Inheriting Ellen Willis

Sex, Hope & Rock ‘n’ Roll happened yesterday in a room for 450 at the NYU Law School. The room was half full all day, with about 300 or so people through and watching 20 panelists talk 10-5:30pm about the work and life of the pop music loving writer, feminist, activist, and educator Ellen Willis. I was one of three people who put together the conference (with Nona Willis Aronowitz and Evie Nagy), which had originally been planned for a basement room for 70 before the flood of registrants convinced us that discussion on Ellen Willis was going to be as popular as the music she loved.

I will have to watch the video to see what happened for the first half of the day. I was so anxious about the details—when and how the 200 books would arrive (via the excellent Bluestockings bookstore), if the hallway noise was too loud, just how much Stanley Aronowitz was going to read from Ellen’s unpublished manuscript on Wilhelm Reich since we were running late (I could get a sense that what he was reading, and saying about it, was profound and revolutionary, but damn if I didn’t keep looking at my watch). I caught occasional sentences of inspiration from Daphne Brooks, Joe Levy, Michael Berube, Karen Durbin, but mostly I was pacing about deliveries.

      Which is why I was a bit flustered by the time I got to the part of the day where I was supposed to switch gears and be a participant: the third panel, on Ellen as role model for future music writing. I was worried smarter people than me had already said what I wanted to say, but I hadn’t heard them, and I became tongue-tied when looking out into an audience of people I’d frankly rather be hearing than myself. But I will try to speak clearly here:

 

        The anthology that the conference celebrated, Out of the Vinyl Deeps (U. Minn Press) will give material evidence to place Ellen in the pantheon of top tier first generation rock critics. She was always there to those who lived through it, but she became less visible as pop criticism moved from being a part of counterculture to being its own profession. Those writers remembered and celebrated thus far were those who wrote well in that nascent ‘70s movement but also who preserved as editors, book writers, and mentors through the ‘80s to the present.    Ellen wrote maturely from day one, but moved on when her conversations, and pop itself, went in other directions. Until now, her music writing was scattered (Greil Marcus’s Stranded, in the first chunk of her 1981 essay collection Beginning to See the Light) and uncollected (her New Yorker writing was largely unknown to even fans). As Scott McLemee asked, “Why is it only in 2011 that we have a book demonstrating that she was one of the best rock critics of the 1960s and ‘70s?” The question is twofold: it wasn’t important to Ellen because she moved on, and no one approached her with the idea to do the project themselves. With her death in 2006, all New Yorker rights reverted to her widower—Stanley Aronowitz— and their daughter Nona took up the project shortly thereafter. It’s been in the works for more than three years.

           There are many things I find extraordinary about the anthology, and here are two I hope will change the cultural conversation about music writing. The first is that its subtitle reads “Ellen Willis on Rock Music.” When I first saw that, I cringed, because the privileging of the genre has been rightfully critiqued by any music writer worth the title in the last decade: from Joshua Clover, Ann Powers, Jeff Chang, to Kelefa Sannah, Geeta Dayal, Michaelangelo Matos and Tom Ewing, and so many others, and I want all those folks to read the book to see that at least one of the old heads wasn’t so…so.

          But the thing is, Willis’s work is firmly “rock” writing. What it is not is  “rockist.”  She does make bids for the raw over the polished, a rockist trend, and dwells on the white-hetero-male “greats” such as Dylan, VU, the Stones, and the Beatles, but she does not treat them as saints or geniuses, but as serious but humanly flawed contemporaries, mythmakers, entertainers, and artists. As Georgia Christgau pointed out at the conference (and Evie wrote in the afterward), Ellen saved "genius" for talk on Janis's ability to convey the full range human emotion in song. (She might as well have been writing about herself). 

