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In 1968, the New Yorker hired Ellen Willis as its first popular music critic. Her column, Rock, Etc., ran for seven years and established Willis as a leader in cultural commentary and a pioneer in the nascent and otherwise male-dominated field of rock criticism. As a writer for a magazine with a circulation of nearly half a million, Willis was also the country’s most widel In 1968, the New Yorker hired Ellen Willis as its first popular music critic. Her column, Rock, Etc., ran for seven years and established Willis as a leader in cultural commentary and a pioneer in the nascent and otherwise male-dominated field of rock criticism. As a writer for a magazine with a circulation of nearly half a million, Willis was also the country’s most widely read rock critic. With a voice at once sharp, thoughtful, and ecstatic, she covered a wide range of artists—Bob Dylan, The Who, Van Morrison, Elvis Presley, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joni Mitchell, the Velvet Underground, Sam and Dave, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Wonder—assessing their albums and performances not only on their originality, musicianship, and cultural impact but also in terms of how they made her feel. Because Willis stopped writing about music in the early 1980s—when, she felt, rock ’n’ roll had lost its political edge—her significant contribution to the history and reception of rock music has been overshadowed by contemporary music critics like Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, and Dave Marsh. Out of the Vinyl Deeps collects for the first time Willis’s Rock, Etc. columns and her other writings about popular music from this period (includingliner notes for works by Lou Reed and Janis Joplin) and reasserts her rightful place in rock music criticism. More than simply setting the record straight, Out of the Vinyl Deeps reintroduces Willis’s singular approach and style—her use of music to comment on broader social and political issues, critical acuity, vivid prose, against-the-grain opinions, and distinctly female (and feminist) perspective—to a new generation of readers. Featuring essays by the New Yorker’s current popular music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, and cultural critics Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy, this volume also provides a lively and still relevant account of rock music during, arguably, its most innovative period.


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In 1968, the New Yorker hired Ellen Willis as its first popular music critic. Her column, Rock, Etc., ran for seven years and established Willis as a leader in cultural commentary and a pioneer in the nascent and otherwise male-dominated field of rock criticism. As a writer for a magazine with a circulation of nearly half a million, Willis was also the country’s most widel In 1968, the New Yorker hired Ellen Willis as its first popular music critic. Her column, Rock, Etc., ran for seven years and established Willis as a leader in cultural commentary and a pioneer in the nascent and otherwise male-dominated field of rock criticism. As a writer for a magazine with a circulation of nearly half a million, Willis was also the country’s most widely read rock critic. With a voice at once sharp, thoughtful, and ecstatic, she covered a wide range of artists—Bob Dylan, The Who, Van Morrison, Elvis Presley, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joni Mitchell, the Velvet Underground, Sam and Dave, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Wonder—assessing their albums and performances not only on their originality, musicianship, and cultural impact but also in terms of how they made her feel. Because Willis stopped writing about music in the early 1980s—when, she felt, rock ’n’ roll had lost its political edge—her significant contribution to the history and reception of rock music has been overshadowed by contemporary music critics like Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, and Dave Marsh. Out of the Vinyl Deeps collects for the first time Willis’s Rock, Etc. columns and her other writings about popular music from this period (includingliner notes for works by Lou Reed and Janis Joplin) and reasserts her rightful place in rock music criticism. More than simply setting the record straight, Out of the Vinyl Deeps reintroduces Willis’s singular approach and style—her use of music to comment on broader social and political issues, critical acuity, vivid prose, against-the-grain opinions, and distinctly female (and feminist) perspective—to a new generation of readers. Featuring essays by the New Yorker’s current popular music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, and cultural critics Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy, this volume also provides a lively and still relevant account of rock music during, arguably, its most innovative period.

30 review for Out of the Vinyl Deeps: On Rock Music

  1. 4 out of 5

    Distress Strauss

    Before reading this book, I was fairly certain Ellen Willis was my favorite music critic, and now, having experienced her work in the genre in concentrated form, I can say that, groundbreaking as it may be, she isn't. For one thing, she isn't a music critic at all -- she's a rock critic (which she would surely cop to). Her tastes, filtered through the folk precociousness of her adolescence, with its emphasis on MEANING, is as status quo as her politics were radical -- her Bible is Stones, Dylan, Before reading this book, I was fairly certain Ellen Willis was my favorite music critic, and now, having experienced her work in the genre in concentrated form, I can say that, groundbreaking as it may be, she isn't. For one thing, she isn't a music critic at all -- she's a rock critic (which she would surely cop to). Her tastes, filtered through the folk precociousness of her adolescence, with its emphasis on MEANING, is as status quo as her politics were radical -- her Bible is Stones, Dylan, Joplin, Creedence, Velvets (whom weren't popular at the time, but all the NYC kiddie brainacs liked them back then), Stones and more Stones (she's not afraid to tweak the Beatles, who, for her purposes, were mostly pop, not rock, anyway). Though this collection covers most of her pieces for the New Yorker, I can only recall a single black artist written about: Stevie Wonder who was, of course, Stones-approved. She understood irony but, at the time, didn't really get its conceptual use, so she embraces Midler, but disregards Bowie. And she finds Jagger's increasingly mannered approach problematic. Willis was a sensualist who understood the somatic affect of music-as-music, but she relies heavily on lyrics to explain the work, although the way she repeats certain fragments over the years suggests that they often had a totemic, more than an intellectual, impact upon her. Perhaps it's the New Yorker editing style, but her writing can be clinical, if rarely detached. She can summon a fan's excitement during an analysis, but not with the hyperverbal aplomb of Lester Bangs. She can parse significance, but not with the linguistic specificity of Robert Christgau (the two essentially mentored one another in their twenties). What she was great at was holding up her own cultural prejudices for reflection and understanding their social weight, using the self-interrogation techniques of Seventies Feminism (I'm sure her participation in encounter groups furthered this aspect of her writing) -- the strongest piece in the book is the one in which she embraces Punk despite its misogyny. She understood earlier than her peers that it was precisely the mix of adolescent violence forged with adolescent privilege that gave rock the conflict and diversity for a social revolution that never happened (Bangs never quite got that class conflict means more than one class gets involved). Youth movement meant youth. To that extent, rock was always a means to an end (though not only one), and it's no surprise that when that end became frayed, she mostly stopped writing about it. And leaving this juvenilia, and her youth, behind, became a stronger writer and thinker.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Bruce

