Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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R. Meltzer

His hands seem to hang to his knees; in fact, for metaphorical purposes it ought to be asserted that his hands do hang to his knees. Just like Bob Cousy. Meltzer is the Bob Cousy of the rock criticism game--plenty of feints and ape-like grace. Not since Walter Kaufmann, that beacon of our Frankie Avalon years, has a rock critic promoted himself with such assiduous indirection. Meltzer is the crawdaddy of us all. Jann Wenner, in an as yet unpublished letter, blamed Meltzer for all the philosophical excesses of the Eastern Rock Criticism Establishment, and if Wenner doesn't know, who does? Goldstein and Pearlman are out on the Island, Williams is fucking metaphorical swans in British Columbia, and Bob Mosley, the Moby Grape bassist who earned kudos from Michael Zwerin before Zwerin fled to Yurrup, has joined the Marines. Meanwhile, Meltzer's book, The Aesthetics of Rock, originally rejected as a thesis or something at Yale or someplace, has been published four years after the fact by Dick Higgins of the Something Else Press ($6.95 hardcover, $2.95 paperback, keep trying). Barney Rosset had it for a long while, but he didn't understand it. Higgins simply doesn't promote it, which is probably worse. He promises an ad, however, as soon as it is reviewed in Rolling Stone and The Voice. Right under Jann's nose, Rolling Stone has reviewed it twice, the old balanced approach: Rich Mangelsdorf liked it and Langdon Winner didn't though he was too clever to figure out how to say so. I like it. Other admirers of the book include Lorraine Alterman, Karin Berg, Roni Hoffman, Anne Marie Micklo, Lisa Robinson, Lillian Roxon, Ellen Sander, Ellen Willis, and Richard Kostelanetz.

With Meltzer, accuracy doesn't count anyway, not as much as what Nik Cohn (or John Mendelsohn) would call flash--mere flash. He is a brown-belt intellectual, a light-heavyweight up-and-comer with some staying power and a lot of flashy moves. He reviewed A.B. Skhy's first album without listening to it because he dug the cover in the window of a record shop. Other records he reviews only because he's been asked to, and no yarrowstalks either. His television column for Fusion one Christmas was a rundown on appliance-store bargains available around his home out on the Island. His piece on Abbott and Costello in the current edition of US looks like a dozen pages of TV Guide; it jumps from one time slot to another, almost impossible for anyone who is less than obsessive about A&C to follow, which may be the point, and may not. Similarly, he followed his piece on boxing in the first US with endlessly varied lists of contenders. It should come as no surprise that Meltzer has achieved some minor notoriety for his jello sculptures, for that suggests another way to perceive his writing: he creates word objects, bound paper sculptures, most often in cooperation with unwitting squares, sometimes--when he publishes his own book--alone. But unlike similar attempts (Andy Warhol's novel, for instance, the one Barney Rosset published) Meltzer's word objects are also interesting as writing.

These days, Meltzer most often works (plays?) (diddles?) when he is drunk, watching television, or both. What is simply amazing about his writing is that he is simultaneously brilliant and full of shit, informative and obscurantist, ungodly rational and stone mad, campy and camp, without gaining or losing interest. He obliterates the concept of repetition, one of the most important recurrent themes in his patchwork analysis of rock, by repeating it over and over. He veers from half-digested philosophy grad student jargon to pop slang, quotes from Willard Von Ormond Quine and Hit Parader. His book has no chapters: it is divided into text (subdivided into paragraphs) and epilogue (to make the book seem less dated and ditto) and footnotes (sometimes). It does have illustrations. Why not? Help it sell, right? Meltzer is not only a prophet of eclecticism--the key term in all pseudo-highbrow rock criticism--but one of its practitioners. In a decontextualized way he embodies Frisco Fred Gardner's dictum: "Wish I had a theory/To play on my guitar/Practice practice practice/Sure don't get you very far."

It has been charged that, like a lot of other rock critics, especially Nik Cohn, Meltzer is unable to distinguish between the banal rock of our youth and the serious music of today, but this misses the point. Unlike most of his colleagues, Meltzer transcends the artistic value of recent rock. After all, what is more banal than seriousness; or, why get pissed off at Led Zeppelin and Simon and Garfunkel when they are just as naive and commercial in relation to their audience as the Bobbettes? The Aesthetics of Rock is easily the most insightful book ever published about rock, and the most unnecessary, and there is no need to extend the dichotomies any further. It has always seemed to me that Meltzer should end his pieces in the middle.

Village Voice, July 23, 1970