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L.A. Basher Richard Meltzer: A Little Talk on the Wild Side

Times Staff Writer

We got word that someone was saying bad things about Los Angeles and we acted promptly. As the media surrogate for millions of tan and tranquil Californians, it was our unpleasant duty to have a little talk with the only angry man in the City of Angels.

As we approached the old Miracle Mile area apartment building in which Richard Meltzer, 43, lives, a woman strolled down the sidewalk wearing a “Born to Act” T-shirt. A television sat on a manicured lawn. Bad rock ‘n ' roll blasted from an apartment window. Palm trees swayed.

Having just read this former rock critic’s new collection of so-called essays, “L.A. Is the Capital of Kansas, Painful Lessons in Post-New York Living” (Harmony Books), we knew that these were the sort of Southern California demons that keep him cowering inside his drab apartment. We smiled.

Question: Right off the bat, in the preface to your book, you refer to the citizens of this city as bubbleskulls, insensates, dumdums, simps, feebs, Republicans, robots and children. Take it back.

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Answer: Take it back?

Q: Among other hallowed Southern California icons, you disparage the sun, and you don’t like summer. If we were to take up a collection, would you allow Brian Wilson’s therapist to take over your life and work on improving your attitude?

A: The Beach Boys are bland . . . and Brian Wilson is just another tediously non-self-reflective Southern Californian, perhaps more neurotic than most, but not essentially interesting. (We cut off his tirade against Southern California’s most emblematic band, and will spare our readers his blather about the sun and skin cancer.)

Q: From what we can gather, you moved from New York City to Los Angeles 13 years ago, only because the only other choice was Montreal and you were afraid of losing your earlobes to frostbite. Will you accept a one-way Greyhound ticket back to New York?

A: As I say in my book, I’ve used New York up.

Q: Your book also says that it took you 30 years to use up New York, and you used up L.A. on the taxi ride from the airport.

A: Let’s just say it’s not much of a world for places to live. New York has become basically a little island off the coast of the United States, with no cultural impact whatsoever any more. Except that it sends screenwriters out here. L.A. is the heart of the beast now.

Q: You say you think of yourself as “Mr. Integrity Till You Puke.” You claim to be the only writer who came to Los Angeles not to write a screenplay, and you malign this city’s film and television industries, offering that anyone “vile enough to work for . . . TV should be nailed to a wall and eaten by rats.”

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A: It’s a lonely crusade.

Q: In the very next so-called essay, however, you describe becoming a mutant, having Ping-Pong balls taped to your eyes and artificial sores applied to your face (which, incidentally, you say bank tellers are always comparing to Robert De Niro’s)--all for the chance to see yourself in some B-grade movie called “Death Sport.”

A: In a Z movie. I would never do it in an A-movie, or even a B.

Q: Correct us if we’re wrong, but your following is minuscule, comprised mainly of people who used to have weird haircuts and probably heard you reading poems at trendy pseudo-dives like Al’s Bar or Lhasa Club or heard your “Hepcats From Hell” show on KPFK, or read your so-called criticism in rock ‘n’ roll fanzines. So this new book--a hardcover, no less--is really just another desperate stab at some kind of fame. Right?

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A: Once upon a time I probably craved celebrityhood, when I was young and a rock writer. I would like this book to be a kind of calling card for me to stretch out to other readers. Meanwhile, I’m working on a so-called novel. I think the move from journalism to fiction is as major a move as moving from New York to here.

Q: All your other books, including “The Aesthetics of Rock,” “Gulcher,” “Richard Meltzer’s Guide to the Ugliest Buildings in Los Angeles,” right down to your book of so-called poetry, “17 Insects Can Die in Your Heart,” are all out of print. True or false?

A: “Aesthetics of Rock” is back in print. There are two volumes of my autobiography (“Post-Natal Trash” and “Prickly Heat and Cold”) that are still out. Otherwise you might say the stuff hovers more toward out of print than in print.

Q: Los Angeles is a big city. We can take it. But you go on to savage some of our more sensitive neighbors as well. In just one sentence fragment, for instance, you call Orange County horrible, worthless, awful, disgusting, miserable, ugly, horrible (again), heinous, despicable, awful (again), miserable (again), and worthless (again). Let’s get this straight: Do you or do you not find Southern California a pleasant place to live?

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A: I loathe the place. But I have a footnote in the Orange County piece (“Napalm Newport Beach”) that any visual advantage L.A. had over Orange County or the Valley is gone now. But I don’t think of mini-malls and high rises as being the new age in ugliness. I think the place has always been ugly.

In most neighborhoods there are no lawns in which weeds grow. Between Santa Barbara and the Mexican border, I can’t believe a single blade of grass grows on its own. Buildings which sprout from lawns like that tend to be extensions of lawns like that. It’s a denial of life.

Since Prop. 13, there’s a little bit of dirt on the street. If anything, I appreciate the place now that it’s got grittier and become urbanized in spite of itself. But what I have always seen in this place is the hideous foretaste of the death of us all. This is like the elephants’ graveyard of the human spirit. This is where the race goes to die.

