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Richard Meltzer: L.A. is the Capital of Kansas

This book came recommended by no less an authority than Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin when last I interviewed him. It’d intrigued me on runs to the downtown library to replenish my supply of Los Angeles-related reading, but I kept reshelving it; the subtitle Painful Lessons in Post-New York Living made me envision chapter after chapter of ragging on Hollywood provincials by, worse, a Manhattan provincial. Sure, Meltzer rags on Los Angeles, David explained, but he rags on everything. While ceaseless rendering of harsh judgment does not itself intrigue me, Meltzer’s credentials did: wunderkind rock critic of the late sixties and early seventies, writer for such “cool” publications at the Los Angeles Reader, alleged suggester of the umlaut in Blue Öyster Cult.

Meltzer’s thinking on aesthetics also seemed to stretch well beyond music — beyond, as the title of his famous debut put it, The Aesthetics of Rock. After reading (other interviewee of mine) Christopher Hawthorne’s writeup of the much lesser-known Richard Meltzer’s Guide to the Ugliest Buildings of Los Angeles, I made a mental note to really check this guy out. Even if he just complains about Los Angeles, I figured, he complains about it in the eighties (he left for Portland in the nineties), a period in this city that still seems not only opaque to me but probably actually relatively crappy.

Opening my checked-out copy of L.A. is the Capital of Kansas, I found it not only signed by the author (“MATT — THANKS, MAN, Richard Meltzer,” beside a doodle of a rabbit head. Could he have meant it for his onetime Reader colleague and author of that rabbit-populated comic strip Life in Hell, Matt Groening?) but defaced by an irked reader. “A stupid, offensive title,” she wrote on the page. Perhaps I’ve judged unfairly in going straight to that particular pronoun, but I can assure you of the message’s neat, rounded hand. And what man — what man without a woman watching, that is — would ever denounce anything for being stupid or offensive?

So I’d gotten the overall impression that, whatever my reservations, Meltzer was doing something right. The jacket copy describes him as “writing in a wildly expressive, disarmingly casual idiom,” and I don’t have any better words for it. Here, flipped to at random, is a sample of Meltzer’s prose:

You sit for five minutes, at most ten, in the Farmer’s Market off Fairfax, all these tourist-priced postcard and jade ashtray shops, you’re reading the paper, sippin’ your tourist-priced carrot-coconut juice and without fail (it matters not what day, season or week) a full-fledged YOKEL from Des Moines, Sioux City, or Dubuque (for inst) will exclaim to a fellow hick he or she has met on the Gray Line bus: “Lookit what I got, Irma — a Bo Derek poster!!!” As if they don’t got ’em back in Walnut Falls and maybe they don’t; I’ve never asked. Three years ago it was blowups of Farrah, the Fonz, now Bo, and they go home smiling that appleknocker SMILE (you’ve seen it in films), blowup in hand and tales on their lips of an unforgettable visit to the land of Dreams: a scumbag town that it beats me how anyone but a walking metaphor from Des Moines or Walnut Falls could actually be dreamin’ about. REAL-LIFE HICKS AS METAPHORS INCARNATE (AS REAL-LIFE HICKS-AND-A-HALF). Or something like that.

Some passages read easier; others come off like Finnegans Wake. But unlike Joyce, Meltzer — and I only figured this out a hundred pages in — writes to be read quickly, not deliberately. (William Burroughs might make a more suitable comparison: “He writes about hanging, he writes about colors, he writes about virus,” as Meltzer describes him. “Got (I have) next to no int’rest in such stuff as content, whole lot of int. in such as voice.”) At least I imagine that as his intent. I like to envision myself in 1981, nonchalantly scanning through one of his Reader columns on burgers, easy women, UHF television, or boxing at the Olympic Auditorium while scarfing down an Oki-Dog in the car before flooring it over to a punk show, during that brief moment when, in Meltzer’s words, “this shithole came as close to being a fertile musical oasis as any I’ve stumbled over.”

“Obviously, I hate the place,” he claims, “but I seem to recall hating that other place — what was it called? (starts with an N) — as well.” If Los Angeles holds little appeal for him, his birthplace, the “Smart Town” of New York City, holds even less. The past 25 years of change in Los Angeles and Meltzer’s tendency to deliberately expose himself to only the dumbest, ugliest, and crassest means his experience has little in common with my own, although, as with most writers on this town, his observations on life in motion ring true. Prefacing his trip to Watts Towers, he writes that, “for a town with so many people driving so many vehicles so many places nine days a week, L.A. is still basically mired in a zero sense of automotive adventure. Everybody and his/her aunt/uncle’s always taking the customary spin to job x, restaurant y, and party z [ … ] just about nobody’s willing to follow his/her nose and/or instincts or just pick up a Triple-A map and say, ‘Today I’m driving to Hawaiian Gardens — wherever (and whatever) in hell that may be.'”

Los Angeles punk, I gather, ain’t what it used to be. (You can now buy the building that once housed the Atomic Cafe — and thus Bowie and Byrne and Devo and X — for a dollar, but you have to pick it up yourself.) The freest driving seems to have drained away before I was born; “individual places sometimes griefed me,” Meltzer recalls, “but rarely the drive itself, the process. In those days, up ’til just after the ’84 Olympics (when the world started moving in), there was basically no non-rush hour traffic.” But I can’t imagine Los Angeles ever having been about these things, a home for these things, or for anything, ever, in particular. “Livingwise, home is an overrated concept,” declares Meltzer. “Anyone expecting redemption at home is fucked from the start to, uh, finish.” Amen.

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