So how come of all the arts, popular music is the most fun to write and read about? There have been critics of literature almost since Gutenberg finished setting the hot lead type on his first scripture. The theater lives and dies by the opening-night critics who leave audiences and artists alike wondering whether the next morning’s edition will come wielding a bouquet of roses or a stiletto. The cinema has an enriching orbit of fanciers and students — Graham Greene to Peter Bogdanovich and Pauline Kael … even Richard Hell writes movie reviews, for crissake — who can turn opinions on something as abstruse as auteur theory into intellectual warfare. And dance … well, modern dance must have critics and people who read them, right?
Here’s the thing: Whether you’re a cinephile or second-act theater junkie or bookworm, chances are you follow the critics if only to keep abreast of what’s happening and what you should be keeping your eyes peeled for. But there’s no comparison, never has been, between the attention paid by, say, the most devoted reader of the New York Times Book Review to the excitement felt by a certain kind of music nut when they flip through old issues of Crawdaddy or get their hands on the latest by Greil Marcus.
It’s that fan who will need a copy of the Library of America’s Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z. Edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar, and stuffed with everyone from Robert Christgau to Nick Tosches and Nelson George, this anthology is like some steam-powered hurdy-gurdy of sound and vision. In these gnarled curlicues of theoretical musings, cool-handed thematic unpackings, freakout rave-ups, and widescreen snapshots of postwar America’s sonic landscapes, this is a book that will remind you of just about everything you love about music.
That’s true even if your band is nowhere to be found in these pages. And sometimes when it is, you might not be happy about it. This is a book that dares call bullshit on late-period Ramones (Chuck Eddy: “[Joey Ramone] exudes a warped charisma none of the thousand punk frontmen he inspired can touch. But it’s 1990, and it’s really hard to care”).
Shake It Up is a welcome addition for the Library, which has been taking detours from its primary business of creating authoritative and handsomely bound collections of America’s great (and often comparatively unheralded) authors to these more raggedy thematic agglomerations like The Cool School: Writing from America’s Hip Underground (Burroughs, Mailer, Dylan, Kerouac, Southern, and Warhol, oh my!).
The editors swing their arms wide but not haphazardly. Things kick off with the great Nat Hentoff’s crisp and thoughtful analysis of Bob Dylan, “a young man growing free rather than absurd”, from 1963. There will be a lot of this kind of thing throughout. Because Lethem and Dettmar are not showcasing writing about the greatest musicians, but the greatest American music writing. So that means pulling from a limited pool, given the demographics and interests that dominated the rock critic population during its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s. Thusly, lots of men writing detailed exegeses about the rock icons we’re used to seeing inducted with gravity into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So if you’re not interested in anything about Dylan, or the Beatles or Rolling Stones, and have no opinions one way or the other about Lou Reed, best to stay far, far away.
That doesn’t mean the book reads like some coffee table book for octogenarian Mojo readers. There’s a charge and snap to just about all these pieces on the icons, mostly because they’re treated both as intimates and figures of critique, not icons to be discussed at arm’s length. Richard Poirier’s 1967 essay, “Learning from the Beatles”, is heavy with throwaway observations that have the snap of truth (noting the jovial band’s seeming “indifference to the wealth they are happy to have”), cogent comparisons between the band’s lyrics and the work of Edward Lear and T.S. Eliot, and also broader commentary on the cultural earthquake the country was still being rattled by (“This is the first time that people of school age have been tuned in to sounds invented not by composers approved by adults but in to sounds invented by their own near contemporaries”).
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Resisting the urge to go for one of Lester Bangs’ more gonzo pieces, the editors selected his 1977 recollection “Where Were You When Elvis Died?” It’s a smart and touching memory of what Elvis meant:
Elvis’s sin was his failure to realize that his fans were not perverse — they loved him without qualification, no matter what he dumped on them they loyally lapped it up, and that’s why I feel a hell of a lot sorrier for those poor jerks than for Elvis himself. I mean, who’s left they can stand all night in the rain for?
Shake It Up is laden with some of that deeply personal, bittersweet tone so important to great music criticism; after all, what is writing about music but trying to capture something from the past that will never quite (no matter how many deluxe reissues with new bonus tracks the labels get shoving out there) be the same again. Sometimes the personal angle can be limiting, as in Chuck Klosterman’s all-too-narrow selection from Fargo Rock City doesn’t quite do justice to the monsters of hair metal.
