Despite resistance to the idea from cultural mandarins, this much seems clear: If Shelley and Byron were alive today, they would play electric guitar. The role of the rock star in popular culture, critic Timothy White assures us in the introduction to Rock Lives— a massive, often fascinating, frequently maddening collection of 59 profiles of music greats from Robert Johnson and Ray Charles to Joni Mitchell and Bryan Ferry — is to embody the romantic quest for beauty and self-knowledge. If this involves the flouting of cultural taboos and the crossing of ”class, racial, religious, and sexual lines,” according to White, so much the better.

True to its origins, rock is nothing if not impertinent. But for White, a former reporter-interviewer for Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone, it’s the Dionysian aspect of his subjects’ lives that fascinates him most. ”Rock and roll,” he portentously informs us, ”is the darkness that enshrouds secret desires unfulfilled …As Jerry Lee Lewis can tell you, if you want to rock, you do not go gently into that good night.” And elsewhere: ”Rock and roll…is a banquet nonpareil, oblivious to all consequences.” Tipper Gore, an entirely different critic, couldn’t have put it better.

Now, a skeptic might argue that Louisiana roadhouses are full of deranged rednecks like native son Jerry Lee who can scarcely play a lick. The infamous ”Killer” hasn’t enhanced his art with dope and dissipation; he’s about wrecked it, and himself as well. Conversely, the key to the continuing creativity of now middle-aged figures such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Pete Townshend — all profiled in Rock Lives — isn’t the hours they’ve spent semicomatose and incoherent. Rather, it’s the time they’ve spent honing their craft. It’s also having the good sense to save themselves — often only after witnessing the deaths of intimate friends — from the consequences of such pernicious nonsense as White peddles.

Townshend, formerly the presiding genius of the Who and for years one of the most articulate voices in rock, speaks compellingly here on the theme of the immense cultural power accumulated by a figure like himself, and his consequent sense of responsibility to use it for proper ends. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that White’s book publicist has called so much attention to Townshend’s statements on his bisexuality. Though Townshend’s comments were part of a larger discussion of his music, that subtlety has been lost. ”Pete Townshend, Out of the Closet” headlined USA Today, ignoring, among other aspects of the interview, a fascinating comparison between Hitler’s use of the adolescent mob and the origins of the rock & roll audience, as well as some equally interesting comments on his belief ”that there is a Savior.” No wonder that Townshend, according to his press representatives in London, has decided to give no more interviews.

Fortunately, Timothy White turns out to be a far better reporter than he is a thinker. He invariably shows up for his interviews armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of his subjects’ work — often provoking remarkable frankness and introspection. His own prose, though often deep purple, can also be remarkably evocative, as in his description of James Brown ”giving off keening shrieks that peaked past the speedbump of human hearing, disappearing into the ultrapitched domain of a dog whistle.” Flawed, but invaluable. B

Rock Lives