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Scott: I wanted to start by asking
you what you were like in high school?
Richard: What I was like in
high school? Uh, I was a four-eyed shorty with
Scott: Talk about it in terms of
social groups --did you fit in? Did you have many friends?
Richard: Uh, I didn't fit in,
but I wouldn't say that anybody -- uh, there was probably
a small elite that had what you would call a successful
social life, but they were clearly a minority. I mean,
I would say that most people I knew were thoroughly
miserable. But there was no bonding in that --
everybody was sort of un-AFFILIATEDLY miserable.
Scott: Did you do anything in
high school -- I don't know, stuff that would suggest
you'd become a writer later?
Richard: I was a math major.
I was basically -- I had been an overachieving student
from way back. You know, like, my parents -- all the
incentives were for academic over-achievement, so I
did. And I didn't really CARE for my so-called studies,
but the object was to get an A. My mother had been a
math teacher, and so I especially over-achieved in math,
and when I went to my senior year in high school and took
a course called College Math, and by taking a certain
placement test I was able to get into -- as a freshman
in college, they put me in a sophomore math class -- and
I think I got a B. Slowly but surely I was losing all
interest in that, in math. And when, as a sophomore, I
got a D and an F in two math courses I decided enough of
this already, and became a Philosophy major. And it was
only when I started writing Philosophy papers that I on
any level thought of myself as writing. I mean, doing
mere book reports and biology reports didn't feel
quite the same. And so, I would do, uh, I still --
I mean, just to cut to the chase, I didn't think of
myself as a writer as such until I had been doing it
professionally for about five years. I just looked at
myself in the mirror one day and I said, "I guess you're
Scott: How did the Philosophy fit
in in terms of being a rock fan?
Richard: It just felt -- I also
was an Art minor, I took Art History and Studio courses,
and Philosophy was the cutting edge of all thought about
such things as creation, creativity, the artist, the
audience, the art object; just being able to look at all
this stuff and get some sort of, like, what's the word?
-- jargon for even TALKING about it. On one hand it was
something to write about, but mostly it was -- you know,
works of artists I cared about were THEMSELVES. They
seemed to be mind-manifesting. I mean, they were
psychedelic, which I think means mind-manifesting. And
so, rock 'n' roll itself, by about '64, '65, the British
Invasion and onward, seemed very much to manifest mind.
It seemed like the easiest thing in the world to combine
it with Philosophy, to basically, in my own mindset,
combine the two of them. Rock and Philosophy were one
and the same.
Scott: How did rock, in your view,
Richard: Well, I mean rock -- when
I was 11 years old I saw Elvis on the Ed Sullivan
Show, and it saved my life. I mean, I was just a
really creepy little four-eyes then, and if I hadn't
seen Elvis, I probably would've ended up teaching high
school Math in Brooklyn. And it put some bounce in my
life, it gave me a certain access to my own vitality,
to my own sense of strut. And even when it was
essentially a music of the BODY in the '50s, it was
an incredible advance over what whitebread America
had until that point. Unfortunately, rock 'n' roll
as such, was dead in the water by about 1958 or '59;
it was all but over.
Scott: Bobby Vee and all that?
Richard: Yeah. I mean, yes,
bands and individual singers had hits and so forth,
but it really wasn't thought of as nurture anymore,
it wasn't something that was going to save anybody's
life. And so when the British Invasion happened it was
like, oh my God, it's the second coming! And it did
have a very heavy dose of intelligence attached to it
if for no other reason than that it had been rehearsed
already. Whitebread, Anglo America had had a prior taste
of this, and had gone over it in its mind, and had found
the chops to really deal with it this time. That combined
with -- I just think there were certain things going on
in the world, I mean, DRUGS, for sure. But there was a
certain something happening in general in the early '60s:
you had pop art, comic books were getting weirder, and I
just think that there was a certain access that most
people suddenly had, uh… they always had the access,
but it was almost like suddenly everybody was beatnik
if they wanted to be. And an inordinate number LEAPED
at it, and by somewhere in '65 when you had the Beatles,
the Stones, and Dylan, and five or six other bands, but
not really that many overall -- the Zombies, the Kinks,
the Yardbirds, the Byrds -- suddenly it was like a torch
held high in the world, bright enough to light the galaxy.
It was somewhat astounding, it was like, where did this
come from? It was suddenly immense.
Scott: How affected were you by
some of the rock of the pre-Beatles era, the early '60s
stuff, I don't know, like Phil Spector...
Richard: I think he's -- he's
somewhat overrated. I mean, you could stand to listen to
that stuff on the radio but it just wasn't -- there was
nothing AWEsome about it, it was just well wrought tunes.
