THE NOISE BOYS
By Jim DeRogatis
Sitting beside his friends and colleagues Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches at a “Rock Critics’ Symposium” sponsored by Buffalo State College in the spring of 1974, the late Lester Bangs was asked by the earnest young audience about the enduring legacy of the music he loved.
“Rock ’n’ roll is the American art form,” Bangs declared. “Eric Dolphy once said that music came out of his breath, went through the saxophone, and it was gone. It’s true; it’s evanescent. It’s here and then it’s gone, and you can never capture it again!”
I’m not so sure that Bangs was right—would that he were, given the enduring hackism of geezers like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and the hollow iconography of institutions like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But what he said is certainly true of rock criticism, as I discovered while researching his biography.
Rock ’n’ roll existed through its first decade without anyone seriously critiquing it. In the ’50s, fan magazines offered photos and lyrics at one extreme while alarmist newspaper editorials railed about the juvenile delinquent scourge at the other. It wasn’t until 1966 when early practitioners like Meltzer and Paul Williams began to write passionately and thought-provokingly about the music. For the next decade or so, the nascent field would be dominated by three critical camps: chin-stroking academics (Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Jon Landau, Ellen Willis), archeologists/historians (Greg Shaw, Lenny Kaye), and a third group for whom it was anything goes. There were no rules, no money, and certainly no career opportunities, so writers like Bangs, Meltzer, Tosches, John Mendelssohn (the self-proclaimed “King of L.A.”), and J.R. Young (who specialized in the record review as short story) just ran wild, building on the stream-of-consciousness spew of the Beats, the literary aspirations of the New Journalists, and the general Me Decade permissiveness while trying to capture the gonzo energy of the music in their prose.
The magazines and the music industry were happy to indulge them—for a time. Then rock became big business, and the party ended as abruptly as if someone had called the cops. Since then, much of this writing has gone the way of the wind in Dolphy’s saxophone. Most American libraries have a complete archive of Rolling Stone on microfilm, but Jann Wenner’s rag was always the least of the pioneering rock journals; it is difficult if not impossible to find full print runs of Creem, Fusion, Crawdaddy!, or Phonograph Record Magazine. The Underground Press Archive administered by the University of Chicago Library Research Center has perhaps half of the early issues of these and other early rock reads on film, but it’s the only public resource of its kind. After that, you’re at the mercy of collectors, or you’re shit out of luck.
For the simple cause of historic preservation, then, we should be thankful for two new anthologies from Da Capo Press—A Whore Just Like the Rest: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer and The Nick Tosches Reader. But the value of these two hefty tomes (591 and 593 pages respectively) doesn’t end there. For anyone who really cares about rock ’n’ roll as literature and literature as rock ’n’ roll, these volumes are destined for a place on the book shelf next to Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Marcus’s posthumous anthology of Bangs’s work. Taken together, they collect some of the most brilliant (and brilliantly uneven) writing since the earlier simpatico trio of Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac, and they serve as a scolding reminder of what this whole business of rock writing could have been.
The Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac comparison isn’t my own; it was Bangs’s romantic notion of what he and his buddies were up to. Meltzer and Tosches scoff at the idea—I interviewed them both several times while tracing Bangs’s life—but they certainly promoted each other’s work, and they were never averse to updating Beatnik antics for hard-rocking times. In 1971, they reviewed the first album by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen for Fusion and Rolling Stone under each other’s bylines and using each other’s signature styles, and they were subsequently banished from Stone for their sin. In 1975, they wrote the hysterically funny short story, “Frankie: Part 1,” one of several collaborations that appear in these collections; around the same time, they were ushered off the promotional gravy train after literally pissing in the punch bowl at one press conference too many.
Unlike California-born-and-bred Bangs, Meltzer and Tosches always had a wiseass New York edge—they never took things as seriously as their larger, smellier, heart-on-his-sleeve buddy. You want know-it-all punks? You want sneering class clowns? You want black-hearted cynics who hold nothing and no one sacred, least of all their rock-roll heroes (and don’t even think about mentioning political correctness)? These are your boys. Long before Howard Stern first cut the cheese on air, these guys made him superfluous. (Interestingly, one of the few times they get existentially heavy is when they memorialize their dead friend—both collections contain sections about Bangs—but even then they remain refreshingly irreverent and refuse to pander to simplistic rock ’n’ roll mythologizing.)
A native of rock-rock-Rockaway Beach, Meltzer was attending New York State University at Stony Brook when he wrote a sprawling, funny, and sometimes inscrutable treatise analyzing rock in comparison to the rest of the art produced by Western Civilization. In the spring of 1967, Williams retitled it “The Aesthetics of Rock” and printed it in the eighth issue of Crawdaddy!; it was later retooled to become the first bonafide rock book. Kicked out of graduate studies in philosophy at Yale, Meltzer found himself with time on his hands and forums eager to publish his rockin’ ruminations, hence pieces like “What A Goddam Great Second Cream Album,” “Steve & Eydie at the Palsy Telethon,” and “Pythagoras The Cave Painter” (a Hendrix review that prompted Jimi himself to ask, “You were stoned when you wrote that, right?”). These stories and 124 more dating from 1967 to 1999 appear in chronological order along with the forward to the 1986 edition of The Aesthetics of Rock and introductions that give the back story for most of these pieces—another of Meltzer’s stabs at a fractured autobiography.
