The Understated Charms of Ellen Willis

Ellen Willis was a no-nonsense, resolutely feminist, always engaging rock critic and essayist who wrote for publications including Rolling Stone, the Nation, the Village Voice, and the New Yorker (where she was the first rock critic). Her voice is sophisticated — maybe savvy is the better word — but always real. She dances to the records she reviews, bemoans a broken heart, confesses to crushes and lets the music overtake or outrage her, as the occasion warrants. What she never does is pander to, or patronize, her reader: she is a critic who is absolutely steadfast in her judgments, even as those opinions evolve (as they do in the case of some of her most beloved artists, like Lou Reed and Bob Dylan).

Start anywhere with Willis (there are several of her essay collections available, including Beginning to See the Light, No More Nice Girls, and the just nominated for a NBCC award Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, but do start. You will not be disappointed.

I asked Carlene Bauer — friend, music writer, memoirist, and fellow Willis fan — to discuss Willis’s work and its effect on us. What follows is a wide-ranging conversation about Willis, Pauline Kael, Creedence Clearwater Revival, music fandom, why I hate jazz, Greil Marcus, criticism, enthusiasm, Pitchfork, indie rock, and (the death of) pleasure.

CB: So I wanted to know what you were thinking about Ellen Willis in general.

LL: Well, I’ve read her before. I read her when I was writing about rock biography [for an essay that ended up getting shelved]. Then I had the common Ellen Willis reaction — why didn’t I know about this before? Why didn’t anybody tell me?

CB: Right. Why do you think no one has told us? It seems to me she’s an underground phenomenon. Though I do think that might be kind of fitting in a way, because as music fans we all want to be in that state of discovering an underground phenomenon — of finding something and being able to hold on to it without the crowds coming in and co-opting your secret pleasure. And then as a feminist I want to say that I know why we haven’t been told about her.

LL: It’s so curious because she’s the first rock critic of The New Yorker, right? When I was growing up and I was a New Yorker reader I knew who Pauline Kael was. But how did I not know who Ellen Willis was?

CB: I’ve read part of the new Pauline Kael biography [Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark], and something about Kael’s outsize Ayn Randian persona made me wonder if maybe people had to pay attention to Kael, in the way they had to pay attention to [Susan] Sontag. With Willis, in contrast, it seems that she was less of a persona.

LL: I think that’s true. I did just read the Pauline Kael bio — and God knows I know my Sontag — and I think both of those women carefully crafted personas to be taken seriously. And it’s interesting with Willis because I feel like in some ways she’s the most secure of [all three of them] because she starts from the premise that she’s saying something valuable. And maybe it’s also the advantage of writing rock criticism as rock criticism was being invented. I think she’s in a low-stakes game, so she doesn’t have to do that outsize thing.

CB: That’s true. And yet she does seem to respond to the outsize female persona — there’s her love of Janis Joplin, for example.

LL: Oh, she does. That’s one of her heroes. If you have to go through this book and talk about the people that she returns to over and over again Janis Joplin is one of them. It’s Joplin, Dylan, Lou Reed.

CB: The Rolling Stones.

LL: Creedence! [We laugh.] Creedence for me was a big kind of call to context — you forget about what a big band they were….there’s a piece in here [Out of the Vinyl Deeps] about the Modern Lovers which feels so almost out of context. It’s like 1973 or something. They must have been 16 or 17!

CB: It’s funny to me how she’s looking at Jonathan Richman and thinking, I don’t know about this kid. Coming back to female personas — I was struck by this quote from her preface to 1997’s Trouble Girls, Rolling Stone’s book of women in rock: “So I longed for a female rock and roller who would be my mirror.” I have certainly listened to rock music that way — listened to find some female artist to be my mirror — but I also feel like that leaves one open to charges from men of wallowing in classically female narcissism. Of being an undeveloped listener because you’re listening to see yourself reflected and not listening for chord changes or innovative time changes. If it’s not Steely Dan —

LL: [Laughs!]

 

CB: But Willis didn’t think she had to be an ubernerd about technique or every last piece of trivia to speak with authority. For instance, she’ll openly say in the review of the The White Album, about “Revolution Number Nine,” that she knew nothing about electronic music, but it sounded to her like “pretentious nonsense,” so she checked with asked her friends who knew more about electronic music for their opinion, and they agreed. She will openly admit that she doesn’t know everything. And yet you don’t, or don’t much, question her authority, her readings.