And if anything, my favourite Phil Spector-produced
single was one that didn't even have the Spector sound,
it was "Pretty Little Angel Eyes" by Curtis Lee, just a
silly song. And I always thought that later, in longer
retrospect, that "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby," an
Andrew Loog Oldham production, just leaves Spector in
Scott: Talk a little about your
first Beatles experience. You've written that you first
heard them shortly after JFK's death?
Richard: Right, on a Canadian
station. I had a date with a high school cheerleader in
Pennsylvania. I was driving in from Long Island, and I
think Kennedy was shot before -- it was a friend of mine,
the two of us were going there, we would have dates with
these two cheerleaders, it was their homecoming game and
everything, and Kennedy got shot while we were having
lunch in the cafeteria before we took off, and by the
time we were on the road the only stuff on the radio was
either news or dirge-like, you know, requiem kind of music.
And when we got to Philadelphia, these chicks really
didn't want to have a lot to do with us because we really
weren't remorseful, we weren't -- what's the word? -- we
didn't feel the wave of tragedy. And so, they threw us
out. And on the way back, driving back, we by accident
heard from some Canadian station the Beatles -- I don't
even remember what song it was, but I'd been aware of
the Beatles existence. There had been a piece on them in
the New York Sunday Times Magazine, I think, and
it interested me that here was rock 'n' roll again,
somewhere, but I think I was suspicious -- if it's
British, it must be really bad. Because all I knew about
Brits was, like before the Beatles they had stuff like
Laurie London, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands,"
"I Remember You" by Frank Ifield -- this was very
dreadful stuff, and so, when I first heard the Beatles
for real, I was back on campus within a few days of,
uh -- I mean, part of what happened was that everybody,
they were supposed to have mid-terms a couple days later,
and they cancelled the mid-terms because, oh, gee,
everybody's feeling the grief, and then somebody from
the faculty happened upon the campus, and as soon as
they announced no mid-terms, everybody started playing
touch football and having a dandy ol' time. So they
reinstated the mid-terms and everybody flunked (laughs).
And between then and Christmas it was like one incredible
anarchistic event on campus; everybody was just kind of...
I didn't personally know anybody who was struggling
with -- there wasn't a lot of grief. And the music was
"Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen and whatever Beatles
albums. There were like two or three albums that were
released at the same time, and it was one really
incredible dance of anarchy.
Scott: The Beatles are your
Richard: Well, I would say that
the only adjustments that I've made on my own take on
their importance is I've gotten rather sick of Paul
McCartney, and so I can just about pull out of the whole
thing "Yesterday" and "The Long and Winding Road" and
all that stuff, and there's still plenty there. I mean,
I'd say that, yes, the Beatles were easily the most
important entity in the history of rock 'n' roll. I
wouldn't exactly say at the moment that they're my
favourite band, but they obviously -- I can name 75
cuts by them that I still hold dear. I would say that
the Doors, for whatever it's worth, are my favourite band
that I ever saw live, but I couldn't name you 15 cuts of
theirs that are really worth it.
Scott: So it's mostly as a live
band that they're important to you?
Richard: Well, I mean I saw them
so much. When I started writing for Crawdaddy,
the Doors had a residency at this club in Manhattan
called Ondine, they were there for three or four months,
and they played three or four sets a night. And we'd go
down and see them, for free, and I saw them I'd say
forty times, and they were just, uh… I went there with
three people from the paper, the first night they played,
and I just knew -- I heard their first album and it
didn't make much of an impression on me, and when I
heard "The End," I thought, oh, how theatrical, and then
I saw them LIVE, and the four of us, we looked at each
other and we said, "Is this the greatest thing ever, or
is this the greatest thing ever?!" There was something
just mesmerizing about it, they were like -- they seemed
to us to be something beyond the Stones. Maybe that's
what they'd came out of, we couldn't really tell. But
there was something about Jim Morrison: before he had
leather, he had jeans and a surfer shirt, and it was
just really, uh, something about the NIGHT. And the
Beatles, let's say that the Beatles were not the Stones,
but the Stones were a band that six months after every
Beatles album they did their version of the same thing.
The Beatles were the band that showed the world how to
strip-mine an idea; every album they did was a concept
album. They're the only band that ever was that, from
the moment they were the biggest thing in the world,
they only got better. There's no other band that's ever
been the biggest thing in the world that ever did
anything but get worse from that point on. And they
just had an astounding RUN, from '64 to, let's say,
somewhere in '68 maybe.
Scott: The White Album.
