Robert Levine – “The Death of High Fidelity” (2007)

January 25, 2009 at 5:29 pm (Reviews & Articles)

This interesting article comes from the Dec. 27, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone, discussing the sorry state of CD sound quality over the past few years…

In the Age of MP3s, Sound Quality is Worse Than Ever


David Bendeth, a producer who works with rock bands like Hawthorne Heights and Paramore, knows that the albums he makes are often played through tiny computer speakers by fans who are busy surfing the Internet. So he’s not surprised when record labels ask the mastering engineers who work on his CDs to crank up the sound levels so high that even the soft parts sound loud.

Over the past decade and a half, a revolution in recording technology has changed the way albums are produced, mixed and mastered — almost always for the worse. “They make it loud to get [listeners’] attention,” Bendeth says. Engineers do that by applying dynamic range compression, which reduces the difference between the loudest and softest sounds in a song. Like many of his peers, Bendeth believes that relying too much on this effect can obscure sonic detail, rob music of its emotional power and leave listeners with what engineers call ear fatigue. “I think most everything is mastered a little too loud,” Bendeth says. “The industry decided that it’s a volume contest.”

Producers and engineers call this “the loudness war,” and it has changed the way almost every new pop and rock album sounds. But volume isn’t the only issue. Computer programs like Pro Tools, which let audio engineers manipulate sound the way a word processor edits text, make musicians sound unnaturally perfect. And today’s listeners consume an increasing amount of music on MP3, which eliminates much of the data from the original CD file and can leave music sounding tinny or hollow. “With all the technical innovation, music sounds worse,” says Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, who has made what are considered some of the best-sounding records of all time. “God is in the details. But there are no details anymore.”


The idea that engineers make albums louder might seem strange: Isn’t volume controlled by that knob on the stereo? Yes, but every setting on that dial delivers a range of loudness, from a hushed vocal to a kick drum — and pushing sounds toward the top of that range makes music seem louder. It’s the same technique used to make television commercials stand out from shows. And it does grab listeners’ attention — but at a price. Last year, Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone that modern albums “have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static.”

In 2004, Jeff Buckley’s mom, Mary Guibert, listened to the original three-quarter-inch tape of her son’s recordings as she was preparing the tenth-anniversary reissue of Grace. “We were hearing instruments you’ve never heard on that album, like finger cymbals and the sound of viola strings being plucked,” she remembers. “It blew me away because it was exactly what he heard in the studio.”

To Guibert’s disappointment, the remastered 2004 version failed to capture these details. So last year, when Guibert assembled the best-of collection So Real: Songs From Jeff Buckley, she insisted on an independent A&R consultant to oversee the reissue process and a mastering engineer who would reproduce the sound Buckley made in the studio. “You can hear the distinct instruments and the sound of the room,” she says of the new release. “Compression smudges things together.”

Too much compression can be heard as musical clutter; on the Arctic Monkeys’ debut, the band never seems to pause to catch its breath. By maintaining constant intensity, the album flattens out the emotional peaks that usually stand out in a song. “You lose the power of the chorus, because it’s not louder than the verses,” Bendeth says. “You lose emotion.”

The inner ear automatically compresses blasts of high volume to protect itself, so we associate compression with loudness, says Daniel Levitin, a professor of music and neuroscience at McGill University and author of “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.” Human brains have evolved to pay particular attention to loud noises, so compressed sounds initially seem more exciting. But the effect doesn’t last. “The excitement in music comes from variation in rhythm, timbre, pitch and loudness,” Levitin says. “If you hold one of those constant, it can seem monotonous.” After a few minutes, research shows, constant loudness grows fatiguing to the brain. Though few listeners realize this consciously, many feel an urge to skip to another song.

“If you limit range, it’s just an assault on the body,” says Tom Coyne, a mastering engineer who has worked with Mary J. Blige and Nas. “When you’re fifteen, it’s the greatest thing — you’re being hammered. But do you want that on a whole album?”

To an average listener, a wide dynamic range creates a sense of spaciousness and makes it easier to pick out individual instruments — as you can hear on recent albums such as Dylan’s Modern Times and Norah Jones’ Not Too Late. “When people have the courage and the vision to do a record that way, it sets them apart,” says Joe Boyd, who produced albums by Richard Thompson and R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction. “It sounds warm, it sounds three-dimensional, it sounds different. Analog sound to me is more emotionally affecting.”


Rock and pop producers have always used compression to balance the sounds of different instruments and to make music sound more exciting, and radio stations apply compression for technical reasons. In the days of vinyl records, there was a physical limit to how high the bass levels could go before the needle skipped a groove. CDs can handle higher levels of loudness, although they, too, have a limit that engineers call “digital zero dB,” above which sounds begin to distort. Pop albums rarely got close to the zero-dB mark until the mid-1990s, when digital compressors and limiters, which cut off the peaks of sound waves, made it easier to manipulate loudness levels. Intensely compressed albums like Oasis’ 1995 (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? set a new bar for loudness; the songs were well-suited for bars, cars and other noisy environments. “In the Seventies and Eighties, you were expected to pay attention,” says Matt Serletic, the former chief executive of Virgin Records USA, who also produced albums by Matchbox Twenty and Collective Soul. “Modern music should be able to get your attention.” Adds Rob Cavallo, who produced Green Day’s American Idiot and My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, “It’s a style that started post-grunge, to get that intensity. The idea was to slam someone’s face against the wall. You can set your CD to stun.”

It’s not just new music that’s too loud. Many remastered recordings suffer the same problem as engineers apply compression to bring them into line with modern tastes. The new Led Zeppelin collection, Mothership, is louder than the band’s original albums, and Bendeth, who mixed Elvis Presley’s 30 #1 Hits, says that the album was mastered too loud for his taste. “A lot of audiophiles hate that record,” he says, “but people can play it in the car and it’s competitive with the new Foo Fighters record.”


Just as CDs supplanted vinyl and cassettes, MP3 and other digital-music formats are quickly replacing CDs as the most popular way to listen to music. That means more convenience but worse sound. To create an MP3, a computer samples the music on a CD and compresses it into a smaller file by excluding the musical information that the human ear is less likely to notice. Much of the information left out is at the very high and low ends, which is why some MP3s sound flat. Cavallo says that MP3s don’t reproduce reverb well, and the lack of high-end detail makes them sound brittle. Without enough low end, he says, “you don’t get the punch anymore. It decreases the punch of the kick drum and how the speaker gets pushed when the guitarist plays a power chord.”

But not all digital-music files are created equal. Levitin says that most people find MP3s ripped at a rate above 224 kbps virtually indistinguishable from CDs. (iTunes sells music as either 128 or 256 kbps AAC files — AAC is slightly superior to MP3 at an equivalent bit rate. Amazon sells MP3s at 256 kbps.) Still, “it’s like going to the Louvre and instead of the Mona Lisa there’s a 10-megapixel image of it,” he says. “I always want to listen to music the way the artists wanted me to hear it. I wouldn’t look at a Kandinsky painting with sunglasses on.”

Producers also now alter the way they mix albums to compensate for the limitations of MP3 sound. “You have to be aware of how people will hear music, and pretty much everyone is listening to MP3,” says producer Butch Vig, a member of Garbage and the producer of Nirvana’s Nevermind. “Some of the effects get lost. So you sometimes have to over-exaggerate things.” Other producers believe that intensely compressed CDs make for better MP3s, since the loudness of the music will compensate for the flatness of the digital format.

As technological shifts have changed the way sounds are recorded, they have encouraged an artificial perfection in music itself. Analog tape has been replaced in most studios by Pro Tools, making edits that once required splicing tape together easily done with the click of a mouse. Programs like Auto-Tune can make weak singers sound pitch-perfect, and Beat Detective does the same thing for wobbly drummers.

“You can make anyone sound professional,” says Mitchell Froom, a producer who’s worked with Elvis Costello and Los Lobos, among others. “But the problem is that you have something that’s professional, but it’s not distinctive. I was talking to a session drummer, and I said, ‘When’s the last time you could tell who the drummer is?’ You can tell Keith Moon or John Bonham, but now they all sound the same.”


So is music doomed to keep sounding worse? Awareness of the problem is growing. The South by Southwest music festival recently featured a panel titled “Why Does Today’s Music Sound Like Shit?” In August, a group of producers and engineers founded an organization called Turn Me Up!, which proposes to put stickers on CDs that meet high sonic standards.

But even most CD listeners have lost interest in high-end stereos as surround-sound home theater systems have become more popular, and superior-quality disc formats like DVD-Audio and SACD flopped. Bendeth and other producers worry that young listeners have grown so used to dynamically compressed music and the thin sound of MP3s that the battle has already been lost. “CDs sound better, but no one’s buying them,” he says. “The age of the audiophile is over.”

Robert Levine

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Richard Meltzer – “Vinyl Reckoning” (1999)

January 25, 2009 at 2:05 pm (Reviews & Articles)

This long article comes from the one & only Richard Meltzer, from a July 2, 1999 issue of Chicago Reader


A Rockcrit Pioneer’s Life in Records


Some names and situations in this story have been changed to protect private individuals.


Things we’ve saved and saved and SAVED. For all the stupid reasons you or I or anybody saves things. You can’t take them “with you,” not all, not any, but chances are what’s left is but a micro-fraction of the total heap o’ shit that in the course of a life has passed through your prehensile puppy paws. Gone is that copy of Zap Comix number three, and gone is the radium-dial Howdy Doody watch, and the actual puck Frank Mahovlich scored goal number 489 with against Toronto; and gone gone GONE are all the silly goddamn STAMPS you once fervidly “collected,” only a fool would hold on to that shit, and you’re no fool, neither am I.

But you’ve kept the tattered squirrel hanky, right?, that old snotrag your mom hand painted for your sixth (or was it seventh?) birthday, and the yellow plastic space helmet from 1953, excellent plastic like they don’t make anymore–hard, not very flexible, like you think would be brittle, but ’tain’t brittle–with a brim like on baseball caps–this is one dizzy helmet!–or if YOU haven’t kept ’em, I know I have.

And oh, speaking of plastic: records.


As they always had previously, the last time I played the eponymously titled Revolutionary Ensemble (Inner City 3016), somewhere in the early 80s, the sparrows nesting in the vent above my living room gas heater responded to it. In the notes to that album is a poem about symmetries in music and nature (“The trees joyously wave their branches in rhythm with the wind”), and here was evidence in my own frigging home: birds don’t just sing, sometimes they listen. As I was obsessed with cacophonous post-60s jazz at the time–following the death of punk rock, it’s what I played even to wake up in the morning–it was nice to see the birdies share my preference, and for this particular alb they chirped like banshees. Chirping with, not against–although y’never know… this was four or five homes ago.

Dunno how they’d’ve felt about Swift Are the Winds of Life (Survival SR-112), an earlier recording by the Ensemble’s violinist, Leroy Jenkins, with Rashied Ali–I never played it for them. All I know is Justine didn’t like it, and neither, not really, did I. Certain installments of Leroy’s playing have struck me as shrill and toothy without real bite, neither shark nor bulldog teeth (like you get with Ornette Coleman’s fiddling, for inst, or Billy Bang’s), at most maybe greyhound teeth–and “romantic” in the annoying sense of hot & bothered yet austere–and this outing was one of them.

In 1976 or ‘7, to persuade Robert Christgau, my bag-o-wind editor at the Village Voice, to let me write about jazz (he considered me a “rock-identified critic”), I did a nonrock “think piece” in which I claimed, among other things, that increasing the aural input of jazz around the house will enliven (for example) your dreams and sex acts. With the latter in mind, just to test the premise with album X, I fucked and ate Justine–my number three or four all-time love object–with a side of Swift Are the Winds spinning…which probably didn’t prolong my tenure.

(The piece never ran.)