        She also dances “Creedence As Therapy,” ponders on “My Grand Funk Problem—And Ours,” measures degrees of misogyny via Cat Stevens lyrics, takes down the myth of Woodstock before it had even been articulated, and writes about “Women’s Music” just as it arrives on the scene: all on their own terms and for the New Yorker, in the early ‘70s. She clearly had an understanding of the stakes for her writing, the bids to take rock up the ladder of cultural hierarchy, but is actively working against distinction or exclusion based on perceived cerebralism, ambition, grandiose structure or any of the criteria which “good” rock would come to be championed for. Ellen liked what she liked—it is often surprising, and certainly not driven by a need to follow some kind of consensus. It was motivated, like everything in her life, by the quest for liberation, freedom, and pleasure. That means the Beatles, sometimes, but it also means Bette Midler. As I said at the conference, I am happy that Boomer guilting of subsequent generations is now firmly critiqued, but here I see one boomer whose dream I wish to pick up and carry on.

        The other thing about Out of the Vinyl Deeps, is that it is the second single-author anthology of pop music writing by a woman, after Ellen Sander’s Trips (1973). Plenty of women have written books about pop music, but among the dozens of anthologies of daily writing, there now, in print, only this. When asked on the panel about Ellen’s feminist work and its impact on my life, I said something about Ellen’s writing on music was a means not (just) to understanding pop, but to understanding humanity. Why this matters as a feminist project is obvious: feminism taught me that women’s ways of knowing and being in the world are not just valid, but equal, that writing as a woman was not a “minority” point of view. Discussion of the body, desire, pleasure, emotion, gender, sex, sexual reproduction, private and family life is not something to avoid lest they alienate “serious” readers, and championing good writing on the subjects is a project that supports the further liberation of both women and men. I hope that this book inspires writers to be brave in their criticism—to connect sound and performance to the world in challenging ways—and that it makes a good argument how a woman's voice can be "the," or even "a," legitimate voice on pop.

 

I spoke to two women, one in college at Boston and one at NYU, after the conference. They wanted to be music journalists, and they were bubbling over with enthusiasm for the day’s events. They’d met a lot of similarly minded ladies at the conference, and great male writers too. I thought back to Kathleen Hanna said earlier in the day—“I wish this book had been around when I was younger.” This is the same thing moms and volunteers say each summer at Willie Mae Rock Camp. Where would we be if we had these brilliant guides, supportive networks, and validations in our formative years? Today we have Rock Camp and we an Ellen Willis on Rock Music book. I’m excited to see what happens next.

And in that day, we were together. One of the most important parts of feminism for me is the unity of purpose it gives people, the idea that we are here to support one another, to discuss, and to work together to make the world we want to be in. At the conference, the room was full of people who believed in that project, including the person who has supported me most in my development as a organizer, editor, and writer: Ann Powers. When I was a college student at NYU I approached Ann timidly at a book party, fannishly because I enraptured by an article she wrote in the New York Times about feeling awkward as a woman audience member at the Warped Tour. It was the first mainstream music reporting I’d ever read that mirrored my own experience, but gave more history and critical thought to the situation than I could have. I thanked her then, and through that initial conversation til now am still thanking her. Nick Minichino showed me a snap he took of a woman who’d flown from Atlanta for the conference: she brought her copy of Weird Like Us with her, for Ann to sign. “It’s my theory that rock and roll happens between fans and stars, rather than between listeners and musicians,” Ellen wrote in 1969. I saw the woman, Ann, Ellen, and myself all in one place, and smiled.

I know the woman, sort of. Her name is Molly, she is part of GirlGroup, a listserv I co-founded with Perfect Sound Forever's Jason Gross in 2004: for and about women music journalists. I did it then because I was alone and felt unsupported, like my writing didn’t matter and I should not go on. Jason, a champion of women writers and musicians, knew that, in that feeling, I was not alone. The listserv went from an informal thing between his and my friends to being 500+ people from all around the world. We organize events at conferences, meet-ups in various cities, and through postings, networking, references, and support, have helped a generation of women thrive in freelance and fulltime gigs as writers and editors. I know Evie Nagy, who also co-wrote the Out of the Vinyl Deeps afterward with me, from GirlGroup. Other GirlGroupers, Jeanne Fury, Laina Dawes, Toby Carroll, Molly Templeton, and Kate Silver, volunteered at the conference. When mini-crises happened through the day, I looked at them and said, “Could you…?” and they said “Of course.” It’s always been hard for me to seek help, but these truly are my friends, my family, and I know that they are there to support so I was not afraid to ask, and the conference went smoothly because of them. And for that, and them, I am truly thankful.

