My August 2000 chat with Richard Meltzer. I don’t think I got much out of Meltzer here that he hadn’t already written about or conveyed to other interviewers, but I’m glad I gave it a shot anyway. I mean, truthfully, if I’d accomplished nothing else with rockcritics.com other than the chance to talk to the author of The Aesthetics of Rock for a couple hours, I’d have been okay with that. Whether that tells you more about the scale of my ambitions here or the size and scope of Meltzer’s influence — I’ll leave that for you to figure out.
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Kicks just keep getting harder to find: Interview with Richard Meltzer
By Scott Woods (2000)
Technically, Richard Meltzer may not have invented rock criticism–he wasn’t necessarily “there first”–but with The Aesthetics of Rock (published in ’70, written a few years before that), he took music writing on a wild philosophical goose chase (“Vast generalizations, lots of empirical meat”) that 30 years later no one’s really caught up to (or fully understood–least of all myself). The four consecutive pages (199 to 202) Meltzer devotes to Herman’s Hermits alone (a probe into the “contextually evil” “I’m Into Something Good”; citing “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” as “an analogue to Oedipus”; etc.) constitute the sort of thought processes that any curious and critical mind would be thrilled to stumble upon, and probably a little scared if they did so. I’m pretty sure I’d rather be stranded on a desert island with The Aesthetics of Rock than just about any piece of music I can think of; I know for sure I’d never get to the bottom of it regardless.
Meltzer’s new book, A Whore Just Like the Rest, is a superb, 600-page anthology of his music writing, from an early, wigged-out piece on Jimi Hendrix in 1967, to 1998’s monumental-in-every-way “Vinyl Reckoning,” a huge up-yours to some former colleagues, and a passionate where-the-hell-am-I personal statement: “A tougher question than Am I a rockwriter? Was I ever a rockwriter? (Do I even really qualify?) (Am I ‘overqualified’?).” Um, probably?
Wednesday, July 12, two thousand zero-zero, I talked to Richard Meltzer on the phone, he in Portland, me in Toronto, 11:30 P.M. Eastern Standard Time. (Aside from the cheaper Bell charge after 11:00, it only seemed right to talk to Meltzer at night.) My prepared questions weren’t that interesting, but he was gracious and kind (dare I say, surprisingly so?) and put up with me anyway.
Scott: I wanted to start by asking you what you were like in high school?
Richard: What I was like in high school? Uh, I was a four-eyed shorty with a flat-top…
Scott: Talk about it in terms of social groups –did you fit in? Did you have many friends?
Richard: Uh, I didn’t fit in, but I wouldn’t say that anybody — uh, there was probably a small elite that had what you would call a successful social life, but they were clearly a minority. I mean, I would say that most people I knew were thoroughly miserable. But there was no bonding in that — everybody was sort of un-AFFILIATEDLY miserable.
Scott: Did you do anything in high school — I don’t know, stuff that would suggest you’d become a writer later?
Richard: I was a math major. I was basically — I had been an overachieving student from way back. You know, like, my parents — all the incentives were for academic over-achievement, so I did. And I didn’t really CARE for my so-called studies, but the object was to get an A. My mother had been a math teacher, and so I especially over-achieved in math, and when I went to my senior year in high school and took a course called College Math, and by taking a certain placement test I was able to get into — as a freshman in college, they put me in a sophomore math class — and I think I got a B. Slowly but surely I was losing all interest in that, in math. And when, as a sophomore, I got a D and an F in two math courses I decided enough of this already, and became a Philosophy major. And it was only when I started writing Philosophy papers that I on any level thought of myself as writing. I mean, doing mere book reports and biology reports didn’t feel quite the same. And so, I would do, uh, I still — I mean, just to cut to the chase, I didn’t think of myself as a writer as such until I had been doing it professionally for about five years. I just looked at myself in the mirror one day and I said, “I guess you’re a writer.”
Scott: How did the Philosophy fit in in terms of being a rock fan?
Richard: It just felt — I also was an Art minor, I took Art History and Studio courses, and Philosophy was the cutting edge of all thought about such things as creation, creativity, the artist, the audience, the art object; just being able to look at all this stuff and get some sort of, like, what’s the word? — jargon for even TALKING about it. On one hand it was something to write about, but mostly it was — you know, works of artists I cared about were THEMSELVES. They seemed to be mind-manifesting. I mean, they were psychedelic, which I think means mind-manifesting. And so, rock ‘n’ roll itself, by about ’64, ’65, the British Invasion and onward, seemed very much to manifest mind. It seemed like the easiest thing in the world to combine it with Philosophy, to basically, in my own mindset, combine the two of them. Rock and Philosophy were one and the same.
Scott: How did rock, in your view, manifest mind?
Richard: Well, I mean rock — when I was 11 years old I saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show, and it saved my life. I mean, I was just a really creepy little four-eyes then, and if I hadn’t seen Elvis, I probably would’ve ended up teaching high school Math in Brooklyn. And it put some bounce in my life, it gave me a certain access to my own vitality, to my own sense of strut. And even when it was essentially a music of the BODY in the ’50s, it was an incredible advance over what whitebread America had until that point. Unfortunately, rock ‘n’ roll as such, was dead in the water by about 1958 or ’59; it was all but over.
Scott: Bobby Vee and all that?
Richard: Yeah. I mean, yes, bands and individual singers had hits and so forth, but it really wasn’t thought of as nurture anymore, it wasn’t something that was going to save anybody’s life. And so when the British Invasion happened it was like, oh my God, it’s the second coming! And it did have a very heavy dose of intelligence attached to it if for no other reason than that it had been rehearsed already. Whitebread, Anglo America had had a prior taste of this, and had gone over it in its mind, and had found the chops to really deal with it this time. That combined with — I just think there were certain things going on in the world, I mean, DRUGS, for sure. But there was a certain something happening in general in the early ’60s: you had pop art, comic books were getting weirder, and I just think that there was a certain access that most people suddenly had, uh… they always had the access, but it was almost like suddenly everybody was beatnik if they wanted to be. And an inordinate number LEAPED at it, and by somewhere in ’65 when you had the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan, and five or six other bands, but not really that many overall — the Zombies, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Byrds — suddenly it was like a torch held high in the world, bright enough to light the galaxy. It was somewhat astounding, it was like, where did this come from? It was suddenly immense.
Scott: How affected were you by some of the rock of the pre-Beatles era, the early ’60s stuff, I don’t know, like Phil Spector…
Richard: I think he’s — he’s somewhat overrated. I mean, you could stand to listen to that stuff on the radio but it just wasn’t — there was nothing AWEsome about it, it was just well wrought tunes. And if anything, my favourite Phil Spector-produced single was one that didn’t even have the Spector sound, it was “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” by Curtis Lee, just a silly song. And I always thought that later, in longer retrospect, that “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby,” an Andrew Loog Oldham production, just leaves Spector in the dust.
Scott: Talk a little about your first Beatles experience. You’ve written that you first heard them shortly after JFK’s death?
