Richard Meltzer grows up, not old
BY MIKE MILIARD
Plateful of life
The Phoenix called Richard Meltzer at his home in Portland, Oregon, to talk about living, dying, and writing.
Q: So why this book? Why now?
A: Just about all the pieces in the book were done on assignment. I didnít conceive any of them as likely to cohere with each other when I wrote them. But it dawned on me that six or seven of the last 10 things Iíd written ó other than piddling little music reviews ó these meatier pieces seemed to be of a kind. The title piece, basically, the San Diego Reader wanted me to write about getting old. As I explain in the piece, I said to them, "Well, Iím not there yet. Iíll start taking notes." [Laughs]
Q: But in "The Wisdom in Our Underwear" you forecast your death for 2005. Thatís pretty soon.
A: I began that piece in, I think it was í96. I was reeling from this feeling of absolute frustration. I had a novel come out in í95 [The Night Alone] that my editor kind of abandoned me on. I really felt like I would kind of slip through the cracks and disappear from the face of the earth, publishing-wise. So when I wrote that piece originally, itís possible I didnít have physically much longer to go. But more than that, it was the sense that I would die unread, unsung. I feel neither of those two factors at play anymore. Iím 58, I feel healthy as a horse.
Q: When I spoke with you three years ago, you said that writing "weakens me more all the time," and you likened it to "throwing a 300-pound basketball through hoops 70 feet in the air." Is it even harder now?
A: Itís gotten easier. Itís gotten a lot easier. Because I just donít feel as much like a stick-in-the-mud perfectionist. There doesnít seem to be a lot of reason to fuss over every syllable like I did for years and suffer if a sentence reads clunky. Itís become more a kind of emanation of who I am rather than the result of forced labor.
Q: How do you think youíve changed over the past nearly four decades of being a writer?
A: Iíve come to where I feel like I can live in my own skin.... I just basically have come to trust myself. Without putting on a show, without putting on feathers and a lampshade to get attention for whatever it is I always thought I had to say. Whatever song Iíve imagined has been my song to sing, I just assume Iím singing it now. Iím not trying to bolster it with a bunch of silly dance. The writing is something Iím doing within life, living, in vivo, as opposed to something I must do to document the living.
Q: What else do you do with yourself these days?
A: Actually, Iíve been thinking in visual terms a lot. Iíve been going through these old boxes of drawings I did in fourth grade and junior high and hanging them up. I have a drawing I did of a giant squid versus a whale. I did it when I was 10, I think it was after seeing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And I framed that this week. I actually built the frame. I sawed wood and painted it and framed it.
Q: Talk about how time flies. You write in the book, "At 26 I didnít think much about eventually being 49. If I did at all, it was simply in arithmetic terms ó that it would take me 23 years to get there. Whoídíve thought it would only take 9 or 10?"
A: How old are you, by the way?
A: Ahhh, see, that was the year where it was pretty scary for everybody. I was 26 when everybody died at 27. Brian, Jimi, Jim, Janis. They all died at 27. I was 26, and I was like, am I gonna make it to 27? Am I gonna make it to 30? And once I realized that you make it as far as your body will carry you ... yíknow, these numbers donít mean a lot. This thing called life, itís on your plate, and no matter how much you eat off your plate, it goes at a certain pace. I canít imagine that how you live it makes it go faster or slower. It just goes. Zoom. Therefore, I guess, itís a good idea to eat as much as is on the plate. I feel I have a bit left.
Richard Meltzer is either a "pre-geezer, a late pre-geezer, or an early geezer" ó he ainít quite sure which. But any way you slice it, the 58-year-old is many years and billions of beers removed from his salad days as one of rock criticismís founders and its undisputed enfant terrible. It was Meltzerís sprawling, cheekily inscrutable 1965 tome, The Aesthetics of Rock, which applied the abstruse philosophical enquiries he was pondering as a (soon-to-be-expelled) philosophy grad student at Yale to the songs of the Trashmen and the Stones, and which stands as the first instance of rock and rollís being apprehended as something more substantial than party music. Meltzer was barred from the pages of Rolling Stone for conspiring with buddy Nick Tosches to submit reviews under each otherís bylines, aping each otherís styles. He penned frenetic, hilarious screeds about LPs heíd neglected to listen to. He palled around with Blue Öyster Cult (and co-wrote their hit "Burniní for You"). He was enlisted by the Sex Pistols to rile the audience with stage-spewed contumely at their last concert. And his drunken antics and antisocial rants eventually alienated him from many of the self-appointed arbiters of the vocation heíd helped invent.
But a funny thing happened on the "cusp of fucking dotage." Meltzerís forthcoming collection of essays and poems, Autumn Rhythm: Musings on Time, Tide, Aging, Dying, and Such Biz (Da Capo), suggests that the piss and vinegar, bombast and spleen that were for so long his stock in trade have at least partly given way to probing introspection and a pensive empathy. Of course, that shouldnít be so surprising; wines and people mellow with age. But in Meltzerís case, the change is especially striking. Heís matured into a writer whose meditations on morbidity sing with vitality because, while heís shed some of his peculiar brand of protective bluster, heís forfeited neither his visually stimulating prose styling (artful ellipses, inventive contractions, pages spattered ó like the Pollock painting after which the book is named ó with eye-grabbing italics and lurid ALL CAPS) nor his mordant sense of humor.
