The magazine could be as exciting as its subject

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THE ROLLING STONE

ALBUM GUIDE.

Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke with Holly

George-Warren.

Random House.

838 pages. $20 (paperback).

$

THE ROLLING STONE

ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF

ROCK & ROLL.

Edited by Anthony DeCurtis and

James Henke with Holly

George-Warren.

Random House.

710 pages. $22.50 (paperback).

Writing about music, Elvis Costello is said to have remarked, is like dancing about architecture. To this daunting, incongruous task Rolling Stone magazine, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1992, has appointed itself. Rock and roll began in the wake of racial desegregation (Brown vs. Board of Education occurred in 1954), as the wealthiest generation in America's history developed a taste for teen rebellion. Rolling Stone's founding in 1967 marked the dawn of rock's self-consciousness, its taking itself seriously.

The original Rolling Stone celebrated not just rock and roll but youth itself -- youth not just as an age but as an attitude, as a style, as a stance that turns difference into defiance and alienation into a point of pride. At its best, the magazine was a rightful heir to the excitement and chaos of rock and roll's birth. Early Rolling Stone rebelled not only against the political establishment and the older generation, but against the orthodoxies of old-guard journalism. Some of the best, and worst, of New Journalism was contained within its pages.

The newly revised "Rolling Stone Album Guide" is a solid, useful volume that nevertheless reflects the drift toward the mainstream, the urge for greater respectability and the loss of adventurousness that has been the magazine's course for the past decade or so. The book is exceptionally good in its coverage of the major artists, and can be useful to the casual fan, the sharp consumer and the serious music historian.

The Sun's J. D. Considine handles most of the 1980s. In a wide-ranging essay on James Brown, he considers the Godfather of Soul alongside Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and concludes that, for "endurance, originality, versatility, breadth of influence . . . he towers over them all."

It may be a sign of the politeness of this new volume though, that Mr. Considine, considered a consummate put-down artist, does precious little putting down. Nor do the book's other critics. One of the many pleasures of the earlier edition was its joyous dismissals of the Doors, Billy Joel and the Eagles. Maybe the more positive entries in the new edition mark a genuine reassessment. Some may argue, though, that these show just another example of the magazine's cozying up to record companies, of valuing nostalgia over innovation and safe, big-selling musicians over challenging ones.

Paul Evans, who concentrates on the 1960s and jazz, emerges as an unusually insightful writer. By trying to squeeze jazz into the volume, the editors make possible some lively comparisons (Mr. Evans describes Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz" as the equivalent of the Sex Pistols' first record, "whose burst of desperate, raw power provides a litmus test for just how much intensity a listener can take"). But the editors don't give jazz anything near adequate coverage, in spite of the cover's claim that this is a "Definitive Guide." The exclusion of Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, jazz's first great saxophonists, is troubling; to overlook pianist Thelonious Monk is incomprehensible.

Still, within its somewhat conservative and limited bounds, the "Album Guide" is a success. Readers will find themselves pleasantly lost in it, rambling from Bessie Smith to My Bloody Valentine to Public Enemy to Bo Diddley.

If the album guide suffers because Rolling Stone has appointed itself rock and roll's old guard and stands facing backward toward the past, this attention to tradition becomes a strong point of the tremendous "Illustrated History." This volume makes a case for the history of rock and roll as a full-blown history of the West, and nearly pulls it off.

Steering a path between daily newspapers, which often dismissed the music as a passing fad, and turgid academic studies that treated rock lyrics as poetry, the original Rolling Stone created, almost single-handedly, a whole new style of cultural criticism. The History collects the best of these articles.

Reading this volume is like walking into an enormous conversation between raving eccentrics and brilliant obsessives. Most of the essays were penned by the finest of Rolling Stone's first generation.

One of the gifts of this slew of writers is their ability to make a huge, preposterous claim, and then to show that the idea isn't so crazy. Greil Marcus, a brilliant critic who can hear the Puritan damnation in Robert Johnson's blues, the Ahab and Ishmael in early Elvis, and the Staggerlee in Sly Stone, provides penetrating essays on the Beatles and punk. Mr. Marcus quotes critic Langdon Winner as saying in 1968: "The closest Western civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. . . . For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young."

Most of these essays were included in the previous volume, and were slightly updated to fit in with new pieces about Prince, Madonna, MTV, women in rock, world music, rap, and the '80s underground. The last edition came out a few years after punk and new wave broke; this one after music television, the death of vinyl records, and the burgeoning of rap and hip hop. One important essay, inexplicably, was pulled -- Jim Miller's excellent piece on Elvis Costello.

"The Illustrated History" is full of half-convincing, half-crackpot theories and assertions about art, sex, race, politics, youth, gender and capitalism. The book attests to the fact that -- Mr. Costello's quip notwithstanding -- the best rock writing is every bit as startling and vibrant as the best rock and roll.

Mr. Timberg writes frequently about music. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
50°