    I have strong ambivalence about this book... attract/repel, really. Attract, because most of these collected essays are so short (about 2-3 pages on average) that the book was easy enough to grab whenever I had a few minutes to kill. Repel, because so many of the essays sounded full of, in Willis’ words, “the worst kind of pretentious nonsense,” a baleful reminder of my own bloviating tendencies. Vinyl Deeps largely consists of Willis’ New Yorker articles on rock from the late ‘60s to mid-’70s. A I have strong ambivalence about this book... attract/repel, really. Attract, because most of these collected essays are so short (about 2-3 pages on average) that the book was easy enough to grab whenever I had a few minutes to kill. Repel, because so many of the essays sounded full of, in Willis’ words, “the worst kind of pretentious nonsense,” a baleful reminder of my own bloviating tendencies. Vinyl Deeps largely consists of Willis’ New Yorker articles on rock from the late ‘60s to mid-’70s. And while they may be the sort of diverting snack reading you’d flip to for a quick shot of pop-crit, they fail collectively in so many ways: for starters, they barely skim the surface of pop music in the given time period (Willis spills nearly all of her ink following the releases and live performances of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Velvet Underground); they concern themselves more with social scenes, settings, and politics than musicality (something which she declares herself unqualified to discuss in certain cases at p. 82); and for all her bluster, they remain fairly light on information content. Stylistically, Willis’ rock essays are rich mines of dialectic, especially her longer pieces on Dylan and the Velvets. Just for funsies, I’ll quote two typical paragraphs from one of her longer articles, placing my commentary as endnotes so you can draw your own independent conclusions before subjecting you to mine. But do let’s compare and see if we share the same take. The Who, the Velvets, and the new wave bands… shared… conception of rock-and-roll; their basic aesthetic assumptions have little to do with what is popularly known as “art rock.” The notion of rock-as-art inspired by Dylan’s conversion to the electric guitar -- the idea of making rock-and-roll more musically and lyrically complex, of combining elements of jazz, folk, classical, and avant-garde music with a rock beat, of creating “rock opera” and “rock poetry” -- was from the rock-and-roll fan’s perspective a dubious one.[1] At best it stimulated a vital and imaginative eclecticism that spread the values of rock-and-roll even as it diffused and diluted them.[2] At worst it rationalized a form of cultural upward mobility, concerned with achieving the appearance and pretensions of art rather than the reality -- the point being to “improve” rock-and-roll by making it palatable to the upper middle class. Either way, it submerged rock-and-roll in something more amorphous and high-toned called rock.[3] But from the early sixties (Phil Spector was the first major example) there was a countertradition in rock-and-roll that had much more in common with “high” art -- in particular avant-garde art -- than the ballyhooed art-rock syntheses: it involved more or less consciously using the basic formal canons of rock-and-roll as material (much as the pop artists used mass art in general) and refining, elaborating, playing off that material to produce what might be called rock-and-roll art.[4] While art rock was implicitly based on the claim that rock-and-roll was or could be as worthy as more established art forms, rock-and-roll art came out of an obsessive commitment to the language of rock-and-roll and an equally obsessive disdain for those who rejected that language or wanted it watered down, made easier.[5] In the sixties the best rock often worked both ways: the special virtue of sixties culture was its capacity for blurring boundaries, transcending contradictions, pulling off everything at once. But in the seventies the two tendencies have increasingly polarized: while art rock has fulfilled its most philistine possibilities in kitsch like Yes (or, for that matter, Meat Loaf), the new wave has inherited the countertradition, which is both less popular and more conscious of itself as a tradition than it was a decade ago.... The Velvets were the first important rock-and-roll artists who had no real chance of attracting a mass audience. This was paradoxical. Rock-and-roll was a mass art, whose direct, immediate appeal to basic emotions subverted class and educational distinctions and whose formal canons all embodied the perception that mass art was not only possible but satisfying in new and liberating ways. Insofar as it incorporates the elite, formalist values of the avant-garde, the very idea of rock-and-roll art rests on a contradiction. Its greatest exponents -- the Beatles, the Stones, and (especially) the Who -- undercut the contradiction by making the surface of their music deceptively casual, then demolished it by reaching millions of kids.[6] But the Velvets’ music was too overtly intellectual, stylized, and distanced to be commercial. Like pop art, which was very much a part of the Velvet’s world, it was antiart art made by antielite elitists. Lou Reed’s aesthete-punk persona, which had as its obvious precedent in the avant-garde tradition of artist-as-criminal-as-outlaw, was also paradoxical in the context of rock-and-roll. The prototypical rock-and-roll punk was the (usually white) working-class kid hanging out on the corner with his (it was usually his) pals; by middle-class and/or adult standards he might be a f*ck-off, a hell-raiser, even a delinquent, but he was not really sinister or criminal. Reed’s punk was closer to that bohemian (and usually black) hero, the hipster: he wore shades, took hard drugs, engaged in various forms of polymorphous perversity; he didn’t just hang out on the corner, he lived out on the street, and he was a loner.[7] (pp. 55-56)Shoot me now, right? It always seems like the common space of every dorm has someone like this, an overcaffeinated know-it-all holding forth, monologuing for hours without really saying anything. Do you mind taking your beery mitts off the foosball table? My buddies and I were hoping to play a game. Yet Willis continues to mistake and monopolize it for a lectern, ultimately annotating and rearranging the running order of the tracks on the eponymous Velvet Underground album to make the case for it as “the punk-aesthete’s” Pilgrim’s Progress. (Cos, you know, Ulysses was already taken by Morrison... Jim or Van, I can’t remember, it’s a smoky haze to me now.) The book’s not all groaners, though. Her touting of Elvis in Vegas as an epitome of Warholesque chic is great. Likewise her pithy debunking of the Woodstock experience is evocative and even-handed in taking on the logistical shortcomings of the organizers (latrines and clean water, anyone? how about some semblance of ticket-handling?). Her first-hand remembrances are vivid snapshots of the boggy woods, but with all her focus on the joys of communal camping, she has nothing to say about the music of Woodstock. Pete Townshend is the sole artist to put in an appearance, and that just to whack Abbie Hoffman upside the head with a guitar. Willis’ bundle of rock columns is sandwiched between four hagiographical essays by folks who are largely fans, friends, and former students. I suppose these were included not merely as padding, but also to help make the case to Dear Reader, should she not quite be ready to pronounce Willis an “important” voice on the strength of these articles alone. Suffice it to say that *I* wasn’t blown away. But c’mon, let’s call Deeps out for what it is. The book works fine as a rescued stack of ‘zine decor -- the kind you might strew about coffeehouse tables or idly browse in a guest bathroom. Why squeeze more out of it than that? (For those who would insist on squeezing more out of the book than that, my endnote complaints follow.) [1] Let’s stop here. Willis is asking us to swallow six impossible things before breakfast: (1) that the Who (who released studio recordings between 1966-1983), the Velvet Underground (three albums between 1967-1970), and unnamed “new wave” bands (ostensibly, radio-oriented pop music performed by punk-looking bands like the Police, Billy Idol, and the Clash and recorded between 1979-1985) all shared a singular artistic vision (yet to be defined, though arguably the discovery of reggae music may have had something to do with it if songs like “So Lonely,” “I Can’t Stand Losing You,” “Dancing with Myself,” and “Rock the Casbah” or “Straight to Hell” or “London Calling” are any indication); (2) that rock-and-roll, rock-as-art, and art-rock are each separate and distinct genres (though she has yet to define them); (3) that Bob Dylan’s move from acoustic to amplified guitar represented a “conversion” of some kind, as opposed to, say, continued growth and exploration; (4) that this in itself inspired or had anything to do with “rock opera” like Tommy as opposed to simply being part of widespread late ‘60’s experimentation with form (if related at all); (5) that “art rock” ought to be defined as any admixture of rock and other musical styles or increased musical or lyrical complexity (a statement so broad as to encompass virtually all forms of music, let alone rock); and (6) that all this cross-pollination was somehow unwelcome to fans, despite ever increasing popularity. What Willis really needs to do here is stop and define her terms, starting with whatever it is that she means by “rock-and-roll.” Is it a musical form (distinct from folk, pop, jazz, etc.), a lifestyle, an attitude? Who are legit “rock-and-rollers” and who are poseurs? How is sincerity measured or distinguished? Until she does, she’s just throwing words around. [2] This sentence contradicts itself; it is self-negating. [3] Here, Willis assumes a direct relationship between tastes for increased musical sophistication (nee complexity) and socio-economic status, though it’s not clear why this should be, especially given the pop art fad reigning among the cognoscenti (rich art collectors). Her very next sentence meaninglessly disjoints the verb ‘submerge’ (plunge beneath the surface of) with an adjective ‘high-toned,’ that if it means nothing else, certainly implies some altitude. She tops this all off by introducing the category ‘rock’ that she seems to want to distinguish from rock-and-roll. Now we’re off in Humpty Dumpty land, a place where words mean exactly whatever the speaker intends and can therefore communicate nothing at all to anyone else. [4] Phil Spector is perhaps best known as the producer whose “wall of sound” approach Paul McCartney felt destroyed The Long and Winding Road. I actually like Spector’s ouerve: the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, and especially Ike and Tina Turner. Then again, I was always a sucker for vast, swelling strings… even if they were always recorded in mono. But wait… aren’t swelling strings the apotheosis of classical-romantic cliché? Unless Willis regards cheesy schmaltz as avant-garde, I’d say she’s serving up more word salad. [5] Willis seems to be saying that “rock-and-roll art” is rock-and-roll in its purist, unadulterated form. Of course, we have no idea what that form is, or how it should be distinguished, just that it cannot be changed, change equaling dilution. She offers no examples here, but if she’s trying to make a case for Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground as a whole, recall that her own description of the Velvets’ signpost works involved the interpolation of a lot of industrial noise (feedback, metallic howls and scratches, and sudden loud bursts of static). To the extent that the avant-garde is defined by its rejection of traditional melody and harmony (think serial, aleatoric, and atonal music, as well as musique concrete’s overlayered noise), her labels would seem to amount merely to preferences. Willis likes the Velvets and likes rock-and-roll. She’s not big on musicianship per se and is skeptical of “art rock,” hence her distinction without a difference category of “rock-and-roll art.” But notice that in all of this, she still hasn’t really articulated what moves her about the Velvets, what she finds lacking in the output of other (and unnamed) contemporary art rockers, and why we readers should care. [6] Lots of empty words here… what is “deceptively” casual? Really formal, but casual in appearance? What’s that supposed to mean? And how does “reaching millions of kids” demolish, or have anything to do with musical structure (recognizing that the Beatles, Stones, and (especially) the Who were all over the map in terms of structure, ranging from 4- or 12-bar blues to the alternating verse-chorus of folks to the rigid 32-bar song form canonized in the late ‘20’s and 30’s Broadway, and on and on.Tommy and Quadrophenia are each a pastiche of different forms. The White Album is ridiculously varied (even including the musique concrete of “Revolution 9” because it was largely a double album comprised of songs written and produced independently by four different artists). Nearly all of the second side of Abbey Road is one long medley, and the Stones were R&B-influenced chameleons who went from Vietnam-era protest rock (“Sympathy for the Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” their cover of “War”) to disco (“Miss You,” “Emotional Rescue”) to children’s choir schmaltz (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”). [7] Not sure what ‘polymorphous perversity’ is, but I guess Willis’ view of avant-garde rebellion is primarily racist: avant-gardists are antisocial criminals (“usually black”). Well, that’s… offensive. Now when I think of musicians associated with the avant-garde from the time period in which Willis is writing (a music survey ranging from 1950-1980), I usually think of Elliot Carter, Cathy Berberian, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and Luciano Berio. Maybe early Sun Ra and his Arkestra, but then I suppose they might be categorized more in the free jazz mainstream. To me, Lou Reed's early style sounds exactly like Bob Dylan after Dylan gave up on trying to sing. In later years, his voice is a twin for Leonard Cohen's, much more derivative of Beat Generation spoken word performances like those of Gil Scott Heron, Allen Ginsberg, and other Kerouac followers (about which, check out the documentary One Fast Move or I'm Gone ), than anyone from the musical avant-garde. Nico just sounds to me like a husky Dusty Springfield. Incidentally, Willis' album exegesis of necessity recasts Velvet's soppy love song "I'll be Your Mirror," as a Jesus/Mary sin/salvation piece. Folks interested in its more mundane origins can see this revealing clip. It shouldn't be unsurprising to learn that artists tend to write first about that to which they are most immediately exposed. Everything else is our own accretion. Not to invalidate meaning added through other filters, but sometimes it's useful to reexperience the source material from the perspective of the original baggage.

