The early, formative period of rock and roll criticism produced three great and indelible voices, three voices that have gone on to influence every writer who has written about popular music in the years since. Those three voices belong to Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, and Greil Marcus. Bangs died young, and Marcus has drifted off into a phase where his muscles, at least to this reader, are more academic than hortatory.
But Richard Meltzer, whose magisterial Aesthetics of Rock (1970) fashioned part of its reputation by undertaking, e.g., to transcribe the entirety of “Surfin’ Bird,” by the Trashmen, has only matured, deepened, grown as writer and thinker. He has been a lyricist of note (for Blue Öyster Cult, among others), he has been a poet, a novelist, a spoken word artist, never content to linger long at one vocational way station. At one point in this commendable journey, Meltzer became acquainted with the great California punk band The Minutemen. The members of The Minutement were, as is well known, keen fans of Blue Öyster Cult. In fact (as you will soon hear), The Minutemen were in discussion to record an album with Richard Meltzer at the moment in 1985 when D. Boon, guitarist for The Minutemen, untimely perished in a car accident. It took Mike Watt, the bass player, a long time to make his way back to the Meltzer project—more then fifteen years. But after the turn of the millennium Watt did approach Meltzer anewto complete the project, at which point Meltzer assembled an omnibus of lyrics, some old, and some new, and recorded himself in performance. Then Watt, along with members of the Japanese band Cornelius, made music to enhance and embrace and antagonize and celebrate Meltzer’s funny, wry, prickly words, under the Watt-esque name Spielgusher.
In this album-length suite, Meltzer has a fair amount to say about gerontology, the Merchant Marines, loneliness, cunts, things that start with the letter S, and penises. His voice is not so far from the voice of your strangest bus driver of childhood, except with vision in surfeit. “Did I kill somebody/Tell me if I did/Because I just don’t know.” The music, on the other hand, in small pointilistic bursts, skitters restlessly from genre to genre from piece to piece. The playing is loose, irrepressible, and inspired. And the conjunction of the two things—words and jams—in one long undifferentiated track, is luminous, memorable, and more suggestive of The Minutemen and of the hardcore period of American indie rock than anything that has been recorded in more than a decade.
Watt’s playing, above all, is avuncular and melodic, and the one-sheet he wrote for the album is these things too: “I found d. boon all red w/fever, he had a sickness. damn, he was like a lobster and thought he should stay home but he said he wouldn’t be driving and anyway, I said look here’s the richard meltzer spiels and he was so happy – like me, he couldn’t believe it and face lit up w/a light that was nothing like the fever one I had found him w/when I got there – man, it was a righteous glow and we looked at each other as if to say “fuck yeah!” or something like that. he said he would take them w/him and work on ideas for them like me. that’s the last time I saw him.”
The result (on Watt’s own ClenchedWrench label) is one of the strangest, most attenuated, and most beautiful records of the new decade. Which led me to what follows. I approached this Richard Meltzer interview with a great deal of trepidation. Few are the American writers who really intimidate me, but this one does, for his philosophical chops, his zero tolerance policy on bullshit, and for his unsparingly earthy instincts. This interview was conducted over Skype in December of 2011, and I was shaking a little and scratching myself nervously throughout.
The Rumpus: Weather in Portland today?
Richard Meltzer: The 20s. Are you in New York?
Rumpus: I’m upstate, and it’s sort of overcast and creepy looking. Could snow. Okay, so may I ask you some questions about the Spielgusher record?
Meltzer: Please ask.
Rumpus: I’m so impressed with it, I think it’s really strange and beautiful and singular. Intensely anachronistic in some ways.
Meltzer: Thank you.
Rumpus: I’m curious how you feel about it?
Meltzer: My issues with it are that simply in terms of my own work. It represents 30 years of output. And some of the things, some of the pieces I’ve used there, when I first wrote them, they seemed probably very menacing, and I hear them now, and they’re just kind of pleasant, if that’s the word. And then the stuff was recorded, my stuff was recorded, about 2002, ’03, those years. And so it’s basically, when I hear it now, I don’t recognize myself directly in a lot of cases. I was expecting more menace. And the fact that it didn’t seem menacing at first troubled me. Then I thought, What the hey, you know? I’m 66 years old, and I could just crack open a beer and listen to it, and it doesn’t trouble me that it doesn’t kill. Once upon a time, it probably would have.
Meltzer: Some of it is from as far back as when I was going to be doing a recording with the old Minutemen. Ari Cohen was going to buy us some studio time for us to record, I dunno, 19 or 20 short pieces. Those pieces were on paper, and apparently D. Boon had them in his pocket when he died.
Rumpus: That’s really incredible, and very sad.
