Out Of The Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis On Rock Music
By Ellen Willis
Edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz

University of Minnesota Press 2011, $22.95, ppxx-232

The news that a comprehensive volume of writings by legendary writer Ellen Willis from her "rock critics" days was about to be published made me quite curious about the whole enterprise. In fact, the only Willis article I'm sure I've read is the fine essay about the Velvet Underground which appeared in Stranded, the celebrated volume edited by Greil Marcus published in 1979 (the fact that her piece looked quite good in such a heavy company told me something). Plus, I remembered reading a sentence in an article by Robert Christgau which had given me the impression that Ellen Willis was a funky type of person. (Here, I found it: "Listen up, Jim DeRogatis. When I threw that piece of pie (not my "dinner," the food line was long) at Ellen Willis, it wasn't because, as Willis with her Handy Dandy Theory Generator lets you suggest, I wanted to maintain the sexist status quo of "gender relations in rock-critic land."". Robert Christgau: The Noise Boys Ride Again - Impolite Discourse - The Village Voice - Published June 28 - July 4, 2000.)

And here it is: Out Of The Vinyl Deeps, the book. The volume features most writings penned by Willis (from a total of fifty-six) which appeared in the years 1968-1975 in her column titled Rock, Etc., featured in The New Yorker. There are also a few writings of a later vintage, from the time when she contributed to magazines such as Rolling Stone and The Village Voice, liner notes to albums and box sets, miscellaneous stuff, book intros, and so on. Almost everything here dates back from the time when she abandoned her music/culture critic full-time role in order to enter Academia, where Willis filled a prestigious role up to the time of her death, in 2006.

It's a balanced book, and I thought it was a bit weird that quite a few reviewers I read at about the time the book was published thought it was necessary for them to stress the fact that Willis was a "she", "a woman critic in a men's world" - and we all know those names, right? Christau, Marcus, Bangs, Marsh, and so on. Well, what about Lillian Roxon? During the late 60s/early 70s, Roxon was maybe the only name that was internationally well-known, thanks to her writings about rock, and later, her Rock Encyclopedia - a book which I've never seen. Roxon's name is also missing in Sasha Frere-Jones's Forward to this Anthology - while he stresses the fact that at the time "Willis was writing for a larger audience than almost any other critic (475,000 for The New Yorker, 75,000 for Rolling Stone; it has to be noted that nowadays Frere-Jones is a staff writer for The New Yorker) - also in the Introduction by Nona Willis Aronowitz, Ellen Willis's daughter, and a writer herself: she edited the book, and divided it into chapters. I don't know why, there's no Index, so finding names requires effort.

The featured content is quite various, and interesting. First item, a long, complex essay about Bob Dylan which first appeared in 1967 on Cheetah (a legendary magazine that I've never seen, just like Fusion): it's the writing that convinced the people at New Yorker to call Willis. There's lotsa stuff about Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and The Velvet Underground. Pieces about The Who, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and The Beatles (a group, it appears to me, for which Willis didn't feel a very strong affinity). There are surprises (Sweet Thursday, Van Dyke Parks, and Randy Newman were not "obvious" names to discuss at the time). Also "the usual suspects" of the era (Van Morrison, David Bowie, Simon and Garfunkel, Grand Funk Railroad, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder). There are also reports about places and "genres".

Strange: no Doors (just a "hidden" quote). Just a tiny bit of Bowie. No Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (even Young's name is missing: just once, we meet Crosby, Stills, Nash and Taylor). Also, some female artists are barely mentioned (I'll discuss this in a short while). Sure, as stated by Nona Willis Aronowitz on p.xix, "This Anthology is less a survey of the sixties and seventies rock music than it is Willis's picks for the most culturally valuable, influential, or fascinating artists and moments. She never stressed much about coverage while writing her Rock, Etc. column and especially in the writing that followed; she tracked every move of the Who, Bob Dylan, the Stones, Janis, and the Velvet Underground as she blatantly ignored others. Since, as rock critic Georgia Christgau said at the 2008 EMP Pop Conference, '(Willis) cared less about rock than she did about movements,' covering the new It band was just not that important to her." Yes, but having thought about this quote quite a bit, still I remain unconvinced.

