The Reading Life: Ellen Willis, rocking the rock music boat

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

I’ve long considered Ellen Willis something of a hero. I hope I live longer than she did (Willis died in 2006, at 64), but otherwise, it’s an exemplary life. She was the first pop music critic of the New Yorker, writing 56 pieces for the magazine from 1968 to 1975 that trace her relationship with “music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated ... [and] challenged me to do the same.”

In the mid-1970s, she began to focus less on music and more on feminism and her own stunning brand of liberation politics, becoming an editor and writer at the Village Voice and later founding the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU. Her writing is rigorous, unrelenting, in your face: not in the sense of mindless provocation but because she was so smart. “Students and colleagues fondly describe her as shy,” recalled Robert Christgau in a 2007 tribute, “but she wasn’t shy — she was thinking, and ignoring you.”

Willis understood that criticism — at least as practiced in a publication such as the New Yorker — was equal parts service journalism and cultural commentary, requiring her to connect to the commercial demands of her readers (Should I buy this record? Should I pay attention to this band?) while also transcending them. Her music writing is remarkable for never losing sight of this duality, which is the duality at the heart of pop.

“What cultural revolutionaries do not seem to grasp,” she wrote in “The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning,” a September 1969 report on Woodstock, “is that, far from being a grass-roots art form that has been taken over by businessmen, rock itself comes from the commercial exploitation of the blues. It is bourgeois at its core, a mass-produced commodity, dependent on advanced technology and therefore on the money controlled by those in power.”

Four decades later, we take it for granted, this idea of rock’s commodification, but Willis is after something deeper: to call out, even celebrate, rock’s contradictions, its inherent blend of commercialization and ecstasy. “You think it’s funny,” Joe Strummer sang in 1977, “turning rebellion into money.” And yet for Willis, there’s nothing funny about it, since what Strummer’s getting at is rock ‘n’ roll’s most fundamental tension: the quixotic desire to make revolution (cultural or otherwise) one product at a time.

“The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning” is one of 59 pieces in “Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music” (University of Minnesota Press: 232 pp., $22.95. paper), all but 12 from the New Yorker. Edited by Willis’ daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, it is, in the words of current New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones, “like finding a missing Beatles album” — a result of both its engagement with its moment and the acuity of Willis’ eye.

A sense of debate, of dialectic, drives “Out of the Vinyl Deeps,” even when Willis is arguing with herself. Here she is, for instance, on Janis Joplin’s band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, and the rise of the cult of musicianship, which she decries as antithetical to rock ‘n’ roll’s populist roots: “I was a Big Brother fan. I thought they were better musicians than their detractors claimed, but more to the point, technical accomplishment was not something I cared about. I thought it was an ominous sign that so many people did care, including Janis. It was, in fact, a sign that the tenuous alliance between mass culture and bohemianism ... was breaking down.”

It’s a straightforward riff, echoed throughout these pages, as Willis wrestles with another of rock’s abiding paradoxes, that of a trash aesthetic that aspires to art. Yet even as she frames her argument, Willis explores her own contradictions as a critic and a fan. If, in the former role, she regrets that Joplin left Big Brother, in the latter she recognizes the difficult position in which the singer found herself.

“Joplin’s metamorphosis from the ugly duckling of Port Arthur to the peacock of Haight-Ashbury,” Willis tells us, “meant, among other things, that a woman who was not conventionally pretty, who had acne and an intermittent weight problem and hair that stuck out, could not only invent her own beauty ... out of sheer energy, soul sweetness, arrogance, and a sense of humor, but have that beauty appreciated.”

Such an observation is telling, both because of what it means for Willis (“It was seeing Janis Joplin,” she admits, “that made me resolve, once and for all, not to get my hair straightened”) and because by sharing it, she opens herself, and us, to Joplin’s vulnerability. “After the split with Big Brother,” she writes, “Janis retrenched considerably, perhaps because she simply couldn’t maintain that level of intensity, perhaps for other reasons that would have become clear if she had lived. My uncertainty on this point makes me hesitate to be too dogmatic about my conviction that leaving Big Brother was a mistake.”

My uncertainty on this point makes me hesitate? It’s with these eight words that we move out of the realm of service journalism and into the realm of art.

As to why that matters, it’s all here also, in the commitment Willis brought to both the music and her work. This is what keeps “Out of the Vinyl Deeps” from being a nostalgia trip. For those who know the music, it’s fun to see Willis wrestle with Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, the Beatles and David Bowie and the Who. But it is more fun — and infinitely more important — to see her wrestle with herself.