AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCHS: James Parker on Richard Meltzer and Mike Watt (Arthur 14/Jan. 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 14/January 2005

Autumn of the Patriarchs
By James Parker

Reviewed:

RICHARD MELTZER
Autumn Rhythm
(Da Capo/Perseus)

MIKE WATT
the secondman’s middle stand
(Columbia/RedEye)

It’s Autumn, by God, and I couldn’t be happier. If you’re a writer, it’s the only season: the peak, the prime. Summer flattens you, Winter cramps you, Spring is a mere sizzling of the sex-urge, but Autumn flings open the furnace door to real transformation. On a high November afternoon, with the leaves in a life-and-death whirl and that tossing, brassy light all around, the writer creeps from his/her carapace and partakes in the vortex of Possibility. Out come the old, allergen-loaded sweaters. Yes! On goes the woolly hat, that incubator of thought. Upward fly the—well, I could go on, but the point here is to address our latest bard of the Autumn, the great Richard Meltzer, whose Autumn Rhythm (now out in glorious paperback!), is not so much about crisp weather and fiery trees as it is about Mortality (or mortali-T, as the Meltz, in his demented flippancy, might put it)—age, defeat—the Autumn of our days—“the ‘topic’ at hand: your time… my time… all our times running low, running out, or in any case running.”

Meltzer, in case you’re not sure, is a father of what he calls ‘rockwriting’—Sixties, Seventies, he did it, he lived and typed it, was legendary, boozed with Bangs, tyro’d with Tosches etc etc. He figured in LA punk rock, a great stimulus to the minutemen, had his own terrible band. It’s all in his previous tome, A Whore Just Like the Rest. And now, finding himself “on the cusp of fucking dotage” (his late fifties), Meltzer is taking the long view and using the essay form. He considers his life, and the possible cessation thereof. Is there any more good art to be had from the fact that we’re all, sooner or later, going to be combusted or ploughed under? Certainly there is. Take this: “A couple years ago I started quantifying what a day actually felt like, what its duration as lived existentially was, and the unit day, I surmised, was only four hours long. It now feels about three and a half…. What can you get done in three and a half hours? (Better not piss—that’ll cut it to three.)” Or this, from a piece about Meltzer’s father, touchingly entitled “The Old Fuckeroo”: ‘Of course he LOVED me (and I loved him) and all such nonsense—but that part was maybe the worst of it. A sentimental slob, a ‘40s romantic in desperate need of a compliant LOVE OBJECT, he inflicted his ardor on me in direct proportion to what he wasn’t getting from his wife, assuring me (as often as not) that I was the the most important being in his life. A sensitive little prick, I grieved for the guy in his loneliness…” This is top-notch, ranking with the most exalted literature of fathers and sons. “(And I loved him)”—oh, the brackets say everything.

Like a number of greying punk rock dudes one knows, Meltzer is a cat person. It’s almost a type: the hoary radical, the ex-crazy, childless (Meltzer has declined to Impose “the full slimy wrath of [his] being” on any progeny), spurning most human allegiance but twistedly into his cat or cats, relishing and respecting the fuck-you-ness and complication of the feline. Meltzer writes, at any rate, with unguarded passion about his own aging—dying, in fact—pet-friend. The prose totters pretty close to the sentimental here—“It tears my guts out that I can’t tell him anything he’ll understand ‘bout how come he can’t go outside no more”—but it’s the real man speaking, no question, the same crank who elsewhere demands that we “unplug from the cyber lifeline… it’s a fucking deathline,” and that “Any bar, meantime, where the TV is never off should be NAPALMED.” (hear! hear!)

Meltzer can be an extraordinary comic writer, a real Joycean nutjob, but Autumn Rhythm is—as a rule— sombre, shaded, down. For a freelancer or “writeperson,” reading him in this mode is like having a skull on your desk—the hack’s death’s head, with failure caverned in its eyeholes. Unrich, unredeemed, still pissed at all the mags he ever wrote for, the Meltz will be your memento mori. “May this heap-o-pulp likewise serve as the ur-expression of YOUR vanity. A foretaste of your own aftertaste, of your own extinction.” No laughing matter. Only once does the author uncage the humorist, the Joycean nutter within, in a blinding series of anagrams (with explanations) for “Twentieth Century”: “W.C.T.E: ‘NUTHER ENTITY? (is the Women’s Christian Temperance Enfederation really diff’rent from their Union?)… WET TEN-INCH RYE TUT (medium-size Egyptian novelty bread, after the rain).” Personally, I can’t get enough of this stuff—“NEUTER THE WITTY N.C. (Noel Coward should be desexed, humorless critics contend)”—but I suppose I should stop quoting it. Besides, it’s not all gold dust between these covers. There are “poems”—or at least vertical strands of collapsed prose—in here, mere beermat jottings really. “His life was like a fart…” “if the flies want me/ let the flies have me,” “does my dick have scales?”—yeah, well, okay. Dead-end complacency. Keep typin’em up, Mr. M, if it helps you stay loose… Alright, just one more: “TUNNEY ET IT W/ ‘H’ CERT (Gene followed lobster with a heroin-flavor breath mint).” Ha!

