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Rettsounds - Materiality of Existence with Richard Meltzer

"I think it's very bad design to have the human body as the shell. It's just so fragile."
February 3, 2012, 12:00am

Richard Meltzer: So, I heard you have some surgery coming up.
VICE: Yeah, I’m waiting around to get some test results back before I get a hernia removed.
Is this your first hospital experience? I’ve never as so much broke a bone in my life. The only time I was ever in the hospital was when they thought I had Legionnaires’ disease in high school. Since I’ve lived such a sheltered existence in regards to medical stuff, I’m scared of what the results of this test might be. Questioning my mortality and all that. Didn’t you have some surgeries in the past few years? 
I had my hemorrhoids snipped about 10 to 12 years ago, and about 5 years ago I got endocarditis. Two of my heart valves were infected from microbes from a visit to the dentist and I was in the hospital with tubes in my arms for a week. I almost died; I was in very bad shape. Ever since then I’ve been thinking of my five-year plan that I should never think more than five years ahead because a falling safe could land on my head.

Yeah, all I’ve been thinking about the past few days is how crappy I’ve treated my body my whole life.
Well, I think it’s very bad design to have the human body as the shell. It’s just so fragile.


So where do we put everything instead of the body?
I don’t know. You could put the mind and the heart and all that stuff in…

Who knows? The materiality of existence really does seem like a ball and chain when you get older.

I read something the other night on the internet about how your deal with Da Capo is down the toilet or something?
Da Capo did the re-print of The Aesthetics of Rock and did this collection of my rock writing, A Whore Just Like The Rest, and then they did Autumn Rhythm, and since that wasn’t really a music book, they didn’t know how to promote it and they held it against me that it didn’t sell.

But you have a newer book that you’re looking to publish?
I had been working on it for six or seven years; it’s a novel. Over the years, I knew editors that I always thought I could call on, but they’re all gone. Every publication I once wrote for, I don’t know anybody there and it just gets to the point where I have to think, “Can I assume that I no longer have a career?” All sorts of factors have conspired to make books obsolete more or less. So I’m going to print this novel myself. You see these people put out 2,500 copies of a book and on the back page it reads, “2,500 copies; first 100 signed,” or something like that. So I’m thinking, Why not just do 50 copies? You know…keep it small.

That sounds like the smartest idea. In the past year, I’ve been hustling to get a second book published and it seems like so much wasted effort. I might as well put it out myself. At least if you do it that way, you know the people who will read it. When you try to project something into an area where you have to explain yourself, it’s like, “I don’t remember signing up for this kinda shit.” 
Right! You know, once upon a time there were no rock books. And now…have there been a million yet? Maybe… There was a time when no daily newspaper in the U.S. had a rock critic and now they all do. And look where everything is now. It just gets to be that anything alive and non-generic is a hard sell. Even Lester Bangs, who didn’t last too long--he died at 33 or -4--his own projection was to stop writing about rock and write books about his friends. Even 30 years ago that would have been a hard sell for him since of how he was known. Music is a hard stereotype to cast off. Ninety-five percent of what I’ve written about is non-music and I’m still known as a rock writer.

Maybe we should start talking about what we’re supposed to be talking about; this project with Watt you did, Speilgusher. I remember way back as a kid there was always a “coming soon” thing in Forced Exposure that they were going to put out this project between you and him. I guess this Spielgusher thing is as close to that as we’re gonna get.
Every so often, Watt and I would talk about reviving the project. It was originally supposed to happen in 1985 or something like that, and then maybe in 2000, Watt got more vigorous in his proposal. In 2003 or 2004, I started recording a few little pieces with a friend of mine here who has a little studio and I shipped them off to Mike and it took another five or six years to put music to it. It had a sense of inevitability from a long time ago, so for it to really happen was astounding to me. For me, the sound of my voice has changed a lot in the past 25 years. When I heard the finished product of it, I was surprised that I sounded less menacing and more benign.

