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.
No wonder Willis stopped writing about music when everything circled around on repeat cycle. Ellen Willis was never afraid to take on critical sacred cows either. While professing her adoration for the talent of Lou Reed in one such piece, she then goes on to tell us that Transformer basically sucked. She goes one better in reviewing a 1974 Bruce Springsteen concert. While generally praising the show, Willis mentions that parts of the two and a half hour concert were boring. This she attributes to him as “not being a very good songwriter.”
This is criticism, and by definition subjective — but Bruce being not much of a songwriter? That’s a tough one to swallow. Again, it is through Ellen Willis’ determination to say what she believes — no matter what, that makes her work so endearing. Out Of The Vinyl Deeps is a long-overdue collection of some of her best writing, and shows why she has always belonged in the pantheon with the greats.
To those of us who were influenced by the big names of the “golden era” of rock writers, Willis has been overshadowed a bit by some of the more famous scribes. It was primarily a male domain, with legends such as Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and Robert Christgau leading the pack.
Christgau was in fact Willis’ first husband. At a memorial for her in 2007 he had this to say: “Ellen was one of the few people I’ve ever known who I’d say unequivocally was smarter than me.” High praise indeed from the self-anointed “Dean Of American Rock Critics.”
Thankfully, all of these articles are reprinted exactly as they appeared, with explanatory footnotes thrown in to explain some early, embarrassing word choices such as “girls” and “Negros.” These two unfortunate incidents occur in her Dylan treatise for the defunct Cheetah, published in 1967. Reading through Out Of The Vinyl Deeps, one sees the development and growth of a writer who had a great deal to say.
There are a number of reasons to read this book, but maybe the simplest is just to see what it was like when people were actually passionate about music. Ellen Willis certainly was, and Out Of The Vinyl Deeps contains some powerful examples of the reasons why.