At the absolute height of my collectional zeal, bloated by too many years on the promo-album dole, my LP stash numbered in the THOUSANDS. Three? Four? Five? I now own, well, hundreds–many, most, almost all of which I never play, probably will never play. True–many or most are scratched or warped, caked with beer, wine, and fingerprints. But even among those eminently playable, there isn’t that much turntable action. (I also have, oh, at least a thousand CDs–so what’s new? My acquisitiveness appears undiminished.)

Thousands down to hundreds–for all the fine and stupid reasons I or you or anyone periodically tosses stuff. Every time it seems like I’ve hit rock bottom, nothing left to toss, it turns out there’s another item or five to weed out. In any case, it feels mandatory to regularly check the stack, and rarely if ever is playability alone a criterion. (It’s far more neurotic than that.)

Hundreds; how ’bout we go for fewer hundreds?

Retaining…tossing…merely FUSSING WITH. Even with a drastically shortened stack, an unending chore.


In the fall of ’66, I embarked on a simple mission: to expand the palette–the text–of philosophy as dealt at American institutes of higher et cetera by slipping massive references to rock-roll, psychedelic drugs, pop art, biker films, and other contempo-cultural wigouts into term papers, classroom discussions, and the Q & As that followed lectures by celebrity academics–a reasonable goal, no? My mistake was in believing such a hoot would play in the hallowed dungeons of the grad school at Yale, where the Mayflower fucks who ran the show would’ve shit in a teacup before letting my atheistjew contagion defile their ivied walls.

I didn’t fare much better with my fellow philo students. In the waning weeks before my expulsion became final–already on probation, I could smell it coming–I’d invite these dullards up to my room, offer them pot (they’d decline), and put on some sides. Though I had everything by the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, the Byrds, Love, most of the Kinks, the first Doors–it was the spring, by now, before the SUMMER OF LOVE–all they would sit for was “I Feel Like Homemade Shit,” on The Fugs First Album (ESP 1018). Those who had heard it before would tell newcomers, “Listen–here!–he’s saying ‘shit’!!” (underneath all the mock country harmonies and copious yodeling). Then the newies would grill me: “Is this illegal? Could we all go to jail for this?” What a pack of cheesepuffs!–these jackjills who today teach our kids, or yours (I don’t own, excuse me, have any).


In his Metaphysics, or was it Physics?–‘s been so long since I read this crap–Aristotle speaks of four causes, none of which’re all that close to how we think of cause these days, something on the order of that which produces an effect, result, or consequence. They’re more like parameters of responsibility or even (in an old-fashioned legal sense) liability. Actually, one isn’t too far off: efficient cause, i.e., whatever the hell brings a thing or event into being (for ex.: a maker or parent). He’s also got formal cause (the form, shape, structure of the whatsit), final cause (the use or goal it embodies), and the most seemingly no-big-deal of the bunch, material cause (simply its matter).

Apply this bullticky to records, to the recorded-music EXPERIENCE, pre-CD, and the material component–grooved, sculpted vinyl–more than holds its own. So supremely vulnerable is this whatzostuff, so susceptible to further onslaughts of form–resculptings, regroovings, smirchings, and encrustings–that a whole hot WAD of variations on theme is table-set and served from the get-go:

Stations of sonic show & tell, shown/ told…all the skips, sticks, jumps, hisses, cracklepops that document devotion, confirm getoff…”To love a record is to kill it” (the CD lobby speaking), but love or loathe, it’s abuse either way…flat black plastic: as “interactive” as Silly Putty (or a slice of pizza)…wear and tear as index of both age and youth–the record’s age and the object-management blunders of YOUR youth… ditches-cum-glitches fractionalizing, obliterating, rendering inaccessible even quasi-original sound, grave-marking its exit from this auditory life…(hey, I once got a used Sun Ra elpee, took it home, and found a hole in it, not the spindle hole–a CRATER at the start of one track that went clear through to the other side)…books, by comparison, don’t suffer such wear/tear in finite time, or rather, their wear/tear doesn’t normally preclude continued full-bore interaction, doesn’t annihilate lines, pages, whole chapters (or render them especially unreadable)…even in their DISPOSABILITY, a residuum of sonic potential: records as Frisbees–the adventitious sounds of flight and smackup…

All penultimate to the final outpost of vinyl irony: the unit record, irrespective of its health or welfare, DECOMMISSIONED…freed of sonic obligation…
serving no ongoing material function but to give body to a cover and sleeve…silenter than a Cage silence piece…



The question is this: Have I saved the LP version of the Germs’ (GI) (Slash SR-103) as an “investment,” or as the one Los Angeles punk-era thingy I might wanna ogle and caress someday, my designated LA Punk keepsake? To make the rent, sure, I’d probably sell it for 50 bucks, no, it would hafta be at least 100–75?–but for now it’s a keeper, even though the CD reissue, (MIA) (Slash/London 422-828 808-2), sounds pretty good, pretty close. Which is something you gotta consider with digitalized analog rock–if you’re thinking replacement–’cause all hype to the contrary, CDs do NOT sound better, and rarely anywhere as good. Even recordings not butchered in remix (eat shit, Paul McCartney!) tend to lose more in mere remastering (intangibles like “presence” and “warmth,” in addition to simple aural data–the forest and the trees) than decades of surface destruction can ever take away. The fact is: predigital rock ALWAYS sounds superior, even with all the destruction factored in–for moments anyway, enough to supply GLIMPSES, at least, of not only an imaginably better sonic world, but an actual preexistent one.

Anyway, ’79: a verrry good year. LA, a worthless sucktown for just about everything else, had somehow become the locus for prob’ly the vitalest, most interesting assortment of punk groups in the country…a small miracle. Three-four nights a week I went and saw ’em play, and on Saturdays I hosted an all-night FM punk hoot where one week, from the sweaty palm of my guest, Slash mag editor Kickboy Face, I received a copy of the first 12-incher pressed by Slash Records. It was also Darby and company’s first (and, as it turned out, last): a perfectly executed knee to the groin of life-is-a-gift precept and practice that today, nearly 20 years later, appears to have been the high-water mark of LA–U.S.–Anglo-U.S.–make that WORLD punk recording…this is it.

I haven’t let the cover–shiny black w/ the famous Germs blue circle–go to seed, and even the taint of the woman then managing them, my v. worst ex-gal to that point of my life, worst as gal and just as bad as ex, one of the few exes I’ve never jerked off thinking about, whom in the wake of Justine’s ignobling departure I’d on several occasions lain with, has been insufficient to indelibly sully this sacred object.


There’re possessions I’ve housed (if not quite clothed and fed) longer, like I mentioned the space helmet, and once in a great while I’ll stumble into my birth certificate at the bottom of some drawer–though I couldn’t say which drawer it’s currently in–so in a sense that’s the oldest scrap of matter from my own lifetime, the oldest unit of CONTEMPORANEOUS matter, still lying around, as opposed to items whose actuality predates my first breath–boxing cards from the turn of the century, say–hoozits acquired more or less as curios, antiques. My skaty-eight-hundred boxing magazines, which I began amassing in junior high, are under shoes in the closet, in cupboards over the sink, in cartons I haven’t opened (or directly thought about) since 1980.

If that seems a longgg time–like excessive deadtime–I’ve got albums that haven’t kissed stylus SINCE BEFORE KENNEDY, the first one, got shot. Played or perennially un-, when something lingers that long, just eyeballing the damn thing oughta be good (if it’s good f’r anything) f’r triggering the occasional ancient memory. Because music has been so central to my, um, being, my records are the only heap o’ stuff I’ve maintained continuous hands-on control of, and since played and un- are stacked together–what would be the point of not?–a goodly percentage of even the uns have been, and remain, the material and efficient cause of towering mountains, avalanches, gravel pits of recollective blah blah blooey.

They would seem in some cases the only dependable, the only conceivable generatrices of such biz (certainly not letters, photos, books, toys, or rusty license plates). Not much otherwise, short of dreams, happenstance, or the memory bank itself spitting out interest I wasn’t expecting nohow, could serve as so efficient a provoker.

Reminder. Prompt. Intimater. Mnemonicon.



Axis: Bold as Love (Reprise RS 6281). I peek and it says to me, smiling, Ah, shit, man. Nice artwork. I’ll admit it’s nice artwork: Hendrix as a Hindu god with many arms, surrounded by cobras and elephants and little Keystone Kop types with angry demons on their tongues. But not so terrific an album–his second–a big letdown after the first. Didja know I did the first American feature on Jimi Hendrix? For Crawdaddy! (Rolling Stone didn’t exist yet), which I’d started writing for while at Yale, but which a year-plus later still didn’t pay anything. Yes: having by then INVENTED rock criticism as we know it, I sought not only recognition but a mess of pottage…a couple bucks.

Out of academia almost a year, I had no job but was writing lyrics for, and sometimes living with, the Soft White Underbelly, a not-bad psychedelic combo that would eventually surface as the second-rate pseudometal (though some would say metal) Blue Öyster Cult. Don the guitarist had a girlfriend who behind her back everybody called Ah Shit Man (rarely did she go ten words without saying it). A fond mem’ry: the time I went to piss and there she was on the floor, naked, hugging the toilet, trying to vomit. She turned her head just enough to recognize me–“Oh hi,” then “Ah, shit man, I sure do love Donald”–three days later, they split. She had a great ass.

It turned out her father wrote classical reviews for a major metropolitan daily, this guy who’d been there 20 years. She set it up and we met at his office–gray hair, gray tie, immaculate, polite, an upper-middle-class square, a CUBE, who’d probably seen Tosca and Tannhäuser 13 times each; I think I was wearing purple bell-bottoms, hair as long as, oh, George Harrison’s. We shook hands, exchanged nothings; yes he knew who Hendrix was. Was anyone scheduled to review Axis? (Back then, before they realized the killing to be made in record ads, newspapers ran the occasional rock review–it wasn’t compulsory.) Nobody was, but he wouldn’t assign it, it would have to be on spec. No kill fee. Whuddo I know, I’m 22, a dumbass neophyte. I buy the record, play it a week, never quite get “into” it, but write the fucker anyway, waxing arcane for 300, 400 words, which of course they pass on…like shit, man.


Before a set by his quartet at the Village Vanguard, summer of 1970, Ornette Coleman declared: “Music is a way of remembering.” It probably is–but how so?

Once, in ’73, ’74, when my stereo was on the blink for three months, my inability to scare up a sound track to my life, especially with all the modules of sound track heaped all around–my burgeoning stack–was tangling me in knots. When I finally got it working, the first thing I played (Moby Grape’s first album) affected me so deeply I cried: dig: music COUPLED WITH the instant recall of its healing/nurturing/bliss-o-genic payoff…the whole damn ear-to-heart trip, as ever…ear-to-head-to-heart…ear-direct-to-body…music as both accompaniment for the memory of its own eternal etc and a ritual releasing–into the room, back into your blood–of something already internalized, absorbed, at a level deeper than the cell…internal/external/eternal…an often shattering experience. Or some such. (But how so?)

Likewise, what’s it, the contrary?–the converse?–the corollary?–should be equally true: REMEMBERING IS MUSIC.


When the cops arrived, the live version of “Means to an End” was spinning on the turntable, which I’d reconnected, and the footprint made for odd little chitters more like wheezes than pops or clicks. Don’t know why I bothered calling them–they were such abusive shits–it wasn’t “cost-effective,” they said, to waste their time on so meager a burglary; they bummed me worse than the burgle itself, which I’d walked in on, but less than Kathleen’s betrayal. As I was entering my apartment this big wide muther was standing there about to walk out. Dropping my equipment, he swung the door at me and jumped out the window he’d used to break in. There was hardly any new damage to the turntable, which was already pretty shot, but a big athletic-shoe print graced the disc, which had flopped off in the drop.

Joy Division’s Still (Factory FACT 40) was one of the last punktime waxings I actually bought, as opposed to scamming a promo of, which would’ve been tough since I no longer had a radio show, having been tossed for too much on-the-air obscenity (profanity?) (whatever). By the time it came out, Ian Curtis had suicided. The punch line to “Means”–“I put my trust in you”–gravely addressed, one assumes, to she over whom he would shortly hang himself–took on special meaning when my current amour wouldn’t come over, or even exactly talk to me (except to say she was, well, unavailable…preoccupied), while I was waiting for the fucking cops to show.