It seems this month is ripe with musical projects including you. The Vom 7-inch is being re-issued this week as well.
Is it just as vinyl or what? I’m not sure…

No, it’s the Live at Surf City 7-inch in the original cover and everything.
It was gonna be a CD at some point. They contacted me in the past year asking if I’d want to write notes for it, but Vom is so far from my current existence that I was really slow with writing it. If I ever sent it in, the only thing I really wanted to say was the reason there were so few Vom gigs was because very early on, I realized that once you work up a song, practice it, and do the gig, I thought that was the achievement: to have a viable version of the song and to do it once. After that, it felt like a theater piece or something. I felt very uncomfortable with that. Since we were slow with writing new songs I just felt, “I don’t want to do this play too often.” That was what I was trying to write for the liner notes, but I just have difficulty these days writing sentences or an articulate statement of anything. Maybe it’s time to get back to poetry, but I have trouble with prose!

Yeah, I don’t know how long I can keep writing record reviews. What more can you say? It’s a total exercise. And that’s not to say the records are bad or anything. It’s just at the end of the day, I would have kept breathing if they didn’t come out.
Right! Right! Exactly! I found from very early on that I didn’t really care. Even after I’d done a hundred record reviews and had a thousand more to go, they were all like pulling teeth. There’s nothing new to say about them. There’s not even anything new to say about things that are new! I finally heard the term “classic rock” maybe five years ago and I was like, “What’s that? Is it everything pre-punk?” I didn’t understand it.


I think at first it was everything pre-punk, but now it’s just an easy tag for anything that’s from 15 years back or further that’s mainstream and has guitars. But when it boils down to it, “classic rock” just means The Eagles.
I saw the Eagles’ first show in public at the Troubadour in LA. They gave me a seat in the front row and an unlimited bar tab. I just got very, very drunk and banged on the stage yelling, “YOU GUYS SUCK!” and “I WANT THE BYRDS! I DON’T WANT THE EAGLES!”

I know you wouldn’t have seen this, but a few years ago Patti Smith was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame by Zack De La Roche from Rage Against The Machine. During his induction speech, he was working himself into a lather and he said something like, “I WANT PATTI, I DON’T WANT THE EAGLES!” and just then they shot in on Don Henley. I guess the cameraman thought he was gonna catch Henley burning up, but he just had this look on his face like, “Say all you want, kid. I can have you killed and still be worth billions.”
Yeah, they were the first American band that was simply about greed. In England, it was Led Zeppelin. I saw Led Zeppelin twice at the Fillmore East and they actually had an interlude in the middle of the set where they did acoustic blues. It just seemed so silly to me.

Going back to Vom, I don’t think I’ve ever really read anything on the formation of the band. How’d it happen?
The personnel was really makeshift. If you could play; that’s good. Since I couldn’t play anything, I couldn’t make a musical suggestion because I didn’t know what an F chord was. It was pleasing that they were tolerant of me. When I did it I was 33, so I felt that I still had some steam and I should see what it was about. But after four or five gigs, I couldn’t take it. If we had two sets in a night, I would lie on my back for the second one.


Didn’t you guys line the stage with barbed wire or something?
Yeah, we did that when we opened for The Dickies. The model was wrestling; we wanted to be the bad guys and intimidate the audience. It was just so hard to sustain since it was so silly. For the second set that night, we got sheep’s eyes and put them on the barbed wire. We had this song “I Live With The Roaches”; we thought crickets looked like roaches, so I went to a bait store and got a box of crickets to throw out when we did the song. They backed up 20 feet! “Punkmobile” was another song we had. The first time we did it, I poured a can of STP on my head. It really stung!

So even though you were sorta bitter by this point, you thought punk to be some cultural antidote?
Yeah, because it didn’t accept the marketplace. Since people didn’t want it, it didn’t generate enough interest for the record companies to come down and buy a piece of it. In LA it was this delightful thing with makeshift venues but two things destroyed it surprisingly very quickly. One was these hardcore kids from Orange County decided to crash every show and trash it. The other thing was I.R.S. records decided to buy two bands: Wall of Voodoo and The Go-Go’s. Wall of Voodoo were an acceptable electronic band, but I.R.S recorded them sounding goofy and cartoony. The Go-Go’s were the polar opposite of a girl group. They’d wear underwear on their faces and go up to their aunts’ attic and find stupid old clothes and wear them backwards and sing songs about getting raped. And then I.R.S came up and asked, “How’d ya like to be a girl group, per se?” “Sure!” and that was the end. After that, every band was like, “Gee, maybe the marketplace is for me.”


