Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Ellen Willis

The Hill notes with sadness the recent passing of Ellen Willis, who died of lung cancer last week at age 64.

Willis wrote a lot of rock music criticism when I first encountered her in the early 70's. The classic rock of the 60's and 70's started me on my leftward journey, especially once I was old enough to get past the beat and understand what people like John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Pete Townshend were up to. At that time, their lyrics seemed to answer some of the questions I asked my dad that he couldn't answer when we watched the evening news. The more I listened, the more I wanted to know, and the more I read about those artists. The music writing in Rolling Stone was worth reading then, and those were also the glory days of magazines like Creem and Crawdaddy. Great writers like Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and Robert Christgau described the music with passion while also adding a healthy amount of liberal social observation. Ellen Willis was part of that group for a time, and she added a strong feminist viewpoint to her opinions on music and culture. Music writing eventually became too confining for Willis, though, and she went on to a long career as a social critic, her writing continuing to feature strong doses of feminism, Marxism, and scepticism of religion. It would still be a few years before I started putting all the pieces together, but Ellen Willis was one of those people who caused me to see my middle-class, suburban, white-boy existence from a few different angles.

The Nation this week eulogizes Ellen Willis' life and work with contributions from several of her friends and colleagues. Here also are links to some of Willis' best writing:

"Rock, Etc.": Willis' impressions of Woodstock.

"Hell, No, I Won't Go": Willis on the War On Drugs.

"Freedom From Religion": Willis takes on the fundamentalists, George W. Bush, the Democratic Party, and nearly every other American cultural institution. Not for the faint of heart.