After approaching my idol and not getting rejected or laughed at, but taken in as an equal, after learning the ropes via several Best Music Writing anthologies, and after three years of work on the Ellen Willis book and conference, I am now skilled enough to suggest that it would be easy to do a collection of writing for Ann Powers. We started digging the crates in March, and in a weird moment for both of us, she said to me, “Thank you for doing this while I am still alive.” It made me want to cry, both with sadness and joy. I celebrate and support projects of recuperation, but I also want projects celebrating and honoring the best minds of this generation, now. That it might not have occurred to anyone, even Ann herself, that it was a valid and meaningful project to collect and publish these writings, makes me sad.

As Martin Johnson wrote today in a post about the conference and how Ellen influenced his own desire to be a writer, “If I had the balls at 25 that I possess at 51, I would have contacted Ellen Willis just to find out how she did it.” If there’s anything I can suggest to a budding writer it is to pack them, grow them, or own them if you’ve got them: get the balls by any means necessary, and talk to a writer you love. And, after a few years of chat, you can offer to do their anthology too. It is good work. (When the time comes, feel free to email me for advice how to do it.)

In our all-hands meeting before the conference, Nona mentioned that in the opening remarks she planned say it was only her mother’s death that prompted the anthology and conference. I told her I would hug her if she started crying, and she said she wouldn’t. I told her I would hug her if she didn’t. (The truth was, I needed it). Throughout the planning of the book and event I was struck by how totally cool Nona was—deeply cool, like Ellen—and I tried to not be envious of what seemed like a double lucky dose of nurture and nature. How could I not have thought it? I had moved from dead-end Youngstown to New York City at 18 to find a world to support my desire to be an intellect and activist.  When it didn’t present itself the way it did to Dylan in 1961, I grew dismayed, only later realizing I had to make that world if I wanted to live in it. To have a mother (and father) who would have pointed that out from day one, yet alone open a world of ideas and friends who could shape my stumbles toward smarts, that would have been a real shortcut to maturity.

Nona is all that, and a pair of amazing red boots. Young, radical, respectful of history, but firmly doing her own thing, she is a force brewing. She's already sorted her views on feminism in the fantastic first large-scale project, the Girldrive book, and was clear-eyed in her appraisal of Ellen’s success and failures, professional in putting together the book and conference, and no-nonsense in her questions to our panel. What great work will she do by 30? I look forward to watching, and hopefully getting a chance to support, that work as it comes. She reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Joanna Newsom, who was something of a specter at the conference: “And they will recognize / All the lines of your face / In the face of the daughter, of the daughter, of my daughter.”

           In that respect, she did the most beautiful thing, she made her mother’s work available to the public. Now we can all inherit Ellen Willis’s smarts, and be nurtured by her ideas. It is Nona I thank most of all.

 

At close, I was cleaning the space just as wildly as I’d been pacing throughout the day, not getting to enjoy that much of the great chat going on in the hallway. The crowd moved out into the lovely spring evening and a few straggled—my NYU-era Program Board friends, those from the first DIY community I joined and loved in New York. I spied two posters I’d tacked to the podium during the lunch break, and walked into the auditorium to tear them down. The room was empty, but my iPod was still playing the Willis Mix I’d made from tracks she mentioned in the book. I walked on stage, ripped off the paper and picked at the tape, and was suddenly overwhelmed. It was Dylan, in his last verse:

 

People tell me it's a sin
To know and feel too much within
I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring
She was born in spring but I was born too late
Blame it on a simple twist of fate.

 

I cried, there, alone, not with melancholy but with joy. I never spoke to Ellen Willis, but my life has been shaped for the better by her words. And yesterday, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, I had helped make a space where people who had looked in the eyes of Ellen Willis could share their stories. As I stood there at the podium, it became clear to me. Ellen Willis is now primarily a text we can read. And, as of now, on music. But she was also a woman who lived, loved, laughed, and influenced several generations of New York City intellects, all of whom came and left that room after what seemed like too brief a time. Still, to quote Young Tiger, “I was there.”

Thankfully, for that, I was not born too late.