Willis understood rock to be not the solid monolith its name might suggest, but rather a permeable pavilion through which currents of cultural change flow, and within which agglomerations of human desires gather. As we see throughout Vinyl Deeps, she was concerned with what songs meant, and what bands’ particular existences in the world told us about the culture we desired and deserved. What is sometimes missing, ironically, is how the actual stuff produced by these bands — the songs themselves — encoded these values and trends and forces. I mean that Willis rarely wrote in depth about how things sounded. She listened less with her ears than with her brain and hips and feet, far more likely to tell us what a song’s lyrics seemed to be saying, or whether she enjoyed dancing to it, than to delve into what it was about a song’s construction that made it feel a certain way.
Nona Willis Aronowitz is a political and cultural writer based in New York, and an Associate Editor at Good Magazine, where she blogs regularly. She is also the editor of one of the rock critical events of the season, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music. Willis-Aronowitz, in case you hadn’t figured it out, is also the daughter of Ellen Willis. Vinyl Deeps (which I have mentioned frequently on this site already) compiles her mother’s classic New Yorker “Rock Etc.” columns from the ’60s and ’70s, along with her other published works of rock criticism, from venues like Cheetah and the Village Voice. It is a major and long overdue collection of music criticism by one of the premier rock critics and feminists of the last 40 years.
I recently spoke with Nona Willis Aronowitz about the publication of the book, and about her mother’s life as a rock critic.
I’ve been harping on a fair bit lately about Ellen Willis and Paul Nelson, thanks to the terrific recent books (Kevin Avery‘s Nelson bio/compilation comes out in the fall) which have revitalized, in particular, my interest in the period of time in which I first discovered rock criticism — the late ’70s and early ’80s. (Well, sort of. My brother Paul subscribed to Creem from about ’73 onward, and I was more than a little aware of who Lester Bangs was, but the truth is, Bangs mostly reached me back then as a kind of rock star in his own right. It was his reputation and his public shenanigans the ten-year-old me clung to, not the writing itself. I’m not even sure I actually read entire articles by the guy, I just had this vague sense that he was interesting and funny and very, very rock and roll.) I could, and someday may, write an entire book about the years 1979-1982, the years in which entire musical worlds seemed to open before my eyes, and rock criticism was as integral to this self-education as the music itself. And though Willis and Nelson were not the writers I followed most voraciously — maybe, now that I think about it, because they were leaving rock criticism behind right about the time I was becoming a fan of the stuff — they were nevertheless part of a larger framework that intrigued the hell out of me, and that I simply couldn’t get enough of. By “larger framework” I mean something like, folks who waxed serious about rock’s meaning. And by “serious” I mean all sorts of things, not merely serious, dig?
But one of the questions I’m still left with after devouring both books is, what the hell happened in rock criticism as the seventies turned into the eighties? Why did so many of the great early critics decide to get off the boat at that particular juncture? I’m thinking about Marcus’s great Sgt. Pepper riff in his Stranded discography, wherein he calls that much-vaunted masterpiece “a Day-Glo tombstone for its time.” In retrospect, Stranded itself is something of a tombstone, in that more than half its contributors jumped ship at or around that time. Or maybe, to stretch this strained metaphor a bit further, the Janet Maslins and John Rockwells and Langdon Winners actually found their way back to civilization, leaving the Christgaus and Friths and Marcus’s “stranded”? (I don’t know the precise years that rock ceased to be a major public concern for Rockwell, et al.; I’m generalizing here just a tad.) Obviously, Willis and Nelson each had their own ways of dealing with what appears to be their disillusionment with the entire operation: Willis delved deeper into politics and feminism (things which, according to Willis herself, powered her rock writing in the first place), Nelson took a much wobblier course, with fits and starts of various projects (including an endlessly-worked-on and never-completed movie script) leading, ultimately, into near-total retreat from society itself. (Reading the last half of Avery’s bio, I couldn’t help but dredge up some rather uncomfortable visions of Charles Crumb.) But how each of them, and so many of their peers — it’s not an isolated thing I’m talking about here — chose to live out their post-rock critical lives isn’t what I’m thinking about this second. What I’m thinking about is, what made them leave in the first place? Was it simply a function of age? An after-effect of the corporatization of rock journalism? (Marsh has a terrific quote in the Nelson book. In response to Jann Wenner’s installing ratings to Rolling Stone reviews, he says “That’s the death of rock criticism right there.”) Nothing more than a public playing out of the “big chill” effect? (What is the big chill effect? Someone care to remind me?)
