Field Notes From the Rock Critic Wars
Robert Christgau is one of the most influential rock critics of all time. He’s also an invaluable book critic, and now he’s releasing Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading, via Duke University Press, a collection of reviews covering everything from fiction to cultural theory to musicology. In this classic piece, which originally appeared in the Village Voice in 2000, he dives into three books by fellow rock critics: Jim DeRogatis’s Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America’s Greatest Rock Critic, Richard Meltzer’s A Whore Just Like the Rest: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches’s The Nick Tosches Reader. The result is a freewheelingly brilliant, unsparingly personal and often straight-up hilarious literary epic in its own right.
To can the first-person taboo and proceed to the main event: fuck yes I have a personal interest in the books that follow. Not just because all involve rock criticism and I am Der Dean (sorry, it just came out of my mouth on two A&M gin-and-tonics, 12-step here I come), but because in two of the three I am explicitly and persistently attacked. So, having been offered extra space by this journal’s editor-in-chief–he wanted a a cover piece, me scowling in my Special Ed T-shirt: IF MELTZER DISSES THE DOLLS AGAIN I WILL FUCK UP HIS HARD DRIVE–I would be disingenuous not to address a couple of grating factual issues.
Listen up, Jim DeRogatis. When I threw that piece of pie (not my “dinner,” the food line was long) at Ellen Willis, it wasn’t because, as Willis with her Handy Dandy Theory Generator lets you suggest, I wanted to maintain the sexist status quo of “gender relations in rock-critic land.” The motives I experienced were no more noble but a lot more personal, and to find out what they were (and then assay their crediblility) you need merely have asked. I know you’re big on journalistic ethics, so write this one on your wrist: Check The Source. (It’s real useful when you have an unidentified third party provide uncorroborated off-the-record poolside repartee by someone–not me, Neil Strauss, remember?–who makes you so jealous you could shit.) (Reached by telephone, DeRogatis denied that he was jealous of Strauss.)
As for Richard Meltzer, right now let me say this. Meltzer complains, bitterly, that “30-40 times” over “seven years,” he asked me and the true inventor of rock criticism, Richard Goldstein, whether he could “FUCKING WRITE FOR THEM” (i.e., US, presumably HERE). I don’t recall this, and neither does Goldstein, not least because neither of us was a Voice editor until 1974. We could put in a word for someone we loved, as I did for my dear friend Tom Smucker, an equally eccentric and valuable voice back then, and when Goldstein had his own mag briefly, Meltzer was in it. But we couldn’t assign until we became editors. Whereupon we acted. Meltzer led the second music section I edited, 8/8/74 (Vince Aletti on the J5 got 8/1), one of his three appearances before 10/1.
I dunno–maybe Meltzer’s from Triton and I’m from Uranus. ‘Umble Queens boys though we both were, at some one-on-one level we never did relate. Which is why Meltzer has it 180 degrees wrong when he begrudgingly allows as how I liked him “personally . . . and to some degree professionally.” Truth is, I considered Meltzer an antisocial jerk, and please read “Handsome Dick Throws the Party of the Century” before calling me a goody-goody. As a writer, however, I thought he was terrific. And it turns out he was only warming up.
In a famous phrase–it rhymes–James Wolcott once dubbed Lester Bangs, the subject of DeRogatis’s Let It Blurt, and Meltzer, whose “rockwriting” has now been collected as A Whore Just Like the Rest, “the Noise Boys.” And while Bangs’s drinking buddy and Meltzer’s drinking best friend Nick Tosches serves a sterner muse, his bedrock faith in “the saxophone whose message transcends knowing” places The Nick Tosches Readerin the territory even though it’s less than half music writing. The three never blew the same horn; as DeRogatis quips, they were “individually dissimilar.” But they were all partisans of rock at its noisiest–culture as ecstatic disruption. “Fuck the tradition, I want the Party,” Bangs declared in 1971. “A touchstone of genuwine liberation,” Meltzer recalled in 1986. Maybe even, as Tosches recollected in the forced tranquility of 1991, “a cold hard blue-veined cock right up under the tie-dyed skirts of benighted sensitivity.” And the minute rock stopped delivering the requisite Skullbustium, the Noise Boys shouted their pain. As usual, Bangs was softer on this than the other two, enmeshed in a life-drama of musical betrayal and reconciliation until he goddamn died. But like Meltzer and Tosches he dreamed of escaping rockcrit and becoming a “real writer.”
Tosches has succeeded royally. A master crime reporter whose manner yokes Homer, Hemingway, and some ’60s tit magazine I’m not literate enough to ID, author of a comical, biblical Jerry Lee Lewis bio that trumps Albert Goldman coming and Peter Guralnick going, he is just shy of famous–his Dean Martin book on its way to the movies, an investigative assignment inflated into the current The Devil and Sonny Liston. Meltzer has failed brilliantly. A writer of barbwire hilarity and recondite formal daring whose Kantian yawp doubles back on itself three times a sentence as it blows all decent expository standards up the hemorrhoids of history, he’s pure cult figure, so strapped for cash he’s still compelled to concoct a dadaist preview squib for 75 of the San Diego Reader‘s niggardly Georges a week. As for Bangs, he should be so unlucky. When he died in 1982, he was still churning out record reviews as he dreamed of (and worked on) novels, memoirs, stream-of-consciousness screeds, and treatises exposing man’s inhumanity to man. Although his legend as a substance-ingesting fabulous character exceeds Tosches’s and Meltzer’s combined, nothing in his work or story, including the craving for transcendence all three have known too well, suggests that he wouldn’t rather be alive.