Which was indeed to be expected. Kathleen and I had barely been speaking since she caught me, or maybe didn’t catch but found out about me fucking so-and-so on the radio station floor, after which we’d split for a couple months, though technically we were again “together.” And this time: break in…break up?

Among items taken: TV, cassette player, car keys, binoculars, trench coat–but no records.


(1) Loss of objects. (2) Objects that themselves testify, specify, petrify loss. (Of anything and everything.) Losing the latter equals loss of loss? No, you dope: double the loss.

Loss of the past–that’s a given–but throw in loss of sight lines to the past, to the interconnections of things past, to causalities (both mighty and mighty slim) governing present predicaments…that smarts.

“ACCEPT LOSS FOREVER”–Jack Kerouac said that. Re both life lived and its moldy oldy souvenirs. (Take out the trash.)

Between now and the grave: increments of loss. OK, but is it like sand in the hourglass simply drip dropping away, a haphazard real-time (regularly irregular time) “letting go”–or the goose step of effective (too effective) potty training to the last bittersweet gasp of rudely and crudely allotted time?

Bitter sweat.


Back to Justine: her ’77 abortion.

Everything was fallin’ apart, fallin’ apart…dwinking, dwinking: dwunk!…
biggest lush I’d ever known and/or loved. She wrecked my car and was bit by bit wrecking my life, yet I woulda done ‘most anything to keep her around. Including give up my own drinking (“set an example”) or have a baby with her (a prospect she often raved about)–two things that ran violently against my grain, ‘specially babying. When she got pregnant (drunk, she could never get her cycle right), a golden opp presented itself, but her choice was to terminate. Femmes fatales are nothing if not capricious.

I dropped her off at the clinic, then hit a record store and browsed the used bins. When I picked her up, she was a bit shaky but said she was starving, so I took her for steaks and, when she couldn’t finish, ate both myself. Everything was cordial enough till we got to my place, where, wary of exposure to microbes so soon after surgery, she refused to sleep in the same bed with me, insisting I was “coming down with something”–I sounded congested from all the meat–so I dragged the couch a discreet distance from the bed and occupied it.

For our sleepytime kicks, I put on the day’s purchase, pianist Jaki Byard’s Freedom Together! (Prestige PR 7463), which I immediately felt pleased about having got–first album by Jaki as leader that measured up to those he did backing Eric Dolphy. I hadn’t cared for a couple of others, but lying on the couch I didn’t mind this one, and we both really dug Junior Parker’s vocal on “Getting to Know You” (at a moment–no irony–where we knew each other too well), though when I play it today it sounds like the mannered labor of a 50th-percentile 40s big-band singer, a few pegs up from Earl Coleman, yeah, but a few down from Johnny Hartman just as sure–and I don’t think it’s my retroview of the day o’ purchase that alone drives the rating so low.

In any event, there was no drinking that night. And not the faintest threat of sex of any sort–then or ever–as they’d told her to abstain for two, or was it three, weeks (could the romance last that long?).


So take out the trash.


Kokomo, Asia Minor (Felsted FS 17513). Bought for 99 cents, brand-new, at Billy Blake’s, Smithtown, Long Island, 1962 or ’63. Possibly my first cutout LP.

Title cut (“based on Grieg’s Piano Concerto”) made the top 40 in 1961. Other cuts are lifted from Chopin, Bizet, Liszt, etc: synthetically hopped-up transcriptions of the classics for “rockin'” piano w/ strings.

No photo. “For personal reasons, Kokomo dislikes being photographed. Being eccentric and very moody, if his recording brings him sufficient fame and fortune, he is likely to desert it all for some far off island such as Majorca…and spend his time in the simplicities of life.” Which led me to believe “he” was in reality a piano roll.

Saved solely for bathetic purposes.


Acceptable loss…memory of loss…
loss of memory. Of the faculty of memory. “Memory chops.”

(select one)

(1) The Persistence of Memory, a painting by Dali. I don’t remember it. How it looked. Just the name.

(2) Dali’s Persistence of Memory is a truly (truly) shitty painting. Yet I remember once liking it.


If there is a Rosebud to my collection, Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (ABC-Paramount ABC 410) may be it.

The first time I heard “I Can’t Stop Loving You”–wait a sec, we could look up the date. It was on the radio when I got home from watching Benny “Kid” Paret get killed by Emile Griffith, well he didn’t die for ten days, but the fight took place March 24, 1962–Griffith knocked him out in the 12th and he never got up. I was in high school, it was the first boxing I saw live, and a few weeks later I bought my first LP, the one from which “Can’t Stop” was taken.

Which in its own way transformed family life as much as the Elvis “Hound Dog”/”Don’t Be Cruel” single, which six years earlier had given me the upper hand vis-a-vis my parents and their Bing Crosby and South Pacific 78s. Rock-roll singles went a long way toward offsetting the muse-ical squalor chez Meltz, but having the means to command 20 minutes of turntable time–consecutive–ultimately proved a lot more EMPOWERING than unit bursts of two and a half to three. Thank you, Ray.

Empowerment…musical wisdom…
not to mention: one of my most applicable all-time musical conceits: the Unknown Tongue (see pp 113-127 of The Aesthetics of Rock).

After Modern Sounds I got The Genius Hits the Road and a couple more ABC-Paramounts, then moved on to his earlier albs on Atlantic, which alongside goodies familiar from the radio–“Yes Indeed!,” “Swanee River Rock”–featured some archetypal outpours of the blues, real hard-core blues, not just bluesy: the tension-release, catharsis/transcendence, headlong dives into the abyss, the whole torrential gamut of FEELING, intensity as musical form, the technology of grief reduction, of its transformation to joy–umpteen varieties. As a bonus, Atlantic inner sleeves then had these neat little repros of album covers from other acts in the stable–the best artwork of the era–the lure of which led me instantly, inexorably onward to JAZZ: Ornette, Coltrane, Mingus, Monk with Art Blakey, Lennie Tristano.

Plus those sunglasses with the wide black plastic frame: “Genius shades.” My freshman year of college, I wore them at night–to those in the know, they signified abandon. (Just as Ray’s music still lingeringly defined hip for a certain subclass of white teenagers only a tad or three behind things.)

The problem is, I haven’t been able to STAND the ABC stuff since I weaned myself off it in favor of the blues, no later than fall-winter of ’62. Play it now and the tempos feel slow as molasses, the string arrangements gloppy as raspberry mouthwash, and the omnipresent white-bread chorus…
keep it.


Sequence is critical.

Did the Kinks release Arthur between Village Green and Lola, or was it before Village Green? I can’t remember, that is I have no clarity about it, and don’t possess a reference work that could be consulted on such an ish. (If I had all three albums, which I don’t anymore, even though this was before they listed release dates, catalog numbers would tell us in a second.) Every time any kind of rock sourcebook has happened my way I’ve quickly chucked it, figuring my recollective muscle–especially regarding the late 60s–would always get me through: wrong!

Does it trouble me that I’ve forgotten (and have no backup to help me fake it), making me less of an “authority”?


(He asserted.)


Then one of those classic dead ends (and I don’t mean classical): Rhapsody in Blue/An American in Paris, Hamburg Pro Musica Orchestra, conducted by George Byrd (Forum F 9044).

Through my freshman year, jazz, Ray, and hits-o-the-day–“Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Do You Love Me”–were in competition with lotsa hokey hogwash in the dormitory ether: Doris Day, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, barbershop quartets, Enoch Light, Sergio Franchi, the sound track from Mr. Lucky. Somehow nobody had classical, but in its place: plenty o’ what wouldja call it, classy?–or just “grown-up” (for our ever “maturing” taste)? Simulations of adultness: a dead-end street of the heart-mind-body-soul if ever there wuz one.

My personal contribution to this sociosonic miasma was a 69-cent Gershwin LP, so shabby the cover was coming apart, which I played the heck out of for at most a week, by which time I was bored silly–sick–of it for this and ALL possible lifetimes. As to what it meant to me, y’know for as long as I could bear to have it on, dunno f’r sure what the phenomenology of the deal mighta been–how & why it hit me–but I’ll speculate: a dose of jazziness if not jazz (could the clarinet solo in Rhapsody have briefly impressed me?), a dose of “night music” a la Mr. Lucky–those two things meeting AHRT on a pedestal just as I was beginning to check out cubism, futurism, and so forth–a nascent curiosity ’bout things Euro–while entertaining very dumb “theories” on this & that (an ahrtist myself, I conjured up bogus genres with names like “mono-cubism” and “statio-kineticism”: what a dipshit). I wouldn’t listen in earnest, or at all, howev, to actual high-booty Euro music–classical per se–till 1993, at no time since which have I played (or considered playing) this alb. When I hear this pap in Woody Allen movies, I wince.

So how come I continue to keep such bosh? I keep it as a souvenir of nonredemptive folly; as not only kitsch–content-wise–per se, but the kitsch of youth it-self per se, or let’s call it late adolescence. But most of all I keep it for the groovy liner notes:

“George Byrd, the celebrated coloured American conductor renowned for his interpretations of the music of George Gershwin…in 1947 formed in Harlem his own orchestra…consisting of approximately fifty per cent each of white and coloured people”…wow, coloured!


Sentimental surplus value.


From the Radio Ranch…

Ernest Tubb’s Greatest Hits (Decca DL7-5006). Early 1980: a good three years since I’d been even semi-earnest about country music–ancient sounds in country/western–which in the backwash of punk seemed an even goofier joke than mainstream rock. On the cover, Ernest in his big white Stetson flashes the world’s biggest, and fourth- or fifth-phoniest, smile, but my hunch at the time was he’d complement whatever music X were likely to bring along. Every week, after the first hour, musicians would show up and I’d spin anything they handed me, which in John Doe’s case turned out to be Al Green and Jimmie Rodgers. And sure enough, when I played “Waltz Across Texas,” he and Exene got up and waltzed around the booth: a touching moment (when in marital sync, they were very impressive).

The Beatles/1967-1970 (Capitol SKBO 3404). The double album with the blue cover, one of but two Beatles releases I got as promos, and the only one later than the White Album that I still own–and only for one cut: “Across the Universe.” (I never bought the loathsome Let It Be, on which it originally appeared, so this was my one lucky shot at it.) By the ass end of ’80–the week John Lennon died in New York–it was a dozen years since the Beatles had in any way been musically viable, so the news he was dead didn’t immediately distress me, especially since I and my friends in LA were in deep-shit mourning for Darby Crash, who had overdosed (intentionally) the day before. Tears for Johnny took me a few days to activate, and amounted to little more than a short gush for my own younger days, but Darby’s music making was present-tense all the way, and his death for many of us was sheer misery–revealing (as if we hadn’t known) the essence and pigment of local frontline punk: not anarchy but a terrible unhappiness.

The Saturday after both deaths, this kid named Bosco whom Darby had been in love with, but who was too straight to reciprocate, arrived at my show while “Across the Universe” (following the Germs’ “We Must Bleed”) was spinning. At its conclusion, Bosco announced that it was Darby’s favorite Beatles song–(and who’d’ve thunk he was even aware of the Beatles?)–ain’t life funny?


Promo albums. Pennies (not even nickels) from corporate food-tube heaven.


The Very Best of Gene McDaniels (United Artists UA-LA447-E), a late-70s compilation for someone who hadn’t had a hit (or much of a miss) since the early 60s, is a singularly unappealing package: the singer against rose/pink/lavender horizontal stripes; no liner notes like UA had done with their Fats Domino, Jan & Dean, and even their Ricky Nelson collections. The tunes, while pleasant in a pre-British Invasion pop sort of way, are hardly even middleweight (welterweight?); the vocals, a whiff and a half too clean in their articulation.