And the first demurral I’ve seen of Out of the Vinyl Deeps, from longtime rockcritics.com reader/inquisitor, Beppe Colli, over at his website, Clouds and Clocks. It’s not entirely clear to me what Beppe’s issues with Willis are, but this sentence might be a hint:
“Reading this book, it immediately dawned on me that, though their styles are quite diverse — also their values — Willis practices an irrational approach that is not that different from Lester Bangs’s. Just check the way liking an album is experienced as a kind of ‘conversion,’ and so something which is impossible to explain.”
I don’t know about “irrational,” but his second point, about the almost religious fervour in each of their responses to the records they adore is pretty spot-on, though not, for me, a problem (quite the opposite). Music is “impossible to explain,” though — at least if you limit your explanation to words alone. Indeed, that conundrum, as pointed out in various passages in Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock, is the futility (um, the challenge) of rock criticism. Writing about “the music” — i.e., the notes, the chord changes, the instrumentation, etc. — gets you no closer to there than writing about any other aspect of it, because there is no there there.
“[Willis] never stressed much about coverage while writing her Rock, Etc. column, and especially in her writing that followed; she tracked every move of the Who, Bob Dylan, the Stones, Janis, and the Velvet Underground as she blatantly ignored others.”
- Nona Willis Aronowitz, introduction to Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
“‘I get so many records,’ Paul said, ‘but I go through most of them and, after one listen, that’s that. But I find a good one and it doesn’t come off the turntable for six months. I’ll play three records all year.’”
- Paul Nelson, quoted in Kevin Avery’s Everything is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson
I’m just floating these words out there, don’t really have much to say about them. I’ve been reading the two books in tandem — they’re both wonderful, though the Nelson bio, I have to say, is completely amazing, one of the half dozen greatest music books I’ve ever read, maybe — and one thing that struck me about both Willis and Nelson (and about the era in which they participated as rock critics) was their general disinterest in trying to “cover the bases.” Their frames of reference — at least within the sphere of music — were relatively tiny compared to most rock critics. (This is not to suggest that they did so as any kind of self-imposed rule, anymore than it’s to suggest that they didn’t on occasion surprise you with a left turn in their tastes. I’m talking in fairly broad terms here, of course.) It’s kind of astonishing when you think about it. One of the primary functions of rock criticism has been precisely the opposite — to cover as much stuff out there as possible. (cf. Christgau’s comment somewhere — can’t recall where exactly — something to the effect that “eclecticism is the first cliché of rock criticism”). Today, you simply couldn’t do what Nelson or Willis did. Well, you could, of course, on a blog (or in a boring specialist punk ‘zine or some such), but you’d never get paid for it, not by the New Yorker, not by Rolling Stone, or Spin, et al. You need to express (or feign) some interest in all (or anyway, most) of what’s going on. The irony being, of course, that it’s more impossible than ever to do so, given the infinite glut of genres, sub-genres, etc.
A sampling (not comprehensive, possibly more to come, etc.) of critical responses to Out of the Vinyl Deeps, the new Ellen Willis anthology, interjected on occasion with a few thoughts from yours truly as one possible way of overcoming the perpetual writers block which has thus far prevented me from laying down my own actual thoughts on the thing:
Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly: “Willis writes with a directness and utter lack of fan gush, and her observations sound as fresh, as appropriate to the present music scene, as they did decades ago. Her 1971 criticism of pop music’s tendency toward ‘a tedious worship of technical proficiency’ is as apt now about ‘American Idol’ and The Voiceas it was then.” (Hmm, I’d quibble a nibble re: her “utter lack of fan gush”; rather, I’d suggest that her gushing — which, granted, is far from her signature style — doesn’t cancel her hard-as-nails critique. I might even suggest that when it does rear its head it actually enhances it.)
