All rock stars, more or less, grew up fatherless and were ugly and slightly damaged until they picked up a guitar and realized they could get laid. And all rock critics, more or less, grew up nerdy and Jewish—except for Lester Bangs, whose mother was a Jehovah’s Witness, which is basically a variation on a theme—and slightly damaged until they picked up a guitar and realized they couldn’t play it very well, so they picked up a typewriter instead.
That, more or less, is Richard Meltzer’s story: He did some graduate work at Yale, made some money booking bands, wrote some lyrics for Blue Öyster Cult—“I’m burning/ I’m burning/ I’m burning for you”—and tried his own hand at making noise. After one very modest, beautifully named hit, he stuck to writing about rock instead, going on to author the now sadly neglected classic The Aesthetics of Rock.
But what really happened is that Richard Meltzer became the father of rock ’n’ roll hasidism. In the midst of an overly scholastic field, in which books are written and lines parsed and conferences convened, he is the mystic who promises a direct connection with the Lord of Song and encourages dancing and singing and bliss. Other writers may give you pleasure, but Meltzer delivers jouissance, a word favored by literary critics that means, roughly, the kind of joy that occurs when a text succeeds in breaking itself down and challenging its readers to reconsider everything they thought they knew.
Writing about rock is like trying to describe a smell using only colors. You head over to a club or an arena, you’re pressed against sweaty and intoxicated bodies that all sway in unison, the floor is vibrating under your feet and your throat is drying up from screaming out the lyrics and reason is nowhere to be found and time goes by so quickly and time doesn’t seem to move at all. And then it’s over. You go home. You shower. You take a nap. The next morning, you sit down to write about it. And you’re just a sober dude at a desk. The magic is gone. Every word you write feels fake.
Meltzer did something else. By way of introduction, here’s his own description of his method, which shows why generations of readers have found him both maddening and illuminating:
“This is a sequel, not a formulation of prolegomena.”
If you don’t know that that last word, borrowed from Kant, means a clarification of the intellectual ground for future theoretical moves, Meltzer provides a playful and illuminating footnote. And if you’re wondering why there are big words in your rock criticism, or what, exactly—being that the sentence quoted above is the first sentence of Meltzer’s first book, written when he was 25—he is talking about when he says that “this is a sequel,” the pages that follow don’t provide any answers. They muse on Plato’s Meno and feud with John Dewey. They also quote, in their entirety, the lyrics to “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen.
A confession: I’ve read The Aesthetics of Rock three times now. I speak its language, the language of critical theory and continental philosophy. I get all of its musical references. And, more than half of the time, I have no idea what the hell Meltzer is talking about. And yet, I can say without exaggeration or hesitation, truly and honestly, that this is the greatest book about rock ’n’ roll ever written. It owes its greatness to one key insight, and to Meltzer’s courage to act on it. “I have thus deemed it a necessity,” he writes near the beginning of the book, “to describe rock ’n’ roll by allowing my description to be itself a parallel artistic effort. In choosing rock ’n’ roll as my original totality I have selected something just as eligible for decay as my work, and I will probably embody this work with as much incoherency, incongruity, and downright self-contradiction as rock ’n’ roll itself, and this is good.” In other words, Meltzer vowed to write like he was still in the middle of the rock show, swaying and horny and hopeful. And for 42 years now, he has.
To understand what a magnificent achievement that is, compare Meltzer to his successors. Look at the nutritional information on almost any contemporary rock-themed essay, and the ingredients are contextualization, straight-forward description, self-satisfied cleverness, and preservatives. Contemporary rock writing is as boring as contemporary rock; it’s become a platform for aging college professors, like myself, to act cool.
It wasn’t always like that. The genre’s founding fathers dared, but their flaws have become much more visible with time. Take Lester Bangs: He is probably the only writer who could string together a question like “who else but Lou Reed would get himself fat as a pig, then hire the most cretinous band of teenage cortical cavities he could find to tote around the country on an all-time death drag tour?” But for every such diamond-hard truth he produced, Bangs unburdened himself of a hundred rambling observations, confused and unfocused. As a guiding light to rock writing, he flickers too much. And Greil Marcus burns too brightly: Like his eternal subject, Dylan, Marcus is fond of speaking in images, like this one about a song, “Soul Kitchen” by The Doors, having met another song, “Gloria” by Them, entered its building, “climbed its stairs, knocked on its doors, went into its room, and flew out the window.” The description is vintage Greil Marcus; it’s a lot of fun, but it tells you more about Greil Marcus than it does about either “Gloria” or “Soul Kitchen.”
Meltzer is different. He can be incoherent, but he is always as alive and as throbbing as his subject. He writes, without explanation, sentences like “for the Beatles it’s not high school but childhood-senility-childhood, which sure as shit comes out as unclarifiable wistfulness for the standard fornicating and prefornicating teen-ager.” I’m not sure what that means. But, then again, I’m not sure what “she’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand like a lizard on a window pane” means either, and it’s a line from my favorite Beatles song. I like to think about Lennon’s cryptic words just as I like to think about Meltzer’s; both give me an emotional charge that nothing that was designed primarily to be clear and lucid could ever provide.
So, take one minute and listen to a song called “Fuck Awareness Week.” It was released earlier this year on an album by a band called spielgusher, which is primarily made up of Mike Watt—“the seminal post-punk bass player,” in one magazine’s crisp turn of phrase—and Meltzer. Like the song, the entire album is just one middle-aged guy playing the guitar and another rambling. It is also probably the most important thing that happened in rock music this year, and a rare thrill from a genre that, these days, produces either flightless nostalgia acts or sad-looking skinny boys who do their best to mumble louder than their guitars. As is the case with any other Meltzer creation, the merits of the album aren’t immediately obvious. Meltzer isn’t here to seduce you or placate you. He’s here to force you to think and, if you’re brave enough, to feel. Metlzer inspired me to be a better listener. Lend him your ears, and he’ll do the same for you.
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