THE WHORE OF BABYLON 

Richard Meltzer and the Mischief of the Rockcrit

RICHARD MELTZER is the author of several books, including L.A. Is The Capital Of Kansas, The Night (Alone): A Novel, and, most recently, A Whore Just Like The Rest. Whore is a collection of Meltzer's writing about music, mostly rock and roll, over the last four decades. Meltzer claims to have invented, along with Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches, the very category of 'rock critic.' He moved to Portland in 1995, is in his fifties, has dark, luxuriant eyebrows, a skull tattooed on one arm and a tombstone on the other, and thinks that punk rock is the only rock music of the last thirty years worth remembering.

prostitute, n. 1. a whore . . . 2. a person, as a writer, artist, etc., who sells his services for low or unworthy purposes.

Meltzer has written for all kinds of mags, rock and otherwise--everything from Rolling Stone and Spin to The Village Voice and The L.A. Reader. Now a writer with a much broader range, Meltzer says that in the beginning, being a 'rockcrit' meant trading reviews and articles about musicians for free copies of albums, free meals and free travel, all provided by the publicity departments of the record companies. Allegedly 'objective' magazines paid writers in the low two figures for their work, and got most of their revenue from ads placed by the industry itself.

The conflict of interest is obvious. Crass commercial concerns trumped any real objectivity.

sardonic, adj. bitterly ironic, sarcastic.

Meltzer's response to this covertly compromised system was to write what he calls "mischief." "The idea," Meltzer said, "was to turn in a piece with the attitude of, 'Take that, editor,' and 'Take that, publicist.' There wasn't any style sheet for rockcrit when I started, and when one developed, I tore it up." Mischief, Meltzer writes, is "the equivalent of rock itself."

Riffs. Meltzer writes riffs. A record review by R. Meltzer bears the same relationship to the record that a guitar solo bears to the melody. Long sentences full of wordplay pull together references from the entire history of twentieth-century American culture and mix it up with Meltzer's own gossipy personal narrative: debauchery, endless chasing after 'ginch', and a litany of long-held grudges from slights, sometimes decades in the past. Meltzer makes it clear throughout that he is not a writer who suffers fools.

zeitgeist, n. the spirit of the time.

Meltzer holds no cows sacred. In Whore he lets Frank Zappa hang himself with a lot of drivel about dog wee-wee. Bands beloved by millions--R.E.M., Talking Heads, Nirvana, Pearl Jam--he completely ignores, except to point out that he's ignoring them. He compares David Byrne to Steven Sondheim, "a writer of pop trifles." He loves sixties music, especially Jimi Hendrix ("the greatest blues guitar player ever") and The Beatles ("the best"), but he's long since given up listening to it. For Meltzer, the moment came and went. "You hadda be there," he says.

misanthrope, n. a hater or mistruster of mankind.

The sixties, punk, avant-garde jazz, and early folk blues--this is the music Meltzer values. He has no use for music that smacks of a sellout or panders to its audience, with special venom reserved for "that L.A. singer-songwriter crowd:" Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt. If he comes across as a professional curmudgeon, it's because he's been so disillusioned by the way rock sold itself out to reach a mainstream audience. Scratch a cynic and you'll find a failed romantic every time.

solipsism, n. the theory that nothing exists or is real but the self.

Meltzer's novel, The Night (Alone), is a collection of pieces written over years, strung together without plot or any characters developed other than the narrator's. Its organizing principle, Meltzer said, is "the linear progression of the author's mindset." His only subject, in the end, is himself. What makes it readable is his playfulness with language, his cheerful vulgarity, and his relentless pursuit of the truth about himself, however unflattering that truth might be.

nihilism, n. the general rejection of customary beliefs in morality, religion, etc.

The L.A. punk scene that Meltzer was a part of--bands like X, The Screamers, The Germs--died in 1983 when record companies started pumping money into the scene, corrupting bands "who had no thought until then that they were marketable." Before that happened the music was "a combination of clear-light vision and anarchy," which is exactly what Meltzer goes for as a writer. He disrupts the norms of writing in the service of the ugly truth.

quid pro quo, L. one thing in return for another.

I got my free copy of Meltzer's latest book through the good offices of this publication, which makes me, too, A Whore Just Like The Rest.

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