Willis's writing style is always quite clear, it's apparent that what is on the page was written after much work and long consideration. It was thanks to this formal clarity that it became immediately apparent to me that the way Willis thinks about music is totally different from the way I think about it. Writing a detailed critique of this book would take me at least a couple of months, and who in his/her right mind would read something like this? I would not be so interested in writing it, either. So I chose to briefly discuss just three issues.

Creedence Clearwater Revival were one of my favourite bands when I was in my early teens, a time when they released some of their defining singles and albums, starting with their first successful single, Suzie Q.. And while when it comes to Suzie Q. it was the whole that definitely made an impression on me, starting with Proud Mary (the flipside? Born On The Bayou, of course!) - here I'm taking the songs' vocals and melodies for granted, also the lyrics (which I obviously could not understand at the time) - I noticed that most of the group's songs had memorable instrumental intros (which one was immediately able to memorize); this, in an age were a lot of songs had memorable instrumental intros (here are the titles of just a few famous Creedence tracks: Green River, Commotion, Bad Moon Rising, Tombstone Shadow, Fortunate Son); the same being true of the songs' guitar solos, which one could easily sing, being "compositions inside compositions"; while they appeared to be simple, the songs were the end result of a highly skilled orchestration of many guitars, which made John Fogerty a great "composer"; while the songs appeared as simple entities, the fact of having many layered, different instrumental timbres, and the fact that timbrally diverse songs were featured on the same album, tells of a deep understanding of the album as something which incorporates "the sound of the songs".

Placing the stylus on the first track of Cosmo's Factory - the album which is universally regarded as the group's masterpiece - was for me cause of great surprise. (It was at this time, and not with the release of the following album, the bizarre Pendulum, that I came to consider the possibility that something in the group was really wrong.) Creedence always had a "thin" sound, very personal: Rickenbacker guitars (through Kustom amplifiers). Had I been able to know about this, and understand the obvious implications... But looking at the pictures on the album's back cover will suffice: Fender Precision bass, Sunn speaker enclosure; rhythm guitar: a Guild, sporting humbucker pick-ups; lead guitar: a Gibson Les Paul (so: more humbuckers), through a Fender amp. So, the controlled-feedback solo on Ramble Tamble (while obviously great, and very moving) is quite far from the thin, cutting tones which so skillfully and dramatically show the horror of the closing track on Willie And The Poorboys, the (for this writer, at the time) mysterious Effigy (which would appear quite clearer - but definitely not as poetic - had it been called Flag).

This is an important... no, make it an indispensable part of any Creedence story. Not, it goes without saying, "the whole story", but... (Now that we know a lot about the group's internal dynamics, and the way the group's members perceived themselves, it would be quite easy to guess about those instrumental choices.) When I was a kid I would have been very happy, had somebody pointed at the way the guitar solo to Proud Mary closely resembles the guitar style of Steve Cropper: something I didn't get at the time, though I knew his style - not his name! - from listening to Soul Man by Sam & Dave and - above all - (Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay by Otis Redding: one of the best tracks from that year. Or had somebody shown me the link between John Fogerty and James Burton - not to mention Buck Owens.

This is the key moment when Willis - after a long discussion - "explains" why she now likes Creedence more than the Stones: "It was no accident that my interest in Creedence progressed from warm to obsessive at a time when I was in a state of emotional upheaval brought on by politics, drugs, writing blocks, and problematic personal relationships. It was also a time when I was feeling alienated from my erstwhile favourite rock band, the Rolling Stones, partly because of Altamont, partly because of feminism, but mostly because I was tired of chasing Mick Jagger's mysterious soul through the mazes of fun house mirrors he had built to protect it." (pp.123-124).

Reading this book, it immediately dawned on me that, though their styles are quite diverse - also their values - Willis practices an irrational approach that is not that different from Lester Bangs's. Just check the way liking an album is experienced as a kind of "conversion", and so something which is impossible to explain. Just a for instance: "When I first heard Exile On Main St., I hated it." (...) "I now think that Exile is arguably the Stones' best work. My conversion to Goats Head Soup was less dramatic" (...) "but the process was similar". (...) "But only a month ago I was listening to Angie, a song I'd dismissed as an irritating whine, and suddenly heard it as exactly the opposite - a victory over self-pity." (p.43).

