Rock and Roll is Here to Stay edited by William McKeen
Every summer, I like to have a project, and this summer, it was supposed to be acquainting myself with film. Towards the end of the summer, however, it ended up acquainting myself with rock music. Part of the reason I read so voraciously is that I lack a lot of context, and one of those contexts is popular music. Hence The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. But while I was poking around the 800s in the nonfiction section at the library, I stumbled across this anthology and thought it sounded very interesting, so I determined to read it once I had an overview. And I ended up reading a six hundred page anthology while I desperately needed to boost my posting buffer. Of course.
Rock and Roll is Here to Stay is an anthology of rock writing by those who wrote the music, witnessed the music, and analyzed the music, curated by William McKeen, who teaches a course in rock and roll history at Boston University. The anthology is separated into eight sections—definition of terms, ancestors, superstardom, weirdness, present at the creation, soul, critics, and tributes—and pays slight attention to chronology. The larger focus is on rock as a movement and as a whole.
Anthologies are always hard to review, aren’t they? Especially when they’re more academic—I have a sneaking suspicion McKeen curated Rock and Roll is Here to Stay for his class. But this one doesn’t feel too academic; even the novel excerpts feel pointed. There is that unevenness of quality I find in every anthology—I’m starting to think it’s just the nature of the beast—but everything feels relevant. Even my least favorite piece, Lester Bangs’ “Psychotic Reactions and Carberator Dungs”, has a beautiful paragraph about how one’s truest autobiography is that of the music one adores. (Which makes my autobiography, at the moment, Electric Light Orchestra’s Discovery.) It’s extremely well-edited, with a focus on the music over the lifestyle.
Even though the Superstardom and Weirdness sections claim to focus on excess, even the pieces supposedly about something else don’t stray too far from the point, except for perhaps a handful of pieces about relationships, such as Pamela Des Barres’ “Every Inch of my Love”, about her relationship with Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Patti Smith’s “Rise of the Sacred Monsters”, a slightly incoherent (I’m woefully unpoetical) piece that starts with her crush on Mick Jagger at a young age and just goes, is more about how a musician and their music can frustrate even the true believers. “Woodstock Nation”, an oral history piece about the famous music festival, focuses on the business end of it, which brought the west and east coast scenes together, as well as the contrast between the musicians and their audience. Pete Townshend, in particular, notes his shock and dismay at realizing that the American scene the Who are trying to break into appears to be melting before his eyes. And, in perhaps one of my favorite anecdotes, Terry Southern, in “Riding the Lapping Tongue” (“The Lapping Tongue” the unofficial name for the Rolling Stones’ plane, which bore their Andy Warhol designed symbol), is handed a pamphlet at a Stones concert about the sexism in the Stones’ music.
So the anthology’s lows aren’t very low, and its heights—goodness. John Lennon’s “The Ballad of John and Yoko” is just stunning—the line “Escape, at last! Someone to leave home for!” is so astonishingly romantic and personal I could have swooned. Rickey Vincent’s “The Mothership Connection” analyzes the message of Parliament Funkadelic in the context of the aftermath of the civil rights movement. Nik Cohn’s “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night”, on which the film Saturday Night Fever was based, is a fascinating look into how the music of the club becomes secondary to dance, which the subculture finds superior to speech. Despite the sexism of a lot of this history (there’s one anecdote about the Beatles summoning the Supremes, having utterly misread each other’s public personas), we see women expressing desire (in “Riding the Lapping Tongue”, a young woman tells Bill Wyman that “Oh my God, you are so stone beautiful I can’t believe it!” ), seeking salvation through music, and expressing themselves, perhaps none so succinctly and powerfully as Yoko Ono’s brief press release about the murder of her husband, which ends with “Our thoughts are with you” (628). Chilling.
I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to rock history if you’re as dead new to the stuff as I was—I think I made the right choice in reading The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll first—but if you already know a bit or any of the pieces sound interesting, I would definitely give it a go, if only for “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and the sheer variety in perspectives. And I haven’t even mentioned the excerpt from High Fidelity!
Bottom line: Perhaps not an introduction to rock history if you’re as totally new to the stuff as I was, but a fascinating collection of wonderful writing about rock music, even given the unevenness inherent in anthologies, which isn’t so bad here. Definitely worth a look.
I rented this book from the public library.