Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Book: Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay-Z edited by Jonathan Letham and Kevin Detmar (Library of America, 2017)

This is a wide ranging survey of American rock 'n' roll criticism from the early 1960's to the present day. When the music first took hold of the American (and then the world's) imagination in the 1950's it was beneath contempt from the leading newspapers and magazines of the day, which tended to report on the payola scandals and the purported rise of juvenile delinquency rather than the aesthetic merits of the music itself. This began to change in the late 1960's when The Beatles, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and other groups and artists proved that rock music could be genuine art. The book begins with a nod to the earlier generation with socially charged criticism from Nat Hentoff and Amiri Baraka. Some of the leading lights of rock criticism begin to emerge like Stanley Booth, who is best known for writing about The Rolling Stones, but in this collection he is looking into the signature sound of his hometown of Memphis. Lenny Kaye would go on to fame with the Patti Smith group and his curation of the Nuggets compilation, but here he presents a look at doo-wop and acapella. Blowhard Richard Meltzer is represented with a section from his self-important book Aesthetics of Rock, while they hold the estimable Robert Chruistagu for the middle of the book, which is loosely chronological, printing several of his Consumer Guide capsule reviews about the music of Prince. Paul Nelson is plucked from obscurity to report on the New York Dolls, while his contemporary Lester Bangs writes about the death of Elvis Presley. To the editors credit, they do include several women writers in the anthology like Donna Gaines on Lou Reed, Ellen Willis' superb article on Janis Joplin and Eve Babbitz's epic send up of The Doors and Jim Morrison in particular. Most of the articles are enjoyable to read, and if one doesn't strike your fancy then there are many others to choose from. One wishes that more non-caucasian writers could have been represented, but the paucity thereof may be due to the lack of opportunities for non-whites in journalism rather than any overt racism on the part of the editors. Overall, this was an enjoyable book and encourages readers to dig more deeply into the writers that they are interested in, by providing capsule biographies and suggested reading for each of its entries. Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z - amazon.com

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