Richard: Right, on a Canadian station. I had a date with a high school cheerleader in Pennsylvania. I was driving in from Long Island, and I think Kennedy was shot before — it was a friend of mine, the two of us were going there, we would have dates with these two cheerleaders, it was their homecoming game and everything, and Kennedy got shot while we were having lunch in the cafeteria before we took off, and by the time we were on the road the only stuff on the radio was either news or dirge-like, you know, requiem kind of music. And when we got to Philadelphia, these chicks really didn’t want to have a lot to do with us because we really weren’t remorseful, we weren’t — what’s the word? — we didn’t feel the wave of tragedy. And so, they threw us out. And on the way back, driving back, we by accident heard from some Canadian station the Beatles — I don’t even remember what song it was, but I’d been aware of the Beatles existence. There had been a piece on them in the New York Sunday Times Magazine, I think, and it interested me that here was rock ‘n’ roll again, somewhere, but I think I was suspicious — if it’s British, it must be really bad. Because all I knew about Brits was, like before the Beatles they had stuff like Laurie London, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “I Remember You” by Frank Ifield — this was very dreadful stuff, and so, when I first heard the Beatles for real, I was back on campus within a few days of, uh — I mean, part of what happened was that everybody, they were supposed to have mid-terms a couple days later, and they cancelled the mid-terms because, oh, gee, everybody’s feeling the grief, and then somebody from the faculty happened upon the campus, and as soon as they announced no mid-terms, everybody started playing touch football and having a dandy ol’ time. So they reinstated the mid-terms and everybody flunked (laughs). And between then and Christmas it was like one incredible anarchistic event on campus; everybody was just kind of… I didn’t personally know anybody who was struggling with — there wasn’t a lot of grief. And the music was “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen and whatever Beatles albums. There were like two or three albums that were released at the same time, and it was one really incredible dance of anarchy.
Scott: The Beatles are your central experience?
Richard: Well, I would say that the only adjustments that I’ve made on my own take on their importance is I’ve gotten rather sick of Paul McCartney, and so I can just about pull out of the whole thing “Yesterday” and “The Long and Winding Road” and all that stuff, and there’s still plenty there. I mean, I’d say that, yes, the Beatles were easily the most important entity in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. I wouldn’t exactly say at the moment that they’re my favourite band, but they obviously — I can name 75 cuts by them that I still hold dear. I would say that the Doors, for whatever it’s worth, are my favourite band that I ever saw live, but I couldn’t name you 15 cuts of theirs that are really worth it.
Scott: So it’s mostly as a live band that they’re important to you?
Richard: Well, I mean I saw them so much. When I started writing for Crawdaddy, the Doors had a residency at this club in Manhattan called Ondine, they were there for three or four months, and they played three or four sets a night. And we’d go down and see them, for free, and I saw them I’d say forty times, and they were just, uh… I went there with three people from the paper, the first night they played, and I just knew — I heard their first album and it didn’t make much of an impression on me, and when I heard “The End,” I thought, oh, how theatrical, and then I saw them LIVE, and the four of us, we looked at each other and we said, “Is this the greatest thing ever, or is this the greatest thing ever?!” There was something just mesmerizing about it, they were like — they seemed to us to be something beyond the Stones. Maybe that’s what they’d came out of, we couldn’t really tell. But there was something about Jim Morrison: before he had leather, he had jeans and a surfer shirt, and it was just really, uh, something about the NIGHT. And the Beatles, let’s say that the Beatles were not the Stones, but the Stones were a band that six months after every Beatles album they did their version of the same thing. The Beatles were the band that showed the world how to strip-mine an idea; every album they did was a concept album. They’re the only band that ever was that, from the moment they were the biggest thing in the world, they only got better. There’s no other band that’s ever been the biggest thing in the world that ever did anything but get worse from that point on. And they just had an astounding RUN, from ’64 to, let’s say, somewhere in ’68 maybe.
Scott: The White Album.
Richard: Yeah, and after The White Album I don’t give a damn. But from Revolver and so forth — that stuff still holds up to me. A song like “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which is something nobody regards as one of their big songs — I can play that any day. Or even “Rain” — I mean, “Rain” was just an incredible single, when it came out with the backwards stuff, y’know — the b-side of “Paperback Writer.” But it was just… how old are you?
Scott: I’m 36, so I’m familiar with all the stuff. I was just a kid when it was out, but…
Richard: I mean, you know, I had my first significant girlfriend, my first important sexual relationship during a couple years of the Beatles. And the Beatles were essentially the first white rock band to come up with a way of dealing with boy-girl that was neither ripped off from R&B, nor insipid Tin Pan Alley. I mean they did a lot of things.
Scott: There’s also the group aspect — the whole “community” thing.
Richard: Right. In the ’50s, maybe you knew the names of both of the Everly Brothers, maybe you didn’t. But the Beatles were the first band where everybody had identity.
Scott: And would you say the whole community thing ENDED with the Beatles?
Richard: Well, I mean one of the things that was so important about the Beatles also was that it was perceived that they were friends, that there was some actual existential relationship between these people. That never seemed to be there with the Stones. I remember reading an early interview with, like, Mick or somebody, “How often do you socialize with Charlie?” “Never.” That kind of thing. I mean, the Beatles, when they made their two movies, there was something just so… it was not a question of — they weren’t naturalistic films, but they were films that did get the energy of — I mean, just to see little scenes there where you see John talking to Ringo, and there was something that felt urgently REAL about it. And you know, whatever. I mean, Elvis was the same thing, Elvis was just a UNIT — a single atom — but in 1956, ’57, it really felt like, there was something about ANYthing he did, it MATTERED: Any news item about him, any photo of his latest haircut And the Beatles was the same thing. And to some extent, many of the British Invasion bands, too: It mattered what Ray Davies did, etc. And then when you added drugs to the whole thing — drugs were not part of the initial buzz of the British Invasion, and once you could come up with your own alternate world, using this stuff as the soundtrack, as the backdrop, as the CUE, it really was rather liberating.
Scott: I wanted to ask you about that, actually. When did pot start to have something to do with it for you? Or drugs in general?
Richard: I smoked pot for the first time I’d say it was in the spring of ’64, and strangely enough it was half time at a Thelonious Monk concert on campus. But it was at a moment — I listened to a lot of jazz between the death of the ’50s thing and the British Invasion.
Scott: Was it through the Beats that you discovered jazz?
Richard: No, I never read — it’s funny, but I never read the Beats until I was almost 40, because I never really read much. I was AWARE of the Beats, but I never read the stuff. Jazz was just something that, when I was a college freshman, certain people had these records and they were very, uh — y’know, something just drew me to it: Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk. And I basically oriented myself to this music that was without WORDS, and just levels of feeling and all of that — the physics of feeling and SOUND. And so when the British Invasion happened, I felt something — I mean, it’s silly to think so now, but the Beatles had a song, “Love Me Do,” which I think in fact was their first British hit, and it sounded very much like John Coltrane: modal. But there was just something — I was GRIPPED by the FACT of rock ‘n’ roll again, and by each of these bands… I mean, Dave Clark Five for ten seconds were the band that followed the Beatles. The Stones weren’t really played in the U.S. for at least six months, and I remember hearing the single — I think “Not Fade Away” was the first thing I heard by them — and then they weren’t played again for months. But basically once you had in PLACE, once you came to expect a Beatles, a Stones, or a Dylan album every few months, those three things taken together — I mean, everyone I knew had all these albums, or had access to all these albums, and you just MEMORIZED them. I don’t think there were 20 bands in the world by late ’64 that anybody paid any attention to, but everyone I knew knew them all. It was a very small world, and when you threw in, when you added all these American bands, like starting with the Byrds pretty much, and Love and the Doors and all the San Francisco bands, it was an incredible continuity of things to just, you know — from ’65 to ’67 was a great period without any letup; it was just ongoingly astounding. I was in my early 20s, and it was fueling my life.
Scott: Go back to the drugs a bit. You said you first indulged at a Thelonious Monk show? Did that change you completely?
Richard: No — it was pretty weak stuff. But when I finally did smoke something that was strong enough, which probably would’ve been, oh, ’65 I guess — the summer of ’64, let’s say — it was very — once I realized what pot WAS, like what doors it opened and so forth, the Philosophy major in me got very interested in the whole notion of, uh, consciousness-alteration, or whatever the term might be, just having different ways — just even giving me different jargon for talking about how you think.
Scott: And did that make you want to put the words down on the page?