Instead he got his best-of early: Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited (solely) by Greil Marcus, published in what would have been Lester’s 39th year, 1987, and not yet pecked to death by the many geese who’ve stuck their yellow noses in. And now he gets a biography as well. The legend is a lousy substitute for the words–my best hope for Let It Blurt is that it will spark a second anthology. Still, DeRogatis has gathered his facts with gusto. As someone who knew Lester, I found the account of his early years poignant and then some, and, whatever my quibbles, the rest of the narrative is readable, scrupulously researched, and fair enough–affectionate without romanticizing Lester’s tragic, destructive . . . not “excesses,” to hell with that, vices. Wonderful photos, too. But–well, here comes the first person again. Early on, DeRogatis quotes me as saying, “His critical ideas were not the strength; it was the language that was the strength,” then stoutly ripostes, “I disagree.” I braced myself, but the follow-through never came. The few ideas DeRogatis cites at all–boo irony, boo academia, the beauty of ugliness, rock’s democratic imperative–are elementary. Even Bangs’s style is barely explored; I wonder how many who weren’t there will suss that he was one of the funniest writers on the planet. The book’s few striking critical insights come from interviewees, particularly Meltzer. And be this journalistic principle or intellectual aptitude, it has as its consequence a response to Let It Blurt that assumes Lester’s writing and raves on about his legend.
It was to refocus on his words that this piece was initially conceived. Just how good was Lester Bangs, and why? Marcus, that sobersides, famously claimed of Psychotic Reactions: “Perhaps what this book demands from a reader is a willingness to believe that the best writer in American could write almost nothing but record reviews.” Note that this is not the same as claiming Bangs was the best writer in America–and that Marcus wouldn’t mind if you got that idea. On the other hand, after Meltzer belittlingly compares Bangs to such “dregs of beat” as Ray Bremser and Ted Joans, he doubles back, grandly and slyly adding: “(He also of course found USE for Céline and Bukowski.)” No admirer of Bukowski or fan of Céline, I don’t find that especially far-fetched. Then again, I do have a weakness for record reviews, and would be hard-pressed to gainsay some lit crit who found Bukowski and Céline more “relevant.” But Bremser and Joans? In my dream world, even a lit crit could make that call. And although Tosches pumps Meltzer’s big Bangs piece as the class of the field, I prefer his own little one, which fondly sums up the “hayseed”‘s three obsessions–writing, music, and communication–and concludes: “he was a nice guy.”
This basic observation doesn’t partake of DeRogatis’s “St. Lester,” a straw myth no one believes in. It simply respects the openheartedness people fell for, in person and on the page. Meltzer is so set on reestablishing the self-abuse, hostility, egomania, and b.o. the nice guy and his legend made too much of that he short-changes the sweet stuff, and so there’s something conflicted about his g’bye. Lester’s writing–his self-mocking confessionals, left-field generalizations, free-form metaphors, effortless epithets, and boffo laugh lines, all flowing like a river of Romilar or a Coltrane solo–touched readers in a place his legend never reached. Between the two he became more notorious and beloved than Meltzer ever could be while ringing changes on a method of outrage Meltzer isn’t crazy to think he got to first. But Meltzer has never come near Bangs’s well nigh Dickensian flow–few have. And for a long time he didn’t approach Bangs’s heart either. It was his heart, heart that never compromised his tremendous intelligence and always fed off his humor and his endless love of music (here signifying merely “his subject,” or “the world”), that made Bangs the wonder he was.
One rock and roll thing about Bangs was his gift for juicing commonplaces–hype! alienation! spontaneous bop prosody! (youth! sex! the big beat!)–with the freshness of his idiom and the intensity of his convictions. That’s why I believe his language subsumes his ideas. But he was also a gusher of musical connection and description who in the right mood could hear just about anything anew. In the right mood, Meltzer can be an even better, very different critic-qua-critic. The Nick Tosches Reader, however, gives us something else–a great music reporter, with narrow tastes and an overview captured in its entirety by the title of his Bangla-Desh putdown: “The Heartbeats Never Did Benefits.”
As a devotee of the journalistic collection as literary genre, yes I said yes I will Yes to the Michele Sindona prolegomenon, the Carly Simon interview, the Burroughs-Hoover tour de force, the meta-ironic send-up of Love Story, the awesome George Jones profileThe New Yorker rejected in its infinite gentility. In toto, however, this 593-page monster is a bold-faced mishmash, full of dull stuff (much of it from men’s magazines, although the stump-fucking fantasies ’tis rumored he penned for Penthouse Forum are absent) calculated to prove how much realer a writer he’s become. In controlled doses I love the high-low particularities, heroic rhythms, and sardonic bite of his prose. But after 593 pages–plus the skillful 1988 literary thriller Cut Numbers and The Devil and Sonny Liston heaping contumely on Muhammad Ali and the pinkos who love him–I was plumb worn out. If you believe Philip Roth, Peter Matthiessen, and Hubert Selby, Jr. are our only great living writers, Der Dean isn’t gonna stop you from making “There is no new thing under the sun” your fucking mantra. But what kind of careful craftsman repeats such a wheeze over and over? a writer who prides himself on going against the grain should recognize that anyone who devises a fresh way to say the world cannot change will eventually be rewarded by rich people who hope he’s right. Tosches’s novel-in-progress looks strong. I sincerely hope it goes against the grain. And if instead he gets mired in his “vision,” he was still right to forsake rockwrite. The passion is not in him.
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, of course) 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 inevitable failure to do so, while improving his politics the way poverty does, has further curdled his always sour 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.
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.
One more thing. Possessed of his own Handy Dandy Theory Generator, Meltzer suggests in the long, climactic “Vinyl Reckoning” that me and Marcus give everything we praise “COOTIES.” We devalue it, scare the uncontaminated away. That wasn’t my intention; I loved his book long before I got there. But if I’ve made his head itch, well, as we used to say at Junior High School 16: “SUF-FUR!”
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