In Search of Richard Meltzer’s Huge Ego

15May11

[FR : Richard Meltzer, un critique rock légendaire (selon lui).]

When people talk about “alternative” American rock ‘n’ roll writers, they invariably cite the “triumvirate”: Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches and… Richard Meltzer.

I recently finished a grueling task: reading a 600-page anthology of works by rocker number 3 on the list, entitled “A Whore Just Like the Rest.” Naturally, the back cover features glowing praise from Tosches and Bangs. I still have trouble believing that I made it through the first 250 pages, and the following 350 were nothing to write home about either.

I feel sorry for the employees who had to typeset and proofread his endless, badly-structured, run-on sentences, brimming with intentional misspellings, italics, and random noises. But the content is another story.

Meltzer started his career in the early 70’s by leveraging his college thesis, a sort of intellectualization of rock ‘n’ roll, apparently a somewhat novel approach at the time. He decided, for some reason, that the life of a “rock writer” was for him, and began spewing out articles at a remarkable rate for various undemanding publications. His style was inconsistent, or even random, as if he was trying to make his writing conspicuous by deviating from established standards (such as talking about the subject, using sentences, and seeking to effectively communicate his ideas to the reader). The reality is that his ideas were limited, and his leitmotif was, in brief, “everything is a bunch of shit, everyone (but me) is a moron.”

A perfect example is in the introduction to a chapter that takes place after he has moved to LA. He gets to write a column for the LA Reader. What does he write? As he says: “anti-LA sermons and diatribes.” True to form, all he can do is to criticize the city has moved to. He “hates everything.” Why doesn’t he move somewhere else and shut up?

His ambition to be published in the Village Voice finally made him crack. True to form, he was incredibly motivated by this opportunity, which brought him prestige and standing; however, he did nothing but talk about what a shitty newspaper it is, and what idiots all the other staff members are. When the editor told him that he was “finally ready” to be in the Voice, Meltzer depicts it as an imposition, and makes it look like his arm was twisted, when it was actually his immense ego that relished the boost of being in a “name” publication.

Ironically, this is when Meltzer’s writing gets better, or at least readable. Happily, he stops playing useless games with form and begins expressing himself in full sentences and with a richer vocabulary.

Around that time, Meltzer started Vom, a minor LA punk band. The band is not bad, but not particularly good either. I had always thought they were intentionally creating a parody of a punk band, but Meltzer makes it clear that he took it seriously. He reprints his lyrics in the book and deems them “genius”; I don’t think he is being ironic.

Meltzer seems to think that he’s another Bukowski, even talking about his “typer”. Don’t worry, I’ve read plenty of Bukowski, who often refers disparagingly to writers of Meltzer’s caliber and pretentions.

Meltzer professes to love rock n roll, but spends all his airtime putting down and denouncing it. This is in comparison to Lester Bangs, who loves rock n roll and spends his time telling you why, even when he criticizes something: Iggy, Lou, and on and on, transmitting his excitement, writing with style and passion, and engaging the reader. Meltzer has little to no respect for Bangs, repeatedly portraying him as a stupid drugged-out hick (“but my close friend”), while saying nothing about his writing style and emphasizing that “I invented dada journalism”.

Meltzer cites “my friend Nick Tosches” constantly, never criticizes him, and finally has learned nothing at all from his mentor, at least in terms of writing. Given Meltzer’s vicious criticism of the late lamented Lester, I can only imagine what he will write about Tosches once the latter is dead.

Other notable themes you will miss by not reading the book include:
“Blue Öyster Cult cheated me.”
“My friend Darby Crash.”
“I wrote for Rolling Stone but never read it.”
“Christgau and Marcus impeded my gaining wider recognition.”

We have all met this kind of person: nothing but a blowhard, talking endlessly about himself and his genius. He is sure that he possesses a unique and perfect understanding of everything, coupled with an incomparable, brilliant style that he invented. Nonsense! Don’t bother with the book, and avoid him at parties.

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