Saturday, January 06, 2007

Why I love Richard Meltzer

From Vinyl Reckoning

"Having fled the academic gauntlet, escaped by the skin of my shoes, I walked smack into a new gauntlet about as depressing, and almost as draining, one with--what? not again?!--distinct academic coloration. Neoacademic? Crypto-academic? Pseudononacademic?
Like femmes fatales who "don't know it," academes who don't know it, or feign ignorance of the fact, can be--as they used to say--bad medicine. Bad enough. But wave the academy flag as if to disclaim it--"Only funning!"--while meantime masquerading as a practicing populist, and you're fucking RAT POISON. A pair of parties-I-have-known fit this bill, have fit it hand in glove for the last quarter century, behaving for all the world not merely like entrenched (and very constipated) academes but petty administrators...self-tenured department heads...deans, by golly.
Christgau, good old Bob, once dubbed himself the Dean of American Rock Critics. He had a T-shirt made up with his name above that title, and a likeness of Little Richard. What, you might wonder, could possess someone to adopt a handle so aridly pretentious, so dauntingly...insipid? Part was just ill-conceived hoax, as obtuse a sham as Springsteen's in bearing a nickname with zero proletarian reverb--the Boss!--but in larger part, it did accurately convey the man's aura of swaggerless dogmatism. Both personally and professionally, he is one drably imperious prick.
The Dean!--who to this day (in his syndicated "Consumer Guide") gives LETTER GRADES to albums and has a routine enabling him to monitor, or simulate monitoring, the complete "curriculum"--every current release. Years ago, more than once, I saw him in action. He'd put six LPs on the changer, stack all the covers in the same sequence, go about his bizness. If he suddenly heard something to catch his fancy, he would count discs and check the covers--"Three, four--oh, isn't that something?--Tom Paxton." Nowadays, I would assume he's got a multi-CD unit with a digital display so he needn't even count: technology favors the lame. (Dean of what branch? Admissions? Paper clips? Alphabetic studies?)
For us rockcrit underlings, the Dean in his incarnation as bigwig editor tried his darnedest to affect a supervisorly demeanor with an almost schoolmarmish (hit-you-with-a-ruler) facade. Looking back, it was sorta laughable, but every time I turned in an article, a review, sooner or later he'd phone, "Get your thesaurus--it's word choice time," and for two hours try to argue me out of certain key adjectives. Laughable but exasperating, and in hindsight maybe mostly laughable.
It was more in his "intellectual oversight" capacity--as surveillance pilot at large, unpaid and unassigned, far above the rockwrite fray--that this joker did me any lasting damage. In tandem with copilot/tag-team partner Greil Marcus, he at a crucial juncture blocked my progress to wider (um) recognition, effectively consigning me to marginality, and in the long run has denied me any significant role in official--"authorized"--"accredited"--rockwrite (as opposed to rock) history. The annals--the archive--the fugsucking "pantheon"! Oh yes--another pathetic house-o-cards for sure, but these two clowns act like they fucking OWN it.
And why do I care? Why do I care? I CARE.
It irks the hell out of me that while Marcus doesn't grade albums, he does grade people's CONDUCT, and conduct--alone!--is what kept me out of this high-bounty, high-visibility anthology he edited, oh, probably 18-20 years ago--yup, another old grudge. Stranded he called it, and he asked purt near every living, breathing rockwriter or rockwrite pretender of even quasi note to contribute an essay on his/her favorite album--the one you'd bring to a so-called desert island. I know, I know: cor-nee. But each contributor got $750, a whole lot more than I'd ever made off a single piece.
And what kept me out, he told me three years later, was my rude behavior at the final Sex Pistols show, the last of the Sid Vicious era, at Winterland. My job that night, well it wasn't a job, it was a labor of love, had been to go out and insult the audience before and after each band. Some guy from the Pistols' crew thought it all seemed too placid, too pat--"like a Grateful Dead show"--and asked me to give the ticket holders a jolt. All the invective in my arsenal I dispensed--in spades--I was one uncouth lout--until Bill Graham physically picked me up and threw me out of the building--"You can't insult my city!" Although what, precisely, was/is rocka rocka roll--or punk--or any kind of youth twitch--supposed to entail "if not that"? If not the high risk of behaving like a FLYING FUCKING ASSHOLE?
Marcus, who had been there, and been offended, never expressed regret for the slight, the exclusion, but later in the 80s he averred that, knowing what he knew now, now that he "understood punk," he would NOT have excluded me. Oh goody.
What I heard on the grapevine at the time the book came out was that he'd also disapproved of what I might write. The buzz was that Christgau, who "knew" me better than Greil did, told him, "Oh, he'd probably pick a Doors album anyway"--an odious no-no to Bob and Greil both--but that's just rumor. In his foreword to the '95 reprint of Stranded, Christgau, in a curious negative name-drop, draws attention to the lack of anything by "the irrepressible Richard Meltzer"...irrepressible? Is that like being a bon vivant? And if I couldn't be repressed, why the fuck did they have to repress me? (Like that of Meister Eckehart's cold Germanic God, my presence remained in my absence.)