Richard: Well, I mean I DID, but it wasn’t so much — your original question was, did any of these things make me want to write? I felt that I just — YES, I was compelled to write, but I didn’t think of it as writing, I mean, it was like, yes, I was trying my darndest to just — it kind of just oozed out of me because I was not a practised writer, and I didn’t have writers as models, because most philosophy text is unreadable, and I didn’t take English courses, I’d never read Faulkner or Hemingway, and I certainly had read very little poetry, and so basically, I just, by hook or by crook, I tried to articulate expressing what was on my mind, and what seemed to be in the work of these bands and so forth.
Scott: That’s incredible to me that you — not so much that you didn’t think of yourself as a writer, but that you didn’t focus on English, and Philosophy you found unreadable, because your early stuff — I mean, you’re such a strong stylist from the start.
Richard: Well, it’s nice for you to say that.
Scott: But it seems incredible to me, just where that came from.
Richard: Well, recently I was reminded that one of my earliest influences as a writer was Muhammad Ali: All exclamation points, just this kind of absolute, go-for-the-jugular all-CAPS overkill. And I did a paper — must’ve been the spring of ’65, before the second Ali-Liston fight — for a Philosophy of Religion class. I did a paper called “Saint Cassius,” which I got from “Saint Genet” by Sartre, I wanted to write about Cassius Clay as a religious philosopher. And I don’t even know if I mentioned that he was Muslim. It was just simply that he was redefining the nature of BEING from a boxing ring, and the way he put a verbal dimension to it was without precedent, and I still feel that — it happened to BE that he was a great fighter. But beyond that he was, you know, a great thinker — whatever that means. As great a thinker as Little Richard with “A Wop Bop A Loo Bop A Lop Bam Boom!,” which is a great thought.
Scott: So was boxing an obsession from early on?
Richard: Well, I got into boxing from wrestling. I mean wrestling I think — I was pre-conditioned for rock ‘n’ roll by two things: one was wrestling and the other was monster movies.
Richard: Yeah, and one of the lines used to be, existentialism was the metaphysics of pragmatism, or vice versa, I forget whatever the deal is; and wrestling is the metaphysics of rock ‘n’ roll. Just this whole silly kind of restructuring of polarities and all of that. I got to boxing because wrestling and boxing used to be in the same magazines, and I’d look at the photos of people with punches and stuff and knockouts — “This looks interesting!” But monster movies were very important to me during the pre-rock ‘n’ roll Eisenhower/McCarthy ’50s. You had a lot of stuff going on in these movies that cost $11,000 to make, and I LOVE those movies. And when I saw Elvis on Ed Sullivan, I don’t think I was even aware of it on a sexual level, but just looking at him shaking his hips or whatever, it just seemed like crazy shit, y’know, but looking at his FACE he had the same look in his eyes that I remembered from Kevin McCarthy at the end of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, just this look of, you know, it’s the end of the world, but what the fuck?
Scott: What do you mean when you say “a lot of things going on in monster movies”?
Richard: Oh, just, you know, just the basic alternate universe kind of thing: what is credible, what’s not credible? What’s the difference? The kind of suspension of disbelief you have to do for Shakespeare is different from what you gotta do for Invasion of the Saucer Men.
Scott: I was going to ask you something else about movies, actually — do you think there’s any movies that capture rock ‘n’ roll really well?
Richard: Well, it’s funny, but I thought both Beatle movies and Performance were very good movies.
Scott: I’m thinking more like, something like Mean Streets, where…
Richard: Okay, that was a very good use of music on the soundtrack, but by the time [Scorsese] was doing GoodFellas, and it’s just wall to wall songs, it’s harder — it’s very hard to take. Mean Streets was fine, and in a way, even Easy Rider had not half bad stuff in moments. But basically, I can’t stand the movies today — American Beauty. The fact that — let’s name a movie for a Grateful Dead album, and songs by Free, and the Guess Who… Whatever it is, it’s down to every director using his favourite tunes. You know, Rushmore. I just don’t really care for most of — I mean in Rushmore I thought it was cute that they had “Concrete and Clay” by the Unit Four Plus Two as the first love song in the movie. It was like, let’s just show how goofy can a guy be. And the only Stones song they used was “I Am Waiting,” a ballad from Aftermath. So in a way I thought there was some intelligence in the choice of tunes but I wouldn’t say that they actually WORKED, that they actually delivered the movie. It’s more like it’s down to getting some kind of sense of what the director’s p-o-v is from the music he uses, but really not expecting the music to deliver the picture.
Scott: Is it anywhere near the mark to say that your own history with rock is a pre-and-post Sgt. Pepper thing?
Richard: No, I wouldn’t say that Sgt. Pepper was… it seemed like a high-water mark at the time, but I don’t think it was really — in terms of my own consciousness of it, I would say that Revolver and especially “Strawberry Fields” were far more important.
Scott: But I guess I’m thinking of it in terms of, is that where it all starts to fall apart?
Richard: What it did to the commercial aspect — yeah. I mean, it made the industry realize there was something out there they could exploit that they hadn’t thought about before, and bands like — one of the great bands that nobody ever heard of, Moby Grape, were done in by two factors: one was their misfortune in signing with Columbia Records at a time when all Columbia really had was the Byrds, and Simon & Garfunkel. They didn’t know what to do with a real band. A real band coming out of the Bay area. So they put out five singles simultaneously; that was their idea of groovy promotion. All five singles stiffed, and the album stiffed — the first album. And the SECOND album… Sgt. Pepper comes out, and suddenly everybody’s gotta do this over-production — too big a budget, too many months to kill, too many remixes, and they didn’t know how to DO it, they didn’t really have their hearts in it, and they were just turned to nothing.
Scott: You had a funny putdown — I think it’s in your new book; it might have been in “Vinyl Reckoning” — about Richard Goldstein’s pan of Sgt. Pepper, and you had a funny thing about him. I’ve never seen the review, but was he essentially RIGHT?
Richard: NO! My beef with [Sgt. Pepper] is it upped the production stakes beyond what bands could do. I don’t like — again, Paul McCartney, let’s get rid of “She’s Leaving Home.” But I don’t mind most of the stuff on there, but I think that Goldstein’s beef with it was, “Well it really isn’t NEW, is it? It seems like they got it all from the Who! They got it from — what was it? — Pet Sounds.” And I think Pet Sounds is a little overrated. On a production level it’s a good Brian Wilson record, but I don’t think a Beach Boy wrote a single lyric for that — some guy named Asher [Tony]. But I just think that Goldstein was a rather inept outsider. He had a column called “Pop Eye,” and it was just always too CUTE. And I think what I say in “Vinyl Reckoning” is the review that REALLY showed him to be a bozo was the second Doors album, he says, “Oh, what’s missing here? Guitars. What do we think of when we think Doors? We think guitars.” Excuse me?! I just had no idea what he was talking about. But, you know, he edited me, and he was sort of a fool. He used to get SCARED by bands like the Stones. It was too sexual for him, too macho for him. I actually went to a football game with him once, I went to see the New York Jets play Miami, and he couldn’t DEAL with how big they were; they seemed larger than life. He was just a bozo.
Scott: In the intro to the “Punk” section of your book, you wrote, “I really did want rock to DIE.”
Richard: At that time, yeah.
Scott: I think the interesting word there is “want,” ’cause to me that kind of implies that you didn’t think it necessarily WAS already dead. So if it wasn’t already…
Richard: Oh, I wanted the ashes to be burnt; I wanted it to be, uh — I wanted it to GO AWAY.
Scott: How come?
Richard: At the time?