Meltzer: I don’t remember exactly what those particular pieces were. You know, I don’t read as often in public as I used to, but I used to read 10, 12 times a year, and so I would say at the time that I recorded these words, this time around, I was still part of this crappy Portland band called Smegma. I was their so-called vocalist. They were a band that was formed in Pasadena in 1972, and they moved to Portland in a school bus. In the ’70s, and they were a so-called “noise band.” And they provided noise. You know, anywhere from five to 17 members at one time. So they asked me, in ’99, if I would like to be their vocalist, and I could do anything I wanted to do with my voice. I could yell, I could whisper, I could sing.
So a lot of this stuff was material that I was doing with them. It was getting very tedious being with them. At first, there was some novelty to it, and this guy Rick, who was running the show, he ultimately didn’t care for the fact that I was using the same material all the time. He says, “Write us a rock opera.” Yeah, right. I just wasn’t going to do anything original for them, and after a while I just used either some of the perennial stuff, or snippets from recent books. Like, uh, what was it that came out that year? Autumn Rhythm. The pieces in that were written from, uh, anywhere from ’97 to ’01, I guess. And so I used some items from Autumn Rhythm in Smegma. And they were still nearby when I did these recordings. Ultimately, it was just whatever stuff wasn’t just completely overused, whatever I had in my satchel that I wasn’t sick of. I think everything in there was something I had read live.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about how you generate texts like this? Do you write everything down? Are you a compose-by-hand guy, or do you ever improvise the texts?
Meltzer: If I’m very drunk, I can improvise. But generally speaking, no. Generally speaking, almost all of my work is material that was first done on the printed page. And the shorter ones that you might call poems, I had a stretch from ’79, ’80, for five or six years, where I wrote a lot of poetry as such. Simply because I was asked to. Somebody said, “Would you like to do a poetry reading?” I said, “I don’t have much poetry.” “Well, write some.” So I did, and up to that point, a lot of things were written in one draft. A lot of things appearing under my byline were written in one draft. But when I started to write poetry, I started getting fussy about every syllable. I wouldn’t allow the work to be seen unless it felt perfect. Not clunky at all, no clunky syllables. So, really, for the printed page, it had to have a feeling of rhythmic and syntactic verisimilitude or something. I didn’t mind writing incoherently, up until about 1980, occasionally. But after that, I decided, might as well be articulate. And I found, though, that writing poetry affected my prose to the point where I never again wrote in one draft, and my prose just took longer and longer and longer. It took longer and longer to come up with an acceptable text. And that’s probably one of the reasons that my output has slowed down.
If I looked at some of these pieces as if this project was not spoken-word but just short anthology, I probably would have fussed with some of the sentences, you know? Syllabication and prosody and such crap. Because the printed word is etched in stone. But for reading purposes I accepted this book of texts in the manner in which I wrote them, no need to fuss. Most of the shorter stuff was written as poetry. Meaning lots of white space on the page.
Rumpus: In what circumstances did you record the pieces?
Meltzer: I had this friend Michael who has a little studio in his basement. And he used to get one day off from his job, and we’d hang out on Mondays, and over a period of a year or two, these were recorded.
Rumpus: You would do one at a time?
Meltzer: Well, you know, there were very few that I’d do multiple takes on. Some of the stuff didn’t sound plausible, the versions I had just weren’t, once I replayed them—but most things I recorded were one or two takes. Very few as many as five.
Rumpus: There are spots here that sort of remind me a bit of those amazing Captain Beefheart home recordings, you know? Like you were flipping the button, making it up, and then turning off the recorder as soon as you finished the thought. And that would be the take, you know? That level of kind of, um, purity and self-sufficiency, I guess. But is that totally illusory?
Meltzer: It’s a sonic outcome of just doing it, doing it, doing it. And, uh, you know, I don’t know that there was a consistent system to how we approached it. I think I remember on occasion resting my pages on an ironing board. Usually I had a beer alongside, but not always.
Rumpus: When you listen to the whole thing now, what kinds of thematic concerns do you think bind together the lyrics?
Meltzer: A lot of it is smut. It’s just a lot of testosterone, a lot of, you know, excesses of penis. Portland is a very tolerant place, and everybody’s an artist and blah, blah, blah. But I would say, in general audiences in Portland have winced and blushed from some of the penis texts.
I mean, what’s thematic? How to put it? Going back to, like, 1980, when I started writing poetry. Language itself became an issue. I’d even think about font as an aspect of text, you know, how something looks on a page. A lot of this is the product of a very solitary existence, it’s like, language, I mean, you know. A lot of time spent alone in the creation of all of this stuff.
