Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Aesthetics of Rock (1970)

Richard Meltzer's notorious first book, a stone classic in the rock critic canon, is not particularly easy to read, marked as it is by a semi-lampoon of academic writing (division of philosophy, no less), which is actually often quite funny. But the book eschews most typical gestures of textual relief such as organization into sections and chapters. It's one long blurt. It could have been typed on the blank side of the manuscript roll Jack Kerouac used for On the Road. It's slippery and maddening even as it verges on exhilarating. It grinds against immovable objects and then it darts down rabbit holes that are baffling, such as a discussion of "tongue," a quality of music Meltzer identifies, knows for a certainty when he hears it, yet struggles to define with any clarity. He admits it is hard for people to recognize tongue even when he sits with them as songs play and he points it out. Getting it across this way was never going to be easy. Mostly The Aesthetics of Rock reads to me like someone who has read a lot and now his head is exploding, which fits what we know of how it was put together, written when he was in college as an undergraduate and graduate student (in philosophy), and published after he left school. You could probably form a reading group and spend months and years going through it page by page. That has probably already happened, in fact, and those groups may not even have reached the Epilogue yet (never mind, spoiler alert, it's just a bunch of transcribed notebook writing, mostly about the Byrds). I was struck by a similarity between Aesthetics and Nik Cohn's Rock From the Beginning, at least in terms of their age because they are very different books. But both teeter on irrelevance now simply by being so far behind. In neither book have the Beatles even broken up yet, let alone Malcolm McLaren dubbed John Lydon Rotten. Meltzer is deeply conversant with '60s pop music development, and can discuss the Trashmen, Lou Christie, and the 4 Seasons with as much authority as he can't, say, Iggy Pop, because Iggy Pop is still in this book's unknown future. In many ways Meltzer hangs it all on "Surfin' Bird," which admittedly is a pretty good place on which to hang it all. Greil Marcus points out in a late-'80s introduction to the Da Capo edition that Meltzer is a certified Beatles maniac. It's a little surprising because, from the attitude Meltzer evinces, his heart would appear to lie more in the precincts of the Stones and proto-punk revanchists. Here again, though, all informed discussion ends at approximately Magical Mystery Tour and maybe a few glancing mentions of songs from the White Album. No Abbey Road. No Let It Be. No Macca. Strange, and on some level plainly a deliberate choice as the book was not published until 1970 and the Da Capo edition followed after almost 20 years. I suppose everyone with rock critic ambitions should look at it. I think this was my third try and finally a winner. Take it as art. Let me know if you figure out the tongue thing.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. Comically overblown but flights of inspiration too. I like the Nik Cohn comparison. Both are first person reflections on the Big Bang of '60s rock. And the preoccupation naturally does seem dated now, another origin story myth, but Meltzer gets at the original gush of pop excitement as well as anyone; if no more articulate than an over-educated primal yawp ("tongue"?). Besides, this book led me to "Yes It Is," which is still worth something.