Q: So why do you live here?

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A: I basically think of myself as a war correspondent. This is a war zone. Hunter Thompson was once assigned to Saigon by Rolling Stone and he hid in his office for the entire story and didn’t turn in one page of copy. I turn in lots of copy. As far as why I stay, it’s inertia.

Q: Do you or do you not have high blood pressure?

A: Why do you ask that?

Q: It’s in the book.

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A: Yeah. I mention it in the hamburger piece (“Some Local Burgers I’ve Recently Et”). I was diagnosed as having it in ’84, during the Olympics.

Q: Granted you’ve been intimate with an ex-Hare Krishna and a woman who taught Squeaky Fromme to fire a handgun. For the most part, though, your sweethearts have been women who prefer sleeping with rock stars. Does this or does this not make you a groupie groupie, and what does that say about your ability to grasp the important Southern California tradition of meaningful relationships?

A: In 1975, I probably was a groupie groupie because that was the only access I had to the flesh. . . . I’ve had a few long-term meaningful relationships. One of the problems is that what I’ve come to demand from women is mind. And for whatever sociological reasons everyone here has put their brains in the refrigerator, women even more so.

Q: How’s your screenplay coming?

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A: Ah. Everyone has a price. If they want to give me a million cash tax free to do a screenplay, to do a draft of a screenplay (and I don’t need to see it beyond that), I’d certainly do it. And I would insist that my name not be on it.

Q: You say that the purpose of writing is to fill up the page. So why do you insist on cutting your prose short with the sort of cutesy abbreviations that giddy sorority girls use to communicate in the personals column of college newspapers?

A: When I started in what was an expedient new genre for me, every fraction of a word came into play. Often the word word seemed too long. The only way to use it was to use it short: “Wd.” I became a very, very fussy guy with syllabification and all that stuff.

Q: Still, most of what you write is smut, plain and simple. Right?

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A: I would hope. (He is literally sweating now. We’ll spare our readers his rambling and pretentious dissertation on the definition and meaning of pornography.)

Q: Will you or will you not allow us to photograph the bare spot on your chest, which you shaved in 1962 in the erroneous belief that it would grow back faster and therefore make you look hairier and more manly?

A: Sure. No one ever sees it, ‘cause I don’t go to the beach.

Q: What celebrity or personality would have to move in next door to you to get you to move back to New York?

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A: When I first moved here, strangely enough, I thought, do I really want to move to a town where Eddie Albert lives? That was then. Now there’s just too many.

Q: I could be wrong on this, but I think it’s within our legal authority to demand that you at least leave the county. Would you prefer Santa Barbara or San Diego?

A: Santa Barbara, never. It’s worse than here because there you have the illusion that it’s not L.A. That it’s something more rustic and real than L.A. In fact, it’s more choreographed than L.A. . . . Aside from the fact that it’s Republican and filthy rich and the Laud family comes from there, I’ve never had a good meal there.

San Diego, on the other hand, still has bars you can go to and imagine you can get bopped over the head and end up on a ship heading for Hong Kong. But in five years it will be gone.

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It’s not that I enjoy San Diego, it’s just that I don’t mind it, in the way that I don’t mind San Bernardino. But San Diego will be like L.A. in 10 years, as will the rest of the country. I mean, for the last piece in the book, I drove through Kansas for the first time, about 18 months ago, and Wichita was identical to Anaheim. I couldn’t tell any difference.

Q: You must be relieved that the writers’ strike is over. Have you gotten back to your screenplay yet?

A: It’s real funny that you’ve got these sob stories about screenwriters who had to mortgage their house just to get through the struggle. I don’t know too many writers who have houses. The things screenwriters take for granted as their booty, it’s just absurd.

But the “have nots” longings are exactly the same as the “haves” here. And the “haves” are just as needy for scraps of that dream as the “have nots.”

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I once got held up with a toy gun outside the automated teller at my bank. These two guys had a plastic gun; they were wearing cashmere sweaters. There wasn’t even the look of hunger on their faces, it was just what they did for a living like anyone else. It’s Horatio Alger stuff and it’s stupid Horatio Alger stuff because people from L.A. are pretty stupid. Their goal was to live in the Marina or to eat at Tommy Lasorda’s. Even mainstream criminality is just like the film makers’.

Q: Why don’t you just move back to New York?

A: I mean, we already went through this. It’s a less livable and more expensive version of when I left. Culturally there was nothing I wanted. I’d even used up sleaze going to triple feature porn films every Monday with a six-pack and a sandwich from Blimpies. I got tired of that even. They weren’t making porn like they used to. They were making it in L.A., in fact.

I think New York no longer exists as such. New York will become an extension of L.A. It will become that other piece of bicoastal turf for Angelenos en route to Paris.

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(Blah, blah, blah. He goes on and on. Who cares? Surf’s up!)


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