LL: There’s that essay toward the end where she decries musicianship, and she talks about how she thinks it’s kind of a shame that rock has been given over to the kind of super players, that it’s been taken out of the hands of amateurs — here it is. “I think this tendency is regrettable. What it means is that rock has been co-oped by high culture, forced to adopt its standards — chief of which is the integrity of the art object.” And that’s basically what it made me think about: a lot of conversations with a lot of boys about chord changes and production values.

CB: I do think there is a male tendency to privilege technique in a way that can read as sexism or actually is sexist. I have a friend who’s quite dear, a man, not a sexist, I should say, with whom I have had these raging arguments about the primacy of technique in rock music. For instance, he’d go on about how terrible a drummer Meg White was. And I would think, “She is?” and be incredibly embarrassed that I did not realize this. Why didn’t I know this? My lack of awareness about how bad her drumming was made me feel that I was The Typical Girl saying blithely, “Oh, I like it just because it sounds good.” And I would say to him — and Willis of course says this more articulately — isn’t rock music supposed to be about more than just technique? And he would argue, contra Willis, that rock was not supposed to be a communal experience. I felt that we were embodying one of the stereotypical rock and roll gender divides — boys on the side of mastery and girls on the side of emotionalism. And he was always going to win. I felt that I would always have to say, “Well, I guess you’re right,” in that argument.

LL: I do think both sides of that argument are valid, but ultimately I don’t want to listen to music without emotion. I have this argument with people all the time, or I’ve had this argument with people all the time in my lifetime, about why I hate prog. I do not want to listen to technically perfect soulless music. I just don’t want to.

CB: Now I also know you don’t like jazz. Is that correct?

LL: I don’t like jazz! [[Laughs.]]

CB: OTR. Why is it that you don’t like jazz again, Lisa?

LL: Because I kind of want to know what’s coming next. Part of what I like about listening to music — and I understand why jazz fans like improvisation, and what that’s about, and why they admire the craftsmanship. But I feel like life is scary and unpredictable. I want music to be the same every time. And if I go see a show, I kind of want it to be like it was on the record. That’s why I don’t like jam bands either.

CB: I feel like Willis gets to these issues. One of the things that I belatedly realized about myself — I would say that I’m a depressed person and, save my love of the Smiths, when I feel crummy, I want things that are going to amp me up. I do seek the pleasure of things like knowing exactly when the next cut is going to kick in on a record. To talk about music in this way is pleasurable too, and Willis writes about these kinds of pleasures. She writes like a fan. This is how you really live with music, her criticism says. She’ll say, for instance, in a year-end roundup, about a Gram Parsons record, that she might not listen to it as much, but it moved her the most. She’s honest about the different levels of love we may have for different sounds — some bands are not going to be your life. I wanted to ask you: have you seen any music writing lately that approaches [Willis]?

LL: I feel like reading this actually made me realize that I don’t read about music anymore. I don’t feel compelled to read about it.

CB: Why is that?

LL: I think because of all of the things that there are in the world to learn about, music writing has, if not the lowest returns, then… Like that Will Hermes book [Love Goes to Buildings On Fire] is getting great reviews. And that interests me, and it’s on my list, but there’s so many things above it.

CB: Did you read a lot of music criticism when you were in your twenties?

LL: I did.

CB: What did you read?

LL: I read all of Peter Guralnick, a lot of Greil Marcus, all of Lester Bangs. I pretty much read the canon. My obsession with music was such was that it didn’t feel like work to keep reading. Whereas now I think I’m much more interested in other things.

CB: What are you interested in now?

LL: [Laughs.] I guess I’ve set myself up. I’m going to read 20 books about Jean Stafford in the next 3 months [for a piece]. Which doesn’t leave me any time to read the Will Hermes book.

CB: It’s curious to me that if you read enough literary biographies, you notice that in the 50s, everybody’s got a classical record on.

LL: For the Stafford piece I started rereading the Eileen Simpson memoir. Have you ever read this? She was John Berryman’s wife. It’s called Poets In Their Youth. It’s so good. He’s basically teaching himself music appreciation from this quackish guy, so he’s buying himself Bessie Smith records and playing them obsessively, and moving on to Schubert and playing those records obsessively.

CB: What did she have to say about this?

