Monday , May 20 2024
Two reissued books feature some of the best essays of rock critic and social observer Ellen Willis.

Book Review: Beginning To See The Light: Sex, Hope and Rock-and-Roll and No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays by Ellen Willis

Ellen Willis (1948-2006) was a rock critic I read as often as possible. As a young man looking for insightful reviews of new releases, her byline was one that I grew to trust. This was mostly in the ’70s, in the pages of Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and various anthologies. The University of Minnesota Press reissued Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music last year. This year, they have reissued two more of her compilations, No More Nice Girls and Beginning to See the Light. Out of the Vinyl Deeps was focused squarely on music. Beginning To See The Light features music essays, plus some in a more sociological vein. No More Nice Girls is almost purely “issue” oriented.

Beginning to See the Light was originally published by Wideview Press in 1982. In 1992, it was reissued by Wesleyan University Press, with a new introduction, and new footnotes. I found it highly commendable that she decided to leave the articles intact, as originally published, using the footnotes to express how her views had changed on particular phrasings and topics over the years. The temptation must have incredibly strong to change things at times. For example, in a piece written in 1968 about Bob Dylan, she had made a statement that by 1992 she regarded as “absurd.”

The full title of the first entry is Beginning to See the Light: Sex Hope, and Rock-And-Roll. As indicated, there is a great deal of music addressed in the book. In fact, about half of it is devoted to reviews, and discussions of major artists. “Beginning to See the Light” is the title of a song from the third Velvet Underground album, and one of the most intriguing articles in the book is about that band. As I previously mentioned, one of the great things about reading Ellen’s pieces all these years later are her takes on contemporary entertainment.

“See America First: Easy Rider and Alice’s Restaurant” is a perfect example. For various reasons, Easy Rider has gone down as a landmark film, while Alice’s Restaurant is almost completely forgotten. “Alice’s Restaurant” was the LP side-long title song of Arlo Guthrie’s debut album, which was then turned into a pretty awful movie. It is a lot of fun to read Ellen’s comparisons between the two, and her spot-on observations about how the “chicks” are so one-dimensionally portrayed.

Her deconstruction of Tom Wolfe’s books, Elvis in Vegas, and The Who make for excellent reading as well. Ellen moves much more into a “Personal is political” stance in the latter chapters of the book. Essays include two on abortion, and one titled “Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography.” Her thoughts on these topics remain highly intriguing.

No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays was initially published in 1992 by Wesleyan University Press. These articles were written from the period of 1981 to 1992. Ellen was no longer interested in writing about music by this point, except for a few references, this is mostly a collection of “feminist” (her word) pieces. Her concerns became much more about the role of women in society, than of reviewing the latest record or movie.

Actually, Ellen’s topics go much further than simply those of women in society. Most of these pieces were written in Reagan’s ’80s, and she had strong feelings about the cultural move to the right in general. It is interesting to note just how strong her stance had become, especially in relation to Beginning to See the Light. In the earlier collection, there is an interesting article written in 1977, where she has decided that the ’70s had ended, and the 80’s had already begun.

I’m sure that in 1977, with Nixon out of office, and the leading edge of the Boomers now past the magic age of 30, a thought like that must have felt valid. In 1977, nobody could imagine what was next. Carter may have been a disappointment to many, but for an avowed “radical left-winger” the rise of Reagan/Bush was keenly disappointing.

The “War on Drugs” is given ample consideration, as is a well-written piece discussing Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The majority of No More Nice Girls focuses on feminist issues though. Articles such as “Toward A Feminist Sexual Revolution,” “Putting Women Back In The Abortion Debate,” and “Feminism Without Freedom” are pretty self-explanatory.

For a man to review such pieces is a little difficult. Ellen certainly gets her points across, and I sympathize a great deal with what she has to say. But it would be dishonest for me to say I can fully relate, for obvious reasons. I can say that these are some of the strongest essays I have read of hers, and they are thought-provoking to say the least. The essays in No More Nice Girls are much more expansive than the earlier, music-focused ones were.

Now that the University of Minnesota has issued three of Ellen’s finest anthologies, we are afforded an excellent opportunity to evaluate her writing over the course of 30 years. She covered a lot of ground, beginning with rock, and its place in the culture. In later years, she had moved away from popular culture, and much further into deeper sociological concerns.

You could say it is a bit of a journey, and one that is presented for us in a very convenient way to follow. As a writer whose works appeared in weekly, or monthly essays, the growth of Ellen Willis may not have been as noticeable at the time as it is in these books. I am a fan, and as such, recommend all three of the books. There really is something for everyone in them–she was a writer with strong opinions, and these collections are a rare treat.

About Greg Barbrick

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