When finally I’m reading it’s like coming up for air and taking a breath. I’m sort of, you might say, celebrating the fact of having actually created these trifles. I mean, in a way, at my age, I’ve been writing for 45 years or something, and now I look back and find pockets of delight. The first five years as a writer, I didn’t know how to write at all. I couldn’t write my way out of a white paper bag. And yet, I did some remarkable things. And later on, there were periods where I got this mission to find an articulate voice with rewrites and all. There were periods where I was as dense as Faulkner. And from those periods, there are also little pockets of delight that I get. No matter what, I’m never going to get an anthology from an actual publisher, though I could always score another music anthology. But if this is going to be a document of a multiplicity of my writings, it’ll do. It feels like a birthday party or something.
Rumpus: I think there are moments on the album that startled me for how romantic they were. Relatively ardent love poems or . . .
Meltzer: Oh, yes. Certainly.
Rumpus: Or what would pass for that in your work.
Metlzer: In the same sense that the testosterone level is high or used to be in my writing I’d say there’s a goofy romantic, as well. And also a white-bread-toast-and-butter version of philosophy. You know, I’m a philosopher and a romantic and a smut hound. And just a general all-around fool. A purveyor of folly, as such.
Rumpus: Are there ways that testosterone and romance are particularly appropriate for an album that would be a collision of your words with music?
Meltzer: I guess. I mean, what is rock and roll? Rock and roll is a text evolving over the course of the last 50 years or whatever, 55 years. First time I encountered rock and roll, I was fortunate because I was 11 years old and Elvis was on the Ed Sullivan Show. And it changed my life. It was, for me and most middle-class people my age, white people in New York, it was beyond our experience. It was whatever it was that Elvis on TV was, we couldn’t even figure out what it was. And to think, I remember in the years that followed thinking, Oh, it was sex. Is that all it was? No. I mean, looking back, it reminds me more of monster movies in the ’50s than sex. Whatever it was, it was just something big. Something was really going on in the gamut of the human nervous system.
My sense was the lyrics had no place in it, until 1965, let’s say. This original rock and roll kind of model was boy-girl music. I mean, what The Beatles did, nobody any longer regards The Beatles as having been innovators of anything, and they were innovators in 50, 60 ways, and one was essentially, they were a white band that figured out how to do boy-girl songs that weren’t stolen from country, Tin Pan Alley, or R&B. And The Beatles did very good boy-girl stuff for a stretch of three, four years, and their time came and went. The British Invasion was to me the most significant cultural event in my lifetime, and then suddenly that was gone and you had, you know, a few U.S. bands, like The Doors. Most of the ‘60’s U.S. bands were low testosterone, and so The Doors struck me, still strike me, as having been the most maximum-testosterone band ever.
And I saw the, uh, I was writing for Crawdaddy, let’s call it the first rock mag, and four or five of us went to see The Doors. There was a club called Ondine under 59th Street bridge in New York, and the bands played four sets a night, and The Doors played like two months, three months of bar-band sets. But every time we went there, we’d just look at each other—I mean, no one regards the Doors as important anymore . . . But the first night that we saw them, we looked at each other and said, “Is this the greatest thing ever or is this the greatest thing ever?” And it was just something, so, so, of the night, and of menace. And looking back, it seems to me what my impression of Jim Morrison was, my initial impression was that it was the music of my own penis. It was like universal heterosexual testosterone overkill.
And he had, you know, the greatest line, “When the music is your special friend, dance on fire until the end.” You know, dance on fire. That’s it, you know? It’s ritual music of, you know, whatever it is. Live in fire, die in fire.
The Doors probably didn’t have more than ten or eleven good songs, but that’ll do. So that was the beginning of my interest in writing lyrics, was The Doors. And you know, we had, “Horse Latitudes,” which was probably the first example of spoken-word recording. And, I just, everybody I knew would make up phony neo-Beatnik Jim Morrison poetry. I used to read that and just get sick of it. Something like, “Get down. Get with it. Teach your dog to swim.” I forget the rest of it.
But anyway I would say essentially by 1980, I was starting to read. By 1981, I start, I gave myself the warrant to read, and, you know, I read Faulkner and Joyce and the whole thing, and the Beats. And so, uh, I’m much too young to call myself a Beatnik, but, Anne Waldman, who is only three months older than me, no, one month older than me, she calls herself a Beanik. But, basically, I collect Beatnik books. Old chapbooks and poets like Ray Bremser and Jack Micheline, and to me that stuff still informs my life, feeds me. Bands, I mean, since the mid-eighties, I have played very little new music, and people have had to tell me, “Oh, you should listen to The Replacements or Guided By Voices” And, uh, okay, that’s nice. But generally, I’d say the music I’ve absorbed since 1985, I still play in my head. And I don’t even know if I have room for anything else. I actually opened for four or five Guided By Voices shows in Portland, and only because Robert Pollard, it’s his band and he says he likes my stuff. He read me in Creem when he was in high school. So he says to the audience, “This is Richard Meltzer, pay attention to what he’s doing, don’t boo him off the stage.” Because usually when I open for bands, I’m booed off the stage.
