By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
"I went to the hall of graduate studies, and all these guys were looking at me," he reminisces. "So they say to me, 'What drug are you on today?' and I take out this tin of nutmeg and say, 'Ha ha ha!' And I wasn't really flying on it yet. But within an hour, I was seeing every molecule in the sidewalk, and it's spring semester, and I just somehow in the course of that walk decided that I guess it was time to leave."
When Aesthetics was finally published by artist Emmett Williams' Something Else Press, it was an odd beast, filled with nonsense, non sequiturs and a hundred dead ends. "So what is it?" Meltzer wonders in his forward to the '86 edition:
Well, as long as you're asking, The Aesthetics of Rock [get your felt-tipped marker] is the nearly verbatim transcript of my first three years, 196568, of beating my head against various walls, personal and systematic, in an unguided, utterly ingenuous, unrestrainedly passionate attempt to make even provisional mega-sense out of something, far as I can tell even today, no one previous had particularly cared to "explore," verbally, much more than the frigging surface of: rock rock rock (and ROLL). Of which I was -- gosh -- a frigging, unwashed "disciple."
His book raised more questions: Is music a religion? Is rock & roll philosophy? Can it be a way of life?
TO UNDERSTAND HOW MELTZER PROceeded to live, you first have to know more about Aesthetics' contents. It served as his blueprint.
He opens the book by quoting the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" in its entirety, i.e., "Papa-ooma-mow-mow/Papa-oom-mow-ma-mow/Papa-ooma-ooma-ooma-ooma-ooma-mow-mow." In some quarters, it was received simply as parody -- a joke sprung on the increasingly self-important brand of rock criticism first championed by Crawdaddy!
"When he unleashed his manifesto . . . too many rock writers were literary types who focused on the words: the 'poetry of rock,'" writes New York Times pop critic Jon Pareles in an e-mail interview. "Meltzer rightly tore that approach apart. He was brilliant, he was cantankerous, and he was just about always hilarious to read. And he zeroed in on why people love rock so passionately. People love the noise, the thrills, the inarticulate stupid genius that blasts out of a loud three-minute throwaway. Meltzer saved rock criticism from trying to make the music respectable, and by doing that, he gave an incalculable gift not just to writers, but to the music too."
The book was more than a joke. Yes, trying to read straight through all 338 stream-of-consciousness pages is harder than parsing Heidegger. But try it sometime. Though couched in esoteric language, Meltzer's masterwork got at pop music's deeper meanings and effects better than any before or since.
He grafted Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band onto the rootstock of Plato. He proposed that rock wasn't a simple pleasure sold to teens, but rather the next logical stage in the history of art and Western philosophy. He was a philosopher of pop. Western art has always aspired to imbue audiences with vitality, he reasoned. Vitality is the feeling we associate with drunkenness and sex. Pop was great because it led straight to sex.
The Beatles provided his apotheosis. "So, as expected, it had to be the Beatles themselves to do the job of (one-more-time) summing up the recent by summing up the whole thing in a soft cataclysmic combination of death, sleep and multiplicity/variety, as if they hadn't done it before," he wrote, "so this time it would have to be a really real decisive end-of-culture/end-of-the-world thing. And that's precisely what Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Bandwas/is. Bringing with it the consequent death of art forever (until someone forgets) . . ."
As critic Greil Marcus explained in his introduction to the reprint, "The death of art is what rock & roll, as the brute actualization, had aimed for from the beginning; from the beginning, rock & roll had meant to change 'art' into everyday speech. In The Aesthetics of Rock, you can hear it happen."
The book has been alternately maligned and beloved. The back cover carries two notices: "One of 'The Best Rock & Roll Books Ever'" (from Britain's New Musical Express) and "One of 'The 10 Worst Rock Books'" (from The Book of Rock Lists). Its reception has positioned Meltzer as the successor to one of his primary models. He is the Friedrich Nietzsche of rock crit -- widely discussed, rarely read.
Meltzer forecast his own fate: "My critique may be of value relevant to the positive garbage heap of philosophy and art which has preceded, or it may end up on a different, smaller garbage heap, eaten by worms and forgotten; either way I will deem it similarly futilely triumphant and triumphantly futile."
DANGEROUS PASSIONS BEGET UNSTAble lives. This, in part, explains the course Meltzer took. In the '70s he became associated with Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches as a trio of hard-living rock critics the Village Voice's James Wolcott dubbed "the Noise Boys." Bangs went out like a rock star and has been canonized like one too. He overdosed on Darvon in '82. Tosches went on to a prestigious career as a novelist and literary journalist who specializes in antiquated cool, i.e., Dean Martin, Sonny Liston, and the search for an opium high. Meltzer began the '70s writing for Rolling Stone, but grew increasingly contemptuous of the industry growing up around the music.