What keeps me hangingon to it is during my sophomore year I had a jazz show on the campus station, knew my way around dials, and somebody got the bright idea to preempt regular programming and let me do commentary ‘tween rounds of the first Sonny Liston-Cassius Clay fight–he wasn’t Ali just yet–pirating the blow-by-blow signal from the national broadcast, delivered locally by WABC. (A station unafeared of risking FCC wrath, we had a range about as far as the parking lot.)

I said things like “Hey, that was some hook,” but anyway, before their fight coverage began, the last thing ABC played was “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” McDaniels’s three-year-old hit–nobody gave Clay much chance of winning. If you’ve never heard it, and it can’t still be in oldies rotation, ‘s about God creating gendered woman (weighing in at one-oh-oh) and the upshot for gendered man…oh, how–what’s word?–catchy.

Some year I’ll take off the shrink-wrap and play it.


No, that’s a lie–actually, I do have a rock book or two. Though maybe not the kind that’ll do us factually any good. Right now I’m reading Please Kill Me, the Legs McNeil-Gillian McCain oral punk thing, where on p 159 somebody mentions the Academy of Music show, New Year’s Eve ’73–well I was there, wasn’t I? The list of bands seems wrong–New York Dolls, Kiss, the Stooges. No: the Stooges did play, and Kiss opened (billed fourth, behind Teenage Lust, and nobody knew them, they got booed off the stage), but Blue Öyster Cult headlined, and the Dolls weren’t on the bill.

But lemme really be sure about this–was I there? Was it that year or ’74? Thinking…thinking…hmm…GOT IT: ’75 was my last year living in New York, so ’74 was the New Year’s Eve I wanted to be dead and went to a party hoping somebody had a gun I could use. Some things I would remember if you cut away two-thirds of my brain: it was the LAST SHOW I saw the BÖC do before I realized they were jiving me. Or maybe I’m all wet; maybe 2.5-thirds are already gone.

That’s what “rock history” is: collective bad memory.


Remembrances of dope days past: Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful (Kama Sutra KLPS-8054); Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow (RCA LSP-3766).

On a graygrim weekday in the final stretch of my crawl to the finish at Yale, my pot stash exhausted, knowing no dealer any closer than Brooklyn, I downed almost a full tin of nutmeg–pirates did it, right?–perchance to get looped. Nothing happened at first, so I ingested more (bitter!), more (vile!), till in two-three hours: bingo. High as a blimp, I wandered the streets of New Haven, reading the minds of passersby, stumbling over subatomic sidewalk particles. Although I wasn’t hungry, it occurred to me that I should eat, so I got a sandwich and fries at a George & Harry’s, only to discover that I couldn’t taste a thing. This was somewhat unnerving, so to test my ‘bility to perceive anything (‘fore chucking it all, throwing in the epistemological towel, and accepting the “flow”), I went to the juke and selected “Full Measure,” a single off the third Lovin’ Spoonful album. The summer before, stoned on hash, I’d thought “It’s All Over Now” by the Rolling Stones, a song that couldn’t’ve been more familiar to me, was actually being sung by Ray Stevens–that’s how I heard it–but this sounded like nothing. And I don’t mean it sounded “unlike anything else”–unusual, unique–I mean like nothing. Which maybe in hindsight it was, and the Spoonful were: NOTHING.

One of a handful of groups to submit whole hog to the transidiomatic shuck known as folk rock, the Spoonful in retrospect lacked the balls, the rigor, or the mischief to parent as provocative a folk-fringe hybrid as the Holy Modal Rounders (or for that matter the Fugs), opting for a music devoid of danger or true sass. Somewhere that spring, to worm their way out of a bust, they ratted out their pot connection, an act of heinous careerism (oh, they were worried Zal the guitarist, a Canadian, might lose his work permit) that effectively (and ironically) ended their run as credentialed exponents of contempo-oogabooga.

Back at my room, I cast my fate to the Airplane. I had both of their albums and hadn’t got much out of the first, except a sense that they were kinda what–post-folk-rock? (Or something.) The second, which in short order would play a foreground role in sonically redefining the late 60s–the Psychedelic Era qua music–I hadn’t yet listened to. First spin, soon as I put the needle down, huge ugly blotches of dark green algae sprung up everywhere. Needle up, they vanished. Noticing a track called “My Best Friend” and feeling gee, I could use a friend, wondering if in fact these folks whose sounds I barely knew could be surrogate friends like the Beatles had for so long seemed (wouldn’t THAT be nice?), I tried again–whoops–more algae.

Dying for some human contact–music wurn’t contact enough–I ended up at the Yale library, a stone-cold old-stone repository of the pompous and dead, laughing uncontrollably. People glared at me (though no one had the pep to shut me up), and then suddenly, whoopee!, a FOX HUNT–redcoats on horses jumping over tree stumps–I’m not making this up–the most vivid hallucination of my life.

New fugging Haven: where George Bush and William Buckley (Oliver Stone and Jodie Foster) learned HOW.


The last time I thought about it, my favorite philosopher was Heraclitus. “You can’t step in the same river twice”–I’m sure you know that one. “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” A bunch of fragments, aphorisms. “Nature loves to hide.” One that I’ve always got a kick out of, and a shitload of writerly mileage from, is “Consult thyself,” translated also as “I consulted myself.” I don’ know Greek, it’s oke either way, but meaning what: “Empiricism starts here”? Spotlight on the subject (before Western philosophy even had a subject-object split)?

In the intro to Rock She Wrote, a 1995 collection of female-authored rockcrit, Evelyn McDonnell argues that, hey, it’s COOL that women acknowledge their subjectivity. She concedes that some gendered males have also walked this path, “not just in a gonzo, macho style (Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer)”–hey, that’s me–“but with heart-baring sensitivity (Bangs, Tom Smucker).” Gosh–I must be the part of gonzo (whatever th’ fuck it is–I’ve never known!) (even as sound, the word makes me gag) Lester threw away.

Way back at the dawn of the ’70s, Robert (“Bob”) Christgau, whom I’ve already griped about, a bust-ass (and I don’t mean kick-ass) editor who later pulled rank on Lester by advising him that he’d graduated Dartmouth (while Lester’d graduated nuthin’), actually voiced a not-so-begrudging respect for Rolling Stone, a truly horrible sheet I occasionally wrote for (Bob didn’t) but never EVER read, which he hailed as at least fulfilling our need for “rock journalism”–reportage–“investigative” or otherwise. I now realize what he had in mind was simply topical news of the “trade,” of a scene writ LARGE (but still of questionable existence) for which he relentlessly shilled, shills, will always shill (when you review everything, or pretend you do, without an external guarantor of the “fact” of such supposed mega-reality–even one as lame and noxious as the Stone–you would pretty much seem a freakin’ FOOOOOOOOL, eh?). Whenever he spit the notion of journalism at me, I shot back with “Consult yourself,” which he in turn pooh-poohed as “bourgeois individualism” or whatev–’twasn’t “universal” enough for the bastard…fuck me.

Then as now, on the street as at motherfucking Yale, my fundamental concern was with truth, THE truth (hee haw), i.e., for starters: what you can be surest of. If we’re talking records and bands and whatnot, all you c’n be anywhere NEAR sure of is the shadow of this shit in your own playpen. Which is no easy ride–mercy! To confront and interrogate your merry ass, you’ve gotta be objective, impersonal, you’ve gotta go straight at your own jugular–mix a metaphor–and take furious notes while the blood is still fresh. If the initial calculus ain’t perfect, you’re nowhere, and anywhere you proceed is triple nowhere.

And of course certain fuckheads will ask: Where are you then?–y’know, anyway. They’d say you’re in autobio land. Well, fuggit. If such procedure smacks of diary keeping, if the text thus generated is MERE autobio, so be it. Christgau’s own autobiographical slip, for the record, has been as visible as anybody’s. Terror of aging–of the possibility of appearing old–has always been a dominant theme. When Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-ling” came out, Bob had just turned 30 and was taking it hard. Rather than call Chuck’s first hit in some time what it was–cynical toss-off; play-down to a pack of children–he aligned himself with the children and lauded “Ding-a-ling” as evidence of ageless Chuck’s neverending oompah. (“The kids are alright” my ding-a-ling.)

Which Bobbo would certainly never admit, or admit the relevance of (the personal he’d allow to be political–hell, he’d insist on it–or even historical, but that’s just everyone else’s personal: the third-person personal). Truck extensively or extendedly with the first-person personal (except briefly for “parable” sake) and you run the risk of having this jerk and his ilk accuse you, as he has me, of “narcissism.” LISTEN GOOD.

What I write, on music or anything, is not narcissism–NEVER!–any more than bodybuilding–if you do it right–is narcissism. (Sayeth Mr. Schwarzenegger: you’ve gotta judge your delts–y’can’t love ’em!) Nor is it “solipsism”–hey now, I’m talking to you, YOU!, why would I waste my time scribbling this bullcrap for myself? Or masturbation–“self-indulgence”–geez, I’m getting defensive, don’t wanna be defensive, NO MORE DEFENSIVE.

Go ahead. Call me a philosopher/poet, that’s OK, or an archaeologist of the real-time micro-moment, even (I’ll grant) a phenomenologist, but please. I am not now, have never been, and have never had any interest in being a “journalist” (good or bad).


From the night in ’79 he was on my radio fandango to somewhere in the 80s, when our correspondence dwindled to nothingness, Mark Smith of the Fall and I were something like friends. When he played LA we hung out, preferably in bars where he didn’t expect to meet members of his band (“It’s a bad idea to socialize with your musicians”). On one occasion, he berated me for going home with a woman he’d introduced me to, a rockwriter who when I kissed and fondled her had no panties and a dangling tampon string, oo wee (“Sex is not a good motivating factor”). Before my VCR got stolen, I ran him a tape of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and he played me a cassette of songs about trucks by some actual trucker trying hard to sound like Dylan (“It’s not the Dylan part that matters–it’s the truck part”). He decried London as “too French,” unlike Manchester, his home (“The Norman Conquest didn’t make it that far north”). Back there during the Falkland Islands thing, he feigned a rooting interest in the UK, contending it was “much too easy to side with Argentina.” Mark E. Smith: a man of pith and whimsy.

As a band, as a musical realization of something, the Fall were more intelligent, more after-the-end-of-the-world (aka “post-rock”), AND more sonically compelling than Sonic Youth (if less nerd-empowering). The last of their albums he sent me was Grotesque (After the Gramme) (Rough Trade 18), which I must’ve played but don’t remember. The cover is an old Dick Tracy-type guy gritting teeth like the likeness of Phil Alvin on the cover of the second Blasters LP. Speaking of which, of whom, the last time I saw the Fall play I was standing with Dave Alvin, who after a couple songs said, perplexed, “There’s no hooks.” “Well,” said I, “that’s the point.”

Do I name-drop too much? Here’s a name y’don’t know: Ed Abramson. 53-35 Hollis Ct. Blvd., Flushing, N.Y. Rubber-stamped on the back of Bobby Darin’s That’s All (Atco 33-104), containing both “Mack the Knife” (though different from the ’59 single version) and “Beyond the Sea,” plus 16 tons of hotcha-style pop filler. I haven’t seen Ed since ’66, but we lived in the same wing of the dorm, and somehow the alb ended up in my stack (I didn’t steal it).

In November ’63, he and I drove to Philly for a double date with high school cheerleaders. The big homecoming game, however, was canceled when the, uh, president got shot, as was the date itself when I didn’t behave aggrievedly enough. On the ride back, all you could hear on the radio was dirges and stuff, except for Canadian stations, fading in and out, on one of which we heard (for the first time) the Beatles, who would soon supply the accompaniment for post-JFK Ameri-teen whoop-de-doo, them and–that’s right–the fabulous TRASHMEN, givers to the world of punk 13 years before the fact: “Surfin’ Bird.” I can’t think of those weeks up till Christmas without feeling an equal rush of Beatles and Trashmen, who together, where I lived and breathed, kind of reinvented rock ‘n’ roll, dead as a donut since, well, before Bobby Darin. Hey, believe it: that was the gestalt, the context, the nexus, the TEXT. The literal HAND AS DEALT.