Richard: Yeah, and after The
White Album I don't give a damn. But from
Revolver and so forth -- that stuff still holds
up to me. A song like "And Your Bird Can Sing," which
is something nobody regards as one of their big songs --
I can play that any day. Or even "Rain" -- I mean,
"Rain" was just an incredible single, when it came
out with the backwards stuff, y'know -- the b-side
of "Paperback Writer." But it was just... how old are
Scott: I'm 36, so I'm familiar
with all the stuff. I was just a kid when it was out,
Richard: I mean, you know,
I had my first significant girlfriend, my first
important sexual relationship during a couple years
of the Beatles. And the Beatles were essentially the
first white rock band to come up with a way of dealing
with boy-girl that was neither ripped off from R&B, nor
insipid Tin Pan Alley. I mean they did a lot of things.
Scott: There's also the group aspect
-- the whole "community" thing.
Richard: Right. In the '50s,
maybe you knew the names of both of the Everly Brothers,
maybe you didn't. But the Beatles were the first band
where everybody had identity.
Scott: And would you say the whole
community thing ENDED with the Beatles?
Richard: Well, I mean one of the
things that was so important about the Beatles also was
that it was perceived that they were friends, that there
was some actual existential relationship between these
people. That never seemed to be there with the Stones.
I remember reading an early interview with, like, Mick
or somebody, "How often do you socialize with Charlie?"
"Never." That kind of thing. I mean, the Beatles, when
they made their two movies, there was something just
so... it was not a question of -- they weren't
naturalistic films, but they were films that did
get the energy of -- I mean, just to see little
scenes there where you see John talking to Ringo,
and there was something that felt urgently REAL
about it. And you know, whatever. I mean, Elvis
was the same thing, Elvis was just a UNIT -- a
single atom -- but in 1956, '57, it really felt
like, there was something about ANYthing he did, it
MATTERED: Any news item about him, any photo of his
latest haircut And the Beatles was the same thing.
And to some extent, many of the British Invasion
bands, too: It mattered what Ray Davies did, etc.
And then when you added drugs to the whole thing --
drugs were not part of the initial buzz of the
British Invasion, and once you could come up with
your own alternate world, using this stuff as the
soundtrack, as the backdrop, as the CUE, it really
was rather liberating.
Scott: I wanted to ask you about
that, actually. When did pot start to have something to
do with it for you? Or drugs in general?
Richard: I smoked pot for the
first time I'd say it was in the spring of '64, and
strangely enough it was half time at a Thelonious Monk
concert on campus. But it was at a moment -- I listened
to a lot of jazz between the death of the '50s thing
and the British Invasion.
Scott: Was it through the Beats that
you discovered jazz?
Richard: No, I never read --
it's funny, but I never read the Beats until I was
almost 40, because I never really read much. I was
AWARE of the Beats, but I never read the stuff. Jazz
was just something that, when I was a college freshman,
certain people had these records and they were very,
uh -- y'know, something just drew me to it: Ornette
Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk. And I basically
oriented myself to this music that was without WORDS, and
just levels of feeling and all of that -- the physics of
feeling and SOUND. And so when the British Invasion
happened, I felt something -- I mean, it's silly to
think so now, but the Beatles had a song, "Love Me Do,"
which I think in fact was their first British hit, and
it sounded very much like John Coltrane: modal. But
there was just something -- I was GRIPPED by the FACT
of rock 'n' roll again, and by each of these bands... I
mean, Dave Clark Five for ten seconds were the band that
followed the Beatles. The Stones weren't really played in
the U.S. for at least six months, and I remember hearing
the single -- I think "Not Fade Away" was the first thing
I heard by them -- and then they weren't played again
for months. But basically once you had in PLACE, once
you came to expect a Beatles, a Stones, or a Dylan album
every few months, those three things taken together -- I
mean, everyone I knew had all these albums, or had access
to all these albums, and you just MEMORIZED them. I don't
think there were 20 bands in the world by late '64 that
anybody paid any attention to, but everyone I knew knew
them all. It was a very small world, and when you threw
in, when you added all these American bands, like
starting with the Byrds pretty much, and Love and the
Doors and all the San Francisco bands, it was an
incredible continuity of things to just, you know --
from '65 to '67 was a great period without any letup;
it was just ongoingly astounding. I was in my early 20s,
and it was fueling my life.
Scott: Go back to the drugs a bit.
You said you first indulged at a Thelonious Monk show?
Did that change you completely?
Richard: No -- it was pretty weak
stuff. But when I finally did smoke something that was
strong enough, which probably would've been, oh, '65 I
guess -- the summer of '64, let's say -- it was very --
once I realized what pot WAS, like what doors it opened
and so forth, the Philosophy major in me got very
interested in the whole notion of, uh,
consciousness-alteration, or whatever the term might be,
just having different ways -- just even giving me
different jargon for talking about how you think.
Scott: And did that make you want
to put the words down on the page?