  3. 5 out of 5

    blue-collar mind

    Having been conversely born too late and too early (1964), I sometimes seek out music or literary criticism of earlier ages to learn about unheralded artists that I missed, or to view from afar some seminal moment in the culture that has passed into legend and therefore is not reported truthfully any longer. I have been reading 1970s criticism and essays and learning a great deal, just as I did when I delved deeply into the Algonquin Circle as a teenager and learned about writers and events not Having been conversely born too late and too early (1964), I sometimes seek out music or literary criticism of earlier ages to learn about unheralded artists that I missed, or to view from afar some seminal moment in the culture that has passed into legend and therefore is not reported truthfully any longer. I have been reading 1970s criticism and essays and learning a great deal, just as I did when I delved deeply into the Algonquin Circle as a teenager and learned about writers and events not necessarily named Kaufman, Benchley or Parker. Most 1960s/1970s writers disappoint I gotta say. They were already writing with an inflated sense of their generation as well as themselves (damn that misunderstood New Journalism) or missing the significance of the rock business exploding just when we were winning cultural parity. Who beget who? I'd like to know myself. Their view of what will will last is often laughable and way off. Or just way thin, as if I really want to know about their own coolness and how they "got" or saw the greats way before everyone else. Eecch. But every once in a while, another Joan Didion emerges, writing with honesty and clarity and not overanalyzing the opportunity. If it ever happens again, I'll have to call him or her another Ellen Willis when it comes to 1970s rock criticism or feminist consciousness. Because she nails it. How I know that is when reading her 1960s/1970s rock criticism in 2012 I learn a great deal of real information about the very famous musicians and events that I had thought I knew all about and I also see how often she was right in her predictions about how this would play out. Woodstock? Seems to me she got the postmortem exactly right, down to the suspicion that the chaos stemmed almost entirely from incompetence and only was luckily not a tragedy and that the gentle generation let the organizers off easy. Her analysis of the Dead being the "last happy people" on the West Coast among rock groups? Sure. it was still true in the early 1980s...Her Dylan pieces are a tad obsessive but that seems appropriate for the time for a smart feminist who was seeking clues about her generation. Who else was she to decipher? From what I understand from the unreconstructed hippies I know, they knew right away that Dylan was their poet, their critic, their musician, really their leader. Of course, after 1980 everyone was sure that it was Lennon so it's hard to see how it was different before. But from 1960 til he went "Christian, " Dylan was Elvis, The Beatles, Gandhi, and Ford all rolled into one. Look up the vintage Doonesbury cartoon with Jimmy Thudpucker asking Dylan to explain his lyrics, Dylan replies off frame that he just wanted them to rhyme and Thudpucker thinks to himself with some annoyance "now he tells us..." That type of universal overnight coronation has really never happened again and Dylan's refusal of his crown does not lessen the truth of it then or now. She also gets the Stones, well Mick really, and how his persona changed in the 1970s from sexy unknown rock singer of a great band to the ironic jester hosting a huge party. And that she could evolve a new viewpoint by leaving New York for Colorado Springs and admit that music serves different needs and hits a different emotional target in a place where walking down the street with long hair after dark may get one into serious trouble is refreshing. Feminism and feminist writing of the second wave is often difficult for a 1970s blue-collar girl like me to connect with because of its emphasis on academic structure and what seems to be misplaced anger when previous roles were not all immediately thrown away. Because we now know better that obliterating roles was not, in the end, the point. How we own it culturally and physically is much more important than how we define ourselves politically. Just compare and contrast the reach of Geraldine Ferraro and Madonna to see that in action. I feel like this author understood that issue as someone who was serious about examining oppression and yet able to ask at the same time where are the rock and roll chicks? and being mostly bored by Joni Mitchell and early punk music at the same time because they don't follow through in her mind. (In her estimation, one of those can't keep her feminist voice entirely honest and the other may just be more oppressors with no sense of humor. No thanks, she says.) And then she re-examines all of it, as the times change and as she changes and comes up with different perspectives and new insights every time. THAT is great feminist literature. And great rock criticism. I'm enjoying it.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Tobi

