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AN INSIGHTFUL, INTELLIGENT LOOK AT MUSIC AND THE ERA BETWEEN 1968-1975
on August 21, 2011
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. This was how she "tested" the music, and there's a photo of Willis in the book of her dancing. Being concerned with feminism, Willis has several pieces under the heading of "The Feminist", which looks at rock music, the artist, and the feminist movement of the era.
Willis' style is intelligent, insightful (especially for the times), and it was cloaked under a sheet of a subtle, an almost self-effacing writing style. She was able to hear the music for what it was, and her honest look at the music gave her pieces added depth. Willis also was able to blend the music with the times, and her observations are still fairly pertinent today. These pieces are valuable for Willis' ability to paint a large part of the picture, as things unfolded around her, of the times as they were happening in the moment. If you think otherwise, they're still worthwhile reading as a look into those years when rock music (as opposed to "rock'n'roll") was still vibrant and exciting, just before music seemed to take on a blatant corporate sheen of money. Of interest is Willis' "Top 10" albums for 1974-Dylan/"Planet Waves", Clapton/"461 Ocean Boulevard", Bachman-Turner Overdrive/"Not Fragile", Gram Parsons/"Grievous Angel", etc.
Among other insightful essays are one on the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival-and how Willis sees the connection between money and r'n'r, and on MOBY GRAPE-who released an excellent first album only to fall apart due to negative publicity, and the over zealousness of their record company. In some of these pieces Willis begins reconciling rock music with feminism-a topic she went on the explore more fully in later times. Her insights from the era (when she complains about ticket prices being "to high" at $3-4/person) really capture a time now long since past, no matter if she's writing about Lou Reed, THE NEW YORK DOLLS, or the feminist movement.
If you're a fan (like me) of this era's music and the era itself, you'll like this book. Willis' style is sometimes pithy, yet intelligent, not fawning but rightfully critical. It's written by a fan of the music, and having these pieces together in one book makes this something worthwhile purchasing.