"Every day, rain or shine, you see them," Meltzer writes in Autumn Rhythmís title piece, "chugging down the avenoo ó paunchy, stoopy, prune-faced, droopy, drooly ó what a scene! Two and three abreast they come, clogging sidewalks with their arthrickety tortoise-dawdle: geezers on parade!" If heís able to chuckle at íem, Meltzerís also keenly aware heíll soon be joining their ranks. These spirited scribblings, on the many years past and the few ahead, on ailing felines and unhealthy habits, represent Meltzerís thrashing about for some insight into his own senescence. But just as the past several decades of his career have seen him taking pains to distance himself from his reputation as a "rockwriter" ó he claims to have given up on rock and roll 20 years ago, and heís written little music criticism since ó heís just as apprehensive that a book like this will peg him as a "a deathanddyingwriter." With a voice this vigorous, there are worse things to be.
Take a sprawling, irreverent piece like "The Wisdom in Our Underwear: Final Notes on the Only Century Weíve Got for Another Week," in which this í60s spawn (call him a boomer at your peril) says so long to the 20th century ó everything itís given us and everything itís cursed us with. From happy ruminations on being born on the same day (May 11, 1945) and in the same city (New York) where Dizzy Gillespie was recording "Salt Peanuts," to a í60s postmortem that revises the revisionism plaguing that pivotal decade, to futile expressions of fear and loathing over the general decline of the NFL, pro wrestling, and other trifles like literacy and democracy at the millenniumís close (donít get him started on the Internet), Meltzer posits himself as a curmudgeon who cares. An added bonus: he thinks up 20 anagrams ó TWIN TRUENCY TEETH, TEEN WINE TRUTH ó for "twentieth century."
But for all the wild-eyed wackiness of Meltzerís wickedly funny worldview, heís most affecting when he focuses on the personal. Although in "Autumn Rhythm" he writes that "Jim Carroll beat me to ĎPeople Who Died,í so I wonít even list all my friends who are dead," two of the bookís richest moments are brief takes on erstwhile fellow travelers whoíve since traveled beyond. In "Dust," he thinks back on ex-galfriend Helen Wheels, the leather-clad heavy-metal spitfire who died during an operation. Thereís no wailing and gnashing of teeth, just a sort of bemused, carnally candid meditation on "the first woman Iíve fucked to end up dead." And in the brutally beautiful poem "Goodbye Pork Pie Cravat," he simultaneously eulogizes his friend Lester Bangs and punctures the penumbra of saintliness that shimmers these days around the revered rock writer who once called Meltzer "the only rock critic I was influenced by."
Two essays (one revisiting an ickily Oedipal decades-old poem) show Meltzer at his most nakedly forthcoming. Writing about his parents, he limns his fraught relationships with them both, making furtive stabs at his own complicity therein. In the "The Old Fuckeroo," he waxes ambivalent about his late father, a "sentimental slob, a í40s romantic in desperate need of a compliant LOVE OBJECT, [who] inflicted his ardor on me in direct proportion to what he wasnít getting from his wife." In "Middle Beginning End," he offers a surprisingly tender account of his ambiguous rapport with his fast-fading mother. Weaving revivified childhood memories and transcripts of conversations with a woman who recognizes Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek more readily than her son, itís Autumn Rhythmís most recent piece, and Meltzerís most touching work. It succeeds because among comedic interludes like a shuddering backward glance at momís God-awful cooking ó "slime-baked frozen mackerel" and grilled-cheese Saltines soaked in sputtering oil ("Great moments in killing your kids!") ó he hides quiet epiphanies. "[W]hen the wits are gone and the glue (qua glue) is gone, well, itís just about people, with all their relational baggage, decades apart in age, galaxies apart in experience, relating to each other as, well, people," he writes. "Nothing is ever neutral or symmetrical or anything like reciprocal ó everyoneís baggage is immense, and too immensely complicated ó but maybe if youíre fortunate you can wing a sort of neutral non-neutrality ... a less baggaged baggagedness."
Meltzer claims heís changed more (for the better) in the autumn of his years than he ever did in the spring or summer, even if "ten years ago, I looked like Robert De Niro, the young Robert De Niro. I now look like Ulysses S. Grant." And as he weighs the exigencies of his waning years ("I should probably take acid at least one more time"), he also looks back on his legacy and gauges what he can churn out in the time he has left. At the rate he writes, Meltzer reckons, heís got a good three or four books left in him. In the meantime, this "genírous helping of smut, rant, provocative grocery lists, reviews of wrestling and lubricated condoms, bon mots, [and] lively filler" should hold us over.
Mike Miliard can be reached at mmiliard[a]phx.com