MM & Meltzer (II)

Meltzer on McLuhan, from my interview with Meltzer at in 2000. Obviously, if I had the chance again, I’d ask these questions somewhat differently, press him on the stuff he gets completely wrong (no idea where he gets that info about MM and the CBC and all that guff about “how great TV can be,” which of course couldn’t be a greater misrepresentation of the guy), and also, be a little more careful not to botch some of my own assertions (i.e., regarding his Catholicism — MM became a devout Catholic much earlier than I suggest, and it had nothing to do with any illness incurred). Still, I’m glad I got one of my favourite thinkers of all-time to speak even briefly about one of my other favourite thinkers of all time, and to this day I remain very curious about what Meltzer was planning to write about McLuhan “maybe ten years ago” (now 21).

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Scott: I don’t know if you’ll have anything to say about this. You’ve made two references to McLuhan in your writing. One from Aesthetics of Rock itself, where you call him a “hack” in parentheses, and then as a footnote, you say, “His only move is the pop status he has inadvertently attained, and his jargon is nice as misused plagiarism.” Then in the introduction to the reprint of Aesthetics you tell the story about getting kicked out of Yale, and you write, “No way I’ll ever be the McLuhan of rock.” So I’m not sure what to ask first — was he something at all that you aspired to?
Richard: I never wanted to be McLuhan, but it seemed like there was a kind of celebrity status for philosophers for a moment, and so I thought maybe that’s what I could aim for.

Scott: Do you think there’s any similarities between what you were doing and what he was doing?
Richard: It’s funny, I think of him as being a very, very CANADIAN thinker, and when I finally read — I liked the book he did called Mechanical Bride, which was sort of like pictures of, uh, it was re-printed by Da Capo a long time ago, and it was…

Scott: The ads…
Richard: You ever see that one?

Scott: Yeah.
Richard: It’s a nice book, but Understanding Media, I tried to read that, I wanted to write a piece about him maybe ten years ago, and so I read a few things, and the ONLY examples he gives about TV, about how great TV can be, are things like, “Oh, great CBC special on Glenn Gould!” “Here in the Global Village we get to see the making of a Glenn Gould concert!” Like, he’s giving examples of once-in-a-lifetime events that TV could give a shit about doing anymore. He was not talking about any TV that existed in the world. And yet, he wrote an inCREDIBLE review — he reviewed Naked Lunch for The Nation when it came out, and it’s an incredibly insightful review, where he basically talks about heroin addiction. It’s almost PRO-heroin addiction.

Scott: I’ve never seen that review — does he write about it as a metaphor for the electronic age?
Richard: Well, not really, he has Burroughs talk about control and nature. It’s in a book — there’s a collection of writings about Burroughs, I forget what it’s called, it has a pink cover, but he says, he credits Burroughs as saying now that nature — I mean, maybe he is saying electronic age, blah, blah, blah — but he’s saying now that nature doesn’t EXIST, the only way to deal with nature is to become one with nature by becoming a heroin addict.

Scott:The interesting thing about McLuhan is that he actually despised television, and I think he’s really misunderstood in that way. But when you said you think of him as a real “Canadian” type of writer, what did you mean by that?
Richard: Well, I mean that he would give examples of CBC specials. He wasn’t writing about I Love Lucy.

Scott: You had mentioned something about…
Richard: He went to mass every day I heard.

Scott: Yeah, I think he had a heart condition in the early ’70s, and from that point on he was a pretty devout Catholic.
Richard: He’s also one of these guys who — John Cage is another, and Joseph Campbell — they’re all crazy about Finnegans Wake. And as I said, I never really read much of anything until I was almost 40, and then I read everything, and so I read Joyce and all that, and I think Finnegans Wake is almost the least of his major works; it’s like one joke on too many pages.

Scott: I guess my initial reason for asking you about McLuhan is I can kind of see maybe some similarities between what you and him were doing in the whole drawing provocative connections with everything.
Richard: Well, sure. And dealing with what you might call “contemporary media.” I had this teacher, Allan Kaprow at Stony Brook, who was another great thinker, he did environments and happenings, he wrote lots and lots and lots of theses about blurring the distinctions between art and non-art. And I just think there was a lot of wacked-out analysis being done in the ’60s independent of rock, independent of drugs, independent of Tim Leary, and Albert [? – ed] at Harvard, and so forth. There was just a lot of shit going on. And you can talk about the political side of it — Vietnam. I mean, that was ANOTHER aspect of the ’60s. Basically, you had a draft-eligible American youth who had a fear of DEATH as a motivation. Which certainly turned up the heat under everything.