Saturday, May 28, 2011

Out of the Vinyl Deeps

I found something today that I'd known I wanted, but didn't expect to turn up: a new collection of Ellen Willis's pop/rock criticism, Out of the Vinyl Deeps (Minnesota, 2011), edited by her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz.

Because her main interest was political (left/feminist/Zionist), Willis didn't write much about music after about 1980, though her rock criticism was always political. After her very professional essay on Bob Dylan was published in Cheetah in 1967, the New Yorker, of all places, hired her as their rock critic. She stayed on until 1975, writing fifty-six pieces for them. Her work was very influential but partly because she left the field and (mostly?) because she was female, it has been largely forgotten. This compilation and republication may help to remedy that situation -- I hope so.

As I read the book, though, I'm struck by some odd mistakes, especially in reviews of Bob Dylan's work. In the Cheetah article, for example, she refers to the "electronic beat" (11) of "Desolation Row", whose instrumentation consists of two acoustic guitars and an electric bass. Not exactly "Pump Up the Jam"; the arrangement owes a lot more to Marty Robbins's 1959 song "El Paso" than to the Rolling Stones. Again, she wrote that on 1970's New Morning Dylan "plays the piano for the first time since Highway 61 Revisited" (32) but Dylan had played piano on "Dear Landlord" on John Wesley Harding. (Hell, he's credited with playing piano on Blonde on Blonde.) These aren't big problems, just small annoyances, but couldn't they have been fixed for republication?

I'm also bothered by some more serious mistakes, as when she confused "bisexuality" with "androgyny" in a piece on David Bowie.
As for his self-proclaimed bisexuality, it really isn't that big a deal. British rock musicians have always been less uptight than Americans about displaying, and even flaunting, their "feminine" side. Androgynousness is an important part of what the Beatles and the Stones represent; once upon a time Mick Jagger's bisexual mannerisms and innuendos were considered far out. Bowie's dyed red hair, makeup, legendary dresses, and onstage flirtations with his guitarist just take this tradition one theatrical step further [39-40].
"Bisexuality" doesn't mean a man wearing a dress or wearing lipstick (strictly speaking, neither does "androgyny"): it means that one relates sexually to persons of both sexes. It's true that many male rock critics were upset by Bowie's theatrical effeminacy (Lester Bangs once referred to him as "the chicken-headed king of suck rock"), but Bowie's bisexuality involved writing songs about sexual/erotic love between males, most notoriously "Queen Bitch" from Hunky Dory. There were also rumors -- I'm not sure at this remove how seriously to take them -- of love affairs between Bowie and other male rockers. Willis doesn't mention any of this, and I don't believe she wasn't aware of it.

It occurred to me how much the job of writing has changed since the early 70s when Willis mentioned that Nils Lofgren looked "like a cross between Donovan and the lead singer of the McCoys" (36). The New Yorker's fact checkers were famous even in those days, so surely someone could have made a phone call and learned that the lead singer of the McCoys was Rick Zehringer (aka Rick Derringer), later to play with Johnny Winter, Steely Dan, and as a soloist; but nowadays you (or I, anyway) would expect a writer to do some Googling rather than leave out the name.

(Another mark of changing times: she refers to "the ten-dollar-top ticket prices" (37) for Elvis Presley's 1972 Madison Square Garden concert, clearly regarding that as a high price. It's like seeing an old movie featuring a gas station selling gasoline for under a dollar a gallon.)

Mostly, though, it's a pleasure to reread these pieces, many of which I read when they first appeared. I value Willis's writing so much because, as her New Yorker colleague Karen Durbin writes, she was "that wondrous creature, an intellectual who deeply valued sensuality". Even when I disagree with her, which I did more often later in her career as she became more of an apologist for Israel and even (to some extent, ambivalently) for the War on Terror, she's one of my most important role models as a writer and an intellectual.

(Which reminds me, I need to do a post about Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, and when I do, I want to address Willis's review of it.)