It is morning in Portland, Oregon, where Richard Meltzer has lived for the past five years following some 20 years in Los Angeles. He currently writes for the San Diego Reader and Raygun, among other publications, and gets some royalties for his old Blue Oyster Cult lyrics. This morning, Meltzer has acquired a hangover in the process of trying to be a good host to his interviewer, a longtime friend (to whom, along with the late journalist Claude Bessy, he has dedicated his new compilation of music writings. Thank you, Richard.) His hair is untamed. His latest tattoo depicts a tombstone inscribed with “Mom”; from the grass in front of the tombstone, a female hand, having forced its way out of the grave, clutches at his left forearm. (Meltzer’s mother is alive.)
What kind of underwear do you prefer?
On myself? Cotton jockey shorts. Because of the search for a more environmentally sound detergent, white things don’t get as clean as they used to. So I’ve been replacing the white cotton with dark cotton.
Lemon yellow. When I was a kid, both my parents were taking night art classes. I would paint a small copy of what my father had painted, and I was better at it than he was by the time I was about 6. He would tell me the names of the colors: “Prussian blue is made with prussic acid. If it touches the tip of your tongue, you die.” I’ve always found yellow soothing.
Should women shave body hair?
My one fond memory of New York is that waitresses, in the summertime, wouldn’t wear sleeves. Most waitresses in New York in the ’70s had armpit hair. What a mammal thing! And in L.A., they didn’t, which was to me an amazing source of comparison. In Portland, I’d say most women do shave, but some do not. And as far as legs go, women are entitled to let the hair grow, but I like the touch of a smooth leg on a gal.
Portland is the best place I’ve ever lived. I feel I get more respect here, if not outright support, than I ever got in L.A. I think that the way I put it once was, in New York, my editors at The Village Voice called me an anti-intellectual. And I moved to L.A., and without missing a beat, I was branded an intellectual, which is akin to a leper. In Portland, I’m just a citizen. It is a more intelligent town. People read here, and independent bookstores survive here.
Is there any living person that you admire?
Maybe Gregory Corso, the last of the Beats, the one true young rascal, mischief-making guy, poet, who wasn’t precious about it at all. He’s in this horrible documentary about the Beats that came out last year, but he’s great in it. There’s this shot of him in a bar, with, y’know, his belly hanging out of his pants, and he’s got a beer mug in his hand, and he just seems like a regular guy.
How long does it take you to write a good paragraph now as compared to 1968?
A paragraph that is something that I care about will take me a day.
And in ’68?
Oh, a minute.
Writing in general?
Well, writing is something that I wouldn’t wish on a dog. I didn’t really think of myself as a writer until I’d been doing it professionally for about five years. I probably wanted to be a visual artist in those days. Slowly but surely, I started doing multiple drafts of things. And when I started writing poetry in ’80, ’81, it got to be where suddenly every syllable had to be music. And I went back to prose from that, and I couldn’t shake that high standard for myself, so by the early ’80s writing went from being easy to being almost impossible.
I’ll look at some of these old pieces and think that, aside from the fact that I did some in, like, half an hour, there must’ve been a gimmick that made them as good as they are, like some secret formula that I lost track of. I don’t know how I did it. I write seven days a week, and I would say I basically hate writing now. Just a terrible, terrible, terrible, difficult task. And I wouldn’t really encourage anybody to do that unless they’re nuts.
Would you prefer to be buried or cremated?
I used to say my real preference would be to be left out in the street for the flies. But you don’t tend to get that kind of wish fulfilled. I figure second choice would be buried. To have an epitaph, that’s nice.
Would you write your own epitaph?
Yeah, the book ends with that: “It was not entirely unbearable.”
Richard Meltzer reads from and signs A Whore Just Like the Rest at Skylight Books in Los Feliz, Thursday, May 18, at 7:30 p.m. (Yes, that would be tonight.)