Shake It Up is a great collection of rock criticism and journalism spanning five decades, from Nat Hentoff’s 1963 liner notes for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, to Greil Marcus’ incredibly powerful 2014 “Guitar Drag.” Although the quality of the essays can at times be uneven – a few of the pieces are dry, and some are academically pretentious – the cultural and historical significance of each is clear, and together they add up to a book far greater than the sum of its parts.
Most of the essays are powerful, but there is a lot to cover – the book is nearly 600 pages long, without the addenda – and I would not recommend reading it from cover to cover. To dip into this collection where and when the mood strikes can mean the difference between a dry, bogged-down reading and a luscious experience. The temptation to sample at will — stopping to listen to music when inspired, comparing related essays, consulting your own library now and then — is strong, and is worth giving in to. For most readers, this book will be more than just a critical anthology, but a rich experience of discovery and rediscovery.
“Who knew at the time that Nat Hentoff’s liner notes would become so historically significant?”
Who knew at the time that Nat Hentoff’s liner notes would become so historically significant, or that Brian Wilson’s emotional meltdown was imminent from the early years, or that Sam Cooke never really left gospel behind, or that Solomon Burke was the original soul-music genius? How did I never know, before reading this book, about Ellen Sanders’ assault and attempted rape by two members of Led Zeppelin, or Sandy West’s tragic diss by the filmmakers of The Runaways?
Of all the genius things about this collection, the most genius of all is the editorial decision to make Hentoff and Marcus its two bookends. To elevate Hentoff’s liner notes to icon status by using them as introduction to the collection accomplishes a number of things: it reveals the true beginning of rock journalism as nothing more nor less than this album cover – a text that many cherished in their youth, but few, if any, realized was seminal history in the making. It provides sweet context for the rest of the history: As the rock scene, and those who wrote about it, grew ever more beautiful, bitter, and shrill, they still really were once innocent and filled with wonder at all things new.
The power of Hentoff’s writing, however, is more than rivaled by the power of “Guitar Drag,” a fascinating, moving description of culture critic Greil Marcus’ recorded work by the same name, inspired by the 1998 dragging death in Jasper, Texas, of James Byrd, Jr. No more perfect cultural chain of events could exist in response to this event or to American history, no more perfect decision could be made than to end the book with this essay.
The editors, Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar, culture critics and journalists in their own right, are impressively credentialed, and have done a fine job with this anthology. If I have any complaint at all, though, it is with the strange, elitist subtext of their introductory remarks. “Fifty selections from fifty writers covering approximately fifty years of American rock and pop writing: it’s an elegant conceit, you’ve got to admit,” they boast in their first sentence.
They could be forgiven a little self-congratulation – they did come up with a nice idea – except that the final sentence of their intro reads like this: “Our goal, then, was always writing that conveys such force . . . you’ll never be certain that what you hear there hasn’t somehow been planted in your mind by the writer.” I can’t recall having ever run across a critical volume in any field that seems to imply so clearly that criticism is a higher art form than the art it seeks to analyze.
“Given the backgrounds of the two editors — one a college dropout, the other a professor of English at Pomona College — it would never occur to me to call them elitist.”
Given the backgrounds of the two editors – one a college dropout, the other a professor of English at Pomona College – it would never occur to me to call them elitist. Accomplished, creative, whipsmart, yes – but never elitist. Yet the strange irony of their introductory remarks seems naggingly to be of a piece with the star-studded resumes of nearly every writer in the volume. I’ve never before noticed that so many of our preeminent rock critics these days seem to have PhD’s from ivy league institutions, and routinely write for the most elite of the elitist press. But if the writing is wonderful, you might argue, what does it matter?
It probably doesn’t, except that we’re talking here about rock and roll, whose very soul is composed of counterculture, revolt, working-class ennui, and sticking it to the man. My own heart tends to long for that as-yet-unedited anthology of unsung bloggers – high-schoolers, these days maybe even grade-schoolers – who comprise the garage-band equivalent of contemporary rock critics. More minorities and women wouldn’t hurt either. Until the day my dream is realized, however, Shake It Up will have to do. The upstart generation should know they have their work cut out for them if they plan to topple this excellent group of witnesses to the revolution.