Among those who were neither a coworker nor a student of Ellen Willis, I may have been one of the least likely attendees of Sex, Hope, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Writings of Ellen Willis, a daylong conference held Saturday at New York University and organized by Nona Willis Aronowitz, Daphne Carr and Evie Nagy. But I bet few in the crowd have had as many professional parallels to Willis’s career as I. That odd combination left me feeling incredibly exhilarated during the two thirds of the conference I was able to attend.
Willis is best thought of a great essayist. In her work as the first rock critic for the New Yorker then a columnist for the Village Voice, she wrote with passion, energy and rigor. Music journalism doesn’t age well, but most of the pieces included in the new anthology of her work, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press), shimmer with a contemporary relevance. She understood music in the context of cultural dialogue, and that dialogue goes on today, thus her insights retained their edge. And the caliber of her writing is far superior to most music journalism today.
Professionally, I am many things, a cheese monger, a sports writer, a featurist, but the title I’ve held longest is music journalist; I’ve done it for 27 years and my work has appeared in many if not most of the prestigious American outlets. If left there, that might have qualified me to be a panelist at the conference, but I rarely write on rock. Of the million or so words I’ve published on music in my career, I doubt 10,000 of them deal with rock. It’s not that rock wasn’t an interest; it has been since I was 8 in 1968 and heard the White Album for the first time. Several of my favorite Pandora stations are built around the likes of CCR and PJ Harvey and I still pause wistfully at the what-might-have-been of the Minutemen. Instead I chose to write mostly about jazz because I felt—and still feel—that it deserves a greater standing in the cultural conversation. When I wander off the jazz beat, it’s often to write on the likes of Bjork, Four Tet or Boards of Canada, rather than Arcade Fire or Dirty Projectors.
Yet I felt no reluctance in telling Ann Powers before the proceedings began that Willis’s work had more to do with my becoming a music journalist than any other. She was an outsider yet she didn’t have to ride a veneer of cool to be good at what she did. That was a revelation. As an unabashedly middle class African American, I was definitely an outsider, and cool and I weren’t often on the same wavelength.
The conference was intelligently organized by Willis’s daughter Nona Willis Aronwitz. Coworkers poignantly reflected on Willis and read key excerpts from her work. The first panel with Stanley Aronowitz, Daphne Brooks, Michael Berube, and Scott McLemee, probed the Willis’s relationship to Freud, Reich, and shrewdly located the root of her work as a rejection of the Kantian ideal of the mind/body split. In addition there were compelling presentations on her interest in black female artists of the ’60s (I don’t know this for fact, but I just took for granted that Nona is named for a certain member of Labelle). The second panel functioned more as a group interview by moderator Devon Powers ; she prodded Ann Powers, Joe Levy, Kathleen Hanna and Kandia Crazy Horse into discussions about the cultural narrative that made Willis’s work so powerful. Unfortunately I had to leave toward the end of that panel and missed Robert Christgau read and the third panel which discussed Willis and the future.
Listening to the panel, it was easy for me to become the 16 year old in Dallas Texas who took a bus to a downtown newsstand once a week in 1976 to buy the new copy of the Village Voice and read it cover to cover with wonder and awe. I felt like the conference reminded me or ideas and constructs that I need involve more in my own writing on sports, cheese, and yes, jazz.
If I had the balls at 25 that I possess at 51, I would have contacted Ellen Willis just to find out how she did it. She wrote with depth, passion, and style about music, and when music ceased to entrance her she turned her attention elsewhere. My career diversity has resulted equally from diverse interests and economic necessity, and when it comes to music, I’m far more prone to write feature stories than reviews. I’m more interested in the musicians words, especially since I’m on the jazz beat and there is less “official interview speak.” Still, some of the footsteps I trample around in belong to her.
Willis died in 2006. If she were around today, I’d probably contact her because I think she’d be interested in what I do. Maybe not the subject of what I do, but the method, and the results. Saturday’s conference confirmed that for me and today, I feel just a little bit taller.