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Editor's Choice: 'Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop'

“Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z” edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar; the Library of America, 601 pages, $50. If ever a book were a 600-page paradox, it’s this one. It’s both essential and woefully inadequate. That’s because the idea of a huge collection of rock writing is far from new. Two that I consider superior are William McKeon’s 670-page collection “Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay” (Norton) and Clinton Heylin’s 682-page beauty “The Penguin Book of Rock and Roll Writing.” The enormous advantage of both McKeon and Heylin is that their purview wasn’t confined to American writing. They could each reach across the pond and pluck some of the juiciest pieces of all--by Nik Cohn, Julie Burchill, Simon Frith, Salman Rushdie, and Nick Hornby, not to mention Pete Townshend’s much-anthologized classic self-explication “Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy.”
But even there with the editors restricted by the basic purpose of the Library of America, you find much idiocynratic eccentricity in an anthology of great rock writing. Considering Tom Wolfe’s seminal relationship to the first generation of rock critics, it’s odd not to have his pieces about the Beatles and Phil Spector. Surely James Wolcott’s wit and cultural immersion should have warranted inclusion. But that’s the nature of anthologies. Let some of us rail against Nick Tosches represented only by his Jerry Lee Lewis book and not a selection from his Dean Martin book. No “I was there” classic about Springsteen from Jon Landau (“I have seen the future of rock and roll” etc.)? No matter. Rejoice in what IS here, an uncommonly full complement of female writers, for one thing, including Ellen Sander's post-facto Led Zeppelin profile “Inside the Cages at the Zoo” in which she confesses in the last paragraph that she said goodbye to the group after a Fillmore East gig, only to have “two members of the group” attack her “grabbing at my clothes, totally over the edge. I fought them off until (group manager) Peter Grant rescued me but not before they managed to tear my dress down the back.” It took her a long time to write the piece. Its ending is brilliant. Lethem and Dettmar have gone well beyond the usual suspects, to their enormous credit.-- Jeff Simon

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