    the review was first published in maximum rock-n-roll may 2012 Ellen Willis was a feminist and a rock critic back when rock-n-roll and feminism were generally thought to be opposed to one another. Growing up in the 70's and 80's, I remember this dichotomy well. As a teenage punk rocker I went through a heavy rock-n-roll stage in the mid-80's -- Black Flag had long hair, Red Kross and The Melvins covered Kiss, Saint Vitus were ripping off Black Sabbath and I was learning to play drums -- pretty so the review was first published in maximum rock-n-roll may 2012 Ellen Willis was a feminist and a rock critic back when rock-n-roll and feminism were generally thought to be opposed to one another. Growing up in the 70's and 80's, I remember this dichotomy well. As a teenage punk rocker I went through a heavy rock-n-roll stage in the mid-80's -- Black Flag had long hair, Red Kross and The Melvins covered Kiss, Saint Vitus were ripping off Black Sabbath and I was learning to play drums -- pretty soon I was skating to Led Zeppelin and Cream instead of JFA and The Big Boys. Maybe not coincidentally this is also when I started to question sexism within punk. I stumbled upon a used paperback published by second wave feminist Shelia Rowbotham called Women's Consciousness, Man's World (1973) that provided a feminist analysis of the 60's counterculture. Playing in an all girl band at the time, it didn't seem like the 80s punk scene was all that different in terms of male domination. I loved rock-n-roll and punk but there were not enough girls in bands and way too many in behind-the-scenes support roles (not to mention the groupie economy). I was totally boy crazy yet wanted a girl revolution and I didn't want to have to take sides! I started my fanzine Jigsaw as a possible solution to this impossible conundrum. Discovering Ellen Willis reminds me that criticism is a means of resistance, a way to change society by asking questions and writing yourself into existence. Her voice is essential to those of us who negotiate our love of music with our feminism. This is not to say that Out of the Vinyl Deeps is full of political diatribes about gender/power. That just happens to be part of what Ellen Willis writes about here. Mostly, this is a book of stellar rock criticism by a super smart, aesthetically engaged music fan that happens to be a feminist and loves to dance and hang out and listen to records. Her ideas are complex but she is clear and not fancy or academic. Her writing voice is analytical and inward. Some of the hippy vernacular is there but she generally doesn't write in a conversational way; she's an essayist, so there's a traditional literary form to most of her pieces. Contrary to the narcissistic, kinetic, explosive style of some of the male rock writers at this time, she's self-aware, reflective and careful with her choice of words but her writing loses none of its urgency. Instead of telling her readers what to think, she offers her perspective, grounded in her experience, all the time questioning what things mean and why. I imagine her spending a lot of time being social and then purposively isolating herself in order to distill her experiences into thoughtful critique. The time spent alone necessary to write seems to have given her the space to be both a feminist and a rock-n-roll fan. The result is compelling and necessary. You get the feeling that her work truly mattered and made a difference in people's lives. It definitely enhanced the cultural narrative of her time, leaving us with a document that reflects both cultural struggle and aesthetic lineage, making it excellent for anyone interested in the history of feminist thought and rock-n-roll/youth culture. Reading this book, I'm certain that it was necessary for Ellen Willis to write in order to exist. I'm not talking about survival in terms of food and water and paying rent, but cultural survival, carving out a space to breath in a world that hates women and spreads misogyny into every aspect of our lives, including our personal relationships, fashion, politics and even our favorite songs. By publishing her thoughts instead of keeping them to herself, she helped move things forward. In that sense, this is a radical book. I hope it inspires more feminist music criticism. We need it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Leah W

    This book took a little while to hook me, but once I got into it, it was SO GOOD. LET ME SAY "SO GOOD" IN CAPS ONCE MORE FOR EMPHASIS. This is a collection of Ellen Willis's essays about rock & pop music, mostly from the New Yorker (where she was the first Rock & Pop columnist). Later in her career, she wrote less about music and more about gender studies, freedom, and radical leftist topics, but there was a nice dose of this in a lot of her music writing, as well (for example, her dissec This book took a little while to hook me, but once I got into it, it was SO GOOD. LET ME SAY "SO GOOD" IN CAPS ONCE MORE FOR EMPHASIS. This is a collection of Ellen Willis's essays about rock & pop music, mostly from the New Yorker (where she was the first Rock & Pop columnist). Later in her career, she wrote less about music and more about gender studies, freedom, and radical leftist topics, but there was a nice dose of this in a lot of her music writing, as well (for example, her dissection of the different-but-still-there forms of patriarchy in pop music before and after the Beatles/Summer of Love is really interesting). There's also the quirk of getting to see someone writing in the moment about major rock history. The essay on Woodstock alone ("The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning") is worth the sticker price of this book, and the piece on Elvis's start in Vegas is great. You also get to read about acts that never made it, from a Long Island artist who apparently did his version of Arcade Fire's "The Suburbs" 30 years before them to a recurring scene of awesome women rockers from the East Bay who don't seem to have ever put anything out. And oh, to read about Bruce Springsteen after his second album came out, the Dolls when they were babies, and rock-and-roll when it was clearly differentiated from rock. Also: I may have trace nostalgia for the monoculture. To hark back to the days when an essay entitled “My Grand Funk Railroad Problem—and Ours” wouldn't seem utterly ridiculous! Anyhow, I like this book, and I would recommend it to any fans of super-thinky cultural criticism. But don't take my word for it... time for some quotes. "You have to give the producers of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair this much credit: they are pulling off a great public relations coup. They have apparently succeeded in creating the impression that the crisis in Bethel was a capricious natural disaster rather than a product of human incompetence, that the huge turnout was completely unexpected (and, in fact, could not have been foreseen by reasonable men), and that they have lost more than a million dollars in the process of being good guys who did everything possible to transform an incipient fiasco into a groovy weekend." - "The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning" "I left for Bethel in much the same spirit that I had gone to Chicago at the time of the Democratic Convention. I was emotionally prepared for a breakdown in services and a major riot. If I enjoyed the festival, that would be incidental to participating in a historic event." "The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning" again "[T]here is a difference between middle-class kids who identify with street punks and the punks themselves. Since this difference was often denied, nouveau punkism generated its own brand of pretension and dishonesty. At its worst, it became an excuse for blatant male chauvinism and nihilistic trashing of every value and aspiration beyond (male) orgasm and (male) violence. But it has also produced genuine urban-populist rock-and-rollers, like the Dolls--who combine the street-punk myth and the equally antiaristocractic gay-low-life myth without fudging the distinction between the rolls they play and who they are--and Bruce Springsteen." - YES SHE JUST COMBINED THE NEW YORK DOLLS & BRUUUUUUCE "When rock was taken over by upper-middle-class bohemians, it inherited a whoel 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, more a simple assumption of power consistent with the rest of their self-image. It is less overtly hostile to women but more condescending."

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    Bob Dylan "went electric" in July of 1965. Now, I had once heard that Dylan went electric, I'd heard neighbors and family mention this fact off-hand once or twice in my youth, and, frankly, I probably also heard it on a Behind the Music. I didn't care that Dylan went electric. Why would anyone? Ellen Willis set me straight on the subject of Dylan's electrification, as she set me straight on several other subjects. I now care, and have an opinion. Willis, the afterword notes, had an interest in Bob Dylan "went electric" in July of 1965. Now, I had once heard that Dylan went electric, I'd heard neighbors and family mention this fact off-hand once or twice in my youth, and, frankly, I probably also heard it on a Behind the Music. I didn't care that Dylan went electric. Why would anyone? Ellen Willis set me straight on the subject of Dylan's electrification, as she set me straight on several other subjects. I now care, and have an opinion. Willis, the afterword notes, had an interest in the sociology of pop music and it is on that aspect that she writes fascinatingly and abundantly. Willis was an active participant in counter-culture who was disillusioned with counterculture. Here she skillfully and eruditely takes down the radical left and the reactionary right with out a hint of irony or annoying flippancy that populates today's writing on culture. One need only compare the opening essay that Willis wrote, at the ripe old age of twenty-six, on Dylan for Cheetah to her (at the time of publication) twenty-six-year-old daughter's opening essay to see what terrible things our cultural predilection for irony has done to intelligent writing these days. Willis hauntingly comments on this cultural phenomenon in her 2001 Salon review of Dylan's Love and Theft: In post-September 11 America, the inescapably topical is also enveloped in history and myth. In the gap where the towers used to be rise many ghosts: of our Cold War alliance with Afghan mujahedin, the Gulf War, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the Iranian hostage crisis, Vietnam, the Israeli-Arab war of '67, World War II, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, World War I, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and beyond, back before the New World, the New Eden, was envisioned. The American imagination will be taxed with demands for unquestioning unity and generic patriotism, will be burdened or inspired by our sense of loss and defiance, identification and separateness, new tensions between individual and collective. And irony (which in some quarters has been prematurely pronounced dead) will be very, very important. [Bold face mine.] Cultural awareness and consciousness-raising is as much a part of Willis' project as myth busting. Her piece on Woodstock is a must-read for anyone who ever dreamed of having been there; you'll stop. Her writing on class is difficult for the sledge-hammer that it takes to your liberal fantasies that you are making the world a better place but her feminism makes it much easier to bear for this reader than Mike Davis, whose writings resemble hers. The only problem with this collection is its repetitiveness; it covers too few performers. The editors laid it out there from the start: Willis ignored huge swaths of pop music in her tenure at the New Yorker. I grew up listening to James Taylor (Willis hates him) and Gordon Lightfoot, Alan Jackson and Tanya Tucker so bands like Mott the Hoople and the Velvet Underground are completely unfamiliar territory. Highly recommended.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    Collection of brilliant essays from Willis's tenure as a rock music critic through an important era of American & British popular music -- the late 60s through the early 80s, with a lot of 70s in the middle. Notable not just because Willis's prose is so very quotable, or because she writes about the not-always-comfortable intersection between culture and ideology as anyone I've ever read -- but also because she works so much of the personal experience of concert-going & record-listening Collection of brilliant essays from Willis's tenure as a rock music critic through an important era of American & British popular music -- the late 60s through the early 80s, with a lot of 70s in the middle. Notable not just because Willis's prose is so very quotable, or because she writes about the not-always-comfortable intersection between culture and ideology as anyone I've ever read -- but also because she works so much of the personal experience of concert-going & record-listening in her era that it presents a time capsule of the not-always-glamorous scenes of NYC & San Francisco in that era. (She also has not-too-kind words for the organizers of Woodstock -- hypothesizing, basically, that the only reason the concert didn't turn into a riot was that people were too high to realize how bad conditions were.)

