On the whole, this anthology, along with igniting discussions about sins of omission, will make for entertaining browsing.
Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z, edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. Library of America, 607 pages, $30.
By Jason M. Rubin
Rock journalism took longer to perfect than the music it covered. It could fairly be argued that early classics from the ‘50s like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Johnny B. Goode” are as good as anything the genre has ever produced. Yet writers who covered music and culture at the dawn of rock and roll seemed to have has no idea what they were dealing with. Some of that ignorance had been steeped in prejudice — after all, rock and roll (right down to its name, black slang for sex) was based on African American musical forms. Some of the cluelessness came from the fact that rock and roll was not only new, but generated an unprecedented wave of social and cultural upheaval that seemed to overpower the quality of the music itself – at least as compared to the impact of popular tunes of yore, which were the custody of suave professional performers who drew from the Great American Songbook.
Clips of press conferences featuring the early Beatles and Bob Dylan are hugely entertaining today, and not only because of the quick wit and sly intelligence of the interviewees. The naïve and insipid questions posed by the square journalists are good for plenty of chuckles. It took some time for writers to emerge who were contemporaries of the artists (more or less) and who understood what the music was about and what it could and should stand for. Hip publications such as Crawdaddy (founded in 1966 by Paul Williams) and Rolling Stone (1967 by Jann Wenner) arose that contextualized the evolving music, seeing it as central to and emblematic of a brand new age in which the youth of America not only had buying power but also – thanks to rock’s galvanizing messages – political power.
Some of the key writers of this time, such as Williams, Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, and Dave Marsh, are included in Library of America’s Shake It Up, an anthology of “Fifty selections from fifty writers covering approximately fifty years of American rock and pop writing,” according to the editors’ introduction. It is, as they are only too happy to admit, “an elegant conceit” — though how successful a conceit is up for debate.
One thing that has always distinguished the best rock writing is its glorious disdain for objectivity, a cardinal sin in traditional journalism. In talented and capable hands, the story could be as exciting as the music. For example, Jules Siegel’s 1967 piece on Brian Wilson, “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” (included in this volume), was instrumental in creating the legend of Wilson as a tortured genius and his doomed Smile project a lost treasure. Originally written for The Saturday Evening Post, it was rejected for being “not objective enough.” It eventually was published in the inaugural issue of Cheetah, of which Siegel had recently been named editor-in-chief. On the other hand, Ed Ward’s short yet harsh assessment of Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run has all the depth of a Facebook rant. I have no idea why it was chosen for inclusion.
With fifty writers, you’d think a fair amount of ground would be covered, but not so. Off the top of my head there are at least three critical omissions: Cameron Crowe, the noted Rolling Stone writer who has become a successful film director and screenwriter; Jon Landau, whose 1974 review of a Springsteen concert for Boston’s The Real Paper included one of the most quoted lines in all of rock journalism: “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”; and Cub Koda, the rocker turned writer who penned the hit “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and a column for Goldmine magazine. Instead, the volume includes Amiri Baraka’s indecipherable treatise on “R&B and New Black Music”, which focuses more on blues, gospel, and soul music than rock or pop (listing a few Motown hits is the closest he gets).
While many legitimate voices are indeed included here, their selections are often suspect. Legendary jazz critic and columnist Nat Hentoff leads off the volume with his liner notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (my own preferred Dylan notes are by the artist himself for Bringing It All Back Home). Puzzlingly, Lenny Kaye (who is known as much for his knowledge of rock history as for being Patti Smith’s guitarist), is represented in Shake It Up by a piece on a capella music.
There are, of course, many entries here that are worthy of inclusion in any first-rate anthology of popular music writing. These include the late, great Robert Palmer’s paean to Sam Cooke, Paul Williams’ survey of mid-60s psychedelia, Lester Bangs’ 1977 piece on the recently deceased Elvis Presley, Peter Guralnick’s profile of Solomon Burke, and Boston native Elijah Wald’s compelling look at how the Beatles’ success had devastating effects on the careers of contemporary black artists.
Lists are always argument-starters in rock and roll, and my quibbles with the writings selected for Shake It Up are part and parcel of that roughhouse tradition. The volume is handsomely produced in the typical LOA fashion, though it is given a somewhat funkier cover than usual. On the whole, this anthology, along with igniting discussions about sins of omission, will make for entertaining browsing. And who knows, maybe this review will stimulate an appetite for a Volume 2?
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 31 years, the last 16 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012.