You take Sally and I’ll take Sue…

It isn’t so much that rock history is or must be revisionist (it generally is, but so what?) but simply, and more to the point, that it is and can’t help but be visionist. Historical hands, insofar as they’re dealt at all, are dealt to persons–to singles and multiples of ’em. Persons are touchstones of the efficacy of chronology: how history did its thing. What exactly happened? Everything. But sequence, hierarchy, synchronicity–scratch that–the assertion of all such meat ‘n’ taters, of a calculus and phenomenology of micro-moment progression, scale, nuance, and tangent, is at least two thirds the statement, voiced or unvoiced, of each and every rockcritperson. His/her stab, strut, and (in a nutshell) oeuvre.

Or let’s do it this way. Every rockwriter (sportswriter) (geekwriter) has his/her own book of genesis. Has? Exudes. An Old Testament concatenated fable. Gospel according to fill-in-the-blank. Every critic a “witness,” a zealot and crackpot, and everyone’s testament different, heck, it had better be. A fragment from MY glorious goddamn scripture–the Absolute unfolds itself thusly (take it or take it):

Re: anything besides punk that has had mainstream play since 1970. Things either get filed with the 70s (Alex Chilton, Steely Dan, the Replacements, R.E.M., Nirvana, Metallica) or the 80s (Sonic Youth and its partisans). There’s no room left in the 60s, they’re completely full (were full by late ’67); the 70s and 80s are still very sparse. Rap files perfectly with the black 60s–a separate warehouse finally almost full. Madonna goes with the prerock 50s, alongside Eddie Fisher. Springsteen is on the plane with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (Buddy Holly took the bus) (or rather: never quite fully existed). Did I say the rock 50s were over before Bobby Darin? They were over before Elvis entered the army (true). Hard-core metal fits in with 19th-century classical–the intervals, the bombast, the ponderousness–nothing later than Bruckner. The 90s are an empty room.


It would appear there’s a lotta Lavender Hill Mobs around. Perhaps you’ve seen Lavender Hill Mob the film, but I bet you’ve never seen Lavender Hill Mob the band or heard either of their TWO eponymous long-players released within a year of each other, by the same label yet. And isn’t there also a Lavender Hill Mob turkey breast, and a Lavender Hill Mob deodorant stick?

Wow and hey and fuckaduck, but I was actually AT the session that produced the first of the L.H. Mob elpees (United Artists UA-LA719-G), late ’76, the only time I got flown somewhere by a record company, as opposed to already being in the vicinity, just to attend a recording session. Snowy blowy Quebec, an hour from Montreal, wonderf’ly scenic, great food, nice kids in the band, incredibly civil for rock ‘n’ rollers. A company glad-hander gave me Percodans. The Parti Quebecois won a big election that week: dancing in the streets. A goodtime all around. As a quid pro quo, I was all set to call this wholesome, some would prob’ly say innocuous, six-piece combo, I dunno, “genuinely innocent,” “vanguard of the antipunk backlash”–whew–I can fling it with the best of ’em–but when Creem deemed ’em too marginal to bother with (unless, of course, UA advertised), I didn’t have to.

These were also days of goodtimes with Justine, before her alcoholin’ got the final better o’ things. A song on the album, “No One Compares,” inspired me to compare her, all too favorably, to my previous galpersons. Clearly, I was asking for it. But for a brief twinkling even she would acknowledge that we were, yes, in RAPPORT–ref’rence to a line in Creation of the Humanoids where the sister of Don Megowan, head of the robot-bashing Order of Flesh and Blood, boasts that she herself is in an advanced relational state with a robot, a “clicker”: “Pax and I are in rapport.” Justine was gonna print up announcements–“Justine and Richard are in rapport”–but never got around to it.

Fast-forward to her abortion, to the day some weeks after it when, she was told, a penis would again be fine, dandy, at least physiologically permissible. This could be the night I got lucky. She hadn’t, far as I knew or believed, had a drink in the interim. Ring ring, door unlocked, there she was on the floor, an empty liter bottle at her feet. Couldn’t shake her awake, she scowled and pushed me away. On a coffee table, a water glass with two inches of wine sat on my copy of Lavender Hill Mob, a red ring at its base. She probably hadn’t played it (Abba was on the turntable), only used it as a coaster–how fastidious.

I split and returned with some objects she’d left at my place, dumping them beside her still comatose figure, which this time I made no attempt to disturb (‘cept to paw and sniff the enormous dark spot on her crotch and find it, yup, cold wee-wee), arranging them in a pile: her unread copy of my second book, a sneaker she’d once aimed at my TV, various undergarments, a cotton blanket, her vegetable steamer and cosmetics case, a jar of French-import strawberry jam, half a box of Kotex nappies.

To the pile I added my wine-stained album, on the jacket of which I scrawled, “J.–Thanx for the rapport. R.,” then changed my mind, snatched it back, and have toted it with the rest of my lifeless belongings ever since.


Exhumable but rarely exhumed, my 50s and 60s singles pass time in a carton. Last one played: “Whispering Bells” by the Dell-Vikings, ’round 1986. It was totally beat to shit. By and large, they all are.

When you get down to it, the very idea of the single is rather amazing, and in retrospect almost preposterous. Two sides, one song per. One!–what forcible focus on the unit sonic offering! Not the potluck of a many-unit album, but a treat acquired ’cause you’ve already heard it and like it. Too bad, ’cause we’re also talking vinyl at its thinnest, frailest, most destructible: the “love is to kill” theme directed at unit targets. They may be jewels, gems–but for permanence they’re fucking rhinestones.

Interesting, at this crossroad, that CDs have meant an end to two-sidedness; that 102 percent (approx.) of viable releases in the format have so far been REISSUES of analog vinyl (and shellac). Which is to say what?–that it’s somewhat ridiculous for the CD to present us with the metaphor/illusion of indestructibility–“immortality”–which ballyhoo for the “unbreakable” LP once heralded too, y’know–when the bulk of current sonic fodder is (dare it be said?) more ephemeral than ever?

But back to th’ singles: yes, they’re maimed, mutilated, on a terminal gimp–way more than my average semiretired LP–but that’s hardly reason for leaving them ALL in the effing box. For exhuming NONE of them. Well, it ain’t fear of disappointment–that I won’t “enjoy” hearing some once-favored tune for the first time in so many moons, or that it won’t “satisfy” on some whacked-out, esoteric dotted line. ‘S more like an eerie suspicion, a tingle on the back o’ my neck that tells me that ONE MORE PLAY of anything might well use it up, play it OUT, for the remainder of my days; and that using up has gotta be a shoddier dance of loss/forever, a crummier outcome than merely losing access…losing track…um, uh, forgetting…LOSING YOUR WAY.

Two trains running–two MORTALITIES–the music’s and my own. Music that (I postulate) helped form me: to see a single component DRY UP, lapse, is to feel my life dismantled one more notch, like Jeff Goldblum and his vanishing body parts in the remake of The Fly.

“Fear of loss of being”–that Heidegger hokum from where was it, Being and Time? Finally I find an application that doesn’t seem gratuitous. (Middle age can do that.)


A friend g-g-g-gone!–and I don’t mean dead. Written off, written out. (I wouldn’t piss on his grave.)

No names, no names, but he was a goodfriend, he was a bes’ friend–then once he wasn’t he was NO FRIEND. Somewhere in the middle, when he was just a midfriend, he helped originate rockwriting. Wait–didn’t I originate it? Give him an assist. He had a hand, was at least a catalyst, the person I tried some of this crap out on. A lot of my riffs came in dialogue with him. Which is something, considering how little he knew ’bout rock ‘n’ roll–it was virtually all bluff. Like here was a guy whose prior exemplar of musical ecstasy was Carmina Burana, whose first try-on-for-size of what he took for rock/roll was Trini Lopez at PJ’s (which you’ll probably miss the humor of if you’re under 45). Meet the Searchers (Kapp KL-1363) was his second.

Did ya know that the Brit Invasion, stage one, consisted solely of the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, and the Searchers?–then maybe Peter and Gordon, possibly Gerry and the Pacemakers–it was six months (or more) before the first real U.S. impact of the Stones. Well, this pal, this buddy, championed the Searchers over the Beatles (his favorite Beatle–what a card!–was Stu Sutcliffe, the dead one), imagining a song or two of theirs more overtly “sexual” than either the known works of the Fab Four or his subnovice’s inkling of the rock norm. Putting his money where his mouth was, he bought Meet the Searchers (aka Needles and Pins), then I did. From the condition of my copy, I prob’ly spent more time perusing the cover (for Merseybeaters, they dressed and greased themselves like Joey Dee and the Starliters) than playing it. I’ve got no clear sense no more of what they ever could’ve meant to me, other than to look in the index to Aesthetics of Rock and see there’s SEVEN entries for ’em…well that’s his doing.

My buddy! my pal! who in the late 60s forewent a “career” in rockcrit (jus’ kidding!: ‘twurn’t such a thing) for a career in rock commerce (a career of rock evil? that’s putting it too poetically); who as manager of I won’t even name them owed me for band services/rendered at a time, a longtime, bloody years over which I could never consistently pay the rent (and was never out of debt); oh! the image of him with his roll of hundreds every time I’d ask him, beg him, for a penny or two. I wouldn’t puke…

And wasn’t there more?, didn’t he try to “steal” my gal, one of ’em anyway; oh and he never invited me on a tour (although he took I won’t name her either–to Europe yet), even just as a friend goddammit; and as a final insult sent me a hideous gold record, so suitable for framing it was already framed…boo-hoo!…a good deal of which can easily be writ off as just, well, ROCK AND ROLL, its wage, its consequence, its everyday walk-the-streets surface and substance, durn near everything but its music, ha ha ha ha ha, but more of which was plain basic treachery, perfidy, bad faith, nongeneric interpersonal DOUBLECROSS.

I wouldn’t puke on his mother.


Meanwhile, yonder in loss-of-beingville, the situation gets grimmer. It’s all a house of cards, see, the whole setup, not just crapshoots with individual fuckin’ oldies–’cause that’s what they are, ha ha–there’s more to be concerned with than exhausting some tunes. I dread, well I no longer dread, I know that prolonged listening to this old shit–shoot: prolonged thinking about!–will just as surely burn out ancient CONSTRUCTS, entire sputtering SYSTEMS, the very MIND-SETS in which the mix-and-match of any of this shit COHERES. The “natural process” of rock, insofar as it is rock, involves a systematic real-world/real-time/communal/personal playing out. All culture, certainly all of it built around the sequential offering of product–TV, movies, mags and books, cars, sports, clothing–is about turnover–a truism–but only rock foregrounds and RITUALIZES it in extremis. (Roll over, Beethoven…roll over, Plastic Bertrand.) And if that’s the deal with IT, why should it be a different deal with reflecting on it, reflecting truly on it? Right? (Wrong?) (Another truism?)

Another approach. Regardless of the whatzis under scrutiny, there’s always a basic fatuity, if not outright dishonesty, behind the tacit insistence that the true will f’rever play–that its vectors of interest are as perpetual as its rightness. Existential perpetuity is a pisser. Even with superficial taters like narrative structure–the warp and woof of the scrutinizer’s “voice”–how many times do you wanna read Sir Joe Bag o’ Donuts’s definitive take on Late Renaissance painting, say? How many times could you possibly wanna read me? How many times do I wanna read (or even think) me?