  8. 4 out of 5

    Korri

    Why have I not heard of Ellen Willis before? Her lengthy essay on Bob Dylan is outstanding; it anticipates the film I'm Not There with her understanding of how Dylan used fame and publicity to cultivate mystique and to create privacy out of multiple personas. It's all the more extraordinary for her clear-sightedness without the benefit hindsight. Most of her judgments have stood the test of time though the kind of music journalism Willis writes is out of fashion today. Her reviews are full of del Why have I not heard of Ellen Willis before? Her lengthy essay on Bob Dylan is outstanding; it anticipates the film I'm Not There with her understanding of how Dylan used fame and publicity to cultivate mystique and to create privacy out of multiple personas. It's all the more extraordinary for her clear-sightedness without the benefit hindsight. Most of her judgments have stood the test of time though the kind of music journalism Willis writes is out of fashion today. Her reviews are full of delightful 'I' statements. Now writers strive for an 'objective' tone without personal referents. Willis is obviously a music fan and hearing the personal voice behind the judgments --her personal likes, hopes and disappointments-- make the era criticism more relevant.

  9. 4 out of 5

    zan

    Ellen Willis's writing is the perfect time machine antidote for our skewed and over-saturated impression of the sixties and seventies. Her honest analysis of records and artists and live shows and "The Time" made me understand that decade in a way I never had before. Her review of the Beatles' White Album had me seeing the world of rock and roll in a whole new light, pre-reverence and commercialization, as did her take on live Lou Reed/New York Dolls/Grand Funk and Woodstock, an honest fan's rea Ellen Willis's writing is the perfect time machine antidote for our skewed and over-saturated impression of the sixties and seventies. Her honest analysis of records and artists and live shows and "The Time" made me understand that decade in a way I never had before. Her review of the Beatles' White Album had me seeing the world of rock and roll in a whole new light, pre-reverence and commercialization, as did her take on live Lou Reed/New York Dolls/Grand Funk and Woodstock, an honest fan's reaction as it happens, without the sappy nostalgia written all over the page. She even introduced me to new artists: Dylan and Janis, sure, but Elliott Murphy and The Joy Of Cooking? New to me. Thank you, Ellen, for sharing your record collection and a little bit of your soul.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Whiteford

    Couldn't quite finish it before it was due at the library, but I LOVED the writing in here. I'll need my own copy. It's been a long time since I've read a book I feel I NEED to own, but this one qualifies. I wish people still wrote about music this way in mainstream publications.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Bob Mcconnaughey

    A musical flashback to reviews i read decades ago in my parents' New Yorkers. And still some of the most thoughtful set of reviews on a decade (more or less)..68-78..of pop music. Miscellaneous point...Under my Thumb by the Stones is far less sexist that Cat Stevens execrable "Wild World."

  12. 4 out of 5

    Carol Storm

    Worth reading just for the piece on Creedence Clearwater Revival from THE ROLLING STONE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF ROCK AND ROLL.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan

    http://www.npr.org/2011/06/01/1367164... Ellen Willis was one of the first rock critics — at a time starting in the late 1960s — when serious writing about rock, pop and R&B was rare. She was the first pop-music critic for The New Yorker, starting in 1968. She combined a love of pop culture and an active engagement with feminist theory to create a unique body of writing, which finally gets a proper showcase in a new anthology titled Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited b http://www.npr.org/2011/06/01/1367164... Ellen Willis was one of the first rock critics — at a time starting in the late 1960s — when serious writing about rock, pop and R&B was rare. She was the first pop-music critic for The New Yorker, starting in 1968. She combined a love of pop culture and an active engagement with feminist theory to create a unique body of writing, which finally gets a proper showcase in a new anthology titled Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz. The anthology leads off with a remarkable dissection of Bob Dylan circa 1967. Typical of this long piece, which appeared in a short-lived pop magazine called Cheetah, were assertions about her subject that no one had ventured before, yet which afterward became common wisdom. "His masks hidden by other masks, Dylan is the celebrity stalker's ultimate antagonist," Willis wrote. To have seen this in Dylan in 1967, at a time when he was very much a public pop star, is typical of the way Willis combined close listening to songs, adding everything she knew about the subject's public image and private life, to arrive at a critical position. Willis, Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus were among the very few writers working through this method, and the clarity of Willis' prose and thinking was so immediately striking that she leaped with a single bound from Cheetah to The New Yorker, where she'd captured the attention of editor William Shawn. Willis loved counterculture stars from Dylan to Janis Joplin, but she also championed cult bands such as Joy of Cooking and the New York Dolls. Her judgments were never predictable. She argued that The Rolling Stones' "diatribe" "Under My Thumb" was less sexist than Cat Stevens' condescending "Wild World," because "Mick Jagger's fantasy of sweet revenge could easily be female" as well as male. Crafted with a directness and utter lack of fan gush, many of Willis' observations sound as fresh and as appropriate to the present music scene as they did decades ago. Her 1971 criticism of pop music's tendency, among both the audience and the critic, toward "a tedious worship of technical proficiency" would be as appropriate now regarding TV shows such as American Idol and The Voice as it was in addressing music-on-vinyl back then. At a certain point in post-punk, around the time hip-hop became the dominant sound of popular music, Willis lost interest in rock criticism and pursued her other interests: feminist theory and activism, politics and the philosophy of Wilhelm Reich, among many other topics. She'd become impatient with pop in part for its failure as an agent of social and political change, writing, "There can't be a revolutionary culture until there is a revolution." She was the founder of New York University's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program and, by many accounts, an inspirational teacher. Willis died in 2006 at age 64. Out of the Vinyl Deeps — whether she's writing about Elvis Presley or Moby Grape — resurrects a nearly lost, vital, invaluable voice.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Pedro

