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Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music [Paperback]

Nona Willis Aronowitz , Daphne Carr , Evie Nagy , Sasha Frere-Jones
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 1, 2011
In 1968, the New Yorker hired Ellen Willis as its first popular music critic. Her column, Rock, Etc., ran for seven years and established Willis as a leader in cultural commentary and a pioneer in the nascent and otherwise male-dominated field of rock criticism. As a writer for a magazine with a circulation of nearly half a million, Willis was also the country’s most widely read rock critic. With a voice at once sharp, thoughtful, and ecstatic, she covered a wide range of artists—Bob Dylan, The Who, Van Morrison, Elvis Presley, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joni Mitchell, the Velvet Underground, Sam and Dave, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Wonder—assessing their albums and performances not only on their originality, musicianship, and cultural impact but also in terms of how they made her feel.

Because Willis stopped writing about music in the early 1980s—when, she felt, rock ’n’ roll had lost its political edge—her significant contribution to the history and reception of rock music has been overshadowed by contemporary music critics like Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, and Dave Marsh. Out of the Vinyl Deeps collects for the first time Willis’s Rock, Etc. columns and her other writings about popular music from this period (includingliner notes for works by Lou Reed and Janis Joplin) and reasserts her rightful place in rock music criticism.

More than simply setting the record straight, Out of the Vinyl Deeps reintroduces Willis’s singular approach and style—her use of music to comment on broader social and political issues, critical acuity, vivid prose, against-the-grain opinions, and distinctly female (and feminist) perspective—to a new generation of readers. Featuring essays by the New Yorker’s current popular music critic, Sasha Frere-Jones, and cultural critics Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy, this volume also provides a lively and still relevant account of rock music during, arguably, its most innovative period.

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Editorial Reviews


"Here, [Ellen Willis's] witty, cerebral essays finally get the compilation they deserve. She grapples with voices who inspired her . . . and relates feminism to music in revelatory ways. Vinyl Deeps is the testament of a crucial voice. At a time when rock clichés were still being invented, Willis was already leaving them behind." —Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone

"Willis's work is crystalline enough that reading each essay takes the reader on a trip back to the era when it originally appeared, but it's a testimony to her intellect and talent that those journeys look completely unlike any hagiography you might stumble across. She cuts through clichés nimbly . . . and the essays vibrate off the page." —Village Voice 

"At a time when music was less understood than it is today, Willis appreciated why musicians combined passion and intellect to not only document their time, but also influence movements." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Out of the Vinyl Deeps should take its place alongside Marcus’s Mystery Train and Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung as one of the canonical documents of early pop music criticism. Even with her tendency to use big words and big ideas, Willis always knew at heart that music was a gas, gas, gas. She celebrated the seriousness of pleasure and relished the pleasure of thinking seriously. She followed in the footsteps of the New Yorker critics Dorothy Parker and Pauline Kael, and elbowed her way into the men’s club of music criticism. Maybe she didn’t even realize it was a men’s club—Willis seemed fiercely independent that way. Ultimately, Out of the Vinyl Deeps makes you want to do what the best music criticism should: pull out a record and listen to it with new ears." —New York Times
"I’d call Ellen Willis the Ida Lupino of music writing, but even that wouldn’t say enough about this book's value. Out of the Vinyl Deeps is a time capsule, the publication of which invigorates and illuminates our grasp of the period it covers—but it is also a timeless compendium of clear thinking and fresh, humane, and persuasive prose."—Jonathan Lethem

"Finally, Willis’s game-changing music writing is available in one place. It is like unearthing the holy grail of rock criticism!" —Kathleen Hanna

"A pleasure to read and a crucial challenge when truly considered, Willis’s essays on rock, freedom, sex, and dancing in your bedroom continue to teach me every time I return to them." —Ann Powers