The text-partaking self–yours, mine, everyfucker’s–is not only historical (yawn yawn) but eschatological. It’s also a very effective agent in the nullification (cum disintegration) (and I don’t mean the ending) of history: its relegation to terminal irrelevance. Wake up one morning and old pet “hypotheses” are suddenly a little unwieldy–inapplicable–useless–the self can’t use ’em (they give it the creeps)–to the point, ultimately, where NO specific retroview is any longer “worth advancing,” even between one and oneself, any longer “tenable,” and not so much ‘cuz it can no longer be “tested”–it’s just that further to-do would only render everything all the more trite–banal–“meaningless.”

Which’ll jar your bones, Jim!…sap your breath…distort your hearing for your own concrete thoughts ’til they screak like the muddled static of distant homily.

Tutti frutti perpetooty…and if it’s ROCK qua meaning (qua “art”) we’re wasting brain cells on, there ain’t too many ways you can trick it up, bolster it, to insure it’ll play even short perpetuity. Everything that rock rock rock ‘n’ roll “is,” it also isn’t–and I’m not quoting general semantics–and when things start rolling down the hill (and you’re rolling with ’em) the ISN’T, believe me, is what will predominate.

The “Sixties”? The “Fifties”? One house of cards built upon another. Rock in its “primordial” form? Oh, you must mean before Rock-Surround–back when rock-roll was a bona fide antidote to the ills of the world, and not so central (or conspicuous) a source of them. Well, OK, if that’s the case, yes–for that it would pay to look to the “Sixties,” the “Fifties,” or even the actual 60s and 50s. The actual 60s are grounded, actually, in the actual 50s, and the 50s as groundwork are a basement, a ground floor, whose support time, strictly limited, has EXPIRED. People who think they know the 50s or the 60s but have only seen cartoon versions haven’t a clue of the fragility of the whole damn thing; nor can they guess how long ago the mess came crashing down (during the 60s?–most of it) (after punk fell?–the rest of it), crashed silently. (Unless you’re really listening, and why would you be?, silence doesn’t announce itself.)

And here’s the kicker: With or without your cooperation, your complicity, your personal suspension of systematic disbelief, NO VERSION of the 50s, real or imagined, can prop the mess up anymore, any more than can YOU on your own, in your most strenuous imaginings, your wildest, most neoadolescent games of “pretend.”

Oh, and furthermore, even if it could and you could: It can’t SAVE you, any better than Jesus–Godzilla–the tooth fairy–can.

(Up the hill…down the hill. You would have to be a Buddhist, or a flaming masochist, to feel that this way/down is as groovy as its predecessor/up.)

“All is but knowing so,” wrote Marcus Aurelius. Sounds about right, sure, maybe. But severe chronic knowing can lead to some nasty unknowing…

Hey, remember flunk-rock? Now that was something. Held together with the spit, and warmed over by the belch, of history? I don’t doubt it. David Byrne? Oooh, he was an x-tremely big cheese. Father of postlongshoremanism, wasn’t he? I thought it was postmormonism. Tell me, is there some way outta here? It starts with D.

The disposable, too long undisposed of.

All dust in the wind.


What–another Searchers album? Uh…yeah: Take Me for What I’m Worth (Kapp KS-3477), their fourth, fifth, or maybe even last LP. Note the older-type shrink-wrap–that rubbery, stretchy kind of thick plastic–with “stereo” and “our price” in big letters, and a little map of the U.S. The wrap is broken, so I probably played it, though I wouldn’t bet on every cut. Arguably the wretched excess of my collection, but conditions did make its purchase my-t-appealing.

Technically, Yale had finally expelled me–it was official–but by some crazy accident they forgot to cancel my last fellowship check, a big chunk of which I decided had to be spent on albums. Had to. I used to claim I blew the entire 600 bucks–there’s a nice ring to that–or 400, but it was more like only 100 or 200 bucks.

In addition to the Searchers, I got the first Grateful Dead, the first Country Joe, Over Under Sideways Down by the Yardbirds, everything I didn’t have by the Kinks, at least a couple of Donovans, Ascension and A Love Supreme, the first Pharoah Sanders and the first Albert Ayler on ESP, and a slew of items I must’ve got rid of 10-15-20 years ago–the second Troggs (containing “With a Girl Like You”), Los Bravos (w/ “Black Is Black”), the Fortunes (“You’ve Got Your Troubles”), the Mindbenders without Wayne Fontana, the first solo alb by Gene Clark–all bought, presumably, simply because they were there. After what the yalemonsters had put me through, how could I not take my reasonable share of frivolous war trophies?

Why I didn’t sell the Searchers 10-15-20 years ago is one thing. Some records are old friends, and old friendship, like new, isn’t exclusively about good or bad, or even real affinity. Others are people you feel sorry for, and if the Searchers, in spring ’67, were already obsolete, by the 80s even their dust was obsolete. Today they’re the last remaining piece of fellowship booty that never became an integral part of my master stack; the most purely meretricious of trophies (not even a belt buckle–or an ear–of the enemy: more like its lint), one as valueless as the graduate degree I never got.

MEANWHILE, an actual war was going on, y’know? No matter what I said about enriching the palette of philosophy, my real mission at Yale, the reason I became a grad school schmuck in the first place, was to delay getting drafted as long as possible. So dig the picture: I’ve been pummeled and poleaxed–rejected, daddy!–I don’t have a job, a girlfriend, fucking ‘Nam is in full swing, but records’ll redeem the day! Ah! the 60s: the blithering optimism of it all.

And six mints, make that six months later, Jacques Derrida came to Yale as a visiting professor. MISTER deconstruction or whatever–shit, he mighta been my thesis adviser (at least an ally). Good thing I missed him or I’d still be rotting in academia.

Christ am I glad to be DONE with academia.