    I can proudly affirm that this laudable compendium was recommended to me by a ubiquitous name in the Pitchfork era of music criticism: Laura Snapes. Considering the lack of streamlined information on this matter, soliciting advice from experienced entities might be one of the best ways to motivate and enlighten an enthusiast whose knowledge is, at best, marginal. That being said, when I typed my email to Snapes, I risked coming up with a shoddy, pathos-ridden letter, as correspondence to untouch I can proudly affirm that this laudable compendium was recommended to me by a ubiquitous name in the Pitchfork era of music criticism: Laura Snapes. Considering the lack of streamlined information on this matter, soliciting advice from experienced entities might be one of the best ways to motivate and enlighten an enthusiast whose knowledge is, at best, marginal. That being said, when I typed my email to Snapes, I risked coming up with a shoddy, pathos-ridden letter, as correspondence to untouchable influences tends to be. Somehow, I did get a response, and from various books Snapes lovably listed as mandatory, this was the book whereupon she placed more emphasis. I ordered it the next day or so, not sure of what to expect. If reading music criticism is regular for me, studying it attentively (with focus on style and other details) and consulting longform works is rarer; to start with a writer as nonconforming, bold and innovative as Willis was a challenge and a privilege. A passage in this book's afterword alludes to this duality, explained by critic Jessica Hopper, admittely influenced by the deserving subject of this edition: "Her writing is a dare as much as it is a lens", one that reinforces the necessity of inoculating your writing with a purpose, a strong and unequivocal message. Inasmuch as it compiles Willis' decade-spanning, groundbreaking work in musical journalism, Out of the Vinyl Deeps constitutes essential reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in the field. The late author's immense expertise and tact transform each review or essay into a complete account of the artist, work or era in (direct or indirect) analysis - she confronts recording with live performance, stage persona with personality, artist with individual, artistic movement with grand era. These undercurrents are drawn with a unique, rich, clear writing style. But these precursory texts, primarily rooted in what came to be the essence of music journalism, are not only exemplificative of Willis' enormous talent, but revelatory of her self. No obvious distinctions between Ellen Willis, the writer, and Ellen Willis, the person can be established, because they are perpetually unified. In the same way historical context is indissociable from the music she scrutinizes, her convictions and ideologies can't be expurgated from her professional output; even when this translates to personal conflicts and right/wrong tensions. It's only fitting that the collection is structured according to the multiple sides of Willis: the all-encompassing critic; the fan; the sociologist; the feminist - one of the book's nevralgic aspects. Deeps triumphs as a selection of masterful writing, as inspiration to draw upon for novices and veterans and, most vividly, as a glimpse of Ellen Willis, all facets considered.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie McDaniel

    I had a helluva time getting through this book. If it had been fiction, it would have been bashed against the wall before page 80. But because it's an essay collection, subdivided into sections entitled "The World-Class Critic," "The Adoring Fan," "The Sixties Child," "The Feminist," "The Navigator," and "The Sociologist," with the essays grouped around those themes, I thought, well, I'll just go on. Surely it'll get better. Sadly, it really didn't. Ellen Willis was a pioneering female rock journ I had a helluva time getting through this book. If it had been fiction, it would have been bashed against the wall before page 80. But because it's an essay collection, subdivided into sections entitled "The World-Class Critic," "The Adoring Fan," "The Sixties Child," "The Feminist," "The Navigator," and "The Sociologist," with the essays grouped around those themes, I thought, well, I'll just go on. Surely it'll get better. Sadly, it really didn't. Ellen Willis was a pioneering female rock journalist, with the bulk of her musical work taking place in the sixties and early seventies. Her favorite subjects were Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and Janis Joplin. Speaking strictly from a technical point of view, she was a good writer--her essays are intelligent, thoughtful, and on point. Unfortunately, the very first essay in the book, "Before the Flood," (1967) about Bob Dylan, magnifies her biggest flaw: her complete lack of humor regarding her subjects. (To be fair, I think it should be MANDATORY that anyone who writes about Dylan approach him with a healthy sense of snark--otherwise, the writer inevitably starts to sound as ponderous and pretentious as his/her subject.) Her droning voice was well nigh impossible to wade through, and what little affection I have for Bob Dylan had all but vanished by the end of the piece. This way-too-serious tone marred the rest of the book. To be sure, a music writer doesn't need to have the frantic, attention-deficit-disorder style of, say, a Lester Bangs, but a few cracks about the absurdity of stardom and/or the music business in general would have been appreciated. In fact, the best section of the book, by far, is when she brought feminism into the mix. (But there still had to be a downer essay about Bob Dylan in this section to nearly ruin it, dagnabbit.) She talks about bands/artists such as the Joy of Cooking and Ms. Clawdy that I've never heard of, and describes them so eloquently it makes me want to search for their music. Her voice is more focused and eloquent in "The Feminist," and a couple of observations even approach the wispy edges of humor! I believe there are a few more collections of Ellen Willis's essays out there, and one focused on feminism might be worth picking up. I'm sure classic rock aficionados will appreciate this one. Unfortunately, for me it didn't cut it.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Tom

    This book shouldn't have taken me almost a month to read, but I've been a little busy. And maybe if I'd read it more purposefully I would've loved it. Who knows? I'll surely read it again, since it's clearly of historical import and it's definitely very good from beginning to end, but I wasn't nearly as wowed by it as I expected to be. I think the aspect of Willis' writing that most disappointed me was her style. She was brilliant and thoughtful, and almost always very clear and readable, but the This book shouldn't have taken me almost a month to read, but I've been a little busy. And maybe if I'd read it more purposefully I would've loved it. Who knows? I'll surely read it again, since it's clearly of historical import and it's definitely very good from beginning to end, but I wasn't nearly as wowed by it as I expected to be. I think the aspect of Willis' writing that most disappointed me was her style. She was brilliant and thoughtful, and almost always very clear and readable, but there's not a whole lot of personality in the writing. It's somehow simultaneously passionate and bloodless. I guess I expected more personality given her now-firmly-established place in the rock-critic canon, but I see now that that's not what she was bringing to her work. And that's okay. I like and respect this collection without loving it. It's fascinating to realize that Willis was at The New Yorker at the same time as Pauline Kael. It's also worth noting how much more slender Willis' collected music writings turn out to be than even one of Kael's collections covering a shorter timeframe. And the brevity of Willis' pieces was something I thought about the whole time I was reading. Was she constrained by the publication? Was she just that much more concise than so many of her peers? I guess it always felt to me like something was holding her back. That said, one of the most remarkable things about this collection is the long Bob Dylan essay that kicks things off. God knows I've read more about Dylan than I have about any other musician, but Willis' piece still surprised, entertained, and provoked me. I have her first collection, Beginning to See the Light, which I found a year or so before this anthology appeared, and I look forward to reading it. Perhaps by reading some of her non-rock writing I'll get a clearer perspective of who she was and what she was about, and it'll be interesting to see how the music pieces work in that context, too, since there's some overlap between the two books.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Perrystroika

    Willis is a sharp writer and this book is a lot of fun. And it's not just rock criticism as we today understand it; since this is the 60's, that magical time when music, art, drugs, culture and politics were all swirled together into one confusing, thrilling, heady mix, it's more like a devastatingly lucid, moment by moment, on-the-scene chronicle of the times. I particularly like the Bob Dylan piece that kicks things off, and it's hard to find any rock criticism better than her tough minded tak Willis is a sharp writer and this book is a lot of fun. And it's not just rock criticism as we today understand it; since this is the 60's, that magical time when music, art, drugs, culture and politics were all swirled together into one confusing, thrilling, heady mix, it's more like a devastatingly lucid, moment by moment, on-the-scene chronicle of the times. I particularly like the Bob Dylan piece that kicks things off, and it's hard to find any rock criticism better than her tough minded take on Woodstock and any of her wonderful writing on the Velvet Underground. Willis, I think, should be considered part of that pioneering cohort of (mostly)Jewish women cultural journalists that came of age during the 60's. Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag and Joan Didion are other examples. Kael is an especially good comparison. Like Kael, Willis challenged conventional notions of cultural value, taking what would have previously been regarded as low commercial trash seriously as art. Against the moralistic, political platitudes of 50's middle brow culture (Partisan Review, Lionel Trilling), she advocated for trash and pleasure as a means of personal liberation. Willis, Kael and Sontag were all part of the frontline shock troops of postmodernism, the leveling of cultural values, a wave of democratization the effects of which we are still living with today. Though less heralded, I think Willis' work stands up well in comparison with Kael. Where Kael's contrarianism can often feel affected, undermotivated, a matter of whim, all of Willis' positions seem principled, emanating from one unified world view. Her main theme, her preoccupation, is freedom, be it personal, social, political.

