July 2013

Arts & Letters

Ellen Willis’s ‘Out of the Vinyl Deeps’

By Robert Forster
The critic’s collected essays offer a distinctly New York perspective

Soon after Sasha Frere-Jones took up his position as pop critic (his term) at the New Yorker in 2004, curious about his predecessors, he asked the magazine’s librarian to identify the periodical’s first regular writer on rock music and the number of columns written. Both answers surprised him: Ellen Willis, producing 56 pieces between 1968 and 1975. Here was a distant name and one little mentioned in the “much-mythologised first-wave big-boy genius canon”, as the standard list of pioneering rock journalists is described in the afterword of Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on rock music (NewSouth Publishing; $29.95), a collection of Willis’ rock essays. And she had written a lot, especially in light of the shifting roster of music critics, Nick Hornby included, between her and Frere-Jones. In his foreword to the book Frere-Jones equates holding fresh photocopies of Willis’ work to “finding a missing Beatles album”. High praise indeed, although the magazine’s first pop critic was not always kind to the pre-eminent group of her time.

The bulk of Willis’ New Yorker work is in the new book, in addition to sporadic rock writing from after 1975. The collection has been arranged by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, into six chapters, and while this produces some thematic cohesion, it tends to break up a ticking-bomb narrative running through the pieces involving the rise of feminism and a not unrelated disillusionment with the counterculture. Aronowitz also supplies an introduction, and there is an afterword by two editors, Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy, one a fan and the other a student of the author. These pieces strive to place Willis in historical context and as a mentor through her teaching as a professor of journalism at New York University: little reference is made to the contents of the book. Willis herself was strangely ambivalent about her time as a rock critic. As Frere-Jones notes, in a 1981 compilation, Beginning To See the Light, Willis included only eight of her music pieces and 20 about culture, politics and feminism. That was posterity’s loss, at least until now, but indicates the breadth of the mind reviewing seven years of pop.

Out of the Vinyl Deeps begins with ‘Dylan’, and it is the strongest thing in the volume. Willis worked on it for five months, and the essay, first published in Cheetah magazine, became her calling card – the work that got her the New Yorker gig. It remains the best 8000-odd words ever written on Bob Dylan, and the frame through which his career up until the release of John Wesley Harding is still viewed. “He expanded folk idiom into a rich, figurative language, grafted literary and philosophical subtitles onto the protest song, revitalised folk vision by rejecting proletarian and ethnic sentimentality, then all but destroyed pure folk as a contemporary form by merging it with pop.” That’s a great sentence to have written in 1967.

Willis continued to write well on him. Dylan is a constant in the book, like a stick in a swamp she returns to, in order to gauge the waters rising and falling on the hopes of her generation. Nashville Skyline (1969) disappoints her, Planet Waves (1973) she overpraises. Blood on the Tracks (1974) she views as scenes from a marriage, only to come back for a terrific swipe at Love and Theft (2001). It’s her best review of him – and a means of comparison to other critics. What emerges is a journalist neither baffled nor bluffed: the record a platform to flesh out perspectives on Dylan, with one or two lovely echoes of her 1967 piece. The great Dylan biography is yet to be written – Willis, who passed away in 2006, could have done it.

The material accompanying the essays ignores, consciously or not, some features that will engage the reader. First, the reviews were not only written for the New Yorker, they were written by one (a childhood in Queens included), and there is the thrill of encountering front-line responses to albums and events now encrusted with huge cultural significance. One month Willis is reviewing Elvis Presley’s debut in Las Vegas, the next she is at Woodstock. The overarching view, though, is from Manhattan, which informs the selection of artists – the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, Elliott Murphy, Bruce Springsteen and Bette Midler – and the tone – spiky, quirky, authoritative and direct. The articles themselves vary in quality. Her forte is the meditative and revelatory longer essay, and here she is on a par with the best of Susan Sontag or Norman Mailer. Her monthly missives are more uneven, with the first-person “voice” of New Journalism and the informality of the underground press bleeding into observations as brazen as: “Listening to this album [The Rolling Stones’ It’s Only Rock and Roll] I can’t help wondering about Jagger’s marriage,” or “I think the Beatles as an idea began to erode when George Harrison discovered India.”

Besides the unfolding rock “moments” – the arrival of country rock, the 1968 ’50s revival and the traumatic disintegration of the Beatles – there are also premonitions in Vinyl Deeps. “Punk-rock” is the term Willis uses in 1972 in connection with bands that indulge her “weakness for dedicated crudity and crassness”, and she finishes her review entitled ‘Into the Seventies, For Real’ with the observation, “Pretty soon, there’s going to be a new crop of kids, who, whatever they may inherit from the sixties, won’t know where it came from, or care.” (The Ramones are two years away, the Sex Pistols three.) Elsewhere she draws a distinction between “pure” rock and roll with its “white street-punk myth” and a “countercultural aristocratic bias” that favours a flouncy, meandering, middle-class form of art-rock. Willis was seeing early that a break-out aesthetic from both mainstream pop and the hippie movement was brewing, and her remarks on a pre–Born To Run Springsteen indicate she was circling the artists who would lead the charge.

Closer to her body and soul, and once more tapping into tendencies emerging at the edge of rock, is her search for music that will validate a sentence from a 1974 article on the first National Women’s Music Festival: “I think it’s crucially important for female performers to break that barrier and force rock to reflect their experiences and aspirations.” One of many crucial words here is “rock” – as she notes in her review, there was much folk and sweet pop on display but no rock, and Willis was a rocker. Her heroine or even her match, given the blatantly autobiographical tilt of her portraiture, is Janis Joplin. There are two pieces about her in the book, done at ten- and 23-year intervals after the singer’s death in 1970. And while evincing a thorough knowledge of Joplin’s recordings, Willis dives deep, recognising Joplin as a “lusty hedonist and suffering victim”, a diagnosis that would fit many, but which became both victory and tragedy when projected upon a Texas-born female folk singer who sang the blues in an age of revolution: feminism and the counterculture were soon to be at each other’s throats.

As Frere-Jones notes in his foreword, Willis reached a sizeable readership through the New Yorker, one larger than most of the “big boys” had. The rigorous and uncompromising nature of her reviews needs to be seen in this light, just as the more conversational side of her writing should be set against the magazine’s old-world prose standards. Like most journalists when starting a new job, or in Willis’ case a new genre, if you can unscramble the timelines of her work, you see a writer getting better, inventing as she goes some of the foundations of rock journalism.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

Ellen Willis c. 1970

Image from Out of the Vinyl Deeps, courtesy of Nona Willis Aronowitz.

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