A more persistent rumble back thereabouts was that these bozos found my rockwriting "politically incorrect" (ostensibly: I wasn't as keen as they on helping rock-roll find, adjust, and micro-tune its moral/humanistic compass, or in lieu of its willingness to accept same, SUPERIMPOSING suchever upon it)--the first time I actually heard the now-all-too-familiar aspersion. Basically, this signified only a slight upping of the transgressional ante, as I had already been deemed of dubious intellectual grounding. As far back as '73, Christgau was branding me "anti-intellectual": in a saner universe (in his purview), I'd have been tarred, feathered, run out of town.
What's daffy about this pair coming on so hoity-toity in their exercise of sovereignty is these're guys who need a telescope to reach--approach--make out the general outline of--whatever it is they purport to be confronting, so mega-removed are they from any tangible earthly what-the-hey. Like most culture wags laureate, what they are--all they are!--is pious OUTSIDERS. (Like Sam and Ann Charters.) Breast-beating squares. (Like George Will and Norman Podhoretz.) Stuffed-shirt know-it-alls. (Like John Updike and Leonard Feather.)
As point-to-point-to-point-to-point arbiters of the socioculturally valid, they're as embarrassing as the Medveds.
They don't have the existential oo-poo-pa-doo to be trucking in anything so both high and low (and so alien to their alleged lives) as standard-issue rock 'n' roll. In their frigging 50s, they haven't caught on yet that one thing rock does rather well, too well to ignore or dismiss--one of its stocks-in-trade--is SECOND-PERSON HOSTILITY. The many stations of I-dislike-you. Which isn't "good" or any such easy-moral A equals A, certainly isn't "nice," but it's the goddamn rock-roll terrain, it's fucking given. Might I add "universal"? Such itchy biz rubs Bob and Greil the wrong way, especially when the targeting is, well, nonrational, irrational, and above all "unjust." Taxonomically prejudiced (and prejudicial). They insist, for inst, that ANYTIME a male gender-specific voice expresses antipathy to a nonmale gender-specific other, UGLY SEXISM has reared its head--ring the alarm!--the voice forfeiting any claim to even antipathetic universality. It doesn't matter, say, that the gender voicings could be reversed, that with minimal change a female subject could be cussing out, shitting all over, a male object...that ill will is as central to rock as it is to doesn't matter!
So meticulous have they been as rock watchdogs that they've troubled 'emselves over what Randy Newman might really've MEANT by "Short People" (yes--of course! Randy's being ironic--but should anyone even say these things?) poignant.
They try so-o-o hard to be good, caring New Deal Democrats, and good Boy Scouts, and far more telling: good boys, they've never been bad boys, never even tried it on for size. They wouldn't dare commit adultery. Never farted in the subway. They don't know danger from the inside looking out, locked away from any relief, asylum, any exterior safety net. Fuh, do they even know mischief? They've never tasted their own bile, never looked death in the eye in a mirror.
When I wrote somewhere that one of the things that helped kill Lester Bangs was WRITING, each of them accused me of romanticism--how can writing kill? they questioned. Well, guys, it doesn't always kill, but it certainly comes closest when you're doing it right. Only when it makes active use of your blood, your heart, your nerves, glands, sex fluids, vertebrae, and whatall, and don't forget your stink, in a word: your body. In a word: your life. They were more annoyed, I would guess, that I considered it a pity rockwriting was the genre that gored Lester, that a diet of rock and nothing but had rendered him too dumb to get out of the way.
At the risk of overextending my own second-person animus and getting downright ad hominem about all o' this, I'm gonna introduce a new term to the proceedings: COOTIES. I don't give a ding dang doodle if these blockheads ever stumble on some remote semblance of the True, or accurately peg the Good and/or the Beautiful--the smutch of their imperialist intentions will contaminate anything they touch, their seal of approval rendering LESS ACCEPTABLE the goods of its unfortunate recipients. In my idea of a saner universe, the sight and sound of such card-carrying outsiders fattening up, even commentarily, on the goodies of the culturally/intellectually aboriginal would release fucking ANTIBODIES in the world. Imperialist cooties: nothing to sneeze at.
Or if "imperialist" sounds too vigorous and resourceful--too vibrantly alive--like Teddy Roosevelt or Cortez or somebody--let's just call it "proprietary." Ideational as opposed to material proprietorship...dominion...superintendence of turf and sight lines. No matter how you slice it, the reigning King of Proprietary Cooties--let's print that on a shirt--is Greil Marcus.
It's hard to go very long without seeing this man's maiming-by-NOT-damning commentary on something. No other recent celebrity outsider--not George Plimpton, not Nat Hentoff, not Dr. Joyce Brothers--has functioned so relentlessly, so adamantly, as proponent, evaluator, certifier of relevance both passing and eternal, chalkboard huckster for so turgid a line of see-Spot-run. Michael Cuscuna? Well, that's only on jazz reissues.