But who sez I’m done with it?
Having fled the academic gauntlet, escaped by the skin of my shoes, I walked smack into a new gauntlet about as depressing, and almost as draining, one with–what? not again?!–distinct academic coloration. Neoacademic? Crypto-academic? Pseudononacademic?
Like femmes fatales who “don’t know it,” academes who don’t know it, or feign ignorance of the fact, can be–as they used to say–bad medicine. Bad enough. But wave the academy flag as if to disclaim it–“Only funning!”–while meantime masquerading as a practicing populist, and you’re fucking RAT POISON. A pair of parties-I-have-known fit this bill, have fit it hand in glove for the last quarter century, behaving for all the world not merely like entrenched (and very constipated) academes but petty administrators…self-tenured department heads…deans, by golly.
Christgau, good old Bob, once dubbed himself the Dean of American Rock Critics. He had a T-shirt made up with his name above that title, and a likeness of Little Richard. What, you might wonder, could possess someone to adopt a handle so aridly pretentious, so dauntingly…insipid? Part was just ill-conceived hoax, as obtuse a sham as Springsteen’s in bearing a nickname with zero proletarian reverb–the Boss!–but in larger part, it did accurately convey the man’s aura of swaggerless dogmatism. Both personally and professionally, he is one drably imperious prick.
The Dean!–who to this day (in his syndicated “Consumer Guide”) gives LETTER GRADES to albums and has a routine enabling him to monitor, or simulate monitoring, the complete “curriculum”–every current release. Years ago, more than once, I saw him in action. He’d put six LPs on the changer, stack all the covers in the same sequence, go about his bizness. If he suddenly heard something to catch his fancy, he would count discs and check the covers–“Three, four–oh, isn’t that something?–Tom Paxton.” Nowadays, I would assume he’s got a multi-CD unit with a digital display so he needn’t even count: technology favors the lame. (Dean of what branch? Admissions? Paper clips? Alphabetic studies?)
For us rockcrit underlings, the Dean in his incarnation as bigwig editor tried his darnedest to affect a supervisorly demeanor with an almost schoolmarmish (hit-you-with-a-ruler) facade. Looking back, it was sorta laughable, but every time I turned in an article, a review, sooner or later he’d phone, “Get your thesaurus–it’s word choice time,” and for two hours try to argue me out of certain key adjectives. Laughable but exasperating, and in hindsight maybe mostly laughable.
It was more in his “intellectual oversight” capacity–as surveillance pilot at large, unpaid and unassigned, far above the rockwrite fray–that this joker did me any lasting damage. In tandem with copilot/tag-team partner Greil Marcus, he at a crucial juncture blocked my progress to wider (um) recognition, effectively consigning me to marginality, and in the long run has denied me any significant role in official–“authorized”–“accredited”–rockwrite (as opposed to rock) history. The annals–the archive–the fugsucking “pantheon”! Oh yes–another pathetic house-o-cards for sure, but these two clowns act like they fucking OWN it.
And why do I care? Why do I care? I CARE.
It irks the hell out of me that while Marcus doesn’t grade albums, he does grade people’s CONDUCT, and conduct–alone!–is what kept me out of this high-bounty, high-visibility anthology he edited, oh, probably 18-20 years ago–yup, another old grudge. Stranded he called it, and he asked purt near every living, breathing rockwriter or rockwrite pretender of even quasi note to contribute an essay on his/her favorite album–the one you’d bring to a so-called desert island. I know, I know: cor-nee. But each contributor got $750, a whole lot more than I’d ever made off a single piece.
And what kept me out, he told me three years later, was my rude behavior at the final Sex Pistols show, the last of the Sid Vicious era, at Winterland. My job that night, well it wasn’t a job, it was a labor of love, had been to go out and insult the audience before and after each band. Some guy from the Pistols’ crew thought it all seemed too placid, too pat–“like a Grateful Dead show”–and asked me to give the ticket holders a jolt. All the invective in my arsenal I dispensed–in spades–I was one uncouth lout–until Bill Graham physically picked me up and threw me out of the building–“You can’t insult my city!” Although what, precisely, was/is rocka rocka roll–or punk–or any kind of youth twitch–supposed to entail “if not that”? If not the high risk of behaving like a FLYING FUCKING ASSHOLE?
Marcus, who had been there, and been offended, never expressed regret for the slight, the exclusion, but later in the 80s he averred that, knowing what he knew now, now that he “understood punk,” he would NOT have excluded me. Oh goody.
What I heard on the grapevine at the time the book came out was that he’d also disapproved of what I might write. The buzz was that Christgau, who “knew” me better than Greil did, told him, “Oh, he’d probably pick a Doors album anyway”–an odious no-no to Bob and Greil both–but that’s just rumor. In his foreword to the ’95 reprint of Stranded, Christgau, in a curious negative name-drop, draws attention to the lack of anything by “the irrepressible Richard Meltzer”…irrepressible? Is that like being a bon vivant? And if I couldn’t be repressed, why the fuck did they have to repress me? (Like that of Meister Eckehart’s cold Germanic God, my presence remained in my absence.)
A more persistent rumble back thereabouts was that these bozos found my rockwriting “politically incorrect” (ostensibly: I wasn’t as keen as they on helping rock-roll find, adjust, and micro-tune its moral/humanistic compass, or in lieu of its willingness to accept same, SUPERIMPOSING suchever upon it)–the first time I actually heard the now-all-too-familiar aspersion. Basically, this signified only a slight upping of the transgressional ante, as I had already been deemed of dubious intellectual grounding. As far back as ’73, Christgau was branding me “anti-intellectual”: in a saner universe (in his purview), I’d have been tarred, feathered, run out of town.
What’s daffy about this pair coming on so hoity-toity in their exercise of sovereignty is these’re guys who need a telescope to reach–approach–make out the general outline of–whatever it is they purport to be confronting, so mega-removed are they from any tangible earthly what-the-hey. Like most culture wags laureate, what they are–all they are!–is pious OUTSIDERS. (Like Sam and Ann Charters.) Breast-beating squares. (Like George Will and Norman Podhoretz.) Stuffed-shirt know-it-alls. (Like John Updike and Leonard Feather.)
As point-to-point-to-point-to-point arbiters of the socioculturally valid, they’re as embarrassing as the Medveds.
They don’t have the existential oo-poo-pa-doo to be trucking in anything so both high and low (and so alien to their alleged lives) as standard-issue rock ‘n’ roll. In their frigging 50s, they haven’t caught on yet that one thing rock does rather well, too well to ignore or dismiss–one of its stocks-in-trade–is SECOND-PERSON HOSTILITY. The many stations of I-dislike-you. Which isn’t “good” or any such easy-moral A equals A, certainly isn’t “nice,” but it’s the goddamn rock-roll terrain, it’s fucking given. Might I add “universal”? Such itchy biz rubs Bob and Greil the wrong way, especially when the targeting is, well, nonrational, irrational, and above all “unjust.” Taxonomically prejudiced (and prejudicial). They insist, for inst, that ANYTIME a male gender-specific voice expresses antipathy to a nonmale gender-specific other, UGLY SEXISM has reared its head–ring the alarm!–the voice forfeiting any claim to even antipathetic universality. It doesn’t matter, say, that the gender voicings could be reversed, that with minimal change a female subject could be cussing out, shitting all over, a male object…that ill will is as central to rock as it is to boxing…it doesn’t matter!
So meticulous have they been as rock watchdogs that they’ve troubled ’emselves over what Randy Newman might really’ve MEANT by “Short People” (yes–of course! Randy’s being ironic–but should anyone even say these things?)…how poignant.
They try so-o-o hard to be good, caring New Deal Democrats, and good Boy Scouts, and far more telling: good boys, they’ve never been bad boys, never even tried it on for size. They wouldn’t dare commit adultery. Never farted in the subway. They don’t know danger from the inside looking out, locked away from any relief, asylum, any exterior safety net. Fuh, do they even know mischief? They’ve never tasted their own bile, never looked death in the eye in a mirror.
When I wrote somewhere that one of the things that helped kill Lester Bangs was WRITING, each of them accused me of romanticism–how can writing kill? they questioned. Well, guys, it doesn’t always kill, but it certainly comes closest when you’re doing it right. Only when it makes active use of your blood, your heart, your nerves, glands, sex fluids, vertebrae, and whatall, and don’t forget your stink, in a word: your body. In a word: your life. They were more annoyed, I would guess, that I considered it a pity rockwriting was the genre that gored Lester, that a diet of rock and nothing but had rendered him too dumb to get out of the way.
At the risk of overextending my own
second-person animus and getting downright ad hominem about all o’ this, I’m gonna introduce a new term to the proceedings: COOTIES. I don’t give a ding dang doodle if these blockheads ever stumble on some remote semblance of the True, or accurately peg the Good and/or the Beautiful–the smutch of their imperialist intentions will contaminate anything they touch, their seal of approval rendering LESS ACCEPTABLE the goods of its unfortunate recipients. In my idea of a saner universe, the sight and sound of such card-carrying outsiders fattening up, even commentarily, on the goodies of the culturally/intellectually aboriginal would release fucking ANTIBODIES in the world. Imperialist cooties: nothing to sneeze at.
Or if “imperialist” sounds too vigorous and resourceful–too vibrantly alive–like Teddy Roosevelt or Cortez or somebody–let’s just call it “proprietary.” Ideational as opposed to material proprietorship…dominion…superintendence of turf and sight lines. No matter how you slice it, the reigning King of Proprietary Cooties–let’s print that on a shirt–is Greil Marcus.
It’s hard to go very long without seeing this man’s maiming-by-NOT-damning commentary on something. No other recent celebrity outsider–not George Plimpton, not Nat Hentoff, not Dr. Joyce Brothers–has functioned so relentlessly, so adamantly, as proponent, evaluator, certifier of relevance both passing and eternal, chalkboard huckster for so turgid a line of see-Spot-run. Michael Cuscuna? Well, that’s only on jazz reissues.
So unremitting has Marcus been in affixing his byline to so much NOT requiring his collusion, his stultifying illumination, and certainly not HIS italics, that every juxtaposition of it and anything has come to feel as WRONG (i.e., as corrupt) as the mating of basketball footage to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in a Nike commercial.
Last year an article in the New York Observer complained about Marcus’s liner notes for the reissue of Harry Smith’s Folkways anthology. Author Mark Schone’s beef was that in gushing all over Harry there was an implied denigration of rival folklorist Alan Lomax, who Schone felt deserved a better fate.
What irritated me about Greil’s presence in the package was simply that–his presence–although I could nitpick and say his lyric/historical spinout on Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird,” for one thing, bore traces of a METHODOLOGY of song dissection (and archaeology) I introduced to rockcrit (and yes, was better at) in my first published pieces 30 years ago…but fuck, I’m too much the folkie and populist myself to ever invoke an intellectual “copyright”–ownership isn’t my game. (I don’t own things in the air, I don’t even own names I’ve given them.)
Anyway, it would’ve been preferable, I think, for Schone to have been more patient: chances are, left to his proprietary avarice (the pipe dream: champion something and you’ll forever be associated with it), that Greil would eventually have carved his name on Lomax’s legacy too…and still may.
Hey: this is a man who accepted payment to report nightly on a MICHAEL JACKSON TOUR for Ted Koppel’s Nightline. Who/what won’t he put his name on?
He even put his grimy stamp on one of my books, the ’87 reprint of Aesthetics of Rock–which he didn’t even like. And I didn’t ask for him (I wanted Billy Altman), but he insisted and the publisher acquiesced. Wittingly or un-, his intro did little more than bracket the work, trivialize it (first paragraph: “I’m most of all convinced that the book is not a joke”; key word: “convinced”–thanks MUCH, you fucker), make it small (while lauding its hefty page count), finite, bounded, glibly sum-up-able, socially agreeable (“…the coolest book to be seen carrying”), no longer autonomous: a Greil-endorsed hunk o’ pulp.
The endorsement didn’t even improve my case with the endorser. So shallow had been his display of regard for me, so much did he not deem me even a colleague, that I didn’t make it onto the mailing list for his own next book, Lipstick Traces, and he balked at first when I asked for a copy (how much humiliation did I think I needed?), telling me to go bother his publicist…he was in no mood to do so himself.
It wasn’t mere protocol that prompted me to ask him, as this was the tome in which Greil reputedly “came to terms” with the events of Pistols night at Winterland. When I finally saw a copy, I wasn’t in the index, or onstage at his Winterland, or anywhere else. Once an apparent eyesore, I was now beneath his notice (both forward and back).
It was a book that struck me also as, yes, derivative–secondary–and that M.T. Kinney would later proclaim a “broken-leg try at duplicating the Everest climb R. Meltzer pulled off in The Aesthetics of Rock. On an insight level it’s the pits”–he said it, not me.
So what the hell am I after?
My due.
Don’t think I want credit for having “influenced” Greil, or Bob, or the pen pushers of their cardboard academy, for trailblazing an activity that inevitably leads to them. I didn’t (and if I had, I would rather I hadn’t) and I don’t.
But if they didn’t actually “get it from” me, plenty of it, it didn’t hurt ’em to have me as forerunner. To have my trial and error, naked as it was, ease the path and prime the pump.
Credit? I want credit for being Copernicus–Magellan–goddamn Socrates to their coffee-table Thoreau, and Thoreau to their Michael Medved. (Do you have any idea how degrading it is at this stage of my life to have to beat my own drum? What such a dance does to my “dignity”? They can kiss my fucking feet.)
Lester Young once said of Stan Getz, who profited mightily from a saxophone way-of-being Lester had pioneered: “There he goes driving my pink Cadillac.” I don’t want no Cadillac (though a middle-class income, after all these years, would be OK); I want to terminate the academy.
And what, precisely, is it that gives me the willies about the ascendancy of their shit and not mine–other than the obvious?
The reality of their ultimate message. Everything they write testifies: THERE IS NO JOY. NOTHING IS POSSIBLE. Regardless of what they imagine or wish it to be saying.
Seeing this travesty and obsessing on its repercussions forces me to redouble my efforts. I’m tired and tired and thinkin’ I might maybe resign from this sorriest of “callings,” and here I am stuck with a bran’ new mission.
Needed (first things first): a countercootie to their cooties on everything. On things I still love.


Come one, come all, come onna my house! Come alooka my c’lection.
Hardly nobody comes t’ see me no more–I bore their ear off with “war stories,” heh heh. The shameless EXHIBITIONIST in me is left holdin’ the bag–oh woe–but in an alternate lifetime in the weeks preceding my death, visitors galore will come & pay their “respects,” and with whatever sumthin’ I have got left I’ll lead ’em to my special albs–ones I’ve retained mainly so strangers will ooh and aah. People, I’ve found, are impressionable–sometimes you c’n impress them. (I so much want th’m to love me–doesn’t ev’rybody?)
Those that’re lucky and “suck up” to me enuff–just jukin’, ‘scuse me, jokin’!–or can prove they have read at least FOUR of my books, I’ll give a fistful of albums to…my patrimony. Ain’t got no offspring–childless–and the broad I’m livin’ with, my final surviving womanperson, she don’t care about this stuff–she’d jus’ go & sell it. Besides, she’s an old y’know, an oldperson–old as me anyway–how much time’s she got? Y’can’t take it w/ you–I can’t–and neither can she, but THEY can take it HOME.
Watch out for spiders, don’t mind the dust ‘n’ dinge–follow me, single file. Jazz upstairs, step lively…then the cellar.
Lookit: Thelonious Monk’s signachoor on 5 by Monk by 5, source of the title–that’s all–of the Stones’ 12 x 5, a big sweeping hand; the LATE RICHARD GROSSMAN’S copy of Jimmy Giuffre’s Western Suite, nice cactus, doncha think?
|Duke Ellington, Second Sacred Concert–a stinker, t’ put it mildly. Even with “A” personnel–Johnny Hodges ain’t dead yet, Harry Carney, Paul Gonsalves, Lawrence Brown–‘s almost as lousy as that one he did with Teresa Brewer, pee-yew. Check out the cover, tho: Salvation Army sticker. And inside: tickets to th’ actual concert, row 1, signed by the Duke. The owner musta died and some dumbbell relative junked it.
Claude Nougaro, Femmes et famines–what an ugly Zappa-rip-off cover. He’s got stigmata, what’s the singular, a stigmatum? stigma? There’s only, just on one cut, “Gloria”–not the “Gloria”–Ornette backs him up–a 14th-rate sweaty French chantoozer.
Billy Harper, Black Saint, first release on Black Saint the label, where’s it, shit, I musta sold it. No–could I’ve sold it?–I’m losin’ my marbles. Or has the old lady been sellin’? Or stoleden by some “caller”…sheee. C’mon downstairs…
Hackamore Brick, One Kiss Leads to Another. One o’ the great bands y’never heard, proto-punk. “Zip Gun Woman,” “I Watched You Rhumba”–before the punk nut got cracked, it seemed like t’ get there you hadda throw in a stiff dose o’ the 50s. Urban proto-punk–this is New York–wasn’t “garage music”–city kids don’t have garages. Urban shabbiness, y’know, was a major early rock-roll ingredient. Look at this guy, Tommy Moonlight–and this was before Tom Verlaine, speaking of jive names, who the world coulda done without anyway.
Flamin’ Groovies, ‘nother quirky (tho not too quirky) 70s chip-off-the-50s. Less obscure than, more like an overrated pseudo-pre-punk–or pre-pseudo-punk–cult band. Their last halfway decent, Teenage Head. The “Flame-Ettes,” that’s me, I was drunk in the studio, they needed hand claps. Me, Karin Berg, and Jean-Charles Costa, my editor I b’lieve, can’t remem’–a late installment of Crawdad? Boone’s Farm–was that apple wine?–and I couldn’ keep th’ beat, couldn’t feel the timing, hadda watch them t’ keep it up.
Lester Bangs, Jook Savages on the Brazos, only one that came out while he was alive. ‘S kinda awful, he was doin’ GALLONS of Romilar then, but he was my frien’–ya didn’t know that?–I wouldn’t sell it. (You got twunny-fi’ bucks?)
Velvets w/ the banana, a piece of the peel’s missing but see, it was paper–not plastic…Satanic Majesties w/ the plastic “optical” thing–you’re s’posed to be able to see Hendrix somewhere–I’ve never seen him…Metamorphosis–I doubt this is on CD–buncha gay stuff they put out after the Stones went to Atlantic–“I’d Much Rather Be With the Boys”–wanna hear it?
More recent Brit shit?–OK. Scritti Politti, 12-inch 45–what’s this even called? 4 A-Sides? Pre-Langue Release? How postmodrin. One “side,” which?, I’m never sure, makes ref to Mussolini.
Bow Wow Wow, See Jungle! See Jungle! One o’ the seven or eight greatest rocksongs, make that popsongs, of all time: “Chihuahua.” A strange, almost a 50s kinda feel–do I overstate my “thing” for the 50s?
WAIT–where’s my Blurt in Berlin…first two Mekons…Pindrop
by the Passage…
Prag Vec…the Australian pressing of the first Public Image??? There is something VERY WRONG ’round here,
somebody’s been, can’t they wait for me to “go”? The greedy wheezers…50 years of compulsive et cet’ra gone to naught…I can’t bear it…
THUMP THUMP THUNK…my ticker…this is IT.
OK–each of you take 11 records–my fav’rite number–and leave the rest f’r Jimmy McDonough, 1040 Willow Ave., Hoboken, NJ 07030. I’ll give yer regards to Tommy Bolin…Gene Krupa…Charlie Watts…oh th’ pain, th’ pain, th’…


