It is almost cliche that I am reading E.J. Dionne's…
If you care at all about Rock & Roll or Pop music you should read Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music. If you ever subscribed to Spin or Rolling Stone you should read Out of the Vinyl Deeps. If you ever searched for most of your adult-life for a smart, female perspective on being a Rock & Roll fan and all but gave up on it, you should read this book.
To say Out of the Vinyl Deeps changed my life sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. I don’t listen to music the same way after reading Ellen Willis. And I definitely don’t read music criticism the same way.
For those who have no idea (like me), Willis was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker from 1968 to 1975. She was a contemporary of Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus. The fact that her name doesn’t roll as easily off the tongues of rock fans everywhere as those other names is a damn crime. On a personal level I feel like it’s a crime that I’ve had to wait thirty-nine years to discover the genius of Ellen Willis. Thirty-nine long years where I actually begged everyone I know, and most of the Internet for rock and roll writing from a female perspective.
It is really hard for me to write about this book and what it was like reading it without breaking into tears. Reading it filled a hole in me that was much more profound than I thought. Ellen Willis’ writing put a social, cultural, and, most importantly, feminist perspective on Rock & Roll that my soul needed. I didn’t realize how much, until I finished.
Take this for instance from a 1971 piece:
When rock was taken over by upper-middle-class bohemians, it inherited a whole new set of contradictions between protest and privilege. The new musicians are elite dropouts and, as such, tend to feel superior not only to women but to just about everyone. Their sexism is smugger and cooler, less a product of misdirected frustration, most a simple assumption of power consistent with the rest of their self-image.
How can you not weep. Have you ever seen a paragraph like that about rock music coming from anyone? Ever? I haven’t. Granted, I gave up on rock writing a long time ago. I’ve had my fill of Chuck Klosterman, Steve Almond, Rick Sheffield, and Pitchfork kinds of rock writing. Basically I’m sick of hearing what privileged white men have to say about, well frankly, most anything.
If there are women writing like Willis about today’s rock music please let me know. I will start up the fanclub immediately.
The essays in Out of the Vinyl Deeps cover the late sixties and early seventies music scene: Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Velvet Underground, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, and The Sex Pistols. And unlike so much writing today it’s not fawning “OMG DYLAN!” it’s an actual, critical, thinking person’s look at what the music means and what it says about the person/people who created it.
What you won’t find is a ton of female musicians which is more a reflection of the time than of Willis’ preferences. She goes in search of women rockers and does a piece on an ill-fated women’s music fest as well as a long-forgotten woman named Miss Clawdy.
One of things I really admired about Willis’ essays is that she was a genuine fan the way so many of us are fans. She talks about ridiculous ticket prices (which granted seem positively dreamy now. At one point she talked about how $3 was reasonable to see The Grateful Dead and Joe Cocker but not “proletarian”), and poor sound, and lyrics. She never talks about being a fan like, say, Steve Almond does as he drives out to hang with Dave Grohl. You know?
She writes about how at 33 Elvis is the “grand old man” of rock & roll, how Carly Simon arouses her class antagonism, and how despite the sexism in punk rock, she loves it.
I often joke about how I keep a copy of Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help under my pillow so I can read “How to Become a Writer” whenever I need it. This Ellen Willis book is going under the pillow too.
(and it’s only a joke in so much as the book doesn’t go under my pillow but rather on the floor next to my bed)