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Richard Meltzer, Noise Boy 

Wednesday, Jun 12 2002
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Photo by S. Hason

Without music, life would be a mistake.

--Friedrich Nietzsche

RICHARD MELTZER IS ONE OF THE best rock writers there ever was. He lives in Portland. He moved there from Los Angeles in 1995. It's cloudy most of the time.

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"Gray is the color the sky should be most of the year," he says. "Los Angeles has less existential reverb than cardboard."

Meltzer, 57, has taken to Portland like a native. The city is an odd backwater where beatniks, hippies, punks and hicks effortlessly coexist. In Meltzer, the four styles merge. Recently, I spent three days' time trailing him. His "look" did not change. It's modified lumberjack -- red-and-black flannel shirt, black jeans, black Nikes. His hair is gray and pulled back into a short ponytail. Even with a beard, Meltzer looks a bit like a young Robert De Niro, and he won't hesitate to tell you that.

These days his is a quiet, suburban life. When I visit him at his little yellow house in Burnside, a bohemian part of town, the first thing he does is show me his pussy, Hooper. The cat is in his lap. He pierces the flesh over the animal's spine with a catheter needle, inserts a length of rubber tubing into the drip chamber that feeds it, and squeezes on the IV bag that delivers the 17-year-old animal sweet relief.

"Up until two years ago he was a hunter and a fighter," says Meltzer. "But now he's sick. Once a day, for the last year and a half, I've had to give him 115 cc's of fluids. He got the way he is today because for his whole life he was a street cat, and from fighting he got abscesses all over his body. His kidneys are completely shot. In the morning, I have to give him a dose of thyroid rubbed in a gel in his ear. I do that at night too. So three times a day, I have to deal with the cat."

Hooper does not protest. He freezes when Meltzer makes his first gentle jab, sliding the needle in, but soon enough the tension dissipates. The cat unwinds. He's almost relaxed. Meltzer tells me that Hooper sometimes purrs through the procedure.

"These days I'm stuck with this life-and-death shit every day," he says. I can't help but sense he finds a kind of peace in that.

THOUGH SOME MAY QUIBBLE, RICHARD Meltzer was the first critic to make a serious effort at understanding rock & roll. The Aesthetics of Rock was the first book about rock music. Sort of. It wasn't published until 1970, but it made the rounds of various New York publishers in '68. To quote Meltzer in the forward to the 1986 reprint, "Aside from happening to be my own first book, this here whatsis was/is the first 'serious rock book' ever written (though hardly the first one published), an achievement which I must confess has yet to make me sick."

Reporters and critics had been trying to get at the meaning of rock music before Meltzer came along. Richard Goldstein, an editor at the Village Voice, began writing critical pieces about rock in 1966. Three newspaper columnists -- Jane Scott of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Al Aronowitz of the New York Post and Ralph J. Gleason of the San Francisco Chronicle -- all came before Goldstein, and are contenders for the title of "first." (To this day, Gleason is memorialized at the bottom of Rolling Stone's masthead: "Ralph J. Gleason 1917­1975." Jane Scott just retired this spring, at the age of 83.) None of these writers, however, had the same depth of engagement with the music as Meltzer. His insights bordered on the spiritual, perhaps because he approached music with heedless passion. This is rare in critics, but it's crucial to both making and comprehending pop music. Others documented the phenomenon of rock in the '60s. Meltzer lived it.

"Although no empirical comparison is possible, Nietzsche's Dionysiac revelry has been utterly surpassed by the rock & roll frenzy," he wrote in Aesthetics. "The night following the 1964 presidential election, I attended an orgy of an election party partaking in the rock & roll experience . . . [Rolling Stones] songs such as 'King Bee' ('Well I'm a king bee, baby /Buzzin' 'round your hive./I can make honey baby; Just ä let me come inside') and 'Can I Get a Witness' (with its grinding piano) precipitated, after drinking, such actions as couples disrobing in obscure attic bathrooms and the successful seduction of a university coed by a university professor, in addition to general rampant cavorting on the floors and couches."

As this quote reveals, his early rock & roll life played out before an academic backdrop. The book started as a paper titled "A Sequel: Tomorrow's Not Today," which he crafted as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and later as a philosophy grad student at Yale. Retitled The Aesthetics of Rock, it was excerpted in the February 1967 issue of Paul Williams' Crawdaddy!, the first serious rock magazine. That same month, Meltzer was expelled for general rabble-rousing, though he explains that the decision was mutual.

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