What do you think your take would have been on punk if you stayed in New York and witnessed Television at CBGB’S rather than like…The Eyes or The Bags in a basement?
I never thought the Talking Heads were punk; it’s like Stephen Sondheim music. Blondie wasn’t punk. CBGB’s, I hated that place! Basically, I didn’t like those bars that those bands played at. I felt uncomfortable at those places. I never liked the Dolls either. But I could stand the bars in LA. I’ve been living here in Portland for 16 or 17 years now and I have friends in bands here and I go to bars and see them. None of them have the notion of success as a goal and I like that. Everything is better when it’s made for a limited audience. That’s why I liked what was left of American Jazz 20 or 30 years ago. Maybe 200 people in the country still cared about that music at that time, but they still did it. That’s what I liked about punk; it ignored the protocols of music-making.

Portland seemed to have a good mix of stuff as far as punk went. You had The Wipers or the Neoboys or Poison Idea or Smegma all in the same pool
I was in Smegma for ten minutes, you know. But then they got some notion of themselves as the fathers of noise music … whatever that is, and I was out.

Well, I think that notion might have crept into their head once you did that record with Wolf Eyes.
Is that right?

Oh yeah. I’d say after that record came out, a whole bunch of collegiate types started buying those older Smegma records for big bucks on eBay and then they were being asked to headline noise festivals. I saw them in Brooklyn awhile back and it just came off like wacky white people who loved Frank Zappa too much.
They had an endless cache of Zappa videos they’d watch before practice. That, Betty Boop, and The Three Stooges. They’d say things to me like, “Hey! Why don’t you write us a rock opera?” and I was like, “Uh…I don’t think so.”


How did you get in contact with them in the first place?
I met them at a party and they said, “Hey! Would you like to be our vocalist?” and I said, “As long as I don’t have to sing.” They never really had a set list, but then they started to have something of a set list. Like, “We’ll start with small percussion instruments with flutes.” So I only was allowed to participate in two-thirds of the show unless I wanted to play little toys, which wasn’t very fun. They had this member who called herself Amazon Bambi. She was a charter member, started with them in Pasadena back in ’72 or ’73. She played five instruments, none of them well. Not even adequate! When I first joined the band, my role was to sit next to her to turn down her amp when she wasn’t looking. They kicked me out in ’04 and her a little later because they played Europe and she embarrassed them by taking a shit in a urinal in some rock club.

So do you still listen to rock music at all?
Rock ‘n’ Roll in retrospect saved my life when I was eleven years old and in some ways, it even saved the world. But I don’t play it much because I have it all in my head! I have a repertoire of favorites that I sing when I walk the dog, but I don’t ever need to hear a song by the Velvets ever again. About ’81 or ’82, this situation occurred that I call “Rock Surround.” Suddenly, rock was in supermarkets and it was unavoidable. That’s my main objection; that it’s now mandatory.

Funny you should mention that. Today I heard cover songs by The Smiths in both a coffee shop and a pet store and it struck me as so weird. This band that was supposedly so underground for their time was having these ultra-limp versions of their songs blared into places where no one was paying attention. Totally surreal. 
I’ve been following English soccer on the internet and the guys who write for the Manchester Guardian are all these frustrated rock writers. They always reference The Smiths or Morrissey too much. They mention Mark E. Smith as well. English football writers love him.


Well, he’s the perfect middle ground of a cement-head and a genius.
He and I used to be in regular correspondence. He sent me some letters during the Falklands War that were very Pro-Britain. The last I heard The Fall was in the 90s when they did a version of the Kinks’ “Victoria” and it was hard to tell if he was singing “Rule Britannia” for these kids, or if it was sarcastic or ironic, but it didn’t matter! He just has this majestic way of appropriating material. When he does soccer scores, he knows all the shorthand of the teams and you gotta applaud him.

I found out about English football through British punk rock. 
Well, Liverpool is considered a skinhead fan base.

I always thought it was West Ham who had the skinhead following.
Three West Ham players were on the English team that won the World Cup in ’66. So they can beat their chest on that but they’re a horrible team now. So, do you want to talk any more about Watt or the record or anything?

No, I think we had a good talk.
I’m fine with it too. Just don’t worry about this operation or anything like that. The 40s are fine, the 50s are nothing. But watch out when you turn 60. The 60s will kick your ass. They suck.

Great…more to look forward to.

This interview is dedicated to Brendon NGL. Rest in pizza, buddy.

Previously - Puke Mix