So what was that brouhaha about “calling”?
Am I a goddamn teacher–is that it? An “imparter of wisdom”? “Entertainer with a lesson plan”?
Or am I he who distances you from all teachers: “Think for yourself or perish”? (Rock itself, when it was a full-service enterprise, once fulfilled this function.)
Or just another overreacher struggling in vain to have the verbal side of life catch up, aloud, with the experiential? A head full of too many ideas, leaking, spilling–where to begin directing them? (It would seem that I’m the only man/alive whose writing is informed EQUALLY by boxing and wrestling, by jazz and rock…that’s a lotta mental baggage!) The printed page as recycle bin: pass it on, reassign responsibility for baby-sitting hotstuff with no ongoing use even as ballast–I’m already top-heavy–yet too valuable to treat as mere trash, to relegate to some nameless ideative landfill.
Or am I nothing but a blowhard in neurotic need of an audience–as brazen as any attention seeker with a lampshade on his head? (Character in a comic book…lightbulb above his hairline flashes ON…next frame, a balloon: “Yes! I’ll wear that ‘shade awhile!”) If I jest, it’s to deflect your judgment and mine re: my state of denial ’bout this teacher BS. In the final analysis, I’m as culpably, reprehensibly didactic (pedantic!) as anybody. To properly do my job, I have not only to hold my act together–keep it coherent–but also the world’s. While no snooping academic, I mind the world’s business–in the WORST way–and I don’t mean I read the morning paper. (Or the Nation.) But you’re in this too. Should we both accept the assignment, we get to meet in the middle, in a middle. You need to read it, I need to write it…ain’t life a scream?
Psst! Mesdames et messieurs! The lowdown on…received cultural dandruff. I was a kid when rocka-roll was a kid–before the controls were set–and kidhood is half the story…regrettably. Before MTV? I was around before teevee! Eight years before Elvis was on, and that’s not long at all, er, the young Elvis, not the old fat one they declared a saint in the name of crowd control, you had Hopalong Cass–hey, don’t go to sleep, I’ll get to the good part soon enough. Cut me some slack, OK? I feel like the misfit in Pebble in the Sky, time-traveling to straighten out, rectify mis–oh, you don’t know that one, Isaac Asimov?, also before?, well that’s all right, I’ll just blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.
Off with his hat.
Which still leaves my, uh, custodial duties…Curator and Propmaster, Vinyl Division. RECORDS: the burden, the commitment. Even as props behind dark, gloomy curtains in airless subbasements, they’re essential the way all designated essentials are: the universe would topple without them (but it all depends how strongly you designate). Like yellowed maps and extinct textbooks from everybody’s squalid grade-school prison stay, without ’em the student-teacher charade just can’t be “authentic.” Besides, they’re more for me than for you. Like a fat, over-the-hill Jake LaMotta, clinging to the mantra of Brando’s “contender” speech at the end of Raging Bull, I need the ritual fact of my records (in all their balmy uselessness) in order to DEEM MYSELF armed and dangerous. So I can go to another room, as revved up as I’ll ever be, for a FORMERLY EASY task. (With the “whole world,” in a microcosm, watching.) I wish my fetishes on no one.
Now let’s get REALLY ponderous. Everything gets tougher. Nothing gets easier in this doghump of a life. While my powers ebb, THE BOULDER GETS BIGGER…the Sisyphus bench press. My freaking task and welcome to it: to maintain the delicate filigree of my infrastructure for data retrieval, y’know from old hibernating LPs, maintain it by any means nec.; to coddle the collection, personally relating to each and every disc, that they might rest in readiness to someday (should it be required) yield their secrets, thus aiding me in not only putting my finger on but demonstrating to others what it wuz that it wuz, and in the process make prehistory “live again,” as bizarre and implausible an eventuality as all the souls of all the departed being reconnected to bodies some fine day; to midwife a flame, long extinguished, that no match, no Bic, no collision with a comet can rekindle. This is some jolly gold-from-lead, square-the-circle, angels-on-pinheads-type horseshit, folks! But. All demons being equal, I think I’d rather be propmaster, worrying about decrepit matter, than propwriter, having to articulate its import. (Demons’re encountered either way.) Of the two cheezy endgames, only one of which can KILL–as this piece, ten months in the writing, is within a hair’s breadth of doing–I would much rather fret over my shitty records than write about them. Off with his face. In The Western Lands, for all intents and porpoises William Burroughs’s last important fictional work, the narrator (an old writer identical to the author himself) sets before himself the chore of writing himself out of death. Out of ever having to die. At book’s end, so near/so far, he gazes upon a literal river of shit, uncrossable–the final image of finality, of mission failure. “The old writer couldn’t write anymore because he had reached the end of words, the end of what can be done with words.” All I’m trying to do–while failing just as miserably–is write myself out of the rockwrite equation. Look. Some days, possibly most, it occurs to me (in no uncertain terms) that rock, and all writing about it, has NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING. Y’know: “anymore.” Imagine a world where manymany, toomany people wrote about…meatless lasagna. (And thought they were hip–and “on to something”–for doing it.) Do I really really really really really want originator’s credit, or do I disown it? “I just think it should be my option, my call. (I’ll keep you posted.)” Off with his head. I am the prophet of, of…oh, it’ll come to me. It’s, it…was…well,


I need to hear, I need to hear…”Where Have All the Good Times Gone.” Kinks. One of the great mid-60s masterpieces. On The Kink Kontroversy (Reprise RS 6197). Let ‘er rip… “Time was on my side”…”easy ride”…”yesterday”…”feet back on the ground”–well, it certainly is “the densest reference-tongue field known to man” (Borneo Jimmy was right). Nice riff: dum…dum…dum. But it’s, phoo, it’s very tinny sounding…mushy…
is that fake stereo? I’m not complaining, but soundwise it isn’t all that…tumultuous. You’da thought…huh. And again. Hmm. Three times? Well…for the road. For the good times. Where the piss-shitty HELL did they go? Great song, g’bye.


It will never come back to me. “How rilly and truely cosmic this li’l ‘treatise’ would be,” l’auteur dit (and I translate), “if only I could recall what it was I was on the VERGE of getting at.” Writing about music is not like dancing about architecture. Writing tends to be about. Writing about music is not very different from writing about trees. (Writing about writing, on the other hand, might be something like architecture about architecture–if only architecture could itself be about things: structure sussing out structure, self-consciousness of self-consciousness.) My objections to writing about music are not about untangling metaphors. The vast ocean that separates any particular piece of music (as one order of things) from its impact on humans of the species (as another) is unbridgeable. They occupy different dimensions, they’re apples and oranges, vastly different beasts. (“Correlate” them at your own risk.) Lester Bangs told me about some mental patient he met who claimed to’ve been “helped” by such and such a Black Sabbath album, as if, well, that was Sabbath’s value. That they were IN TOUCH WITH various “disturbed states,” and delivered an unsettling (yet right-on) mix of associated highs and lows…and maybe so. But isn’t it likely that twice, three times, 40 times as many have been helped through the occasional horror by Carole King or the Captain & fucking Tennille? Merle Haggard? Alvin & the Chipmunks? The Monkees? Who are or aren’t any more/any less genuinely in touch with…whatever. The POWER OF MUSIC–it’s everything, and nothing. Like love to Colette, it’s the great commonplace. Somewhat suspect when applied too globally, too generally. (Second opinion from Lou Reed? Art Schopenhauer? John Sebastian?) A tougher question than Am I a rockwriter?: Was I ever a rockwriter? (Do I even really qualify?) (Am I “overqualified”?) Three trains running, four trains, five, and more. “There’s the Soul Train, and the Coltrane, but gimme that good ol’, dumb ol’ Rock & Roll Train.” IS THERE ALSO a rockwrite train? WHERE might it go? NOT the Land of Oo-bla-dee. NOT Old Cape Cod. No longer stops at Ilikeitlikethat. The local but not the express. I have rid’ the train–I think I’m sure I believe I know. But I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know (I cannot be certain): maybe it’s just my train, not their train. No: I am not the only rider–I see multitudes of others–but I wonder: am I the only one paying FULL VERBAL FARE? Or is this a dream? (Is it Buddhism yet?) From a crackling loudspeaker: “Flaunt signature verbiage or die.” OK, OK…I’ll pay…


I changed my mind.
I lied.
All I have is yours.
I’m too, too generous.
Don’t take me seriously.
No more serious than your life.
Don’t tread on me.
Correct me if I’m wrong.
School is out.
Clothing optional.
Fast ‘n’ loose.
C’mon, pick a fight with me.
Write me a letter, drop me a line (if you’re female and under 50, enclose a pic). (And if, by chance, it’s 1972: a pubic hair.)
I begin with truth.
Truth, that whore.
You’re better off without her/him/it.
Can’t you take a fucking joke?
Forget it.
If you can read this, you can write this.
You couldn’t write this with a gun (knife) (crossbow) at your head.
Hey, d’I ever tell you the one about…?
Too solemn for words.
(As your, ahem, teacher, it is my obligation to inform you that) it’s OVER…so turn out the light.


Or did I catch the WRONG rockwrite train?


Richard Meltzer

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Gary Snyder – “December at Yase”

January 25, 2009 at 9:22 am (Gary Snyder, Poetry & Literature, The Beats)


You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
“Again someday, maybe ten years”


After college I saw you
One time. You were strange,
And I was obsessed with a plan


Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I’ve always known
where you were—
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back
You still are single


I didn’t.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that


Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh


We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen


I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives


And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
karma demands.

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Jack Kerouac – 3 Haikus

January 25, 2009 at 9:14 am (Jack Kerouac, Poetry & Literature, The Beats)

Birds singing
in the dark
—Rainy dawn.


The low yellow
moon above the
quiet lamplit house.


The taste
of rain
—Why kneel?

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Bono – “The Unforgettable Fire” (1984)

January 25, 2009 at 6:18 am (Poetry & Literature, U2)

Your only rivers run cold
These city lights,
They shine as silver and gold
Dug from the night,
Your eyes as black as coal 

Walk on by,

Walk on through

Walk till you run and don’t look back

For here I am



The wheels fly and the colors spin through alcohol

Red wine that punctures the skin

Face to face in a dry and waterless place


Walk on by,

Walk on through

So sad to besiege your love

Oh, hang on


Stay this time,

Stay tonight in a lie

I’m only asking but I think you know

Come on take me away,

Come on take me away

Come on take me home,

Home again


And if the mountains should crumble

Or disappear into the sea

Not a tear, no not I


Stay this time,

Stay tonight in a lie

Ever-after is a long time

And if you save your love,

Save it all, save it all

Don’t push me too far,

Don’t push me too far

Tonight, tonight.


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