MTV, the “wundaful world-o-videos,” is another of Meltzer’s apocalypses, like the TV bars and the Internet. “When the frigging MINUTEMEN did a vid,” he declares, “you knew it was completely over.” So speaking of the minutemen, and speaking of being completely over, let’s move on to the new Mike Watt CD, which details—really details—a more urgent autumnal event, a most drastic run-in with mortality. the secondman’s middle stand is about serious physical illness (and recovery), and like Watt’s previous contemplatin’ the engine room it takes the form of a punk rock opera, thematically unified, moving in suites. No guitar this time, no Nels Cline or flaming Joe Baiza—on top of the bass and drums is the B3 organ of Pete Mazich, summoning celestial overtones or carousel queasiness as required.

The sickness unto death, for Watt, began in the perineum, that dark notch between balls and asshole. A place of terror: less a place than a space—an eerie, sensate, biologically brooding nothing. Anyway, in 2000 Watt got some sort of explosive abscess right there on his perineum, on the black fulcrum of his being as it were, a boil or saddlesore that blossomed vilely upward and inward and swelled its canker until he quite literally burst, gushing infection through emergency blowholes. Imagine it if you dare, it was an authentic crisis—flashing lights, gurneys, surgery, “38 days of fever,” the mercury climbing in horror and indignation, Watt hovering in half-states, deeply drugged. He almost died. His health and strength were demolished. His recovery was inch-by-inch. “Many geisha boy steps to make the couple of blocks from my pad.” Geisha boy steps—that’s very good.

Fortunately, blessedly, Watt’s philosophy seems to have been a match for this. A proper materialist from his minuteman days, always wrestling with the actual, he was not dismayed to find himself splayed, helpless, reduced, a creature of “pissbags and tubing.” His interest in the conditions, his taste for the basics, prevailed. Adrift for a time in the the unlit precincts of his own body, CURIOSITY got him home. “Dicktube yanked out too/How I laughed when that golf ball bead came thru…” If you’ve ever encountered Watt in person you know that there’s a poetic totality to the man, a density of imagination in which everything—the mumble, the rumble, the word-hoard, the face-bristle, the bong-gurgle, the rumour and squelch of his bass—corresponds. It’s the whole Watt thing, and it feeds the art tremendously: in some respects it is the art. All experience is grist to Watt the mythifier and this here, this bodily drama, is his own “dark wood of error,” his existential pratfall. Can you dig a punk rock opera about a man whose ass exploded? I know you can. Three movements—Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso—hell-hot fever, convalescent limbo, the heaven of the healed return. Dante Alighieri hovers palely by, upper lip lengthened in slight disapproval: Watt has customised the Divine Comedy.

“Boilin’ Blazes” gets us rolling, as Watt does some big vomiting—“threw up mah guts”—and succumbs to fever. It’s the beginning of the “hellride,” a derangement of vile organ-blare and bombastic drumming. “Puked to High Heaven”—more vomiting, and the freakout becomes ontological: “In my head, a tightly packed flame…The moment has me seized!” “Burstedman” is the killer track: “Virgil! Beatrice!” cries the patient, as ungodly fluids splatter his “bulkhead.” “A life in the moment, is that what you’ve always wanted, Watt?” he taunts himself, his bass snicker-snacking. “Well here it is!” (Watt’s playing in general on secondman… is, if possible, more bulbous and ruminative than ever.)

Into hospital we go, and Watt gives us—joyously—the wadded dressings, the catheters, the incidental bladder infections, the nitty gritty: “yankin’ it out… and shovin’ it in!” The mood of “Tied a Reed Round My Waist” is… wonder, oddly enough, Pete Mazich’s B3 doing soft throbs of awe as Watt goes swooning under the knife of top surgeon “Doc Hopkins.” “Beltsandedman”—again with the blue-collar metaphors!—is a beautiful evocation of post-traumatic smoothness, clarity of perception, with fuzzed bass-notes lingering and Petra Haden’s harmonies leavening the Watt-growl. See Watt on the back of the CD, pounds lighter, purged and streamlined: the eyes are heavy-lidded but clear, afire, and there’s a sort of rinsed brilliance to the complexion. It all appears to have been quite good for him.

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