  18. 4 out of 5

    fleegan

    This is a collection of Ms. Willis’s articles she wrote for The New Yorker in the late ’60s and ’70s while she was the pop music critic. The articles are some of the best writing I’ve come across. Every idea, comparison, and critique is so well-crafted, so thought out that her intent, meaning, whatever, is crystal clear. There is not a single bloated paragraph. What’s great is she’s a fan of the music, so there’s no condescension, none of that “these kids today and their music.” kind of thing. B This is a collection of Ms. Willis’s articles she wrote for The New Yorker in the late ’60s and ’70s while she was the pop music critic. The articles are some of the best writing I’ve come across. Every idea, comparison, and critique is so well-crafted, so thought out that her intent, meaning, whatever, is crystal clear. There is not a single bloated paragraph. What’s great is she’s a fan of the music, so there’s no condescension, none of that “these kids today and their music.” kind of thing. Best of all though, is that her critiques are honest. So while she was a fangirl of Bob Dylan, she was also quick to point out when one of his albums was weak. I can appreciate that honesty. She never kissed ass and I think that’s so cool. My only beef with this book is that it’s separated into six different sections: World-class Critic, The Adoring Fan, The Sixties Child, The Feminist, The Navigator, The Sociologist. And the articles were put into these different sections. The only problem with that is she was all of those things at the same time, so it didn’t seem to matter what section the article was categorized as. I could see maybe you could have broken up the book into two categories, maybe The Adoring Fan and World-class Critic. I don’t know. I would have preferred if the book had been put together chronologically instead. That is just me being picky and has nothing to do with Ellen Willis’s amazing writing. Since this book is article after article of rock music criticism, it’s not a book you pick up and read from cover to cover (well, maybe you do, but I do not.) I found it best to read an article or two between the books I was reading. Kind of a way to cleanse my reading palate.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ettore Pasquini

    It was cool to read historic reviews of records of the 60s, 70s, and a little of 80s and hear what people thought of those records when they came out. Willis talks a lot about Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Creedence. Other artists discussed here include the New York Dolls, Beatles, Bowie, who all get a generous treatment, and then Clapton, the Who, the Doors (just 1 essay I think), Black Sabbath (1 article, at least it's about Vol 4), Patti Smith, Elvis and a few others. My favorite chapters were by It was cool to read historic reviews of records of the 60s, 70s, and a little of 80s and hear what people thought of those records when they came out. Willis talks a lot about Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Creedence. Other artists discussed here include the New York Dolls, Beatles, Bowie, who all get a generous treatment, and then Clapton, the Who, the Doors (just 1 essay I think), Black Sabbath (1 article, at least it's about Vol 4), Patti Smith, Elvis and a few others. My favorite chapters were by far the ones about Lou Reed and the Velvets. There were too few, but those few were great. The problem with this book is that it's too much a collection of articles. It lacks cohesion. Being about musicians, it gets very interesting if you care about that particular artist, but at the same time it gets very boring if you don't like that other band. I found the format of this book preposterous. There are sections titled "The Sixties Child," "The Feminist," "The Sociologist" and so on, attempting to group articles by some kind of theme. I found this distinction useless, perhaps because I approached this a music book. So I wanted to read about music and musical movements (say, psychedelic music, punk rock, whatever). Instead this book focuses on the writer: it's as if it tries to define who Ellen Willis was, without just letting her speak for herself. The funny part is, if I understood who she was -- a stoic writer who only cared about the message, not the self -- this is exactly what she wouldn't have wanted. A strict chronological order would have been more captivating.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Rachael

    I read a few glowing reviews about this book so I decided to give it a go. I don't read a lot of music criticism so I was curious about the first female rock critic and I was curious about rock writing in general. It wasn't a badly written book, it just didn't interest me as much as I thought it would. The essays are from the 1970's so they focus on 70's rock bands - Bob Dyaln, Velvet Underground, Mot the Hoople, etc. Well, I was born in the late 70's but grew up in the 80's and 90's. Willis was I read a few glowing reviews about this book so I decided to give it a go. I don't read a lot of music criticism so I was curious about the first female rock critic and I was curious about rock writing in general. It wasn't a badly written book, it just didn't interest me as much as I thought it would. The essays are from the 1970's so they focus on 70's rock bands - Bob Dyaln, Velvet Underground, Mot the Hoople, etc. Well, I was born in the late 70's but grew up in the 80's and 90's. Willis was not writing about my kind of music. Also looking back to the past I take it for granted now that music and music writing is not as segregated as it used to be. Rock and pop music at that time was synonymous with being white music and when Willis does dip a toe into writing about R&B she's specifically writing about black music. We've come a long way sonically - whatever you think about the current state of pop music. However, since Willis is more well known as a feminist writer, you can see her moving more in that direction in two standout essays. You can also note from those essays, "But Now I'm Gonna Move" and "Beginning To See The Light" that not a lot has changed for female musicians. I liked those two essays the best, perhaps because they transcended the 1970's. My only criticism of those two essays is that since Willis was writing a column about bands and albums "Move" and "Light" switch gears abruptly at the end, which was disappointing.

  21. 5 out of 5

    HBalikov

    Ellen Willis wrote most of these reviews/essays when the vinyl long playing record was the industry standard. This seems the right moment to go back and check out what she was saying. It has been a delight reading Willis' reviews because she combines a real enthusiasm for her corner of the music world with some deep insight into the artists and their efforts. She came along at the right time in the right place, New York City. She created the position of pop music critic for The New Yorker (where Ellen Willis wrote most of these reviews/essays when the vinyl long playing record was the industry standard. This seems the right moment to go back and check out what she was saying. It has been a delight reading Willis' reviews because she combines a real enthusiasm for her corner of the music world with some deep insight into the artists and their efforts. She came along at the right time in the right place, New York City. She created the position of pop music critic for The New Yorker (where she stayed for about seven years), and wrote for other publications ranging from The Village Voice to Rolling Stone. I particularly liked the ability of this collection to look at various artists, The Rolling Stones, Joanie Mitchell, Bob Dylan over a period of their popularity and growth. She balanced her study of recorded efforts (listening to that vinyl over and over) with attendance at concerts. One of her criteria was whether the music made her want to get up and dance. This collection also includes essays where her (and the nation's) growing feminism comes up against popular culture. Easy to read in short bits and often thought provoking.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Annie

    I like music, all kinds of music, but it's more in the vein of saying, "Oh, I really like this song," when it comes on the radio, but then five minutes later I can't remember what the song is called or who sung it. I only remember what it was I liked about the song. So, I don't read a lot about music, a topic that produces endless amounts of material for the fanatics. Willis was obviously one of those fanatics, but I think what she was more interested in were the parts of music that stick with us I like music, all kinds of music, but it's more in the vein of saying, "Oh, I really like this song," when it comes on the radio, but then five minutes later I can't remember what the song is called or who sung it. I only remember what it was I liked about the song. So, I don't read a lot about music, a topic that produces endless amounts of material for the fanatics. Willis was obviously one of those fanatics, but I think what she was more interested in were the parts of music that stick with us than being an expert. Her writing reflects the culture of the seventies, and my favorite essays were the ones about music and feminism in that time period. It's history, but since it wasn't history to her when she wrote it, there's a vividness that makes her writing universal. Although at the same time, she does reference musicians who have been lost to posterity. There was one very frustrating reference to a singer whose song "Night Vision" describes in such a way that I felt a strong need to hear, or to at least read the lyrics, only to find out that the singer never signed up with a record deal and it would be impossible for a non-music-expert-fanatic to find.

  23. 5 out of 5

    erin

    I liked this so much that it just reminded me how much I usually hate reading music criticism. From the intro: "Ellen would surely agree that we won't see a revival of revolutionary sentiment until we learn to make it fun. In that respect, Ellen, Emma Goldman, and Abbie Hoffman are part of a lost tradition - radicals of desire." One great sentence: "Using other people's and other eras' forms, making sure we heard the innocence or the silliness or the melodrama, Midler communicated her need to love I liked this so much that it just reminded me how much I usually hate reading music criticism. From the intro: "Ellen would surely agree that we won't see a revival of revolutionary sentiment until we learn to make it fun. In that respect, Ellen, Emma Goldman, and Abbie Hoffman are part of a lost tradition - radicals of desire." One great sentence: "Using other people's and other eras' forms, making sure we heard the innocence or the silliness or the melodrama, Midler communicated her need to love and be loved, but without stripping herself naked." The end of an article about Grand Funk Railroad that seems prophetic: "The fragmentation of the rock audience is just one symptom of social and political developments that cut pretty deep; I doubt whether one person or one band, no matter how potent, can put it back together— not now, anyway. And when we're ready for the next cultural upheaval, the catalyst may not be teenagers— or even music."