LL: That her husband is a kind of a wacky poet and he doesn’t know how to do anything halfway, so

 

when he decides he’s going to learn how to like music he finds a guru and then starts buying records and listening to them obsessively. It’s interesting that they’re in their twenties, newly married, he’s teaching at Harvard, and I was thinking to myself, how could somebody have gone through their entire youth without music? He’d never owned a record player. It was that pre-rock —

CB: Right. You never see Sylvia Plath talk about music in her journals. It’s interesting to see how generationally that impacts writing. But now Jonathan Lethem can take on music as a subject. Or Nick Hornby. With people our age or a little bit older, rock has become literature, we allow it into our literature, it’s a fine topic. I’m thinking: Did you ever play music?

LL: No.

CB: But you dated people in bands?

LL: Always. After a while I tried not to. And now I’m about to marry one.

CB: But it is neither here nor there whether you have dated people in bands.

LL: Well, it is interesting in terms of one of the things Willis does and doesn’t do is talk about sex, and how she’ll let herself be female and talk about Mick Jagger or even the New York Dolls, and the sexuality in the music, but it never feels creepy and it never feels schoolgirlish.

CB: No. She knows where she ends and they begin.

LL: I guess what I’m trying to get at is that she never confuses the female position with the fan position.

CB: That’s true.

LL: Although there’s another point here, too. Oh, this is what I’m looking for. “It’s my theory that rock and roll happens between fans and stars rather than between listeners and musicians. You have to be a screaming teenager, at least in your heart to know what’s going on. Yet I must admit, I was never much of a screaming teenager myself.” And I think the way to describe that is cool, right?

CB: This is another thing she does and doesn’t do — she’s got both the enthusiasm and the tough kid from Queens going on at the same time. I think for people, especially women, if you grow up enthusiastic but also wary, watching her walk that line between enthusiastic and cool is extremely satisfying. Well, Pauline Kael was like this, too. She made her passions known, but was also able to say, “Well, this is bullshit.” Who else does this now? Anthony Lane, I guess. Can you think of any writers who are enthusiastic but also critical?

LL: No, I mean, I think enthusiasm is really hard to come by. The critics I admire now I mainly admire for intellectual coolheadedness. There isn’t a lot of enthusiasm going around. [[Laughs]]

CB: Not that that’s necessary. I was very into Greil Marcus.

LL: He’s very cerebral. The thing I like about Greil Marcus — in some ways he’s so scatterbrained. He’s able to write a fantastic book about anything he’s passionate about, but then he’ll also write a Top Ten list that will have the most disparate things on it.

CB: I would get very excited when those Real Life Top Tens would pop up on Salon [[they are in The Believer now — LL]]. I’m dating myself. About Greil Marcus. There is this quality of diffusion. Yet you knew what his point was. There is something about his essays too that allowed you to see the things you loved anew or explained to you why you should love certain things you hadn’t yet come to love. And I feel like when you get older it’s harder to be led to those decisions. You don’t really want that knowledge anymore, do you, as you get older? You don’t really want to be told what to be enthusiastic about, do you?

LL: That’s an interesting question. I don’t want to be told what to be enthusiastic about, but it’s hard not to respond to other people’s enthusiasm.

CB: Have you found any enthusiasm in the reading you’ve been doing lately?

LL: It’s not so evident in the Kael biography, although he does quote her quite a bit — reading the original Kael reviews, you do see why that’s what she’s known for. It’s an interesting question….I’m doing this Adam Phillips essay, and I find him to be a writer whose enthusiasms don’t always jibe with mine, although in the places they do I find him pretty irresistible.

CB: Irresistible is a good word to use. I find [Willis] to be irresistible in the way Adam Phillips is irresistible. There is also the idea of charm that comes up when I think about both Willis and Phillips. With him, I think, “Does he know he’s being charming?” And then I think — it doesn’t matter!

LL: It’s a separate issue.

CB: With Ellen Willis, she’s not trying to be charming, but it ends up being charming because at the end of a piece she will admit she’s human. She’s just a person. She’s not an infallible jukebox full of sentiments above reproach. Charm seems to be a rare quality in criticism. It is a thing that I prize but I know is dangerous — it can mean that nothing is happening. But instances where you feel that you are being beguiled or charmed as a result of being drawn into the subtleties and surprising, illuminating twists and turns of a mind — that’s very rare.

LL: The thing with charm is that it’s superficial. But I don’t think Willis is being superficial at all. But you know, not every piece is a winner.

