Real Culture: Jonathan Lethem on “Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop From Elvis to Jay Z”

So you have this sort of literary performance happening with these writers. Culturally, politically, it was being generated in the city I lived in, and I identified with it overmuch. ¤
SCOTT TIMBERG: I’m going to imagine that you fell for some rock critic or rock magazine when you were quite young. But the clarion cry for me, announcing that this was a field of letters, came when I ran across a copy of the anthology Stranded, edited by Greil Marcus. No — it was a place to get out of. Those are two very different kinds of writing. I was in some way advantaged; my parents had a good record collection, up to a point. I mean, that was the Bible for me, because suddenly these people were declaring themselves in very individual terms. I remember reading about Richard and Linda Thompson and The Velvet Underground and Curtis Mayfield, but living in the suburbs in the ’80s, I was never going to hear that stuff. Perhaps especially the pieces by women writers, who wove together the personal, musical, and political. One thing that doesn’t need pointing out is that almost everyone has a feeling or opinion on Bob Dylan. And I also lived in New York City, so I could start to expand my field of operation more rapidly than a suburban kid. JONATHAN LETHEM: So how did I first become aware of this? He’s also got a monograph called Is Rock Dead?, and he’s now part of a consortium that edits 33 1/3. I also, in that innocent sense, thought of it as all one voice. So there are a lot of personal essays in there, and a lot of overt or implicit manifestos — why this stuff matters and why it matters to me. JULY 28, 2017

EXCEPT FOR THE FEW hopeful souls who’d been waiting for the Library of America to release a Lester Bangs anthology, most readers were likely pleasantly surprised by the publication of Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop From Elvis to Jay Z. He did tend to write in that somewhat gnomic, infra-referential style. He was editor, for a time, of an academic journal on popular music. It’s in the room, so we need to dispel it to some extent. These guys have been written about a lot, and for a long time. You formed an implicit interest that was unfulfilled — it was like knowing what sex was, and not getting any. One is Jonathan Lethem, the novelist, critic, music enthusiast, and Pomona College professor who has often argued for the interweaving of popular and literary culture. It’s very, very hard for younger people to reproduce the condition by which someone like you or me comes into their musical appetite … Where there are a series of clues lying around, but you might read about a song or an album and have to wait five or 10 years before you find out what it actually sounds like. God knows, maybe I read Lester Bangs in The Village Voice without knowing I was reading him. It demands that you change your life, and it’s concurrent with other ideas about self and politics and gender. And then suddenly you have this trail to follow. Well, first of all, he instigated the book. Yes — it was more pressing to find some smart person to crack the code on the new music of the mid- and late ’60s, in contrast to Elvis or even something as rich as Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly. But it’s also very invigorating and alert and enlivening: this stuff is, like, primal and these are incredible Pop artifacts that have a plastic, self-conscious quality we can admire formally. I was growing up inside something — a bohemian demimonde, a counterculture, the disappointed back-end of a counterculture; it was the early ’70s and my parents’ hippie dream was in collapse. I might have encountered any number of those “founding father” types, like Paul Nelson or Greil, in those pages. So he’s got a particular provenance. We’re not saying, “It’s not quite good enough for the anthology.” It’s zero. I got to play a rock critic in a book I wrote called The Fortress of Solitude. He was teaching a course on rock writing. Sure, but also younger people in general were driving the culture in ways that were unnerving and uncanny and elusive. This stuff was coded and layered and complex — you needed a guide to it. Right, they’re picking a single album. A lot of our readers know your work, but will have less familiarity with Kevin’s. Yeah, yeah, that’s a really good point I hadn’t considered. But the reason we’re being dodgy is that working for the Library of America obviously raises that specter. Not necessarily the fresh copy off the newsstand, even — somebody had one and it was being read and reread for, like, a year. But that’s where the conversation started. These people weren’t just saying that The Velvet Underground was great. Again, that’s so ascendant now. So one big sweeping thought … This is totally stolen, but the insight that cracked open the British Invasion for me — Beatles, Stones, Kinks — was when someone said, “It’s kinda like French New Wave.” Europeans mirroring back to Americans something from their own vernacular culture, with the self-conscious bracketing of art around it. I probably first read some of the people that became important to me in a byline innocence. But that’s also been done a whole bunch, and wasn’t going to give the wide view. And they were also invited by the terms of that anthology to write very personally. And for that reason, it was probably Christgau, with his handy little marketing device — the “Consumer Guide” — who became the first individual voice to me, because I remember reading those. I’m very proud of my dabbling, but every writer in this book has given more of themselves to this vocation than I ever could; I have a pre-existing condition called fiction. And you could have made an almost identical roster of writers on Dylan alone. Dettmar, a fellow Pomona professor who has taught a course on the history of rock and edited The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. Right. I didn’t untangle the mass …
Right, like The Economist? What did he bring to the table? A giant bracket of artiness is put around it, which could lead to all kinds of ponderousness — and did. Some of it was really opaque to me, but I was turned on by his tone anyway, and what I understood. Did you make an effort, as Claremont-dwelling college professors, to include West Coast voices? I mean, just the other night, celebrating this anthology, I was hanging out with Ariel Swartley, and I was like, “You’re there at the start for me.”
