Years ago, I remember reading early Meltzer and getting so much more out of his work than that by other more literary rock critics. He played with the language, free-associated and tossed around metaphors like choruses. That's the Meltzer who rocked with words. Maybe it's as simple as the fact that when rock was young, so was Meltzer glib, way confident, ready to go all night, to any club.
Like Lester Bangs, his alter ego in stone ages of rock writing, Meltzer wanted the force of his words to match the beat. Like Bangs, too (and very unlike most other early rock critics), Meltzer played in bands, wrote songs and sought record deals. His relationship with Patti Smith is not unlike Bangs' "friendship" with Lou Reed. They demanded that Smith and Reed treat them as the equals they were in their running, barhopping, late-night deep-talking days. How quickly did Meltzer perceive the winds of change in the rock-critic game? Within a few years, he writes, "Us writefolk trash, if we wanted in at all, (had) to abdicate our Responsibility, that of being rock and roll, and accede to our official 'duty,' that of shilling for the bastards."
Indeed, the book's final chapters betray too much cynicism and way too much bitterness for the whole rock-crit-lit game. (He hates his $75 a week "whore" writing stints for San Diego Reader, but still takes the gigs.) A Whore Just Like the Rest plots a curious course, obviously scripted chronologically; the reader just wants a happier ending. Writing about rock 'n' roll (or how about this: writing about writing about rock 'n' roll) often betrays a certain ambivalence on the writer's part. Rock is such a primal art. For rock 'n' roll done well, any analysis of the form dilutes its basic, on-the-beat, in-the-moment message. It's a set-up for a fall; the rock critic is already moving away from the moment. Writing about a perfect power-chord or a flawless harmony is never as good as that original down-stroke or vocal epiphany. Meltzer figured that out early. This collection is a testament to that fact.
Richard Meltzer wrote the first really good book about rock 'n' roll, The Aesthetics of Rock, in 1970. No dummy (as a Yale grad student, he wrote all his papers on rock music "to extend the text of philosophy"), at one point Meltzer pitched The New York Times a piece on Jimi Hendrix's second album way back when. (The rejected review is reprinted in Whore.)
One of the great sub-themes of Whore is how Meltzer details the rock-critic gravy train, all the free discs, parties and comped tickets. Aesthetics put him on every label's A-list. And all of a sudden Rolling Stone and Cream opened their checkbooks. Many of those pieces are included in Whore. Knowing the reader is as interested in the process as the content, he counsels about writing reviews simply to keep the freebies coming, "Warning to would-be toilers in these gamy waters: Don't let yourself be seduced by such trinkets; they're a habit worse than crack."
Meltzer often bit that publicity hand that fed him. He trashed bands in reviews, he bruised rock-star egos (detailed animosities dot Whore), and he loved food fights and jumping in album-launch-party water fountains. As often as he gained access, neck ringed with backstage passes, Meltzer was kicked out and/or banned from rock venues and entourages for over the top "enthusiasm."
While Whore anthologizes most of Meltzer's favorite pieces from a dozen magazines, he also adds a commentary setting up each entry. All of a sudden it's as if he's back at the Village Voice, jealously dueling with his editor Robert Christgau. Christgau always wins; that's in the rules. Meltzer shows no respect for any literary authority figure for sure. His grudges against his editors are aired very openly in Whore, which is too bad. While it does make for entertaining reading, surely some editors treated his work with respect. Anyone who likes rock 'n' roll, and even more to the point, likes reading about rock 'n' roll, gets an earful about writing about rock 'n' roll with the early vets of the movement. The dirty laundry of Christgau, Greil Marcus, Jon Landau and Sandy Pearlman is waved like freak flags. (RM: "Credit? I want credit for being Copernicus-Magellan-goddam Socrates to their coffee-table Thoreau.") He even trashes Linda Eastman McCartney and Jackson Browne with a few bitchy insider stories.
Usually in books that collect an author's work, the reader is treated to a lengthy list of career acknowledgements and appreciation to those who helped along the way. Whore has 16 pages of small-print index references but scrimps on the "thanks." Come on, Meltzer, there's no conspiracy, don't sign off with that "I coulda been a contenda" whine. Climb back on some of your old Hendrix, Dead, and Cream for a few more spins. The night is young. And quit hacking for the San Diego Reader unless you want to make those words matter.