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The Songs Remain the Same


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Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay: An Anthology

Edited by William McKeen

(W.W. Norton)

By Michaelangelo Matos

In the middle of Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay, a new anthology edited by University of Florida journalism professor William McKeen, there is a photo of Bob Dylan taken at a mid-60s press conference. He's wearing a black corduroy jacket over a polka-dot shirt, and though the harsh lighting of the room may have something to do with it, he looks like hell--his skin is pasty, his eyes unfocused, his hair not just wild but obviously untended. He looks like he's been up for three days, and his facial expression is that of a man struggling to remain cogent. It's one of the worst photographs of Dylan I've ever seen. But the blurb below it reads: "Here's his Bobness, resplendent in polka dots and trademark smirk, toying with reporters at a press conference during his brief season as the king of rock and roll in the mid-1960s."

Right there in a nutshell is everything that's wrong with this book. A hefty 672-page tome, Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay is something like the Oasis of rock-writing collections: relentlessly upbeat, shameless in its blind idolatry, and, if you're in any way familiar with this kind of thing already, patently underwhelming. Its message is its title, no more and no less. This is not a book in which rock's myths are poked with a sharp stick. So what if Dylan looks like shit in that photograph? He's fuckin' Dylan, man!

McKeen stresses in his introduction that he teaches classes on rock history, and his book is handy as a syllabus for the basics. But why publish it as a book when its components are so readily available? Of the 91 pieces collected in it, 55 are excerpts from other rock books--histories, collections of criticism, rock-related fiction. The majority of people who would be interested in a collection like this will likely have read at least a few of these, and even the best of them run into the usual problems that result from relying on excerpts. For example: Greil Marcus's "The Myth of Staggerlee," a long, annotated discography that tracks that particular badman archetype from blues records up through hip-hop, contains some of Marcus's greatest writing. But where this way of organizing records really bears fruit is in the Sly Stone chapter of Mystery Train, where he posits Sly as a prime example of the archetype.

And if you're going to hit all of rockcrit's big names one more time, why not go slightly less obvious? One of the best rock pieces I've ever read is Dave Marsh's deeply personal exegesis of the Shirelles' "Soldier Boy," from his 1988 book The Heart of Rock & Soul. Why not that instead of the endless ass-kissing chapter on the assembly of Bruce Springsteen's Live 1975-1985 from the endless ass-kissing bio Glory Days? McKeen also reprints lyrics, which almost always look bad on the page, as chapters in their own right--a decision you'd think might've been discouraged by Robert Christgau's 1967 essay on that topic, "Rock Lyrics Are Poetry (Maybe)," also included. Meanwhile, the handful of fiction excerpts--from novels by Irvine Welsh, Salman Rushdie, and Nick Hornby--are so brief and sparsely distributed that they seem pasted in to give the book a patina of respectability: Look, isn't rock mythic? It even captures the fancies of real writers!

Even acknowledging that it is a decidedly mainstream document, Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay is still more embarrassing than something like Rolling Stone and MTV's recent list of the "100 Greatest Pop Songs," in that its rose-colored vision isn't even the product of a committee with axes to grind, product to push, or advertising to sell. Sure, the list read a lot like every other greatest-singles-of-all-time list the magazine has published over the years, with some contemporary ringers thrown in. But hey, at least Rolling Stone had the cheek to champion Max Martin right alongside Lennon-McCartney and Jagger-Richards. You'll have to wait until it's a universally ratified opinion before you see it in a future edition of McKeen's book. Because McKeen really does seem to believe all the big ones: in his book, Elvis was the King, Dylan was the jester, and Springsteen is still the Boss.

Perhaps McKeen's mistake was to try to make Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay both a historical overview and a literary anthology. As flawed as Clinton Heylin's 1993 Penguin Book of Rock & Roll Writing (reissued last year by Da Capo, with the appropriate title change) might be, it's got a distinct guiding sensibility. Though Heylin likes hyperbole as much as McKeen does (as evidenced by the contemporaneous reviews of Patti Smith's Horses and Television's Marquee Moon), he's also willing to question the status of a classic (Richard Goldstein's famous dis of Sgt. Pepper's) or mock a hero (Lester Bangs's posthumous interview with Jimi Hendrix).

This was the book's saving grace, because even a decade ago it was obvious that there was no need for another grand, overarching narrative of rock--Charlie Gillett's The Sound of the City, from 1969, The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, first issued in 1976, and 1985's Rock of Ages, by Ed Ward, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker, to name three, still had it pretty well covered, collectively. Of course, anyone who's had his faith restored by the right band doing the right things with forms he thought were completely exhausted knows there's always room for one more if it's done right. Unfortunately, after a while, reading Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay is like attending a party full of people telling the same stories you've heard before, over and over again.

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