About the Author

Ellen Willis (1941–2006) was a groundbreaking radical leftist writer and thinker whose true loves were rock music, feminism, pleasure, and freedom. She was the first pop music critic for the New Yorker and an editor and columnist at the Village Voice. She wrote for numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the Nation, and Dissent. She was the founder of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at New York University, and she published three books of essays, Beginning to See the Light, No More Nice Girls, and Don’t Think, Smile!Nona Willis Aronowitz has written about women, sex, music, technology, film, and youth culture for publications such as the Nation, the New York Observer, the Village Voice, and Salon. She is coauthor of Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism. Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York. He is a staff writer for the New Yorker and a member of the bands Ui and Calvinist. Daphne Carr lives and writes in New York City. She is editor of the Best Music Writing series. Evie Nagy is an associate editor at Billboard Magazine.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press (May 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0816672830
  • ISBN-13: 978-0816672837
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #136,276 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A much needed antidote June 9, 2011
This book gives a good "you are there" perspective on the phenomenon of Dylan, the Beatles, Stones, the folk scene, the Velvets, Creedence, Woodstock, regional scenes, and the nascent women's music/women in rock scene.
A few random thoughts (and to be honest, I'm a few chapters short of being done with this book):

Willis doesn't offhandedly mention dancing to music - she actually did it, and used it as a critical benchmark. She also has very little use for technical prowess. Too much of it gets in the way of good rock music.

Pre-"classic" rock acts like Elvis and the Everly Bros. aren't square in Willis's eyes.

As far as I can tell, Willis omits mention of the Beach Boys (what, no Pet Sounds!) and Led Zeppelin, which is interesting from my more "Generation X" experience. The former may simply not have interested her, what with her political bent as a writer, and as for the latter she would not have been the only contemporary critic who couldn't stand the Zep.

Willis's dissection of the "acceptable" roles of women in music is fascinating. She also describes the gradual adoption of rock by educated bohemians and political types as well as anyone.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Trade size soft cover edition-6 page Forward, 6 page Introduction (by her daughter), 223 pages of Willis' work, 8 page Afterword. Also included are 8 pages of b&w photos.

As a music listener I came of age roughly during the same period as most of these essays were published. Ellen Willis' (who died in 2006) views on music were somehow different than the usual critics writing of the day. Under the surface (usually) there lurked an intelligent observer of both music and the era.

She wrote several dozen pieces (under the heading "Rock, Etc.") for The New Yorker magazine-a place where I usually didn't think of, offhand, for an insightful look into current music-for several years, beginning in 1968. This was still the era (which ended in the 70's) when Rolling Stone Magazine was the "go to" periodical for insightful music reviews. Her writing would also turn up occasionally as liner notes for artists she thought had merit. This was in the era when "rock" writing was almost predominantly male dominated. Willis' writing seemed to flow almost without much effort on her part, but in them could be found some intelligent writing from someone who obviously loved the music. Her pieces in that era reached a much larger readership than any other magazine-475,000 as opposed to Rolling Stone's 75,000.

She seemed to actually like (most) of the music she reviewed, and didn't gloss over an artists latest release if it merited chastising. Willis wrote a number of pieces on Dylan, THE ROLLING STONES, THE BEATLES, THE WHO, and several other then major bands (even THE VELVET UNDERGROUND), all with good, honest insight. She also attended concerts, and could sometimes be found dancing, with the music as her only partner, in front of a full length mirror.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's hard for pop criticism to be classic criticism February 10, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Forty or more years after Willis wrote the best of the pieces, time exposes what was adolescent, of the moment, overly hyped. She avoids those traps and transcends them 80 percent of the time, which why I give this collection of often startingly perceptive analysis of Dylan, his contemporaries and his followers 80 percent of perfect. Even when you roll your eyes at some misplaced enthusiasm -- as I imagine Willis would have too in later years -- you're reminded how much passion the music of that era could evoke.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Make that 4 3/4 stars March 7, 2013
By Geo
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Why not 5 stars- because nothing is perfect. This insiders look at a true musical insiders reviews is a fun read. I do not agree with much that is said about some of the recordings, in fact, that is part of the fun of this book. Ellen was so sure that her opinions were the only valid ones that it can sometimes make your blood boil, but it is done with such background, experience and validity that you are many times sent back in time and to your collection to find her point of view and damnit--- she's right more often than not. This was almost an interactive reading experience for me--- perhaps you will have the same experience!
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful book May 20, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is very valuable for everyone interested in music writing and in learning about the broader cultural context of pop and rock music. I'm really thankful to Willis' daughter for putting out this great book and letting the world know about a great writer and thinker, Ellen Willis. In the field of writing about music, she is definitely a role model.
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