Monday, November 19, 2018

Timeless melancholy

Ellen Willis, at home, in music

I've been revisiting Out of the Vinyl Deeps, the terrific collection of Ellen Willis's (mostly) music writing published in 2011, again admiring Willis's intelligence and insights as they dovetailed with a genuinely sensual and physical response to pop music and the ideas in it. In December 1972 Willis wrote "Into the Seventies, for Real," a small piece reacting to a recent column by Ron Weiser in the Flash fanzine; Weiser complained that when rock and roll turned to Rock (and then into Art) in the mid- and late-1960s, some measure of rawness and authenticity was leeched out of the music. As early as the early 1970s there were some crowing that pop music had peaked in the early 1960s, when the dangerous stirrings of primal music in the previous decade were thrumming, still scary. Then the Beatles in Suits—and then the Rolling Stones merely ripping off Chuck Berry, and then Dylan's literary pursuits in song—spelled the end of all of this.

Willis's take on Weiser's take is predictably nuanced, and smart, moving between doubts about rock's so-called purity and the ways it was intellectually dull and excluded her, and and head-banging understanding that above all else rock should move us, literally, out of our blues. "You get the idea," Willis wrote in her "Rock, Etc." column in the December 9, 1972, issue of The New Yorker. "We’re supposed to get back to the mythic crudity and crassness reputed to be at the heart of rock and roll before it was corrupted by meaning, sensitivity, taste, and the like." (Note btw Willis's pretty early use of the term "punk rock"—in The New Yorker!)
The aestheticians of the backlash may overlap with the fifties-R&B nuts we’ve always had with us, but in general they take the spirit rather than the sound of fifties rock as their inspiration—particularly the Dionysiac illiteracy of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Punk-rock has become the favored term endearment. I have mixed feelings about all this. For one thing, the blood-'n'-raunch-forever approach to rock tends to degenerate into a virility cult. Besides, having lived through the fifties, I find it impossible to romanticize them. In spite of rock and roll, they were dull, mean years—at least for middle-class high-school girls. For all the absurdities of the counter-culture, it was better than what we had before; there’s something to be said for a little cosmic awareness, provided it doesn’t get out of hand. And if it hadn't been for the Beatles (I wonder, did Rockin' Ron despise Buddy Holly for wearing suits and glasses and looking like a school teacher?) we might never have developed the ind of consciousness about our shared past that allows a rag like Flash to exist. 


"Still," Willis pivots, "I do have a weakness for dedicated crudity and crassness." She cites Five Dollar Shoes, the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils, and Black Sabbath's Vol. 4 album as current music she's digging, half-bemusedly, half-seriously, that mines early, and timeless, rock and roll mayhem. "The genius of these songs," she observes, "is that they convert the residue of a decade’s aborted visions into the timeless melancholy of adolescence."
They remind me that the antisixties backlash is an anachronism even before it begins. Pretty soon, there’s going to be a new crop of kids, who, whatever they may inherit from the sixties, won’t know where it came from, or care—until, of course, they grow up and get self-conscious, like everybody else.

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