We call that an act of God,” announced the cop, pointing at my car—crushed like a beer can underneath an old hickory tree. “Looks like God’s pretty pissed off at you, son.”
Hell, I thought, this cop don’t know doodley-squat: God was on my back bumper long before this.
I’ve had cars catch fire (twice), go belly up, get smashed from both sides (one my fault, the other not), and drift off the road and just plain die (my granddad’s Bicentennial Sell-a-Thon Granada). Even so, the Big Michelin Man in the Sky must have been pretty damn irked to dump this rotted log on my Ford Escort in the middle of downtown Rockville—that hellhole of skyscraperish suburbia—where I had parked on a residential street to avoid the price of a city lot.
A crowd had gathered to gawk at my bum luck. A woman told me she’d seen the entire drama: The tree crashing on the power lines, catching fire like a pyro’s matchstick, hovering precariously for a good half-hour, then blowing out the transformers, which hurled a burning chunk of hickory onto the hood of my car. “It was wild,” she said. “If you’d gotten here 10 minutes earlier, your car would’ve had a chance.”
The cop—a Van Damme wanna-be squeezed into standard-issue stretch polyester—nodded, dabbing Chapstick on his smirk, and only then did the full impact of God’s wrath smack me in the solar plexus: Parked behind my wrecked heap sat an immaculate Mercedes with a shiny sunroof; directly in front was a sensible Toyota (bumper sticker: “Abortion Stops a Beating ”) untouched and innocent as a newborn babe. Only my car—and mine alone—had been deemed fit for punishment.
“It’ll be an hour or two before the city boys get here to cut you out,” warned a Rockville emergency worker.
The cop started reminiscing about the many elms and oaks that had flattened cars on his beat. “It’s like an act of God,” he mused again, shaking his head at the mystery of it all. The woman, who lived across the street, was thrilled by the possibility of free firewood. A passing jogger—and aren’t these wandering souls always a welcome sight in their cheery fuschia outfits—stopped to winkingly inquire (all the while running in place like a true health freako) if I had Prudential insurance.
Sickened, I reached for a cigarette and realized the pack was empty. Naturally, I panicked, then frantically rummaged in my car through the morass of empties, burger wrappers, and assorted squirrel bait—and came up with a fresh pack of Camels and a copy of Richard Meltzer’s new book, The Night (Alone).
For situations like these (or for engine fires, breakdowns, traffic jams, etc.)—or when you’re just not in the mood for conversations with cops—reading is fundamental, and Meltzer’s texts have always been among the basics in my bookmobile.
Feeling as redeemed as a Southern Baptist finding a Gideon’s Bible in a Vegas motel, I leaned against my car, lit up a cig, and opened the book at random—and, as always, Meltzer came through: “My needs are simple. All I need is a battery for my Datsun and/or A WORLD WITHOUT YOGA. Either one will do.”
Then, flipping to a chapter titled “Forgiving the Viet Vet,” I spied another quick payoff: “But the Gulf War vet?—the folks who blew up Iraq—our all-mercenary military—there’s no forgiving those pigfuckers…NO.”
For decades, Meltzer’s been tagged as a rock writer, even though he’s long despised what passes for “rock.” (His legendary 1970 treatise, The Aesthetics of Rock, was really just an excuse to transcribe the complete lyrics to the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.”) An authentic original and quite often unreadable, he’s nevertheless the Daddy-O of rebel-rock critics, and don’t think he don’t know it. Listen to him toot his horn in The Night (Alone): “I’m the guy who introduced “ain’t,’ “gonna,’ “wanna,’ deliberate misspellings, run-on, mixed metaphor; and most of that shit to rock crit, pop crit, and beyond Plus regular use of all the cusswords That was my doing (true) (Give me a medal)….”
Unlike many a rock critic, Meltzer has refused to grow up and get rich: He’s never written coffee-table books on Springsteen or soiled himself in the mainstream cesspool. Instead, he’s kept toiling for the underground rags so that he can rant—uncensored and absolutely unedited—all that he damn well pleases: The Last Crank, a self-described “veteran of NINETEEN YEARS’ service at “alternative’ sheets like East Village Itch and the Berkeley Backside, the literal LAST MAN, WOMAN OR CHILD who wrote for ’em then—at the literal dawn—and writes for ’em now (and is bitter).”
Bitter, yes, and a fierce, essential American humorist: For sheer knee-slapping misanthropy, you’d have to go back before Mencken to Ambrose Bierce or late Mark Twain. One thing’s for sure, Dave Barry—the current funny-guy writer for our great nation of sixth-grade-level readers—owes him about a half-million, at least. Meanwhile, Meltzer starves in his “shithole” of an apartment, but don’t feel sorry for him: He enjoys the suffering. Take his riff on the joys of reaching 40: “just trying to REMIND you that four-oh’s benign, accessible, ANYONE can get there, only way you could miss it would be something like a deficiency, y’know, immune, C., Lou Gehrig’s Disease, prescription codeine overdose, a deranged relative shoots you, struck by lightning, a falling safe, or smashed by a milk truck. So cross at the green: you owe it to YOURSELF to reach this mythic late-youth milestone…—only a puckface or a killjoy would call it “middle age.’ ”
Some of these pieces, like the tour de force “The Earl Panda Story (WEDNESDAY IS A DAY FOR BALDIES)” were first published in such rock mags as Forced Exposure, and they’ve lost none of their emotional force—except for that certain ‘zine frisson, of course—now that they’re between hard covers.
Inexplicably plugged as “A Novel,” The Night (Alone) is easily the best writing of Meltzer’s “career,” not only because he finally embraces his craft as a terminally lonesome (i.e., existential) addiction, but because he confronts his failures and wildest fantasies with a naked courage (a word he’d never use) that most scribes simply can’t muster. There are no cheap laughs: If Meltzer’s funny, that’s because he’s in pain. Like any Beat disciple, he’s drunk on language and the raw power of words, but at heart, he’s a wounded moralist:
I can no longer get a handle on the objects of my own nostalgia—have I simply used them up? I don’t care about Elvis, gore films, now-defunct candies and cereals, football autumns circa ’62. Dunno what I “miss”—do I even miss “missing”? Call me MAMMAL—I need to have those mammal things stirred.
Later, Meltzer reveals his undying anti-patriotism: “I will root for this country to win Olympic gold the day (or night) a box of corn flakes opens the Playboy Jazz Festival on tenor sax.” And, in a chapter called “Home Rule for Scotland,” he advertises his services for odd jobs: “Let me STREAMLINE YOUR MUSIC LIBRARY by removing unlistenable blap like everything by Philip Glass and selling it for goodbux—my fee is 80 plus 300 up front for listening to the junk.”
As always, there’s lots of dirty stuff, sexual and otherwise (see “Crub Cakes Yum,” “Old Tricks,” and “I Never Fucked My Sister,” among a slew), and insightful jazz criticism lumped in Meltzer’s vomit-ecstatic prose. I got through most of it before the boys got the tree off my car. As the tow truck from Bobby’s Crane Service pulled up, I jumped to the last page to find Meltzer still frothing at his chops at the curtain call: “This was written without a word processor,” he brags in the two-sentence chapter. “(Kiss my wild Irish ass.)”