Impolite Discourse

The Noise Boys Ride Again

To can the first-person taboo and proceed to the main event: Fuck yes I have a personal interest in the books that follow. Not just because all involve rock criticism and I am Der Dean (sorry, it just came out of my mouth on two A&M gin-and-tonics, 12-step here I come), but because in two of the three I am explicitly and persistently attacked. So, having been offered extra space by this journal's editor in chief—he wanted a cover piece, me scowling in my Special Ed T-shirt: IF MELTZER DISSES THE DOLLS AGAIN I WILL FUCK UP HIS HARD DRIVE—I would be disingenuous not to address a couple of grating factual issues.

Listen up, Jim DeRogatis. When I threw that piece of pie (not my "dinner," the food line was long) at Ellen Willis, it wasn't because, as Willis with her Handy Dandy Theory Generator lets you suggest, I wanted to maintain the sexist status quo of "gender relations in rock-critic land." The motives I experienced were no more noble but a lot more personal, and to find out what they were (and then assay their credibility) you need merely to have asked. I know you're big on journalistic ethics, so write this one on your wrist: Check The Source. (It's real useful when you have an unidentified third party provide uncorroborated off-the-record poolside repartee by someone—not me, Neil Strauss, remember?—who makes you so jealous you could shit.) (Reached by telephone, DeRogatis denied that he was jealous of Strauss.)

As for Richard Meltzer, right now let me say this. Meltzer complains, bitterly, that "30-40 times" over "seven years," he asked me and the true inventor of rock criticism, Richard Goldstein, whether he could "FUCKING WRITE FOR THEM" (i.e., US, presumably HERE). I don't recall this, and neither does Goldstein, not least because neither of us was a Voice editor until 1974. We could put in a word for someone we loved, as I did for my dear friend Tom Smucker, an equally eccentric and valuable voice back then, and when Goldstein had his own mag briefly, Meltzer was in it. But we couldn't assign until we became editors. Whereupon we acted. Meltzer led the second music section I edited, 8/8/74 (Vince Aletti on the J5 got 8/1), one of his three appearances before 10/1.

I dunno—maybe Meltzer's from Triton and I'm from Uranus. 'Umble Queens boys though we both were, at some one-on-one level we never did relate. Which is why Meltzer has it 180 degrees wrong when he begrudgingly allows as how I liked him "personally . . . and to some degree professionally." Truth is, I considered Meltzer an antisocial jerk, and please read "Handsome Dick Throws the Party of the Century" before calling me a goody-goody. As a writer, however, I thought he was terrific. And it turns out he was only warming up.

In a famous phrase—it rhymes—James Wolcott once dubbed Lester Bangs, the subject of DeRogatis's Let It Blurt, and Meltzer, whose "rockwriting" has now been collected as A Whore Just Like the Rest, "the Noise Boys." And while Bangs's drinking buddy and Meltzer's drinking best friend Nick Tosches serves asterner muse, his bedrock faith in "the saxophone whose message transcends knowing" places The Nick Tosches Readerin the territory even though it's less than half music writing. The three never blew the same horn; as DeRogatis quips, they were "individually dissimilar." But they were all partisans of rock at its noisiest—culture as ecstatic disruption. "Fuck the tradition, I want the Party," Bangs declared in 1971. "A touchstone of genuwine liberation," Meltzer recalled in 1986. Maybe even, as Tosches recollected in the forced tranquility of 1991, "a cold hard blue-veined cock right up under the tie-dyed skirts of benighted sensitivity." And the minute rock stopped delivering the requisite Skullbustium, the Noise Boys shouted their pain. As usual, Bangs was softer on this than the other two, enmeshed in a life-drama of musical betrayal and reconciliation until he goddamn died. But like Meltzer and Tosches, he dreamed of escaping rockcrit and becoming a "real writer."

Tosches has succeeded royally. A master crime reporter whose manner yokes Homer, Hemingway, and some '60s tit magazine I'm not literate enough to ID, author of a comical, biblical Jerry Lee Lewis bio that trumps Albert Goldman coming and Peter Guralnick going, he is just shy of famous—his Dean Martin book on its way to the movies, an investigative assignment inflated into the current The Devil and Sonny Liston. Meltzer has failed brilliantly. A writer of barbwire hilarity and recondite formal daring whose Kantian yawp doubles back on itself three times a sentence as it blows all decent expository standards up the hemorrhoids of history, he's pure cult figure, so strapped for cash he's still compelled to concoct a dadaist preview squib for 75 of the San Diego Reader's niggardly Georges a week. Bangs should be so unlucky. When he died in 1982, he was still churning out record reviews as he dreamed of (and worked on) novels, memoirs, stream-of-consciousness screeds, and treatises exposing man's inhumanity to man. Although his legend as a substance-ingesting fabulous character exceeds Tosches's and Meltzer's combined, nothing in his work or story, including the craving for transcendence all three have known too well, suggests that he wouldn't rather be alive.

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