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ellen willis: out of the vinyl deeps

August 9, 2011

Ellen Willis - Out of the Vinyl DeepsI hate to admit that prior to my mom gifting me this book I had no idea who Ellen Willis was. I’d read some of her writing as part of the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll but her name never registered with me, and it certainly didn’t sit on my brain shelf alongside names like Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, and Robert Christgau, where it belongs. This book blew me away.

Ellen Willis was a trailblazer in the world of rock criticism. Hired in 1968 to be The New Yorker’s first popular music critic, Willis was also one of the first prominent females in a field dominated by men.  She published her column “Rock, Etc.” in The New Yorker for seven years, blending popular music, cultural commentary, and sociological insight. Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a collection of Willis’ writing from that column as well as essays and articles from other publications.

Being a biased fan with the additional handicap of hindsight combined with a weird form of nostalgia for something I was never part of, I often have trouble with rock criticism (see one of my first posts on the subject). Part of the reason Willis’s writing resonates so strongly with me is that it seems to transcend critique. It’s really a lot more about enhancing the music by placing it in its appropriate socio-cultural context. Many times I had to stop reading and go put on whatever record she was discussing because she’d given me so much more to think about while listening to it. Her writing enhances the music and challenges the reader to think beyond it.

She does all of this without the pretentiousness that pollutes a lot of artistic critique. Her prose is straightforward and personable. She talks about dancing alone in her apartment and how certain albums sound better stoned out of your mind. It’s almost like she could just be one of your friends, albeit the incredibly talented, hip, New York one.

Ellen Willis listening to records

Ellen Willis at work

Ellen Willis passed away in 2006, and by then she had moved well away from her days as a music writer. She was a journalism professor at New York University and the head of its Center for Cultural Reporting and Criticism. After her New Yorker column ended in 1975 she turned more toward feminism (a strong current in her earlier writing) and broader cultural commentary.

After one trip through this book my copy is already so underlined and dog-eared I may need to get a clean one for round two. Her articles cover everyone from Elvis to The New York Dolls. There is an abundance of writing on Bob Dylan (probably another reason why I like this book so much) including the essay that got her hired at The New Yorker, a 1967 piece written for Cheetah that is one of the most insightful, compelling discussions of Dylan that I’ve ever come across.

If you haven’t spent much time (or in my case, any) with Ellen Willis’s writing, or even if you have, Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a fabulously well-compiled collection of some of the best rock journalism on the planet, and a hell of a good read.


musicnotesMy Back Pages” – Bob Dylan

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