Richard: It was so on an employment level, it was like, uh, let’s talk about capitalism. I mean, once it got set up that writers were there to be shills and FLAKS — I mean, every review was HYPE, it was quotable in an ad. I did a review of a movie about Hendrix called A Film About Jimi Hendrix, that I actually thought was pretty good, but they took a piece of my review that they used very out of context to hype this movie. And I objected to being used as hype.
Scott: They quoted you in the ad?
Richard: They quoted me in the ad, but the piece of it they used didn’t make sense. But whatever it was, my feeling was simply that my exposure to what you might call the blast furnace, working in the fucking blast furnace of the back rooms of rock promotion, just very much — just MEETING BANDS, I mean by then it was like, you go to a show, and hang out backstage, and every single fucking member of every band was an ASShole. I mean, who really had it in them to tour forty weeks a year or whatever bands did? And it would turn them into BEASTS. It would make the music completely digital — it was like MACHINES playing these same songs you were sick of. Blue Oyster Cult, who were my friends, I couldn’t stand to see them play anymore. But it really was, it was something absolutely — from whatever level, I mean, I didn’t sit in Madison Square Gardens, I didn’t go to arena rock shows too often, but I imagine there are social reasons to go to those things that have very little to do with the music, which is fine. But to be backstage at some of these shows, to have ANY connection to these musicians, by then, these musicians were LOATHsome, and yes, there are exceptions. I never minded Iggy Pop as a person. Todd Rundgren wasn’t too much of an asshole. And for a while Patti Smith, but by the time Patti Smith was a celebrity, she was a PIG. She was one of the nastiest, treacherous, you know, what’s the word? BETRAYING former friends, that I’d ever known. And everybody I know who knew her then feels about the same. And it just seemed to be this kind of — the whole rock MONSTER was just so unsavoury, it was just so… I think all the time about where do I want to put dates, when does it go to hell? I’d say the EAGLES was a good moment when it goes to hell. And in England, Led Zeppelin.
Scott: I was going to ask you about Led Zeppelin, actually.
Richard: I mean, Led Zeppelin were a band — before Led Zeppelin and the Eagles, even though they were about three years apart — it wasn’t cool for bands — if you wanted to use the adjective “greedy,” it would be applied to record companies. Starting with Led Zeppelin and such bands — the BANDS are greedy. The bands are just, like, exploiting the world.
Scott: I just don’t see how that addresses the music itself…
Richard: The sound of the chords?
Scott: Maybe that’s not the point, I don’t know.
Richard: Led Zeppelin was a band that, before that there were a lot of British bands who had their roots in the blues. And many of them would refuse to credit the sources. The Stones had to be shamed into giving money to Robert Wilkins for “Prodigal Son.” But with Led Zeppelin, the whole PRINCIPLE of the damn thing is plagiarism — nothing but. Willie Dixon — it took Willie Dixon YEARS to get them to acknowledge that “Whole Lotta Love” was his song.
Scott: But does that make their version of “Whole Lotta Love” not a good song?
Richard: NO, but what I’m saying is there was NOTHING original about them. I mean, the thing about the British Invasion as such is that EVERY album was like a strip-mine of a new continent. And so, I guess what I’m saying is that with bands from about ’69 on — there was nothing NEW. And it was simply about finding more material from before their audiences were born and pretending it was theirs. And to me that reaches the flash point of cynicism with Bruce Springsteen, who pretends that the ’50s ARE the ’60s — let’s do ’em both, ’cause these kids are too young to remember either. And I just — to me it was all… I mean, STING, what the fuck is he except a sponge? But what happened with punk, punk was just something completely else, and I didn’t even feel that it was rock ‘n’ roll. I mean, what were the bands you had up at that moment? Cheap Trick? They were just some cute one-trick pony of a band, I mean, I don’t know, I could listen to that stuff — AC/DC — like some sort of user-friendly version of metal. I never minded metal. For one thing, uh, the official — even something like the Penguin Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Music wants to say that Led Zeppelin invented heavy metal. I mean, three years before Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix did “Purple Haze.” Hendrix was essentially the source of a lot of great music, and I think he did it better than most of his acolytes. But the point is that once you get into — I mean, I’ve always liked anonymous metal bands who were the equivalent of Spinal Tap, but I never liked the glory boys, the front-runners of metal, ’cause I don’t see them as different from the Eagles, I don’t know why. I mean, the sonic FACT of what they do, is just, how to put it, it doesn’t shake me on any level, it doesn’t seem to function anymore except as VOLUME. I mean, I remember seeing, there was this band the Dictators, who were managed by the same guy, Sandy Pearlman, who had Blue Oyster Cult, and they were a kind of half-decent, not-quite-a-punk band, they were kind of a Commie/wrestling-based New York band, they were the band in New York between the New York Dolls and Television, say; it was a brief moment. And then Blue Oyster Cult turned up the volume, and so the Dictators had to do the same thing to show their manager they could do it, and everything they did that had any charm to it just became unlistenable volume. And to me, PUNK had so much more — the kernel of sound from punk — had SO much more definition, had so much more, y’know, interesting sonic atoms. The unit cry of punk to me was so much more interesting than even the best metal. And it reminded me VERY much of ’60s cacophonous, blow-your-brains-out jazz: Albert Ayler, Art Ensemble of Chicago. I saw that stuff in, you know, like, uh, bands like the Fall, or whatever.
Scott: Okay, go back a bit again, though. One period I haven’t seen you write too much about is even stuff like early ’70s soul music: Sly & the Family Stone, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield. Does that have any impact on you?
Richard: I loved Al Green. I even saw — London Records took a bus load of writers up to the Apollo to see Al Green the first time he played the Apollo, and he was great! I didn’t WRITE about him, but one of the things about — unless you’re Lester Bangs and lucky enough to edit a paper in which you write yourself, you don’t get to pick what you write about. And a lot of the things that I probably would’ve liked to have written about at least once I never did.
Scott: Can you think of some other stuff…
Richard: Instead of being assigned an Al Green album I was assigned a band called Ned, you know, or — there’s a section in my book called “Prime Wallow,” and those are the things I got assigned. I got assigned really shitty stuff because, what’s the word — maybe I didn’t demand anything else.
Scott: Well I was going to say, being Richard Meltzer — and you did have a reputation…
Scott: Could you not have just asked for the better stuff?
Richard: Well, I mean, I don’t know. How to put it? I couldn’t even tell you what year Al Green was — ’72, ’73, ’74 — I don’t even remember. But the thing is, I never wrote about reggae, and I very much like reggae. And to like something doesn’t mean you must write about it.
Scott: Yeah. And you hated glam rock?
Scott: Despised it?
Richard: Yeah. I mean, to me, David Bowie was one of the people responsible for the return to mass conformity as such. It was like, let’s go back to being well-dressed teenagers again, folks, let’s wear expensive pants. There was no more… The ’60s were — whatever there was of the come-as-you-are casualness of the ’60s, Bowie ended that.
Scott: But weren’t the Beatles mass conformity?
Richard: You could say Brian Epstein, you know, forced them to be a prototype of MTV, I mean, YES, they played the Cavern Club and they wore leather pants like Gene Vincent. And yes, there were aspects of them that, in some ways, the Monkees flow from the Beatles. YES! Absolutely. But they did SO much more — who’s perfect, you know? Yes, there was a style sheet for their shows, and all that, but — whatever. I just think there was something — I never cared for “Carnaby Street or Bust,” the whole, uh, the notion of STYLE sheets for any of that stuff. But the style sheet was so IMMENSE in the ’60s, and by the early ’70s there were a few different style sheets but they were all very limiting.