Y’see, Meltzer’s primary subject has always been Meltzer. He contends that rock ’n’ roll as he loved it was pretty much dead by 1968; his response was to dance on its grave and tell us his own life story. It’s certainly more interesting than the tales of, say, Genya Ravan or Kim Fowley, two of many rockers he sidesteps herein. He prided himself on reviewing records without cracking the shrink wrap, and of making a Spectacle of himself in interviews with the likes of Lou Reed. (He irritated Unca Lou two years before Bangs did.) But even at his most obnoxious, he cared deeply about the words on the page; three decades later he’s still ranting about editors who dared to misplace a semicolon.
Moving out of the acid-academic phase of Aesthetics, Meltzer began to write like the punk on the street corner talked—lots of run-ons, truncations, and phonetic spellings like dis f’r instance—followed by ever-more imaginative experiments like dropping every third or fourth word in a sentence or cutting and pasting different chunks of story together to be read simultaneously. Use the word “postmodernist” in his presence and he’ll give you the raspberry or make threatening pro-wrestler moves, but inside he’ll be smiling and saying, “Kiss my Derrida, Greil Marcus!”
From a 1973 concert review: “Neil Young rhymes with real young. Neil Young, however, is 29 years old. At Carnegie Hall he sang ‘Old Kentucky Home’ (original version written by Stephen Foster who got played by Don Ameche—Neil’s favorite actor—in the movie). Anybody who sings ‘Old Kentucky Home’ is r-e-a-l old (maybe he oughta change his name to Neil Gold and then he could sing ‘Heart of Gold’ about himself).”
On one level, this is utter nonsense; on another, it’s three pretty funny jokes and one curious fact (Ameche did indeed play Foster, in 1939’s Swanee River) in a mere four sentences (mere being another word Meltzer loves). Finally, underneath all the noise, it’s actually a pretty insightful summation of Young’s essential shtick: Here is a rocker self-consciously embracing an old-time songwriter in a bid for authenticity—he was anxious to be a geezer 25 years before he actually was one—but he’s still eager to sell records, hence the lame single “Heart of Gold” (newly rewritten on Silver and Gold). Nice trick.
Stylistically, Newark, New Jersey native Tosches has always been more conventional. He’s capable of relatively “straight” journalism/history of the sort that Meltzer has rarely attempted, in addition to sarcastic self-examination—brutally funny journal entries like “Hillary Brooke’s Legs” and “My Overcoat, My Brains, and Me” rub elbows with eloquent and evocative profiles like “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the Monster” or the excerpt on Essau Smith from Unsung Heroes of Rock ’n’ Roll. (Both books contain samples from almost all of Meltzer and Tosches’s published works, non-fiction as well as novels like The Night (Alone) and Trinities, in addition to the rock effluvia—remember, these are arguments for literary immortality and/or none-too-subtle advertisements designed to send readers scurrying to Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com.)
While Meltzer is the ex-Ivy Leaguer who has spent a career camouflaging his intellect, Tosches is the graduate of the New York Public Library who treasures his multi-volume unabridged Oxford-American dictionary. He rejoices in evoking the ornate prose of the Old Testament, the dramatic arcs of Greek mythology, and the lessons of ancient history. At the same time, he’s a funny motherfucker who’ll turn Jersey on ya in a minute, with a sense of humor and a worldview rooted in his dad’s shot-and-a-beer bar. As with Meltzer, the autobiographical introductions are among the book’s chief joys; it’s a damn shame that Bangs didn’t have the chance to provide the same for Carburetor Dung.
Prime Tosches, on Jerry Lee Lewis from an feature that preceded his biography, Hellfire: “He looks mean. But not as mean as last night, when he straightened out that chump in the audience with one fast, cruel line; when he threw that swaggering record-company lifer from his dressing-room; when, at night’s end, he dared any man present to lift a hand against him. I tried to talk to him last night, but he was in too dark a mood. ‘What’s the weather gonna be like tomorrow in China?’’ he asked me. I told him I didn’t know, didn’t care; and he snarled his disgust. ‘Where do you wanna be buried?’ he asked me. ‘By the ocean,’ I answered. That was better. He nodded his indulgent approval. And so it went last night. Toward the end, he would talk of nothing but the Bible. At the end, he would talk of nothing at all.”
Rave on about Scorsese, DeLillo, The Sopranos. They ain’t got nothin’ on Nick.
Make no mistake: These books also contain a fair amount of barely readable wankery. Meltzer and Tosches own up to this; they were lucky to be able hone their chops for an interested readership at a time when writers were still allowed to “make a mess on the page,” as Tosches says. That time is now more than two decades gone, long forgotten in an age of two-thumbs-up, smiley-happy, four stars is never having to say you’re sorry, buy! buy! buy! careerist consumer blurbs masquerading as criticism. Bbbpppttthhh! to all that.
Fittingly, both books end with brief tastes of novels in progress. Tosches lives in New York, alternates fiction with fact (like his recent biography of Sonny Liston), and claims not to give a fuck about rock ’n’ roll anymore. Meltzer lives in Portland and protests a la The Godfather, Part III that he tries to get out but they keep pulling him back in; the penultimate section of his book contains a bunch of blurbs from The San Diego Reader that are nominally about upcoming concerts but really address anything but. Both men are full of shit. They may not write directly about the music, but the energy and spirit of the best rock ’n’ roll permeate everything they do. Over time, these anthologies may prove to be as evanescent as the scattered works they collect, or they may inspire a new generation of rock writers to overthrow this sorry business as it currently stands. Either way, they are whirlwinds well worth riding.
Originally published in L.A. New Times, spring 2000