgau read like “Goodnight Moon” in retrospect.

    Just slaying (the fathers) . . .

  3. s woods says:

    Richard, I was so spellbound by the syntax of the previous commenter’s *name* I couldn’t bring myself to drop it in the SPAM file.

    Yeah, jazz criticism (along with the Beats) seems to make sense, particularly the writer-formerly-known-as Leroi Jones, who Meltzer has cited on more than one occasion as being The Guy, I presume as much for his voice as for his probing intellect. (I recently came across an early Crawdaddy! item wherein he quotes him extensively.)

  4. j. sot says:

    hey guys. been going through some of his stuff lately, and i’m pretty sure Meltzer claims to have only read the beats in any comprehensive way as he neared 50 years of age. (yup, page 341 of AWJLTR.) just sayin’…

  5. s woods says:

    You’re right, J. Sot, it was later in his career that Meltzer (by his own admission) really delved in to all sorts of writers, though maybe “in any comprehensive way” is the point. I’m sure he would’ve at least been aware of what they were doing much earlier than that, and I doubt it’s taking too giant a leap to see at least *some* connection there. Guess someone will have to ask him!

  6. Brian says:

    Criticism duly noted but it was not a review. The column is a books link round-up. In the allotted space for original thought I was hoping to get at the idea of serious intellectual satire that Meltzer gave to rock criticism and what he never gets credit for/is often buried in the history of rock criticism. Agree with Reigel that it is more correct to say it was a riff on the language of jazz crit than anything I popped off. Again, criticisms duly noted and please see them as a side effect of space rather than sloppiness.

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