As the very first “pop music” critic for The New Yorker magazine, Ellen Willis (1941 - 2006) was one of the founders of modern rock criticism. Her “Rock, Etc.” column debuted in 1968, and had a distinct edge to it. In 1976 she became Rolling Stone’s first female managing editor, and wrote for other outlets until her “retirement” from music in 1981. For the next 25 years Willis wrote about a number of topics, but only rarely revisited the music world. This is probably the reason she is not as well remembered as other critics of the era, a situation Out Of The Vinyl Deeps seeks to rectify.
The book focuses solely on her work as a rock journalist, and was edited by daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz. One of the notable aspects of Willis’ writing was how she managed to tackle various topics in the context of a music article. Aronowitz has grouped the 59 essays into six topics: Before The Flood; The Adoring Fan; The Sixties Child; The Feminist; The Navigator; and The Sociologist.
Willis focused a great deal of attention on the political and sociological aspects of the artists. The Rolling Stones were a perennial favorite, and every time they rolled out across America she was there to cover it. Dylan was another subject of serious attention. What I found most compelling, though, was her reporting on the also-rans.
In article after article, Willis found great things to say about third billed acts who never made it past the starting gun — yet she would present them as if they were already stars. Another intriguing thing about reading a collection of essays published mainly in the '70s is how the events of the day informed her responses.
In a piece written over 40 years ago about Woodstock, she talks about the hopelessly unhip Sha Na Na as not belonging there. What nobody saw at the time was that Sha Na Na represented something that would haunt the music world forever. Nostalgia for the recent past. We saw this to a ridiculous degree in the eighties, especially with the CD reissue campaigns stating: “It was 20 years ago today.” In the '90s, the '70s became incredibly cool somehow, and today we are supposed to be reverent to all things '80s. I am certain that the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys and N’Sync revival is just around the corner.