The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz; University of Minnesota Press, 513 pages ($24.95 paperback). Among the revolutionary, quasi-revolutionary and merely new things that happened to the world during the late-’60s and early-’70s was an entirely new species of brilliantly disheveled American writer: the rock writer. We’d never really had them before. And then, suddenly it seemed, we had Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Peter Guralnick, Robert Christgau, Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Robert Palmer, all manner of writers who took rock seriously enough to – in many cases – concoct life and prose styles completely congruent with its energies. Even if you couldn’t share their musical fanaticism, you could be overjoyed at something new in American prose that was being born in front of our eyes.
There was one problem. It didn’t seem that large at first but, over time, it turned into an immense drawback: it was, by and large, a boys club. There was, in retrospect, only one important woman fully bonded and indentured in the trade and present at the creation – Ellen Willis. Georgia Christgau was certainly visible but on a different path.
Willis died of lung cancer in 2006 at the age of 64.
In 2011, the University of Minnesota Press published a volume of Ellen Willis’ rock writing – “Out of the Vinyl Deep: Ellen Willis on Rock Music.” The university press’ second posthumous volume of Willis’ work – by far the more important one I think – is being published now as “The Essential Ellen Willis.”
It is no slight to either the music or Willis’ writing on the subject to say that Willis was so much more than the first rock critic, for instance, of The New Yorker. As befitted her exceptional minority, Willis went on to transcend her entrance through the cellar’s back door and become one of the most significant writers in an era when rock writers turned into brilliant public intellectuals.
Ellen Willis – importantly – was all of that: feminist, activist, thinker, original, and, as her daughter and anthologist puts it in her introduction to Willis’ work, the center of “an incredibly daring, restless, forty-year career.” Well-excerpted here.
– Jeff Simon