Scott: So the stuff that you were assigned to write about in that period — the “Prime Wallow” period — you obviously didn’t really write about it, you wrote around it, or you wrote about it as asides…
Richard: Well, the way to put it is essentially the only time I would say that it mattered a lot to me — like I DID, to some extent, try to write, try to get opportunities to review things I cared about before Rolling Stone kicked me out. I reviewed L.A. Woman for them, and I tried to review Sticky Fingers, and they rejected it. But basically I would say, from a certain point on, there weren’t really class venues. I wrote for 30, 40 papers, and they were all just a joke: Zoo World, and, uh, there was a paper from Staten Island called Raunchy Rock. And it was much more important to me to be just doing my strut, my dance, wherever I was given the opportunity, and it wasn’t so crucial to me to be writing about the A bands anymore. I mean, I would say with a thing like the Stooges — I LOVED the Stooges, but I didn’t likeRaw Power, people think I’m nuts. I thought Raw Power was where it went wrong, it was Columbia Records, I didn’t like the production sound — it had the stink of Bowie on it, whatever. The only Bowie thing I ever liked was the song “Heroes,” which was Brian Eno. But basically I was waiting for punk to happen, from about ’73 on; I thought it would happen sooner, but it didn’t.
Scott: What were you trying to do with the writing that you were assigned to do?
Richard: What was I trying to do? I was trying to make a mess! I tried to spill the beans, I tried to undermine levels and degrees of reality.
Scott: Robert Christgau says your loss of interest in music was “spiritual.”
Richard: I never lost any interest in music. The point is, I lost interest in the mainstream offerings of product by major record companies. And I never stopped from a certain point on, uh — before the British Invasion, I momentarily stopped listening to jazz, but from a certain point on in the ’70s, I’ve never stopped listening to jazz since. It’s always been near, to, y’know, as nurture. I basically stopped depending on rock ‘n’ roll as FOOD.
Scott: Okay, talk about Christgau’s word choice of “spiritual” — does that make any sense?
Richard: Uh, no. I mean, basically, that whole piece I find very, uh — I was sort of pleased with that because it seemed to me that — my real feeling is he doesn’t even like the book, but he feels he needs to say that he does. (laughs)
Scott: How do you gather that?
Richard: Oh, you know, I call him a PIGFUCKER in the book, you know. I mean, literally, I use that term: pigfucker. (laughs) And I say all these things about him, and ALL he responds to in his piece is, “Well, technically I wasn’t the editor of the Voice from ’67 to ’74; oh well, I guess I could have passed his name along, like I did with my dear friend Tom SMUCKER, whose work I loved! But it really wasn’t until ’74 that I was in a position…” you know — and so he picks that, that’s like the easiest thing he can refute, that he can even MENTION. I mean, he doesn’t talk about — I call him a SCHOOL MARM. He doesn’t deal with any of that stuff. He doesn’t deal with the fact that Lester, Lester — he told Lester, you know, “I went to Dartmouth, you didn’t graduate from college — you’re not as SMART as I am.” I mean, he says a lot of things. He’s quoted being an asshole by many people, and yet, he just talks about a little technicality. I mean, truly, I used to ask him, I’d go to press parties and I’d say, “When can I write for the Voice, Bob?” “I’ll TELL you when you’re ready.” He literally did. And I talk about how I remember the day he turned 30, I ran into him on 14th Street in New York, and he was just, he was like, DESTROYED, y’know. I was probably 27, 28, he was 30, and he was very upset about it. And that was when Chuck Berry had a hit with “My Ding-a-Ling,” and it was like he had to, from that moment on — and the Dolls were happening — he had to champion the music of KIDS, because otherwise he was an old man.
Scott: I can’t argue with what you’re saying, but I think in his piece — I just find it hard to believe you still think he doesn’t actually like your book, or like your writing.
Richard: Uh, well, I imagine, yes, he likes some pieces, but as far as the entirety of the book, I think the book, if anything, is an INSULT to him.
Richard: (laughs) So why would he like it?
Scott: Well, you can be insulted (laughs) and still like it as writing, I mean…
Scott: If someone wrote…
Richard: He mentions one piece there in particular, he’s talking about how, uh, “Oh, look, do I really want to TRUST what this guy has to say if he was wrong about those seven years?” And he just lists a few things, he doesn’t really SAY anything about them, and he mentions my Eric Dolphy piece, and he says (in parentheses) “I’ll grant you half on that.” And that was the piece where he and Gary Giddins ganged up on me (laughs), and so I imagine what he means by that is he’ll grant me the half that is Gary Giddins, you know, like let’s blame Giddins. But that was really incredibly traumatic for me at the time. I mean it really was, I had to SUCK up to Gary Giddins or never write for the paper again. I mean, Christgau — I didn’t even mention that once upon a time I wanted to review a Jackson Browne album. The last thing I wrote for Rolling Stone, I did a feature on Jackson Browne at the time that his first album came out, because I knew him in ’67 in New York — he was living with Nico, and he was playing at this Warhol club, the Dom, and he was something of a PUNK. And so I did this piece about that, and Jackson hated the piece, and not only did he hate the piece, but David Geffen, who had Asylum Records at the time, hated the piece, and basically they had me kicked out of Rolling Stone. Landau kicked me out of the Reviews section, and from that point on I couldn’t write for the paper. And so, years went by — that was, like, ’72 — somewhere about ’77, ’78, for some reason I was gonna review a Jackson Browne album, and he finds out the whole cast and crew has changed, I mean, Geffen is long gone — it was Atlantic Asylum, now it’s Elektra Asylum — and somewhere on a computer somewhere it says “Meltzer is not to write about Jackson.” And Christgau told me, “We can’t have you review this or we will lose ads.” You know? Mr. Integrity. I didn’t even put that in the book, but he was essentially a corporate — a cog in the wheel of, uh — he was always as big a shill and a — what is the word? — a LACKEY. And I don’t even use those words in the book for him, but basically I COULD have. And so it seems to me that his applauding my book is just because he sees it as: rock ‘n’ roll goes on.
Scott: What do you think is the biggest misconception about your writing?
Richard: Well, in the early days it was that I was illiterate gutter trash. And I just saw on the web today, somebody pointed me at something that seems to be a parody of me — it has “the ghost of Richard Meltzer” talking to God, just some stupid stuff. It’s somebody trying to do a parody of what they think I wrote like in 1972. When Spinal Tap put out a coffee table book that contained — they were on the Joe Franklin Show, which is like this silly New York talk show, where they actually went on straight pretending to be the band, and they had the entire text of their appearance, and it was sort of a nice little book, and they had a fake review of Spinal Tap by somebody named ‘R. Seltzer’ that was like a mock Meltzer review. And whenever these parodies would occur they were basically, like, “Anybody can write like him, he’s not saying very much; just fill the page.” As if ALL I did in those days was fill pages. And then from a certain point on, the assumption about my writing is that, y’know, that I hate the MUSIC. I mean, it’s like they’re confusing aesthetics with commerce. If I hate the crap that’s being released — I mean, to say like today, I really don’t know, I’m not gonna say anything about bands I don’t know about. But I can even say I like anything Mike Watt does, I like this band called Cat Power. I mean, there are things I hear that’re fine. But as far as the general HEALTH of the whole thing? I think it’s a joke!
Scott: But hasn’t the commerce been tied into the music from day one?