When it works, the effect is potent. Jessica Hopper’s striking 2003 piece “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t” is a poignant laceration of the miserable sexism prevalent in purportedly sensitive indie-dude-rock of the time. Paul Nelson’s memory of the long, painful implosion of the New York Dolls is not just one of the book’s relatively few pieces on the American underground — no Black Flag? Is it possible? — but also a tragic acknowledgment that no matter how great some bands are, the spotlight of fame is always going to diminish and melt them.
Eve Babitz’s “Jim Morrison Is Dead and Living in Hollywood” is a spit-take funny takedown of the Lizard King’s pretensions that also manages to grasp a sliver of his almost accidental greatness: “…something about him began seeming great compared with everything else that was going on. He may have been a film-school poet, but at least he wasn’t disco.”
Speaking of disco, does dance music get a place in Shake It Up? The subtitle does mention “Pop”, after all. Not so much. Vince Aletti’s collection of disco news items from the mid-’70s are an interesting time capsule but don’t capture what mattered about the genre; maybe nothing would. Better attuned to pop’s instincts are pieces like Hilton Als’ typically ruminative investigation of the meaning of Michael Jackson. And it’s hard to improve on Christgau’s capsule reviews of Prince albums, with this note on Dirty Mind: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.” As for hip-hop, Greg Tate and Kelefa Sanneh provide some excellent contributions here on, respectively, the differences between Kanye West and 50 Cent, and the lyrical density of Jay Z. But in general, that genre is left to the side.
As in a great song, the transitions can be godhead. Watch how the editors jump from Hentoff right into a spiky Amiri Baraka piece from 1966 about the shifting landscape of R&B. It marries a thoughtful, if circuitous look at the African roots of this newer music with a dated critique of how the “whitened Negro” had no interest in the pulsating genius and unapologetic blackness of a James Brown. (This is almost impossible to imagine, but then it was 1966 and Brown was a riotous and quicksilver presence, not the dominating immortal those of us born later took him to be.) Danyel Smith’s witty and disarming “After 30 Years, I Finally Went to a Barry Manilow Concert” leads into Greil Marcus’s concluding entry “Guitar Drag”, which feels as though it’s wrapping up everything about rock ‘n’ roll, race, and America into one great hammer of an essay.
There will be naysayers, the ones who don’t understand why Cameron Crowe’s Led Zeppelin Rolling Stone dispatches aren’t here, or anything by Legs McNeil, or how come grunge doesn’t really get its due. But it could be argued that Ellen Sander’s 1973 take on Led Zeppelin’s blitzkriegs through the American heartland (“The rock business is volatile, rapid, and dangerous … If a musician gets sick, they shoot him up like a racehorse and send him on”) in its initially thrilling and ultimately harrowing manner covers it all. Also, Gina Arnold’s short but pungent recollection of seeing Nirvana blow the doors off at a gig in Honolulu says everything there is to say about grunge and its brief return of the stomping bellowing rock gods of yore.
As a side note, while it’s almost certain that plenty of horse-trading went on during the editing of this volume, the editors don’t appear to have been flagrantly playing favorites. For the record, Dettmar wrote the 33 1/3 volume on Gang of Four’s 1979 post-punk barn-burner Entertainment! and those boys get nary a nod. For his part, Lethem knocked off the 33 1/3 on the Talking Heads’ neo-Afrobeat New Wave masterpiece Fear of Music; the Heads make a couple appearances here but on deep background only.
This is a book that’s not going to make everyone happy. But that was baked in from the start. Letham and Dettmar couldn’t have expected this to be a milk run. But they went ahead with the mission anyway, aiming their battered plane over the target through heavy ack-ack with just one bomb left and not enough fuel to get back to base. Because they knew that the mission was just that important.
Music is just that important. And since it’s arguably the most mysterious of art forms, the one most able to conjure up different associations and meanings for everyone who listens to it, great writing about music’s ephemeral blam and roar of necessity has to try and capture what the editors call its “smokestack lightning” in a bottle.
Shake It Up crackles with that lightning.