More Half-formed Thoughts About Willis, Nelson, Early Eighties, Shipwrecks, Things Dying, etc.

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?)

2 thoughts on “More Half-formed Thoughts About Willis, Nelson, Early Eighties, Shipwrecks, Things Dying, etc.

  1. “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?”

    The easy answer to this question, perhaps so damnably easy that it cannot possibly be true, on the one hand, and equally obviously has to be true, on the other, is simply that criticism did what it has always done, it followed the style of the music it was covering.
    Jazz critics of the fifties lifted the language and attitudes of the musicians and, of course, the writers of ROCK in capital letters did the same from ’69 – when Creem/Stone/Circus took over from SingOut/Crawdaddy/Downbeat and ’77… when Dave first became truly “Bruced” and, not coincidentally, the society that had both created and supported such cultural commentaries as the BIG national rockmags grew up, got jobs and committments and were not replaced with a reasonable facsimile. Punk didn’t fill the same footsteps.. punkers didn’t buy glossymags and glossy was the goose with the golden eggs in the 70’s and ’80’s. Rock writers became REAL writers.. with book deals and titles and actual expenses that were sufficient to allow a sense of importance. Writers became a part of the machinery, but kept the same audience.. the same people who had read the pieces on their own culture had taken their culture to the mainstream and so the writers followed.
    Music in the Eighties, left little to say, little to assess and critique, it just feckin’ WAS.. words became solely designed to sell and resell…
    I don’t say that there were NO real writers, still writing about Music… but the playing field had changed, not just it’s size and shape, but it’s purpose in the grand scheme of art for money’s sake. The writers who had true skill, real talent and, most importantly a NEED to write about the muse that hit their ears, were all still there, but the process of presentation changed.. the forum became fragmented and less centralised.
    And so, the writings became less visible – but they were actually still there, always there. It’s not so much that they got off the boat, as that the boat docked and they caught a flight….

    or at least, that’s my opinion.

  2. Hmm, if I re-positioned your opening statement somewhat, I think I can arrive at a partial answer. Rather than saying rock critics “followed the style of the music” (which leads to the obvious question, *what* style? In the very least the word “style” should be pluralized), I might say instead that “rock critics simply followed the rest of the audience.” Some stayed, many got off the boat, though mostly it wasn’t an either-or situation. In other words, of all those folks camped out at Woodstock in ’69, how many of them were still buying loads of new records in 1980, 1984? I would guess (and it truly is a guess) that most of that generation maintained some level of interest in pop music for years to come, but only for a small percentage did it remain a lifeforce. (And I shouldn’t suggest, as I probably do in my post, that Nelson and Willis entirely dropped out. Willis revisited rock in her writing on a few occasions after 1980, Nelson did some work in the ’90s for Musician.)

    I love the term “Bruced.”

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