Rumpus: I’ve done a couple of those gigs, and I always have found it really not very much fun. Opening for bands.
Meltzer: The kids say, “Get off.” They want music.
Rumpus: They want music. And then they start talking in the back of the room, and they you’re trying to kind of get over on the front row a little bit, but you can’t concentrate.
Meltzer: The most fun reading I ever had was Dave Alvin from The Blasters arranged a reading called “The Night of the Macho Poets.” This was in ’86 or ’87, and, uh, at the, uh, where what was it . . .? Some club. And it was Dave Alvin, John Doe, Mike Watt, me, Christy from Flesh Eaters, and Henry Rollins. And Henry insisted he had to be the closer, and he was so macho he wore a dress. And it was really a good show. And it was a full house and everybody was so concerned at the end: “Did they like us? Did they like us? What do you think?” So everybody’s standing around stroking everybody else, so by the time we actually went to greet the audience, they’d cleared the house. So we never got to ask them how they felt. It was actually a great night. Unrecorded.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Meltzer: Hard to say. I wrote a novel that took me seven or so years to do. I guess I finished in 2004 or 2005. And it’s proven unpublishable. It’s as good as anything I’ve done. Half the book is boy-girl stuff. It goes back and forth from boy-girl, to a reality that doesn’t exist. It just goes back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and I can see why some would consider it hard to read. But basically, I’ve reached the point where I’ve lost any direct relationship to any of the editors I used to have. I suspect I’ll have to pay to publish this myself, and I think a lot about about putting out fifty copies. I used to think about hogwash like my legacy and silly things like that. But I feel like if I never have another book out, I’ve done okay, I’ve had like twelve or thirteen little books, and I won’t be upset about this on my death bed.
When I was living in New York in the ‘70s, early ‘70s, people would set it up for me to meet these guys with the three-day stubble, these editors from the 1920s who were still around. They’d have a bottle of whiskey in their desk and they’d smoke a cigar in the office. And these guys they’d take me to lunch, and they’d say, “Well, your stuff looks good, kid. You know, uh, it needs a lot of work, but when you finally got it figured, you come back and there’ll be a place for you.” At Scribner’s or Random House or whatever. And by the time my work was up to snuff, they were all gone. No replacements for those people.
And the whole online thing is like, I just, that to me is a world that doesn’t exist. It’s not something you could touch or lick or smell. And as my eyes get worse, it’s very hard to read. And there’s no money in it. I mean, it’s like they pay, like the best you can go is 1970 prices.
One of the things about me is that I actually had marginally middle-class living from writing. For years and years, I actually wrote so much through the ’70s and ’80s that I made a living. And very rarely have I had to take another job. And now it’s impossible for anybody coming up to make such a living. They’ve pissed in the temple, you know?
Meltzer: An old Asian thinker said that things happen in seven-year cycles, you know. You know, when you’re seven, you can piss and you can shit, but that’s it. When you’re thirty-five, you can you do something. And the age for philosophy is eighty-four. When you make it to eighty-four, then you’re ready to sit back and think universal and systematic. I was a philosophy major a long, long time ago. At Stony Brook. You had something to do with some state university school?
Rumpus: I taught at SUNY Purchase for a little bit.
Metlzer: I went to Stony Brook just when it just opened, I had four or five great teachers, all of whom were denied tenure or fired outright during the time I was there. They were the only good teachers I had, and they were all dumped. But they all encouraged me to basically, it was basically, think for yourself or perish. Not only think your own thoughts, but develop your own systems. And so I was doing this from pretty early on, and when I wrote The Aesthetics of Rock, it was an extension of what I wrote for an undergraduate class, and some unreadable junk, basically, but I kind of still appreciate the, just the groping for something there. And these days I find, all these years later, I don’t remember much of what I read, Hegel or Kant, but I still have a certain rigor. And I’ve gone, I think I’ve gone from being a Platonist to being something of an Aristotelian, I’ve become more of a pluralist in recent times. And more and more, I’ve seen the relationship between philosophy and poetry, which began in the same place, and at some point, philosophy tried to combine what is interesting, poetry, and what was true, science, and I think did a decent enough job. But the poetry side is what appeals more to me today. Metaphor, just absurd linkages and coming up with categories, labeling, taxonomy, and I’d say that I do have some tools left. There are days I can’t make a sentence out of anything, and anything I make looks clunky to me. But I still have a general grasp of the cliché, of the generic sentence. And if I didn’t have that, I’d be a blob of putty on the floor.