Joel Lewis


An Appreciation of David Meltzer

The Process
by David Meltzer
Oyez, 1965

My first acquaintance with the art of David Meltzer came unintentionally as a fourteen-year-old kid living atop the Hudson Palisades opposite Manhattan's Upper West Side. It was a few months past Woodstock and I had just acquired an FM radio as an eighth-grade graduation present.

Before that point, I was listening to Top 40 AM radio, which was mostly playing junk with the occasional interesting single like the Zombies' "Time of the Season" or the Beatles' "Hey Jude."

FM radio opened up a world of terrific music, most of which was revelatory. The hip station of the NYC area was WNEW-FM (102.7) which featured radio hosts such as "The Night Bird" Allison Steele, who would recite poetry between records and Rosko, a black DJ who would stop his show to denounce the still-raging Vietnam War.

It was the era of free-form, "underground" radio with DJs playing what they wanted with no playlists to guide them. Many of the DJs, to demonstrate that they had unshackled themselves from accursed Top 40 radio, tended to play the longest songs they could find.

Scott Muni, a gravel-voiced refugee from the Top 40 world, used to love to play something called "The Endless Tunnel." Classic psychedelia (with an electric banjo yet!), it was about a guy on train, the train was going someplace, but the singer didn't seem to know where he was going. Heavy! After about twelve minutes of this T-shirt existentialism, the song started slowing down for the big pay-off:

Well I was led into the engineer's cabin
His broad back before me quilted with muscles
I said, "Where are you taking us, where are we going?
Where are you taking us, where are we going?"
He turned around slowly, smiling, and said,
"I don't know. I'm just following ...
Just following the tracks ..."

"That was Serpent Power, "The Endless Tunnel," intoned Muni. And just to let us, the listeners, know how privileged we were, he gravely intoned: "And don't go looking for it in the record stores, its long out of print!"

Serpent Power's lead singer and chief songwriter was, of course, David Meltzer (with the added bonus of Clark Coolidge on drums). There was to be a second album, Poet Song, which was credited to David and his late wife Tina and, apparently, the "lost" third album was recently released -- as a vinyl LP!

I've known David twenty-five years, though we've only met a met in person a handful of times and our correspondence tends towards the sporadic. And when we do talk, its mostly about jazz. Nonetheless, I feel great affinity to his art and find him to be one of the great mensches in a poetry landscape overpopulated with DSM-IV level narcissists and worse.

Although David will probably will disagree and dislike the following, I believe the lack of wider visibility for his work has something to do with the overt Jewish stance of his work. This is not intimations of anti-Semitism in the art world, but the reality that many (including Jews) prefer Jewish content to be secular and Woody Allen-level neurotic. Meltzer's willingness to explore what is radical, counterhistorical and nonrational in Jewish culture is sometimes just a little too "Jewy" for some .

Similarly, David's work (along with fellow travelers like Jerome Rothenberg) is mostly unknown within the Jewish community. True, if you think of "American-Jewish literature," it is the novelists like Bellow and Roth who come to mind. But, beyond that, David's poetry presents Judaism as a lived experience, beyond the dripping shabbas candle sentimentality which passes for good deal of American-Jewish poetry -- especially the sort of stuff that gets printed in magazines like Tikkun.

Those squawkings aside, I must say that few poets have given me as much plain pleasure in reading as David's work. I never approach his work with that "castor oil/you 'need' to read him" aura which makes too many books of poems equivalents of Romanian tractor manuals. His recent Beat Thing is a shining example of David at his best -- that "news that stays news" feeling oft evoked but rarely realized.

Tip o' the cap to M. Rothenberg for David's latest selected (a third? is that some sort of record in American alternative poetry?), to Penguin for being the lone commercial press with a commitment to non-mainstream poetics and a hearty mazel tov to David himself, anthologizer of birth and death, transmitter of the kabbalah and connoisseur of bad LPs -- Kenton Plays Wagner, anyone?


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