  24. 4 out of 5

    Terry Heller

    Ellen Willis was The New Yorker's first rock music critic. Along with her contemporaries Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, and Griel Marcus, Willis showed the intelligensia that rock music was worthy of the same sophisticated criticism and analysis as art and literature. After the mid-70's, Willis' writing focused more on feminism and politics, so she never became the rock writer emeritus like Marcus or Christgau, but her early columns for the New Yorker forever shaped our understanding of Bob Dyl Ellen Willis was The New Yorker's first rock music critic. Along with her contemporaries Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, and Griel Marcus, Willis showed the intelligensia that rock music was worthy of the same sophisticated criticism and analysis as art and literature. After the mid-70's, Willis' writing focused more on feminism and politics, so she never became the rock writer emeritus like Marcus or Christgau, but her early columns for the New Yorker forever shaped our understanding of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and helped canonize groups like Credence Clearwater Revival and The Velvet Underground. The book also collects Willis' writing about subjects other than music -- mainly, the 1960's and sexual politics. Its all great writing, but those subjects aren't the reason I picked up the book. I would recommend those essays, but her rock writing is really essential. Serious music fans should check it out.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Tuck

    collection of willis' articles (mainly from "the new yorker" 1968-1975) but also some from that same time zone in "village voice", "cheetah", and some rolling stone writing, and some album notes. then from later in salon.com and her book "beginning the see the light: sex, hope, and rock n roll". it's safe to say all are in earnest, most are open minded, some are significant cultural analysis, and a few a just brilliant and could have been written in 2012 instead of 1969 ("don;t turn your back on collection of willis' articles (mainly from "the new yorker" 1968-1975) but also some from that same time zone in "village voice", "cheetah", and some rolling stone writing, and some album notes. then from later in salon.com and her book "beginning the see the light: sex, hope, and rock n roll". it's safe to say all are in earnest, most are open minded, some are significant cultural analysis, and a few a just brilliant and could have been written in 2012 instead of 1969 ("don;t turn your back on love" ; "the abyss" ; box set notes for "don't turn your back on love" ; "elliott murphy's white middle class blues" ; mott the hoople: playing the loser's game" ; "beginning to see the light" ; well, there are a lot of brilliant little pieces in here. she's a fascinating woman i didn't know about until this book. a neat tidbit, the editor has a picture of herself inside ellen willis stomach.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Golick

    An extremely fine and overdue collection of Willis' music writing. She comes across as an incredibly smart critic and commenter, reviewing both the music itself (and often how it affects her, mind and body), and the social context in which it appeared (mind, and cultural superego, I suppose). If a very few mentions are a tad dated (which is to be expected), she had the good sense and intelligence to go deep on artists who deserved such treatment: Willis is especially good on Dylan (as good as an An extremely fine and overdue collection of Willis' music writing. She comes across as an incredibly smart critic and commenter, reviewing both the music itself (and often how it affects her, mind and body), and the social context in which it appeared (mind, and cultural superego, I suppose). If a very few mentions are a tad dated (which is to be expected), she had the good sense and intelligence to go deep on artists who deserved such treatment: Willis is especially good on Dylan (as good as anyone on Bob, and surely the finest female explicator he's been lucky enough to have); the Velvet Underground (the essay from Greil Marcus' STRANDED anthology is reprinted here); CCR; the Who; Janis Joplin. She also wonderfully deflates the whole Woodstock myth in an exceptional bit of first-hand reportage. An irreplaceable voice, surely, but one that bears repeated listening to.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Beverly

    I'm surprised that Ellen Willis could get her head out of her ass long enough to write these essays. Actually she's not all bad; she's a fan of some of the same music I love, but her need to pretentiously wring meanings and reverberations out of everything vinyl misses the whole fun part of music. Also a lot of the content seems to be more about Ellen Willis' head than the putative subject. Also she disrespects Bob Dylan, overly respects Mick Jagger, and is unaware of Keith Richards. She does ge I'm surprised that Ellen Willis could get her head out of her ass long enough to write these essays. Actually she's not all bad; she's a fan of some of the same music I love, but her need to pretentiously wring meanings and reverberations out of everything vinyl misses the whole fun part of music. Also a lot of the content seems to be more about Ellen Willis' head than the putative subject. Also she disrespects Bob Dylan, overly respects Mick Jagger, and is unaware of Keith Richards. She does get the Beatles about right. With due respect to the late Ms Ellis (RIP), I quote: I wish that for just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/And just for that one moment I could be you./Yes I wish that for just one time/You could stand inside my shoes/Then you'd know what a drag it is/To see you.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Lawrence

    I have much ambivalence about this book. I enjoyed the second half more than the first excepting the wonderful Dylan piece that opens the book. I particularly enjoyed the author's pieces on Dylan, the Woodstock festival and two Elvis concert reviews. I would love to see more of her writing on The Stones and Grateful Dead, two acts she had clear affinities for. Sorry to be crass, but probably a great bathroom read given the length of the pieces. I read straight through and found it a slog at time I have much ambivalence about this book. I enjoyed the second half more than the first excepting the wonderful Dylan piece that opens the book. I particularly enjoyed the author's pieces on Dylan, the Woodstock festival and two Elvis concert reviews. I would love to see more of her writing on The Stones and Grateful Dead, two acts she had clear affinities for. Sorry to be crass, but probably a great bathroom read given the length of the pieces. I read straight through and found it a slog at times. I would love to see these pieces published online. This author is sadly under recognized in a field dominated by a few oft-read and cited men. Read it as an act of political action if nothing else.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Dan Pasquini

    Essential reading for fans of '60s-'70s music and music criticism in general. Contains THE definitive essay on early Dylan, plus deeply insightful takes on Bowie, the Stones, the White Album, the Velvets, Creedence, etc. -- and not all of them positive: Because her writing was contemporaneous with the music she covered, it's gladly free of the mythology that has built up around her subjects over time. Unlike Bangs or Christgau, there's no obvious "style" to her writing. Her style is her substanc Essential reading for fans of '60s-'70s music and music criticism in general. Contains THE definitive essay on early Dylan, plus deeply insightful takes on Bowie, the Stones, the White Album, the Velvets, Creedence, etc. -- and not all of them positive: Because her writing was contemporaneous with the music she covered, it's gladly free of the mythology that has built up around her subjects over time. Unlike Bangs or Christgau, there's no obvious "style" to her writing. Her style is her substance -- criticism that is absolutely illuminating about rock 'n' roll and the social, racial, class and gender context that colored its creation and enjoyment. The kind of stuff that can make you reconsider the songs you know by heart. READ IT.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

    Anthology of reviews written by Ellen Willis, the music critic at The New Yorker from the late 1960s to mid 1970s. The reviews are organized into sections with titles assigned by the editor, Willis’s daughter (examples, “The Adoring Fan,” “The Navigator”). The section called “The Feminist” was reasonably cohesive. In most cases the reviews didn’t clearly fit the section name, which made it hard to overlook introductions of “new” bands that had been covered in depth 50 pages earlier. Janis Joplin Anthology of reviews written by Ellen Willis, the music critic at The New Yorker from the late 1960s to mid 1970s. The reviews are organized into sections with titles assigned by the editor, Willis’s daughter (examples, “The Adoring Fan,” “The Navigator”). The section called “The Feminist” was reasonably cohesive. In most cases the reviews didn’t clearly fit the section name, which made it hard to overlook introductions of “new” bands that had been covered in depth 50 pages earlier. Janis Joplin must’ve died and been resurrected at another concert at least six times. The individual reviews were well-written and analytical, but the presentation didn’t work for me.

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