Richard: Yeah, but the relationship — the formula — was very different. There was once a, what you might call a, DIALECTIC of success/failure. The SCORE was the pipe dream of — the score was NOT — what’s the word? — it wasn’t an aspect of the pursuit from square one. And then you get to where, slowly but surely, the hype becomes the reality. It isn’t even that, yes, Elvis got hyped, there was no means… in the ’50s you listened to Alan Freed, who had a show in New York after leaving Cleveland, and he was really very, very good, and he was somebody who you would TRUST. Obviously, he was being paid to play things — who wasn’t? But there was something about — there was a reason to trust him. I mean, a lot of these things are ad hominem, that was always part of rock ‘n’ roll, you know, you trust Act A by somebody, so let’s go for Act B, and all of that. But somewhere down the line it became a formula for treachery, being so, like, like DOGshit. And by somewhere — the downfall of AM radio was somewhat tragic, when it went to FM and became album-oriented and all that. AM radio was once a wonderful thing, and it was 90% commercials, but it was still basically the real animal, it was the marketplace NAKED. And then everything found a way to hide, and found a way to participate in the RUSE, and then you get to MTV, where the commercial IS the product, where bands stopped making records and they were making advertisements for themselves. Where sound becomes secondary, and audio-visual becomes primary.
Scott: I don’t know if I agree with that, though.
Scott: I think that video is an afterthought, at least from the band’s perspective.
Richard: Not the bands that I’ve talked to. Blue Oyster Cult would literally think, when I was still writing lyrics for them, “Could you give us some songs that we could make videos out of?”
Scott: Yeah, Blue Oyster Cult, though, I mean…
Richard: They were shit (laughs), but whose isn’t?
Scott: Not only that, but by the time of the video age I don’t know if Blue Oyster Cult really meant anything to anyone, so…
Richard: They had an enormous hit with “Burnin’ For You,” and with a video.
Scott: Did you write the lyrics for that one?
Scott: And no royalty cheques?
Richard: I got some, but certainly not all.
Scott: You were talking earlier about how you’d meet some of these bands backstage, and how creepy they were and that sort of thing, but I still don’t see — maybe the Beatles were creeps, too.
Richard: Well, I mean, I’m saying — how do I put it? — once upon a time these people — you don’t want them to be civil, that’s too much to ask — but in 1967, I talk about this early in the book, how Jimi Hendrix and Marty Balin and this guy Peter Albin, who was the bass player from Big Brother and the Holding Company, I got FRIENDLY with these people, and they regarded me, and everybody else writing about the stuff — not just the better writers but the whole damn crew — as being CO-conspirators. Imagine! Writing about rock ‘n’ roll! In 1968, Jim Capaldi, the drummer from Traffic — somebody introduces me to him, “Oh, here’s one of the great rock writers.” “Oh, you’re a writer? Get me a cup of tea.” And that’s really — there was no turning back from that point on. You were in the service trade.
Scott: So it follows that a Traffic album would…
Richard: The first Traffic album was incredibly great, but there’s no way that I’m going to listen to everything that they do. Why SHOULD I? It’s like Maria Callas is a bitch, but I love her music, so, blah, blah, blah. Writers are human, too, and participants in the dance — why SHOULDN’T they hold grudges?
Scott: I guess it’s kind of like saying Picasso’s misogynist, so if you’re a woman, you shouldn’t like Picasso.
Richard: Or Dave Marsh saying Johnny Ramone voted for Reagan, let’s boycott the Ramones — he actually said that.
Scott: Are you kind of saying the same thing?
Richard: No! I’m not pulling for the WORLD to share my take on these people. I never ever meant for my own KICKS to be world religion, which even Lester was very much involved in; it was like, his twitch had to be the world’s twitch. If anything, I was simply saying don’t let these people OWN you.
Scott: Did Aesthetics of Rock get reviewed much at the time?
Richard: It actually got two reviews — in the same way that there were two reviews of this new one in the Voice, Rolling Stone gave two reviews to Aesthetics of Rock.
Scott: And what was the gist of the reviews?
Richard: They had one pro and one con, or one pro and the other was sort of, I don’t know — “what’s going on here?” And that led directly to me writing for Rolling Stone. I had tried to write for them before, I offered them a roller derby piece, I offered them a boxing piece — no, no, no. But as soon as — I mean, Aesthetics of Rock was a five-year-old book when it came out, basically. And I would say that by the time it came out I’d just about forgotten about it, it was at a publisher for over two years because it took that long to get permission to quote lyrics. Bob Dylan wanted $1000 a quote, and he was almost entirely cut out of the book. But the book came out, and it was very anti-climactic for me in my own sense of things, but it was my ENTRY to a lot of these mags. Dave fuckin’ Marsh, who was editor of Creem at time time, kissed my ass, and then ten years later, in the Rolling Stone Book of Rock Lists, he calls Aesthetics of Rockthe “worst rock book of all-time.”
Scott: I don’t know if you’ll have anything to say about this. You’ve made two references to McLuhan in your writing. One fromAesthetics of Rock itself, where you call him a “hack” in parentheses, and then as a footnote, you say, “His only move is the pop status he has inadvertently attained, and his jargon is nice as misused plagiarism.” Then in the introduction to the reprint of Aesthetics you tell the story about getting kicked out of Yale, and you write, “No way I’ll ever be the McLuhan of rock.” So I’m not sure what to ask first — was he something at all that you aspired to?
Richard: I never wanted to be McLuhan, but it seemed like there was a kind of celebrity status for philosophers for a moment, and so I thought maybe that’s what I could aim for.
Scott: Do you think there’s any similarities between what you were doing and what he was doing?
Richard: It’s funny, I think of him as being a very, very CANADIAN thinker, and when I finally read — I liked the book he did calledMechanical Bride, which was sort of like pictures of, uh, it was re-printed by Da Capo a long time ago, and it was…
Scott: The ads…
Richard: You ever see that one?
Richard: It’s a nice book, but Understanding Media, I tried to read that, I wanted to write a piece about him maybe ten years ago, and so I read a few things, and the ONLY examples he gives about TV, about how great TV can be, are things like, “Oh, great CBC special on Glenn Gould!” “Here in the Global Village we get to see the making of a Glenn Gould concert!” Like, he’s giving examples of once-in-a-lifetime events that TV could give a shit about doing anymore. He was not talking about any TV that existed in the world. And yet, he wrote an inCREDIBLE review — he reviewed Naked Lunch for The Nation when it came out, and it’s an incredibly insightful review, where he basically talks about heroin addiction. It’s almost PRO-heroin addiction.
Scott: I’ve never seen that review — does he write about it as a metaphor for the electronic age?
Richard: Well, not really, he has Burroughs talk about control and nature. It’s in a book — there’s a collection of writings about Burroughs, I forget what it’s called, it has a pink cover, but he says, he credits Burroughs as saying now that nature — I mean, maybe he is saying electronic age, blah, blah, blah — but he’s saying now that nature doesn’t EXIST, the only way to deal with nature is to become one with nature by becoming a heroin addict.
Scott: The interesting thing about McLuhan is that he actually despised television, and I think he’s really misunderstood in that way. But when you said you think of him as a real “Canadian” type of writer, what did you mean by that?
Richard: Well, I mean that he would give examples of CBC specials. He wasn’t writing about I Love Lucy.
Scott: You had mentioned something about…
Richard: He went to mass every day I heard.
Scott: Yeah, I think he had a heart condition in the early ’70s, and from that point on he was a pretty devout Catholic.
Richard: He’s also one of these guys who — John Cage is another, and Joseph Campbell — they’re all crazy about Finnegan’s Wake. And as I said, I never really read much of anything until I was almost 40, and then I read everything, and so I read Joyce and all that, and I think Finnegan’s Wake is almost the least of his major works; it’s like one joke on too many pages.
Scott: I guess my initial reason for asking you about McLuhan is I can kind of see maybe some similarities between what you and him were doing in the whole drawing provocative connections with everything.
