The Bird Is the Word

There's creation and there's listening—one has eight letters and one has nine.
—Richard Meltzer

For what it's worth, Richard Meltzer is the greatest rock critic so far, and over the years he's developed an ability to write—to get the prose alive on the page—that probably surpasses Burroughs's or Twain's or Faulkner's. But hey, maybe this is only faint praise, and not because rock critic is a pejorative, but because as Meltzer has improved his ability to write he's let his thinking—at least about rock'n'roll—go into reverse. And so much of his writing comes from anger, he's gotten such energy from it, that to accommodate the anger he's allowed his ideas to go stupid. So anyway, now he's a great writer, a great word-on-the-page man ("A powerful, scabrous work . . . by one of the great stylists in English"—Birdcage Weekly). Rate his collection, A Whore Just Like the Rest, an A PLUS. But that grade conceals several Everests of ambivalence.

Slowing down a fart
photo: Bob Kruen
Slowing down a fart


Richard Meltzer
A Whore Just Like the Rest: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer
Da Capo Press
Buy this book

For one thing, to get to the thought behind some of Meltzer's early work—which contains his first real flow of brilliant ideas and the purest joy he's ever felt in the subject matter, but which is also very elliptical and cryptic—is like trying to stare through to the other side of hieroglyphs. And this book's most crucial stuff, his great ACTING OUT of his ideas in the early '70s, tends to be trash-it-out, mannered flippantry. So you get the full voice of Meltzer later and the full ideas of Meltzer earlier, but you rarely get them together. And anyway the ideas are just a start; Meltzer never finished them. Profound contradictions are left unexamined, social ideas are stated in unwieldy philosophical terms, and, though he's written more and better social detail than any sociologist of music has, social analysis is nonexistent (unless you count, in his later writing, his calling fellow critics shills and whores or his taking sub-sub-sub-Frankfurt School clichés almost down to the moron level; e.g., his calling post-'60s rock "crowd control for the post-puberty (under 40?) masses").

So lately—and this includes the little intros he's tacked on before each of the old pieces—he's been doing a real shitsucky version of presenting his own ideas. For example: When he says, "I aspired to the SPIRIT of rock," he's just going along with the vague mysto-sentimentality of his most thoughtless fans. Yes, spirit is nice (rah-rah), but Meltzer also—once—aspired to the mind of rock'n'roll, chose rock'n'roll as his intellectual activity—chose to do rock'n'roll on the page, since what rock'n'roll did was to mix up, flummox, challenge, test everyone's sense of what was relevant or irrelevant in the world; to create a space where just anything could be pertinent. (Isn't this what real thinking is: to test what's pertinent? To question what matters? To act out your questions? To flummox, test, reinvent social relations? And if you're a thinker, isn't testing your own ideas what rocks you?)

As an undergrad student of artist Allan Kaprow's at Stony Brook, Meltzer noticed that environmental art and happenings did with great effort what rock'n'roll simply did, which was to include the context—and therefore the audience—in the artwork. Context includes "money, competition, survival, acceptance by adolescents, reaction by standard adults," not to mention screaming teenies, fan magazines, girls holding signs ("We Love You Paul"), radio countdowns, marketing strategies, etc., and when you add to this people's lives (I dare you not to listen to music in the context of your life), it also includes joking and gossiping and flirting and fighting and whatever (e.g., there's this pet bird that likes to hear this Johnny Rivers song, and the girl who owns the bird has nice tits). And it also includes the listener who writes about music, e.g., Meltzer or me or you, who—duh!—has the same right as any fan or musician to use music in any way that he or she wants, to create context in any way he or she can; which in Meltzer's case, after rock seemed to him to have calmed down and normalized itself in the late '60s, meant mangling, altering, reinventing, and being the context. On the page, in his writing. And if the rock'n'roll mind had gone dead in the music—pertinence now seemed to stay where it was told—pertinence could still be anywhere he wanted on his page. For instance:

Meltzer at the Metropolitan Opera: "Real pindrop conditions and somebody rattling keys was told 'Stop rattling those keys' and another somebody really worked overtime slowing down a fart." These are social points, obviously, and obviously relevant. The transgression against standard journalism isn't that Meltzer includes farts but that in doing so he includes his own stance toward the subject matter and includes enough info for the reader to infer Meltzer's own stance toward him or her and for the reader therefore to (involuntarily, spontaneously) react, to come up with his/her own attitude toward not just the subject matter but toward Meltzer. All of which is as relevant as the fart, if you want it to be.

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