DAVE DAVIES, host:
Ellen Willis, who died in 2006, was part of the first generation of critics to take rock and pop music seriously and write about it with both erudition and passion. A feminist with a populist streak, Willis has often all but been forgotten in discussions of rock criticism until now. Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, an anthology of her groundbreaking work has just been published by the University of Minnesota Press.
Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(Soundbite of song, Beginning to see the Light)
VELVET UNDERGROUND (Rock band): (Singing) Well Im beginning to see the light. Well Im beginning to see the light. Some people work very hard but still they never get it right. Well Im beginning to see the light. Want to tell you now, now, now baby...
KEN TUCKER: Ellen Willis was one of the first rock critics - at a time starting in the late 60s - 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 Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz.
(Soundbite of song, Desolation Row)
Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) They're selling postcards of the hanging. They're painting the passports brown. The beauty parlor is filled with sailors. The circus is in town. Here comes the blind commissioner. They've got him in a trance. One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants. And the riot squad they're restless, they need somewhere to go, as Lady and I look out tonight from Desolation Row.
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. Quote, His masks hidden by other masks, Dylan is the celebrity stalker's ultimate antagonist. To have seen this in Dylan in 1967, at a time when he was very much a public pop star, is typical of Willis close listening to songs, adding everything she knew about the subject's public image and private life, to arrive at a critical position.
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, quote, "Mick Jagger's fantasy of sweet revenge could easily be female as well as male.
(Soundbite of song, Under My Thumb)
THE ROLLING STONES (Rock band): (Singing) Under my thumb, the girl who once had me down. Under my thumb, the girl who once pushed me around.
It's down to me, the difference in the clothes she wears. Down to me, the change has come, she's under my thumb.
TUCKER: Writing with a directness and utter lack of fan gush, many of Willis' observations sound as fresh, as appropriate to the present music scene as they did decades ago. Her 1971 criticism of pop music's tendency, both among the audience and the critic, toward, quote, "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.
(Soundbite of song, Personality Crisis)
THE NEW YORK DOLLS (Punk band): (Singing) Well we can't take it this week, and her friends don't want another speech, hoping for a better day to hear what she's got to say.
All about that personality crisis you got it while it was hot. But now frustration and heartache is what you got. That's why they talk about personality.
TUCKER: 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 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, quote, There can't be a revolutionary culture until theres 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.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music.
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For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.