I don’t think she even understood how important that book could’ve been to a kid — it’s a flare that lights up an entire implicit landscape of these general voices that preceded my own coming of age. I think there are three pieces — the Richard Poirier, the Geoffrey O’Brien, and Devin McKinney’s absolutely marvelous paranoid investigation of the intersection between Manson and the Beatles; I love it to death. Zero. No one would have dreamed of doing that. The bottom-line is that the defiance that I identified then is very common now — I believed in comic books and the music coming out of my radio, and trash genres like science fiction … What I heard in those voices — those writers assembled in Stranded, like Ariel Swartley, Ellen Willis, Christgau, and Marcus himself — was an assertion that what they loved, what they had assembled their identities around, wasn’t disposable; it was real culture. The credit, of course, goes to the volume’s editors. And it’s like, if you cast an actor as a journalist, he might get some assignments in journalism. There was Nik Cohn, for instance, whom we couldn’t include …
Did you and Kevin need to restrain yourselves in choosing to feature only a single piece about Dylan? One thing that struck me — as someone who grew up with New York writers, reading The Village Voice and Rolling Stone, which was founded in San Francisco but moved to New York in 1977 — was how California-centric the collection was. But yeah, we’re kind of saying, “This is part of the American literary tradition now.”
The involvement of the Library of America means we had to slight some writers: a lot of the key conversations in the birth period of this kinds of writing were transatlantic. It can be self-remaking. I think that I was probably, like a lot of people approximately my age, reading copies of Rolling Stone that were laying around. I mean, he kind of invents the rock-critic-talking-knowingly-to-another-rock-critic mode. I think Paul Williams articulated that there’s nothing to do with rock ’n’ roll other than give yourself over to it completely. Your book has at least two pieces on the Beatles. Then we realized, “Oh my God, everyone’s in New York.” A lot of the book is in New York because it’s where the publishing was. Lethem, whose latest novel is A Gambler’s Anatomy (2016), spoke to me from his home in Claremont. I hope that origin story …
… doesn’t make it sound boring? Yes — invite people to condemn it as academic writing or as a boring textbook. Here the august canon-polisher of the nation’s literary tradition collects pieces by Ellen Willis on Janis Joplin, Peter Guralnick on Solomon Burke, Robert Christgau on Prince, John Jeremiah Sullivan on Axl Rose, and Greil Marcus on the rock-inspired visual artist Christian Marclay. I could go downstairs and put on my mother’s copy of Let It Bleed, which I still own. And I was also angry on behalf of a hero — you know, like, “You said that about Lou Reed?!” And so, he was an individual before I figured out there a was field of individuals. The music was a kind of a visible wedge — something you could grab onto. They were saying, “It tells me who I am and if you let it into your life it might tell you who you are.”
Your description of growing up in Brooklyn and responding to these voices reminds me that memoir and the autobiographical essay form a part of your and Kevin’s anthology. He was thinking of it initially as a teaching anthology for a course on rock writing, which he wished he’d had. And a really important division in this book — it’s invisible until you put it in focus — is between writing done upon the release of cultural objects with writing done in vast retrospect. It really is worth saying: There’s just no serious writing about Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly during the period of their heyday. Here’s the album I would take to a desert island. Seems to me that the new seriousness of the Beatles — beginning with, say, Rubber Soul — as well as similar transformations by Dylan and the Stones, made newspapers and magazines realize there was something substantial happening here, that they could neither ignore it nor treat it like a kid’s craze, like a hula hoop. But I’m wondering if there’s any way to characterize the body of work around them? The thing about Dylan is that he’s such an overwhelming and intricate subject. Do they bring out the best in their chroniclers? With all the attention to diversity, we never considered East–West Coast diversity — until afterward, when we thought about authors to invite to a party. You know, she likes music that either I like or might like — “Wait, I’d better figure out what Astral Weeks is…”
And if you’re a fan of music writing when you’re young enough, and in my era [the 1970s] — pre-YouTube, there’s no streaming services — there’s reciprocity. ¤
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. And that was something the writers could latch onto. Dylan Dylanizes just about anything that comes into his orbit. You’re discovering two landscapes, because the writing is teaching you about music you have to find and investigate. You didn’t know who Robert Christgau or Greil Marcus were? So these languages were more than just a literature — they were like a seeing-eye dog, taking a blind person into a landscape in which they were eager to make contact, but lacked a lot of tools. He’s edited a book on Dylan and has also written, I think, a 33 1/3 book on Gang of Four’s first album. H. It’s like a series of defiant self-declarations, and I identified with that book and those voices overmuch. But it used to be, like, “You’re going to write a serious essay about stuff that most people are embarrassed about?”
So I could brandish these things; I could wear then on my sleeve. And so what you get in that moment is this explosive double-ness, where that power and value of 1950s rock ’n’ roll is reproduced and reignited for an audience that didn’t know how to stay connected to Buddy Holly. I mean, The Village Voice was a really formative thing for me in general. Who knew? Give us a sense of the first piece of rock criticism you discovered and what it gave you that you weren’t getting from other places? The other is Kevin J. And I was a kind of mongrel — I’m not gonna try to exaggerate that, I was awarded all the privilege — but I identified as a marginal: half-Quaker, half-Jewish, hippie, public school, inner-city, politically leftist, even as a Brooklynite …
Note to millennials: Brooklyn wasn’t cool. The book they’ve assembled is, to put it simply, a blast — a wild mix of the scholarly, the literary, and the chaotically unhinged. In the introduction, we’re dodgy about the idea of canon formation, because it’s too young a discipline; too many of these writers are still alive, and the horizon of 50 years is too short. In fact, it’s very likely that I read Christgau and Bangs in the Voice before I read anyone else.