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Review: Rock women earn fine 'Place' in history

"We Gotta Get Outta This Place"
By Gerri Hirshey
Atlantic Monthly Press
Popular Culture/Music
272 pages

By L.D. Meagher
Special to CNN

(CNN) -- It all begins with Bessie Smith and runs through "Mother" Maybelle Carter and Patsy Cline to Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, Patti Smith, Madonna, Bikini Kill, and Janet Jackson, finally arriving at Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott.

It is the bloodline of rock and roll's maternal ancestry. It is anything but a straight line. And yet, all those women it passes through seem to have, at their core, a need to do the same thing. Gerri Hirshey summarizes that inner drive in four words: "Gotta sing. Gotta go."

Boy, can they sing. Girl, can they go.

In "We Gotta Get Outta This Place," Hirshey tells the life story of rock and roll by examining the lives of women who have made the music their own. That description might create the image of a book that is encyclopedic and superficial. Whatever else she might be, Hirshey is not a superficial writer. Her book is relatively short, but it packs a punch that can only be measured in megatons.

Hirshey doesn't write about rock and roll. She writes rock and roll. Her prose is infused with the energy of the music itself. At times, it seems to march in cadence with a thrumming bass line; at other times, it seems to soar toward that place where only great guitar licks and Janis Joplin's voice can live. Reading her stories about rock's greatest women is like listening to an album of their music.

Making contributions

She harnesses her art to the purpose of letting women have their say. "We Gotta Get Outta This Place" is not an exercise in feminist revisionism. Hirshey doesn't belittle the contributions men have made to rock music. Instead, she demonstrates that women have been toiling in the same fields beside them from the beginning, and making contributions equally important, if not equally recognized.

Hirshey's story begins at the beginning -- in the blues and country-western music that gave birth to rock and roll. She makes her way chronologically toward the current state of affairs, which embraces everything from corporate pop to conglomerate hip-hop. Rather than compile a compendium of names, dates and chart positions, Hirshey lets us hear what women have to say, drawing from research and her own reportage to give voice to female rockers past and present.

Evocative stories

It's easy to be enchanted by their stories because Hirshey writes them so well. She needs only a few words to capture the social and political environment of the early Seventies, when the world seemed to shrink back from the excesses of the decade before:

"If Jane Austen had been around to limn the fractured morays of womanly existence in the 1970s, she might have sounded like the acutely observant Joni Mitchell. Call it Sense and Sensimillia. Once many of us picked up Mitchell's work and found ourselves, we just couldn't put it down."

Her description of a very different woman is equally evocative:

"Live, Tina has always presented the fullest conjugation of the verb 'to rock' ... Orbited by that changing galaxy of Ikettes, a big band churning behind it all, Tina could pop out of the wings like James Brown -- eeeeeyahhh! -- a power pinball shooting off the spring, stuttering across the stage on one leg, spinning, thrashing, the body language telegraphing instantly that it could be no one else but She, Tina! Her spike heels could pierce a hubcap, her voice always hit the rigging and cracked, exquisitely, in half. And the gams -- those rock-solid limbs. Long, strong, planted slightly apart, Tina Turner's legs bracket rock and roll imagery."

Gerri Hirshey writes rock and roll from the soul. "We Gotta Get Outta This Place" is an exultant shout, a foot-stomping, hip-swinging, arms-flailing celebration of the music and the women who make it.

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