Impolite Discourse

The Noise Boys Ride Again

With Meltzer this is a far more complicated question. Although I helped select him the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' music critic of the year for 1995, that three-article submission was all I'd seen of his non-Voice journalism since he moved to L.A. in 1975; I didn't even know he'd published 1988's accurately entitled L.A. Is the Capital of Kansas. So I downed that 246-page collection after polishing off the 575-page A Whore Just Like the Rest, and as a fan of the genre enjoyed it fine—the hamburger reviews, the boxing piece, the sexcapades, and especially the tender "Silent Nite(s)" and the nothing-happened " . . . and Crazy for Loving You" toward the end. But A Whore Just Like the Rest is so superior to this alien-in-paradise miscellany as to render Meltzer's vituperative contempt for current music and its criticism something like a tragedy.

Now, since almost all the many things Meltzer says about me and mine are, not to call him a bad word, misunderstood or misremembered—Stranded, Greil's Aesthetics of Rock intro, my Little Richard T-shirt, my intimacy with his oeuvre, and his place at the Voice (where I'll give him half of Eric Dolphy)—maybe he's equally untrustworthy across the board. But though Meltzer does go on about Truth, he's not in the trust business. He's selling ideas by the bucketful, mockery of that there, jokes for jokes' sake, a word born every minute, a childish refusal to curb his orality, his own pud-pulling, panty-snagging genius. He wasn't a token of my tolerance, much less (so defensive!) "a vulgar exhibit" in my "proto-multiculture briefcase." He was an essential argument, the most extreme available, for what I'll retrospectively dub impolite discourse, a concept that encompasses all rock criticism then and (Anthony DeCurtis excepted) much of it now—only marginally more unacceptable to literate bowwows than Tom Smucker or Ed Naha, but manifestly more brilliant and offensive, hence much harder to take. If you weren't threatened by noise, Meltzer wouldn't bother you. If you were, you would have to confront the likelihood that this Yale-dropout barbarian could beat you at Scrabble with one hand and finish off your Jack Daniel's with the other.

Egomaniac that he is, Meltzer doesn't want to be anyone else's argument, certainly not mine. Yet the disgracefully cheap Voice was the nearest thing to a money gig available to a guy whose behavior and oeuvre were epitomized by his great line in a Redd Foxx review: "(Tastes rather like beef Redd and the texture sure beats sushi!)." Subject of sentence: assholes. His writing wasn't and isn't unpublishable, but at its straightest it's extremely eccentric—not even dollar-a-word stuff, especially given the author's kneejerk contempt for all editors. Impressed by the literary bad boy Tosches nails as a "con man," Meltzer has never understood why he shouldn't achieve fame and fortune commensurate with William S. Burroughs's, and his failure to do so, while improving his politics the way poverty does, has further curdled his always bleak media analysis. This analysis never made him any easier to assign, not because media-bashing is verboten (these days it's the tedious coin of the rockcrit realm), but because music critics are supposed to be interested in music and Meltzer started with the rock-is-dead shit in 1968. Young people scoff when I tell them this, but although he flirted with country and fell for punk and remains an avant-jazzbo, Meltzer repeats the date many times in A Whore Just Like the Rest—all but 18 pages of which were published 1969 or later.

Lester Bangs lets it blurt.
photo: Amy and Tanveer
Lester Bangs lets it blurt.

Professional ressentiment fed this conceit—his topic, stolen by hustlers! But basically, the egomania involved was spiritual. Rock had been Meltzer's whole world—no one has ever heard the Beatles better—and when the illusion faded he blamed rock rather than contingency, mortality, life. As a result, A Whore Like All the Rest is rife with pans of meaningless music he may not even have heard, especially in the early '70s and again in those squibs, my favorite of which boldfaces the Cigar Store Indians (?) in an addendum to a list of 55 extinct soups: Olive and Watercress, Spaghetti and Mole, Fat-Free Pantyhose, Chicken with Starch, Dawg . . . Yet for all his utterly fucked, generationally banal inability to hear Sonic Youth, Youssou N'Dour, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Mouse on Mars, or Juliana Hatfield, the music criticism here has so much vitality—an offhand take on his friends the Blasters, an insulting dead-on description of Lester's voice, a rave about the Germs (who I hate), the Bud Powell fantasia mit dump memoir he gave the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the aleatory "Ten Cage Reviews" (his last true music column at the Reader, which fired him before he got his award). There's more, too—Voice stuff he hates/resents, the two other AAN submissions, jazz writing I've only heard about.

Meltzer used to spew everything first-draft. But in the late '70s he started "composing" laboriously, and while his prose still has the old jismy dazzle, it's also clearer, denser, less shticky. It's not all equally good, though. Journalism is that way, and although Meltzer insists indignantly that he's not a journalist, all the '90s stuff here, including a left-of-rad rant on the '92 riots, first appeared in the Reader. Maybe he can generate novels, memoirs, stream-of-consciousness screeds, and treatises exposing man's inhumanity to man. But the great virtue of journalism is that it gets writers out of themselves. Nothing will stop Meltzer from writing about himself; nothing ever has. He's always performed great tricks with his egotism, and from somebody who's become a much nicer guy, personawise—vulnerable, compassionate, evincing considerable, how about that, heart—we wouldn't want it any other way. But since I'm convinced he and music still have something special going after all these years, I would like respectfully to suggest that somebody assign him, I don't know . . . some jazz reviews? He needs the money. A second collection is probably too much to expect in this media economy; this one's miracle enough. But you never know.

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