Rock Whores

In separate essay collections, Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches recall a time when music criticism mattered.

Richard Meltzer, A Whore Just Like the Rest: The Music Writings of, Da Capo Press, $17

Nick Tosches, The Nick Tosches Reader, Da Capo Press, $18.95

Burrowing deep into the heart of rock criticism's darkness, it doesn't take long for both Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches to use the word "whore" when referring to their respective professions as rock journalists. Meltzer, never one to mince words, puts it right out front on the cover of his wonderfully annotated collection of absurdist music ravings. Tosches, always the more writerly of the two, weaves it into the glorious introduction to his compendium by relating a bit of advice movie director Don Seigel once gave him. "If you're going to be a whore," Seigel told Tosches, "be a high-priced whore. For money buys freedom from whoredom. And without freedom, there is no doing what a writer should do."

Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches were born with the same fire. Both were native New Yorkers -- Tosches came from the city itself; Meltzer's a Long Islander -- who caught onto the simmering cultural fury of rock and roll very early. Meltzer was a philosophy major who applied the abstract theories and intellectual processes he studied to the youthful music that was quickly changing the face of American life. In Meltzer, rock and roll had its first real voice, or at least one of the very first voices to take rock and roll seriously.

Tosches was the street poet, the punk kid who never had time for classrooms. He was a literature fanatic who would steal the classic books he wanted to read and then spend his time crafting his own urban poetry. For Tosches, documenting music was the first step in the long, harrowing journey to becoming a writer -- in the deepest, truest sense of the word. Rock and roll provided the first opportunity for him to be paid for his work, and Tosches wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth (particularly one that paid the bar tabs).

Meltzer and Tosches (who along with Lester Bangs formed a manic and unholy triumvirate of rock writing -- all of them were contemporaries and friends) forged rebellious careers during the caustic New York City rock-and-roll-meets-art explosion of the late '60s and early '70s. Their work appeared nearly everywhere -- in magazines such as Fusion, Teenage Wasteland Gazette, Zoo World, Phonograph Record Magazine, Rolling Stone, and most notably, Creem -- and the only consistency was their inconsistency. Wild and raucous takes on everything from drinking, drugging, and sex to wrestling and boxing somehow crept across the rock and roll landscape and into their work. The labors of Meltzer, Tosches, and Bangs were, perhaps, the first significant documentation of rock and roll's pervasive cultural staying power.

Now, some 30-plus years later, there is very little doubt that both Meltzer and Tosches have done, and continue to do, what writers should do. And, whoring or not, both have pursued the rock and roll muse with equal vigor, although in extraordinarily different ways.

Meltzer is the rock-writing mad scientist who tells us point-blank, "I invented this shit." And who's going to argue? His seminal The Aesthetics of Rock fired the first major salvo in rock journalism history, and its wild style left readers wondering whether the whole affair (rock writing and, for that matter, rock and roll itself) was serious, or just some kind of weird hoax.

A Whore Just Like the Rest gives lifelong evidence that Meltzer himself isn't so sure. Beginning with his earliest scribblings on the rock music subject, Whore is filled with a naive yet epic vision for rock and roll, and for the possibilities that writing about it could bring. Meltzer views his writings about rock and the culture surrounding it as being equally dynamic, energetic, and important as rock music itself. And like most rock and roll records, Meltzer's writing can be all things -- agitating, off-the-mark, dead-on, full of shit, pompous, improvised, choreographed, pathetic, and absolutely brilliant. His writings come off so wildly erratic that the only consistency Meltzer is able to muster is his caustic sense of humor.

Whore is filled with previously printed reviews of records and shows that Meltzer admits he's never listened to or attended. Such rants are often exquisitely humorous, but are also nearly as often sophomoric and boring. Arranged chronologically, distinctively annotated (Meltzer's commentaries on the times, and on the pieces themselves, are the absolute highlight of this collection), and spanning roughly the years from 1965 to the present, A Whore Just Like the Rest fulfills Meltzer's fantasy of being a rock star who never played or sang a note. Thus, Whore is spotty at best. It's a 'greatest hits' package that, fortunately, shines so brilliantly when it's on that suffering through the inglorious self-indulgence when it isn't becomes a price one willingly pays.

The Nick Tosches Reader follows a different path. Tosches was an early contemporary (and co-conspirator) of Meltzer's, yet his work is a cool evening to Meltzer's blazing hot day. Tosches wanted to be a writer, and Meltzer wanted to be a rocker. These two retrospectives distinctively define that difference.

That Tosches did become a writer, and a dazzling one at that, cannot be argued. The Nick Tosches Reader is a wonderful diagram of Tosches' slow evolution from street punk fuck-up to hopeful lost poet, compelling journalist, and brilliant novelist.

From his earliest works for periodicals (an essay on Black Sabbath's Paranoid album expends a mere 70 of its nearly 700 words in actually commenting on the music) right on through Tosches's lovers' quarrel with rock and roll and his forays into country music, poetry, and storytelling, there's the shining voice of a complete word junkie, the tenor of a poet and wordsmith with enormous, evolving, and, eventually, fully realized potential.

Whereas the Tosches Reader presents to us the growth of a writer who could successfully and beautifully extend his burgeoning craft into long form, Whore defines Meltzer as a provocateur whose best work comes in the metaphorical form of an occasionally brilliant three-minute pop single.

Yet The Nick Tosches Reader and A Whore Just Like the Rest are essential for anyone who wants to explore the history of rock and roll writing at its messy best. Not only do they document the earliest days of American rock and roll culture, but they also represent the genesis of an art form that is now nearly lost, in which writing about music served a role nearly as important as the music itself.

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