CB: Lisa, what are you talking about?! [mock incredulity]

LL: There are some clunkers.

CB: Which ones?

LL: Oh, you know. I mean, Grand Funk Railroad?

CB: The title of it is kind of amazing: [in unison]: “My Grand Funk Railroad Problem — and Ours”.

LL: You don’t always have the best material to work with. Some of the women’s music pieces are a little bit rough. I guess what’s hard is that you see her working to try and bring substance to these bands or this scene and so obviously wobbling.

CB: I wanted to bring up the Joy of Cooking and —

LL: Miss Clawdy? The repeated visits from Miss Clawdy.

CB: I’m not convinced when she writes about those artists. Are you?

LL: About the talents of Miss Clawdy? No. I think it might have been the best thing going, but I’m not convinced of her greatness.

CB: Do you feel that she had to stump for these female artists?

LL: I felt that she picked what she felt was the best of the bunch.

CB: Also what I appreciate is that she’s always talking about class. She’s always giving up her coordinates — white, middle class, etc. — and she’s always very up front about that. I wish that people would own up more to the filters that they’re seeing through, hearing through. As someone who went to college in the 90s, I feel like we should be owning up all the time.

LL: “As a white woman of privilege…”

CB: Have you been on Pitchfork?

LL: I find Pitchfork overwhelming. I’m just like, the kids can take a lot more stimulation than I can.

CB: It’s like going to an arcade: Do I want to play skee ball, do I want to Whack-a-Mole? It’s useful at work. But the writing — it can make me think, uncharitably, “Does anybody here know how to write?” Does that make me a cranky old lady to think that? It’s basically like putting the record on the level of a taco.

LL: Do they tell you anything about the record?

CB: They do. It hews to the to the form.

LL: You mean it’s blah crossed with blah….

CB: Which I have used myself. I had a work acquaintance who, this was a long time ago, said, “Oh, music writing. Isn’t that just like writing about food?” I was offended, but saw what he was saying, and still tried to deny it. And now, the new rock and roll is tacos. So I guess it is writing about food, you asshole. You were right. There are radio stations that I listen to online, and I find that a more useful way of finding out about stuff. To the extent that I want to. The place where I get my hair cut has copies of Spin and Rolling Stone, and I use that time to catch up on those magazines. Like I said, I’m a cranky old lady. But thinking about those magazines makes me think — there’s no mystique now. What are you going to read about? Two kids from Wesleyan who quit school to start a synth band?

LL: I can imagine hearing a band now that I would like, but I can’t imagine there being a backstory that would intrigue me at all.

CB: Indie rock might have killed that, I sometimes think. In that: Everybody went to college. Everybody had learned their lessons from the sixties and seventies. Punk shut down the Dionysian culture of excess and pleasure. And by the time we got to indie rock everybody wore t-shirts and jeans and pledged their allegiance to feminism.

LL: But I think you’re right to talk about pleasure and then to forget about pleasure again when you’re talking about indie rock.[ [Laughs.]] I think there is something lost. And I don’t know that it’s our generation. I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that our generation lost it — I think it might have been lost by the time we got there. There’s something even nostalgic in the way Willis writes about the 60s, and the way that they’re already disintegrating. When I was growing up there were scenes and for a little while there was something magical that happened and then the commodification came along that was called indie rock and kind of destroyed it. And my point, and I did have one — it was about pleasure. And I wouldn’t say that I don’t get any pleasure from any music anymore, but I would definitely say the thrill of discovery isn’t what it once was.

CB: Have you mourned that in any way?

LL: Not formally. I think the search for pleasure spreads to other parts of your life. It goes to books or TV shows or movies or people.

CB: I would say both of us staked our identities on music —

LL: Oh, yeah.

CB: And it’s hard to realize that you really can let something that was so important to you go. On the way over here, however, I was thinking, I will never get tired of hearing “Young Americans” — so what is that? There are things that I’ve heard by newer bands that I like, but then I realize oh, they sound like all the other bands I have liked, but they’re 25 years old. What’s the newest band you’ve bought a song of?

LL: Probably Destroyer. Daniel was on a big Destroyer kick and said I had to get it. I honestly forget to listen to it but then it comes on and then I’m like, this is okay.

CB: The newer stuff has some early 80s cheese jazz tenor sax stylings.

LL: It has a little bit of that — I know what you mean. It’s not quite late Roxy Music, but it’s in that vein. I’m always happy when I listen to it.