When it comes to the Stones things get really weird. Though the group is discussed in various chapters, with the only exception of Mick Jagger, no member of the group is ever mentioned, except for Mick Taylor (twice), Richard (just once, and only as a writer), and Ron Wood (once). So, Mick Jagger is the Stones. Which is something one could possibly argue, but here it's not "Mick Jagger, musician" we are talking about. Here, all that being a musician entails is replaced by things such as marriage, with peculiar results: "Listening to this album, I can't help wondering about Jagger's marriage, which is opaque to me in a way that his turbulent affair with Marianne Faithful was not." (p.44).

A parallel line of reasoning is put into practice when it comes to Mick Jagger's live performances in 1975. "Usually, the trouble with rock stars is that they take themselves too seriously; Jagger seems at times to be denying his seriousness altogether. I find the denial disingenuous, and it makes me uncomfortable." (pp.119-120). We all remember the inflatable phallus, the water buckets, the tacky choreography, and the "fun" atmosphere ("It's Only Rock 'n' Roll"!) of that time. All things that here stay "unexplained", or - which is the same thing - attributable to quirks of an artist's "persona".

I stay convinced of the usefulness of the "Occam's razor" approach. Thus: Taking for granted the fact that Mick Jagger is a rational being who clearly sees the relationship between the audience and a rock group in the course of changing times, and who tries to take the proper decisions in order to make his group more famous, and so financially even more solvent and prosperous, and not the object of great ridicule and financial disaster, he will proceed like this: in 1969, he'll get an excellent guitar player who will make the group sound good (1969 is the year of the guitar solo, P.A.s are clearer and louder than they were in 1966, the audience is more grown-up, attentive, and knowledgeable than before, and the Concert in Hyde Park was a disgrace); in 1972, just add a grand piano, saxophone, and trumpet, in order to "fill" the sound; in 1975, the fine guitar player having quit the group, which is now weaker and under-rehearsed, add more people, and make the visuals more stimulating to the eye, and more so now that the audience is bigger, and not necessarily of the "rock" kind. It's not that I assume my "sketch" to be true, but it makes Jagger "understandable" for us, since his behaviour is seen as a concrete answer to a practical problem.

The "feminist" side is for me one of the most complex and confused topics of this book due to a lack of clarity when it comes to both concepts and language. I'll say just a few things about some names (but it goes without saying that a "feminist" perspective runs through many aspects of Willis's analysis).

Here the problem is not about those who are not mentioned and discussed in the book, but the way some of those who are mentioned and discussed, are. Laura Nyro - an important musician, singer, and composer of the era - is never discussed; but the definition that's given of some "pop singers" says that Nyro is definitely not among those artists Willis digs the most: "(...) their music was basically nightclub staff - romantic, "feminine", non-threatening, a cross between Laura Nyro and Melissa Manchester, with maybe a little Joni Mitchell for spice." (p.145). Mitchell herself, while lauded for her album Blue in a writing from 1973, then records a perplexing album as its follow-up, For The Roses, "less accessible" (...) "complicated and un-pop-song-like" (p.140). Carole King gets to be mentioned once (on p.138).

But it has to be noticed that Carole King wrote a song, You've Got A Friend, which has been also interpreted thus: When stable, durable relationships become a thing of the past due to people's social links becoming weaker, and the new preference by anybody to incessantly make new experiences (and just check the way the King-penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow changes its meaning with time: from a meditation on virginity - as performed by The Shirelles in 1960 - to a lament on the disappearing of commitment - as performed by King herself on her album Tapestry, ten years later), one's community of friends is the only thing one has as one's anchor. And isn't Mitchell's oeuvre (also) a meditation on one's personal life in an era where an insatiable hunger for anything new is seen as a "normal" aspiration?

I'll say it loud and clear: This book sounds so average - better yet: of its time - that after reading it a few times I decided not to review it. But thanks to Scott Woods - whose site, Rock Critics, is still for me one of the most precious sources of information about rock criticism - I had the chance to read quite a few positive reviews of this book. So I thought that a single negative one couldn't hurt.

Most reviews were of such low quality to convince me that all this amounts to nothing. Due to her being a celebrity of sorts, I'll quote Ann Powers from her "A Celebration Of 'Vinyl' And Pop Critic Ellen Willis": "Most important, Willis wrote like someone who lived in a body." (...) "As the gushy reviews start to pile up, I'm starting to think Willis might have invented the way my generation thinks about pop."

Words fail me.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2011

CloudsandClocks.net | May 26, 2011