Ellen Willis might have been the best rock music critic in American history, though she mostly stopped writing about music in 1980. It’s understandable—critics burn out, and the late ‘70s were a famously bad time for rock ’n’ roll. But it’s also tempting to wonder what she must have thought of the decades that followed. What would she have said about New Wave, about grunge, about the riot grrrl movement?
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Rock fans are lucky we had her for as long as we did though. Willis, who died in 2006, was a flawless writer, and it’s unbelievable rock-nerd fun to thumb through Out of the Vinyl Deeps, a collection of her writings about pop music. Comprised mostly of her pieces from The New Yorker, where she was the magazine’s first rock critic, this new book is an instant classic of American music writing.
Compiled and edited by journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz, Willis’ daughter, Out of the Vinyl Deeps spans the critic’s career in music writing, which was mostly from 1967 to 1981. (A few later essays are included; Willis’ writing after 1981 was mostly about feminism and political theory.) The first essay included is her now-famous 1967 piece “Dylan,” still one of the best essays ever written about the iconic singer-songwriter. As good as it is it only gets better from there.
Willis was a fan but a conflicted one. She was an early feminist, but also a fan of the Rolling Stones, a band never known for their enlightened attitudes toward women. (She calls Mick Jagger “the Stanley Kowalski of rock,” which is about right.) She appreciated the Sex Pistols, but couldn’t help noticing that “if the punks make sex an obscenity, they make love an embarrassment.”
It’s hard to come away from this book without thinking that Willis might have thought more, and more originally, about rock music than anyone else of her era. Bob Dylan seems to have particularly thrown her for a loop, but she’s done a better job than pretty much anyone of trying to figure the singer out. In “Dylan,” she concedes that “it would be foolish to figure out what he will do next. But I hope he will remain a mediator, using the language of pop to transcend it…In a communications crisis, the true prophets are the translators.”
As smart as she was, she was also unbelievably funny, which comes as a relief—the (mostly male) rock critics of her generation were known for a lot of things, and self-seriousness was definitely one of them. Willis is serious, of course, but she still knew how to have fun with language. Even if you’re a fan, it’s hard not to laugh when she writes that Simon & Garfunkel “appealed to kids who hadn’t read much poetry but knew what it was supposed to be about”; or when she notes that Elvis Presley’s unbearably maudlin “In the Ghetto” “was a No. 1 hit—except in the ghetto”; or when she (accurately) describes Randy Newman as “a weirdo—the straight man for a black comedy team that consists of him and his subconscious.”
Out of the Vinyl Deeps is much more than the sum of its parts—not just because it’s organized beautifully by editor Willis Aronowitz, but because the pieces, gathered together, form a kind of personal history of the pop music of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s essential reading not just for rock fans, but for fans of any kind of nonfiction. If the true prophets are indeed the translators, then Willis was a translator, too, as well as a pioneer. Rock music writing is better today because Ellen Willis existed.
Michael Schaub is the managing editor of Bookslut and a frequent contributor to NPR.org. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. A native of Texas, he now lives in Portland, Ore.
Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
By Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, 272 Pages, $22.95
Released May 1, 2011