Rock Tao by David Meltzer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In the middle sixties, rock music was going through one of its most exciting periods with both the British Invasion and the rise of West Coast Psychedelia. Radio stations, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, were beginning to reflect this excitement, developing into the early stages of free form deejay programming.
So, SF poet David Meltzer decided to write a book about what he was hearing on the radio, a free-flowing collage of voices swirling around, commenting on, and juxtaposing with each other. When it was completed, Oyez Press passed on it, and the project remained unpublished but for some fragments until now.
As someone who often admires Meltzer’s poetic craft, I was excited to read it but found myself disappointed. He has taken all the excitement, change, and color of the period and turned it into a drab, even morose, book. True, there are plenty of lyrics quotations of the era’s rock songs but even they cannot lift the mood. The problem is – and this is always a potential stumbling block with collage – Meltzer’s original passages come off duller and less insightful than the material he quotes from others. Because of this, he manages to cast a pall over all of it.
His writing works best when he (over) analyzes the mythological functions of music using such sources as Mircea Eliade — an interesting topic but not one likely to capture the mood of Keith Richards solo or a soaring Janis Joplin vocal. Still, these sections succeed far better than those that obsess over the old (even at that time) accusations that rock n roll and juvenile delinquency are fused. Songs and concert clippings are set against radio news segments on the most gruesome of violent crimes. Those in turn are juxtaposed with reports on the growing Vietnam conflict, making a simplistic and specious statement about adult delinquency.
Meltzer also wrings his hands in liberal guilt by taking the hackneyed stand that rock is appropriated (ignoring the contemporary artists’ contributions as writers and instrumentalists as well as the tradition of song reaching back to early American settlements and the British Isles of the Middle Ages and earlier), which then ironically supports the contention by those who tried to ban it at its birth as foreign, subversive jungle music. He further castigates all popular music as a subset of popular culture, one tainted by commercialism, conspicuous consumption, mediated desires, and emotional manipulation by the technostructure. These concepts of Veblen and Galbraith had become well entrenched by the 60s though they have since been largely discredited for their dearth of supporting data.
The 1960s certainly had an abundance of horrific events. And at times, rock music was inextricably tangled up in those events. But to write off the whole of it as gloomy, hypocritical, violent, and evil is not only to catastrophize the least of our worries (a very 21st century move on his part), but it also leaves this book deaf to some of the greatest beauty, innovation, and joy that dark decade produced.