Richard: Well, I mean I DID, but
it wasn't so much -- your original question was, did
any of these things make me want to write? I felt that I
just -- YES, I was compelled to write, but I didn't think
of it as writing, I mean, it was like, yes, I was trying
my darndest to just -- it kind of just oozed out of me
because I was not a practised writer, and I didn't have
writers as models, because most philosophy text is
unreadable, and I didn't take English courses, I'd never
read Faulkner or Hemingway, and I certainly had read
very little poetry, and so basically, I just, by hook
or by crook, I tried to articulate expressing what was
on my mind, and what seemed to be in the work of these
bands and so forth.
Scott: That's incredible to me that
you -- not so much that you didn't think of yourself as
a writer, but that you didn't focus on English, and
Philosophy you found unreadable, because your early
stuff -- I mean, you're such a strong stylist from the
Richard: Well, it's nice for you
to say that.
Scott: But it seems incredible to
me, just where that came from.
Richard: Well, recently I was
reminded that one of my earliest influences as a
writer was Muhammad Ali: All exclamation points, just
this kind of absolute, go-for-the-jugular all-CAPS
overkill. And I did a paper -- must've been the spring
of '65, before the second Ali-Liston fight -- for a
Philosophy of Religion class. I did a paper called
"Saint Cassius," which I got from "Saint Genet" by
Sartre, I wanted to write about Cassius Clay as a
religious philosopher. And I don't even know if I
mentioned that he was Muslim. It was just simply that
he was redefining the nature of BEING from a boxing
ring, and the way he put a verbal dimension to it was
without precedent, and I still feel that -- it happened
to BE that he was a great fighter. But beyond that he
was, you know, a great thinker -- whatever that means.
As great a thinker as Little Richard with "A Wop Bop A
Loo Bop A Lop Bam Boom!," which is a great thought.
Scott: So was boxing an obsession
from early on?
Richard: Well, I got into boxing
from wrestling. I mean wrestling I think -- I was
pre-conditioned for rock 'n' roll by two things: one
was wrestling and the other was monster movies.
Richard: Yeah, and one of the
lines used to be, existentialism was the metaphysics of
pragmatism, or vice versa, I forget whatever the deal
is; and wrestling is the metaphysics of rock 'n' roll.
Just this whole silly kind of restructuring of
polarities and all of that. I got to boxing because
wrestling and boxing used to be in the same magazines,
and I'd look at the photos of people with punches and
stuff and knockouts -- "This looks interesting!" But
monster movies were very important to me during the
pre-rock 'n' roll Eisenhower/McCarthy '50s. You had
a lot of stuff going on in these movies that cost
$11,000 to make, and I LOVE those movies. And when I
saw Elvis on Ed Sullivan, I don't think I was even
aware of it on a sexual level, but just looking at
him shaking his hips or whatever, it just seemed like
crazy shit, y'know, but looking at his FACE he had
the same look in his eyes that I remembered from Kevin
McCarthy at the end of the original Invasion of
the Body Snatchers, just this look of, you know,
it's the end of the world, but what the fuck?
Scott: What do you mean when you
say "a lot of things going on in monster movies"?
Richard: Oh, just, you know,
just the basic alternate universe kind of thing: what is
credible, what's not credible? What's the difference?
The kind of suspension of disbelief you have to do for
Shakespeare is different from what you gotta do for
Invasion of the Saucer Men.
Scott: I was going to ask you
something else about movies, actually -- do you think
there's any movies that capture rock 'n' roll really
Richard: Well, it's funny, but I
thought both Beatle movies and Performance were
very good movies.
Scott: I'm thinking more like,
something like Mean Streets, where…
Richard: Okay, that was a very
good use of music on the soundtrack, but by the time
[Scorsese] was doing GoodFellas, and it's just
wall to wall songs, it's harder -- it's very hard to
take. Mean Streets was fine, and in a way, even
Easy Rider had not half bad stuff in moments. But
basically, I can't stand the movies today -- American
Beauty. The fact that -- let's name a movie for a
Grateful Dead album, and songs by Free, and the Guess
Who... Whatever it is, it's down to every director using
his favourite tunes. You know, Rushmore. I just
don't really care for most of -- I mean in
Rushmore I thought it was cute that they had
"Concrete and Clay" by the Unit Four Plus Two as the
first love song in the movie. It was like, let's just
show how goofy can a guy be. And the only Stones song
they used was "I Am Waiting," a ballad from
Aftermath. So in a way I thought there was
some intelligence in the choice of tunes but I wouldn't
say that they actually WORKED, that they actually
delivered the movie. It's more like it's down to
getting some kind of sense of what the director's
p-o-v is from the music he uses, but really not
expecting the music to deliver the picture.
Part 2 of Richard Meltzer interview