So unremitting has Marcus been in affixing his byline to so much NOT requiring his collusion, his stultifying illumination, and certainly not HIS italics, that every juxtaposition of it and anything has come to feel as WRONG (i.e., as corrupt) as the mating of basketball footage to "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" in a Nike commercial.
Last year an article in the New York Observer complained about Marcus's liner notes for the reissue of Harry Smith's Folkways anthology. Author Mark Schone's beef was that in gushing all over Harry there was an implied denigration of rival folklorist Alan Lomax, who Schone felt deserved a better fate.
What irritated me about Greil's presence in the package was simply that--his presence--although I could nitpick and say his lyric/historical spinout on Clarence Ashley's "The Coo Coo Bird," for one thing, bore traces of a METHODOLOGY of song dissection (and archaeology) I introduced to rockcrit (and yes, was better at) in my first published pieces 30 years ago...but fuck, I'm too much the folkie and populist myself to ever invoke an intellectual "copyright"--ownership isn't my game. (I don't own things in the air, I don't even own names I've given them.)
Anyway, it would've been preferable, I think, for Schone to have been more patient: chances are, left to his proprietary avarice (the pipe dream: champion something and you'll forever be associated with it), that Greil would eventually have carved his name on Lomax's legacy too...and still may.
Hey: this is a man who accepted payment to report nightly on a MICHAEL JACKSON TOUR for Ted Koppel's Nightline. Who/what won't he put his name on?
He even put his grimy stamp on one of my books, the '87 reprint of Aesthetics of Rock--which he didn't even like. And I didn't ask for him (I wanted Billy Altman), but he insisted and the publisher acquiesced. Wittingly or un-, his intro did little more than bracket the work, trivialize it (first paragraph: "I'm most of all convinced that the book is not a joke"; key word: "convinced"--thanks MUCH, you fucker), make it small (while lauding its hefty page count), finite, bounded, glibly sum-up-able, socially agreeable ("...the coolest book to be seen carrying"), no longer autonomous: a Greil-endorsed hunk o' pulp.
The endorsement didn't even improve my case with the endorser. So shallow had been his display of regard for me, so much did he not deem me even a colleague, that I didn't make it onto the mailing list for his own next book, Lipstick Traces, and he balked at first when I asked for a copy (how much humiliation did I think I needed?), telling me to go bother his publicist...he was in no mood to do so himself.
It wasn't mere protocol that prompted me to ask him, as this was the tome in which Greil reputedly "came to terms" with the events of Pistols night at Winterland. When I finally saw a copy, I wasn't in the index, or onstage at his Winterland, or anywhere else. Once an apparent eyesore, I was now beneath his notice (both forward and back).
It was a book that struck me also as, yes, derivative--secondary--and that M.T. Kinney would later proclaim a "broken-leg try at duplicating the Everest climb R. Meltzer pulled off in The Aesthetics of Rock. On an insight level it's the pits"--he said it, not me.
So what the hell am I after?
My due.
Don't think I want credit for having "influenced" Greil, or Bob, or the pen pushers of their cardboard academy, for trailblazing an activity that inevitably leads to them. I didn't (and if I had, I would rather I hadn't) and I don't.
But if they didn't actually "get it from" me, plenty of it, it didn't hurt 'em to have me as forerunner. To have my trial and error, naked as it was, ease the path and prime the pump.
Credit? I want credit for being Copernicus--Magellan--goddamn Socrates to their coffee-table Thoreau, and Thoreau to their Michael Medved. (Do you have any idea how degrading it is at this stage of my life to have to beat my own drum? What such a dance does to my "dignity"? They can kiss my fucking feet.)
Lester Young once said of Stan Getz, who profited mightily from a saxophone way-of-being Lester had pioneered: "There he goes driving my pink Cadillac." I don't want no Cadillac (though a middle-class income, after all these years, would be OK); I want to terminate the academy.
And what, precisely, is it that gives me the willies about the ascendancy of their shit and not mine--other than the obvious?
The reality of their ultimate message. Everything they write testifies: THERE IS NO JOY. NOTHING IS POSSIBLE. Regardless of what they imagine or wish it to be saying.
Seeing this travesty and obsessing on its repercussions forces me to redouble my efforts. I'm tired and tired and thinkin' I might maybe resign from this sorriest of "callings," and here I am stuck with a bran' new mission.
Needed (first things first): a countercootie to their cooties on everything. On things I still love.


J. Scruton said...

Very nice. Vinyl Reckoning's a great work. Have you read his semi-latest book Autumn Rhythm? it's good. and lastly, if you want to give your eyes sufficient strain to acquire glasses, Kerouac never drove so he never drove alone is my handiwork. Have a good one, J. (ps: apologies, if you go there, on the set up. I was young and full of legibility-be-darned gumption.)

kfd313 said...

hey that's cool. i'll check out that stuff pronto, as soon as i have a minute (right now i'm swamped with school shit). But thanks for sharing, really.