Richard: Well, sure. And dealing with what you might call “contemporary media.” I had this teacher, Allan Kaprow at Stony Brook, who was another great thinker, he did environments and happenings, he wrote lots and lots and lots of theses about blurring the distinctions between art and non-art. And I just think there was a lot of wacked-out analysis being done in the ’60s independent of rock, independent of drugs, independent of Tim Leary, and Albert [? – ed] at Harvard, and so forth. There was just a lot of shit going on. And you can talk about the political side of it — Vietnam. I mean, that was ANOTHER aspect of the ’60s. Basically, you had a draft-eligible American youth who had a fear of DEATH as a motivation. Which certainly turned up the heat under everything.
Scott: How have your girlfriends or ex-girlfriends responded to being written about in such a frank manner?
Richard: They hate it. Nobody’s ever thanked me.
Scott: I don’t want to phrase it this way, but — although you don’t like rock and roll anymore, is there anybody still writing about it who you like?
Richard: I don’t read it, so I don’t know. I have this friend Byron Coley, who as of today claims that he’s not writing about it anymore either, but he used to do Forced Exposure magazine, and when I was just on the road, they sent me on a very small promotional tour, I did Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, L.A., and in every town that I did a book signing there were these 25-year-old kids there who knew me from reading Forced Exposure magazine. Which I wrote for basically as a favour to Byron, who I knew in L.A. Basically, he’s a guy who I DID used to like the writing of, but he claims he’s not doing it anymore.
Scott: In regards to the whole idea of having contempt for the music and its criticism, is that true of the culture at large?
Richard: That the culture at large has contempt for music criticism?
Scott: No, no, that YOU have contempt for the culture at large.
Richard: I think the world has gone to HELL, forever — it’s terminal. I can (laughs) get specific, but this whole cyber bullshit is the end of the world. In the very LEAST it’s just turned everything shabby.
Scott: Well I was going to say I was really surprised to discover that you were online and you had e-mail.
Richard: It’s COMPULSORY. First it was okay, I never wanted to have a computer, and about eight years ago I was told by every place I worked that it had to be on disk so they could fire every typesetter, you know, you wouldn’t need a typesetter, and they would NOT pass the profits along to you. And then a year ago I was told, uh-uh, I used to send them a disk in the mail, I didn’t have a modem, and then it was like, NO, we have to have it immediately. And so I HATE it. I mean, the only thing I use the internet for is six times a year there’s a Sumo tournament in Japan that lasts 15 days; there’s one going on now, and every day I check in to see who won the matches. That’s the ONLY thing that I found to use the internet. Every time I’ve used it for research purposes, I find things that are WRONG. There’s a boxing website where, I go there, and rather than walk down to the basement where I have some boxing record books, I go to this website and I see things that are just WRONG — they’re absolutely wrong. Rolling Stone has their own rock ‘n’ roll database, rock history database, where every time I’ve gone there it’s been wrong, they’ve had the names of ALBUMS wrong. They had Satanic Majesties as “Y-apostrophe-s” instead of “ies,” you know, and so if that stuff is wrong, what ISN’T? You know, there IS no history anymore, it’s all just a bunch of, you know, uh, what’s the word, acceptable data. But I have my own sonic LIFE, I listen to the blues now. I’ve always listened to jazz, but in the last two or three years I started listening to a lot of blues. I listen to — I get these CD reissues of old scratchy 78s from the ’20s.
Scott: Like Yazoo stuff?
Richard: Yeah, the stuff is great. Robert Wilkins — there’s an album called The Original Rolling Stone, it’s on Yazoo, it has something he did in 1930, the original thing that later became “Prodigal Son,” because the Stones heard “Prodigal Son” on a Newport recording from the ’60s, but he did this version called “That’s No Way to Get Along” from 1927 or 1930. It’s just FANTASTIC, it’s like wacked-out-genius-meets-Edward D. Wood, it’s like complete over-reach. It’s absolutely perfect and right on and yet it bites off more than it can chew. My feeling is that, having listened to the blues from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and so forth, it seems to me that this stuff is not the PRE-cursor of rock ‘n’ roll, it IS rock ‘n’ roll, and rock ‘n’ roll as such happened three or four or five times before the ’50s, and each time it had reason either to burn out or to suddenly be ignored by the industry or whatever, or people moved and regions got wiped out. But whatever it is, my feeling is there’s enough sound, there are enough recordings of this stuff to last anybody a lifetime. And I just find it essentially silly that so many kids today — I mean, when I was in high school, if you met ONE person who was in a band, your own age, that was amazing. I lived in New York with a billion people, and maybe I ran into — there was a band in my local high school, the Rocking Chairs. Oh boy! But I mean, now EVERYbody’s in a band, it’s a rite of passage, and I just find that absurd, I mean, there has to be other things to do with your time, and to get your jollies. Kicks is very important, and I’m not knocking rock ‘n’ roll as an incentive to burn out the night, but I just think that rock ‘n’ roll has become as much of an OBSTACLE to getting your kicks as a it ever was a means.
Scott: You call 1981 a “cutoff point,” for the reason being that you “turned a corner in figuring out how to write.” I wonder if you could elaborate on that a bit — was it in the endless rewriting?
Richard: Yeah, I mean, basically, the sequence of events was a couple things. One, I got a column in this paper called the L.A. Reader, which no longer exists. Every other week I wrote whatever I wanted, and I had an invitation to do a poetry reading. I had a punk show on KPFK in L.A., from ’79 to ’81 [“Hepcats From Hell”], and just from being on that show, people hearing me on the show, this woman who ran shows at Al’s Bar — mostly punk shows; it was in an artist loft part of downtown — she asked me if I’d like to do a poetry reading, and I said, “I don’t have any poems,” and she said, “Well, write some.” And so I started writing poems, and I found in doing that it really affected the way I wrote prose. It got to where I had — every SYLLABLE had to be making music. It wasn’t MEANING, it was rhythm, cadence, y’know, SOUND. It couldn’t be conky. And at the same time, and going back to prose from that, I found that I really was thinking about that all the time, as opposed to laying down ten million miles of asphalt and just GO! it slowed down the process. But the main thing was that in doing the column for this paper, I started thinking, well, maybe I would like to be more CLEAR; I’m tired of being misunderstood, I have to articulate the stuff so people get what I mean. I have to take my time to listen to what’s in my head and GET IT RIGHT. And so I found myself writing and rewriting and rewriting and all of that, and I went from doing no rewrites to doing many. And etc. etc. etc.
I’d say the next thing that affected me was about ’84 or so, I was in my late thirties, and I started READING, I never used to read. And I thought, well, let’s go for the most difficult stuff right away — I’m gonna read Faulkner, and so I read Light in August and Sound and the Fury, and after that I read Joyce and Dostoyevsky and all this business, and I read Robbes-Grillet, this French guy who did Last Year at Marienbad. It was just like intentionally very elusive stuff. And so it got to where — I wouldn’t say any of these people influenced me directly, just the idea of, I oughta take my time and come up with a prose; the time had come for me to really think about my narrative voice, think about a prose that is my own. And at the same time, from ’81 to ’84 or so, was the absolute dwindling and final collapse of the L.A. punk scene, and I stopped going to shows. You’d get these bands that would trash a club, and that’s all it was about — goodbye. And so I stopped going to shows, and I stayed at home and read books. And basically, I lived in L.A., which was a horrible place. My girlfriend wouldn’t leave town, she wouldn’t move, and so my feeling was, what was L.A. for? It was a place I could WORK; it was not my home, it was my office. And I found myself getting deadly serious about writing, at a time when I was really, I would say — in those years, I really liked the Minutemen, and they were probably the last band, in L.A. at least, that mattered to me.
Scott: What currently interests you enough that you’d want to write about it?