In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross, after quoting Willis on Dylan, writes: “What’s wonderful about this passage is that Willis expresses admiration for her subject without coming anywhere near idolatry. Indeed, she frames him in a feminist perspective that might make a lot of male rock fans uncomfortable. Yet she doesn’t take him to pieces, either. She simply sees right through him. The political-cultural insight is indivisible from the lyrical-musical insight.” (“Admiration for her subject without coming anywhere near idolatry…” Again, I’m struggling a bit with that. “Idolatry,” I sort of get, though only if you limit the word “idolatry” to people. In other words, it’s true that Willis never comes across as merely idolizing Dylan and Lou Reed — but is she not entirely enraptured by the best of their work? Maybe I’d be more accepting of “idolatry” here if it were preceded by the word “blind” or “thoughtless” — in short, yes, I’m being extremely nitpicky. “Admiration,” on the other hand, just does not suffice. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t come away reading Willis on Dylan or the Velvets or Creedence with the sense that she simply “admires” their work; there’s far more passion in her critique than that, no?)
Some good thoughts on Willis’s “easy voice” by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd: “Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music… is a revelation, both for her staunchly feminist viewpoint and for the sheer pleasure of reading her work. She writes with a cogent intellectual urgency, yet balances it with an easy voice that is utterly open and congenial. The most important trait for any cultural critic is that the reader gets the sense they’re being honest, and truthfulness is one of Willis’s greatest strengths. Whereas some music critics write like they want to impose their opinion, Willis wrote like she wanted to have a conversation.”
Nitsuh Abebe in his “Why We Fight” column in Pitchfork: “It’s also that she writes about shows, nights out, and conversations; about dancing in her apartment, talking over Bowie, and watching people throw paper at one another before a Who show. In one column, she deploys the following (weirdly thrilling) sentence: ‘The concert was fun.’ The overall effect is as if you’d spent these years abroad and out of touch, periodically receiving boxes of vinyl — and passionate, luminous letters about the music inside — from the friend you used to obsess over records with before you left.”
In NPR, Ann Powers makes similar observations: “Most important, Willis wrote like someone who lived in a body. Her reviews are peppered with scenes of her standing on theater seats, dancing in her bedroom, or having a flash of insight while waiting for her clothes at the laundromat. She wrote about laughing, and having doubts… Willis made sure her mental footwork was easy to follow, and that’s what makes Out of the Vinyl Deeps so relevant. Post-Internet, everybody’s a critic, but the best writers know that what matters isn’t showing off, but starting a conversation that feels relevant and real. Pick up her book, and you just might discover a voice you’ve been ready to love for years.”
Sasha Frere-Jones, who writes the foreword to the book, engages in a Q&A about Willis: “No other pop critic has ever seemed so unbiddable. There was no ‘liking’ a performer or an album — everything on the table was an idea or a feeling or project that Willis wanted to measure, to assess which bits worked and which didn’t. The variables were of more interest to her than the people or the recordings. I never found that cold; I found it liberating. The ecstatic feelings music gave me were never going to make their way onto a piece of paper.” (Hmm, similar to what Ross and Tucker are saying above, that last line loses me, though partly it loses me because I’m not certain if Frere-Jones is suggesting that that is Willis’s modus operandi, or his own. Regardless, getting your “ecstatic feelings” “onto a piece of paper” — um, that’s kind of my definition of one of the things all great criticism does.) (And actually, on a similar note, one thing I noticed while reading OOTVD — and should have taken a proper tally of — was Willis’s propensity to use drug metaphors to describe her personal experiences with and feelings about rock, i.e., she would sometimes note that certain shows or records made her feel “high.”)
A terrific quote about Willis, which Frere-Jones puts in his foreword to the book (and which praises the “ecstatic” bent of E.W.’s work!). The quote is from Willis’s longtime friend, Karen Durbin: “Ellen was that wondrous creature, an intellectual who deeply valued sensuality, which is why she wrote with such insight about rock and roll but also with such love. She respected the sensual; in a fundamentally puritanical culture, she honored it. She saw how it could be a path to transcendence and liberation, especially for women, who, when we came out into the world in the early to midsixties, were relentlessly sexualized and just as relentlessly shamed. Rock and roll broke that chain: it was the place where we could be sexual and ecstatic about it. Our lives were saved by that fine, fine music, and that’s a fact.”