Richard: Well, I don’t know. Somebody offered me a piece — I did a piece at the end of the year for the San Diego Reader and theChicago Reader, they asked me to do my take on the 20th century as it was ending, so I wrote this 35-page piece, I called it “My Century, Your Century, Bobo Olson’s Century” — Bobo was a middle-weight champion in the early ’50s — this is when I looked up his record online and it was wrong. But basically, I tried to say as many things in as few pages as I had about how the century had gone to hell, how all these things happened only to un-happen. I talk about how when I was three days old Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie recorded “Salt Peanuts” in the city where I lived — what a time to be born! And I talked about Jayne Mansfield in the tit mags in 1956 as being a high point for the century, and this and that and the other. But I basically don’t find a lot of joy from what is THRUST at us on web pages and TV and movies and so forth. And I don’t listen to the radio. For sound I play CDs that I wanna hear.
Scott: Did the classical stuff tick with you at all?
Richard: Oh, you know. I basically went through it just to see what it was, because I felt I was 50 years old, I wanna listen to the stuff. So I went through it, and there’s some stuff — I know what I like. I wanted to know: who was Bach? who was Mozart? who was Beethoven? And I found out, and I know what pieces I like by these people. I like some Wagner, and I like Schoenberg — I did a piece on Schoenberg that almost made it into the book, where I talked about all the monster movies I saw, and the soundtracks from most ’50s monster movies were lifted from Schoenberg. So his music was very easy for me to listen to — I had NO problem listening to Schoenberg. I don’t think Stravinsky’s too much of a big deal after 1912.
Scott: In the closing section of your book, you talk about how you were actually moved by a Joan Osborne song called “Right Hand Man,” which I’ve never heard…
Richard: It’s just very lude…
Scott: You call it the greatest rock song in 15-18 years…
Richard: Of what I’ve heard.
Scott: I actually thought it was kind of a funny comment, just assuming that you hadn’t really listened to too much music in that period. But you say it’s proof that “accidents still happen.” Do they happen very often?
Richard: I don’t think so — that’s why you call them accidents. One of the things that I do, for kicks, my social life and my cultural life in Portland, is mostly sitting on a bar stool, drinking micro-brews, and drinking ales as bitter as life itself on a cold, rainy day, and talking to strangers about who knows what. And I’ve met lots and lots of people — I’d say most of the people who I see in these places who are regulars, are, like, 32 years old or less, and I’m surprised how many of them know early Stones albums and so forth. And I can talk to these people about it, and once in a while they’ll play me something. I got to know about the Replacements — one of my friends, Ed, a dishwasher in some place where I hang out, lent me some Replacements records. He told me I should really listen to Alex Chilton. I knew Alex Chilton — I KNEW Alex Chilton in 1972, he lived in New York — or ’71 — and hung out with him, but I never really listened to Big Star, so he says, “Oh, you should listen to Big Star.” Big Star is the cypher, is the means, through which most bands today who are influenced by the Beatles get their dose of the British Invasion — they get it from Alex. So people tell me, listen to this, listen to this — I never heard NIRVANA until Kurt Cobain was dead.
Scott: And what did you think?
Richard: I liked some cuts. I think the ones that sound the most inarticulate, where he just has lines that don’t really work as sung, I like that — it just feels like he’s struggling to enunciate things, that sounds fine. But some of the stuff sounds like matinee-idol music: look at the pretty boy. And where I live, they used to play, and Courtney Love used to give blow jobs in the parking lot of this club Satyricon, and so people talk about Kurt, and will tell me things like there were 15, 20 bands as good as Nirvana, but they didn’t have the pretty boy. And I believe it. And so my feeling is that things happen, but they don’t happen as often, and they don’t, what’s the word? — the whole CONTEXT isn’t the same. Half of why it’s there is — I mean, Frank Kogan picks on me [in The Voice] for using the term “crowd control,” but I mean it seems like it’s ALLOWABLE night frolic, and maybe it was better when it WASN’T allowed, and — I don’t know. And when you had Sunset Strip riots — I don’t know. But I just think that the danger is out of it, for one thing.
Scott: And obviously, hip-hop…
Richard: Well, hip-hop I have no objection to, I just don’t know or understand it, I can’t differentiate the sound of one thing from another. I actually have one — I mean, maybe you wouldn’t even call it a hip-hop record — I have Sister Souljah’s record on Columbia, the one that Clinton got her kicked off the label for doing. But you know, whatever — I have no objections to these things being, y’know, the source of kicks for people, but they’re not MY kicks, and it’s not as if I’m too old to have kicks, I just — I find joy in whatever, and my quota of joys as high as it ever was, I just don’t look to contemporary bands for it. If it should happen, dandy.
Scott: Your book is getting unanimously glowing reviews.
Richard: I wouldn’t say unanimously. Yes, I got more good reviews on this than in all my other books put together. But this guy Chris Morris, who I used to work with at the L.A. Reader — he was their rock writer, and we never really got along — the day that Lester Bangs died, I actually was the one who told him about it, but he never liked me, and so his review of my book, he says, “Well not only is Meltzer not a rock writer now, he NEVER was a rock writer.” Okay.
Scott: So I wonder if, ironically, uh — you use the last chapter of the book as a bowing out of the whole thing. But now you might start getting a lot of offers from magazine editors to start writing about rock again.
Richard: I don’t know about that. There are some pieces I would still write. For instance, I would like to do a piece about the music that was playing during each of my major relationships: the girlfriends and the music that accompanied our dance, going back to the Beatles. I could go for 50, 70 pages on that. But basically when I did that “Vinyl Reckoning” piece, that was my way of dealing with weeding down my record collection again. I mean, there are certain ways I can revisit the whole thing. But I don’t think there’s anything that’s gonna make me pay attention to uh, what’s the word, uh, the whole FOREground of what’s going on today.
Scott: So when you wrote that piece did it just kind of detour off into all the stuff about Christgau and Marcus?
Richard: Yeah, I mean, really, I didn’t expect to be doing that, it just came out, I’d see a record and, “oh, I wanted to review this for him and he wouldn’t let me,” and so on. And it was also about that time I heard the Harry Smith folk box, and I played the damn thing, and before reading the booklet and seeing, “Oh — Greil is in here — oh, isn’t that great?” And it made me — it was a piece about “Why is Greil neglecting Alan Lomax in favour of Harry Smith?” And it just struck me that there was something about both Greil and Christgau that remained oppressive in the world, and I just couldn’t contain it, and it just spilled out.
Scott: All right. I think that’s pretty much it. I don’t know if you have anything YOU want to talk about?
Richard: Oh, just simply, it’s like, basically I find it hard to be, I don’t want to seem like the old curmudgeon, because I’m not even a curMUDgeon, but I mean, I don’t feel like I’m out of things just because I’m out of this one limited loop. (pause) I don’t know. I mean I even recently I went and got a CD of Bobby Darin because I remembered that I actually, y’know, what’s the word? — I mentioned that I had one Bobby Darin album in “Vinyl Reckoning,” I got a greatest hits thing. And I remembered that he was, I would say, probably the major white figure after Elvis went in the army, even more than Buddy Holly, and that he really was imPORtant for about ten seconds. And yet, it doesn’t add up to ANYthing, really, in retrospect. It’s like, there are so many DEAD points in — I mean, Christgau could — anyone who’s listened to it continuously could probably point out dead points since 1972 or something — whatever. But really, the ’50s were 1956 to 1958 — that’s not ten years. The ’60s were ’65 to ’67, you know — ’64 to ’67. And so, to me the ’70s were a couple years of punk, and so I just think I have no idea what the ’80s and ’90s were. (laughs) But I just feel like it doesn’t MATTER, really, if nothing happened, even if something DID happen. But even if nothing HAPPENED, there was enough otherwise. It doesn’t have to be — I think I say in the piece “Vinyl Reckoning” that there are days when it occurs to me that it doesn’t matter anymore that there’d be new rock records than that there’d be new brands of meatless lasagna. I just — I don’t think it matters.