Book Review: ‘Out of the Vinyl Deeps’ by Ellen Willis

records emilyonasunday Book Review: Out of the Vinyl Deeps by Ellen Willis

Photo via flickr user emilyonasunday

Canon formation is a funny thing: the notion of a canon in any given field implies fixity, yet there is always plate tectonics at work, a shifting that makes room for new works and surfaces neglected ones. Artists who struggle for recognition dream of historical vindication, reminding themselves that Vincent Van Gogh supposedly only sold one painting during his lifetime, or that Moby Dick assumed pre-eminence in American fiction 70 years after publication. The inescapable influence of John Cassavetes on recent American independent cinema is directly traceable to his films’ rerelease in 1989-90; the Velvet Underground were a cult band when their records came out and in the years following their breakup, but their adoption by the college-rock wave upon those albums’ 1980’s reissues elevated them to a place in the rock pantheon more or less equal to the Beatles and the Stones.

The critical canon—important reading on a given subject—works the same way, and it’s only a matter of time before a pair of new books, Out of the Vinyl Deeps by Ellen Willis (University of Minnesota; $22.95) and When Movies Matteredby Dave Kehr (University of Chicago; $22.50), come to seem as if they’ve always been part of the conversation on pop culture history and aesthetics.

Ms. Willis, who died in 2006 of lung cancer, was the first pop music critic at The New Yorker and a longtime contributor to The Village Voice. A long-admired figure in rock critic circles, she’s acknowledged as a pioneer of the form alongside Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs. In clear, lively pieces originally published between 1968 and 1975, on the latest releases by Bob Dylan, the Who and Janis Joplin, her excitement is palpable. Writing in a style that foregrounded her personal response to the music, she was equally concerned with rock’s relationship to various social and political currents, ever measuring music by its ability to fulfill its potential for countercultural expression—an early piece on Dylan, summarizing his emergence from the folk revival, noted that the “pure folk sound and idiom, in theory the expression of ordinary people, had become the province of middle-class dissidents who identified with the common man but whose attitude toward common men resembled that of White Russian expatriates toward the communized peasants.”

Mr. Kehr, a graceful writer, is an auteurist and aesthete: his close readings of films, which ran in the alt-weekly Chicago Reader between 1974 and 1986, pinpoints the stylistic choices that identify the individual signatures of directors like Terence Malick, John Huston and Martin Scorsese. Mr. Kehr illuminates how cinema works, without devolving into technical or academic jargon, and demonstrates an impressive command (so much more difficult to acquire in the pre-DVD revivalhouse geek era) of Hollywood history, genres and aesthetic lineages. Nearly every review delivers some seemingly casual, compact insight: Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven is “an Old Testament movie without a sense of Old Testament sin”; Isabelle Adjani, in Walter Hill’s The Driver, is “the love interest in a film that has no interest in love.”

Both books do what good collections of criticism should: they make you want to watch and listen to the things Ms. Willis and Mr. Kehr write about, whether familiar works (Janis Joplin’s records) or unheralded classics (the films of the prolific Hollywood studio director Raoul Walsh, whom Mr. Kehr makes sound every bit as rewarding as Howard Hawks).

And yet the appearance of these titles can’t help but strike an elegiac note—their introductions, blurbs, the fact that both books were published by university presses, even Kehr’s characterization of his current position at The New York Times as more historian than critic present them as a mournful recollection of a time when movies and pop music with serious ambition carried a significance that they no longer do.

There is also cultural plate tectonics. The ground has shifted: rock and movies have moved away from the center and no longer constitute the territory upon which the culture expresses itself. Rock fashion, rock attitude and rock energy, which have comprised the pre-eminent force in our culture since Elvis, have evolved to the point where they’re no longer tethered to the music that created them. Rock and roll began as an anti-authoritarian subculture, but it has become so thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream that it’s no longer dangerous or weird; it’s merely a middle-class career option. This has left rock fashion and rock energy free to attach themselves to other things both fringe and mainstream—extreme sports, video games …

… And food. The Food Network today is what MTV was in the 80’s, creating mainstream pop stars like Mario Batali and Rachel Ray. Genial populists like Guy Fieri, who hosts Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and the Travel Channel’s Fieri knockoff, Adam Richman, star of Man vs. Food, provide the armchair pleasures and hard-knock chronicles of life on the road that heartland rockers in the Springsteen-Seeger mode once did; high-wire molecular gastronomists like Ferran Adria embody the excitement once supplied by Sonic Youth-style art-rock. The vocabulary and values of Chowhound’s food writers—particularly the valorization of a somewhat problematically constructed “authenticity”—has been assimilated straight from the rock-critical lexicon. If The Villiage Voice’s marquee culture writer was once Robert Christgau, the Dean of Rock Critics, its new one is food critic Robert Sietsema. And it’s no accident that the Pulitzer for criticism in 2007 was awarded to the adventurous Los Angeles alt-weekly food scribe Jonathan Gold (or that both Mr. Gold and Mr. Sietsema used to be rock musicians), and that when Sam Sifton left his post as Culture Editor of The New York Times, he did so to become the paper’s chief food critic.

Meanwhile, see if you can name a film since The Matrix that’s had any kind of influence on global fashion or visual style. Cinema’s position has been taken up by interior design, particularly of hotels, restaurants and public spaces. A new generation of impresarios—people like Andre Balazs, Sean McPherson, Alexander Calderwood—possesses the aura and mystique that formerly surrounded great film directors. These visionaries imbue their establishments with an increasingly sophisticated and cinematic sense of narrativity; to merely set foot in them is to enter an elaborate fantasy. A generation ago, New York hipsters might have patronized fusty places like the Algonquin or the Carlyle out of a sense of retro irony, but today, Mr. Balazs’s Standard and Mr. Calderwood’s Ace Hotel are magnets for the local creative and entrepreneurial elite. These and other places like them have become tastemaking and stylesetting epicenters; it’s no accident that Sofia Coppola is making movies about Los Angeles’s Chateau Marmont, or that the charismatic character Chuck Bass on Gossip Girl owns and operates a sleek Sean McPhersonesque hotel.

Rock and film, meanwhile, now share cultural space with literary fiction; they are niche forms. To say that they were once communal, populist forces with the ability to “change history” may carry false promises—Ms. Willis’s decision to quit rock writing after 1975 was at least partly attributable to her belief that rock had been co-opted by high culture and was no longer an effective vessel for social and political ideas—but they once were the animating forces behind how our world looked and felt.

Today that energy comes from elsewhere. It merely awaits chroniclers as perspicacious and aware as Ms. Willis and Mr. Kehr.

editorial@observer.com

Canon formation is a funny thing: the notion of a canon in any given field implies fixity, yet there is always plate tectonics at work, a shifting that makes room for new works and surfaces neglected ones. Artists who struggle for recognition dream of historical vindication, reminding themselves that Vincent Van Gogh supposedly only sold one painting during his lifetime, or that Moby Dick assumed pre-eminence in American fiction 70 years after publication. The inescapable influence of John Cassavetes on recent American independent cinema is directly traceable to his films’ rerelease in 1989-90; the Velvet Underground were a cult band when their records came out and in the years following their breakup, but their adoption by the college-rock wave upon those albums’ 1980’s reissues elevated them to a place in the rock pantheon more or less equal to the Beatles and the Stones.

The critical canon—important reading on a given subject—works the same way, and it’s only a matter of time before a pair of new books, Out of the Vinyl Deeps by Ellen Willis (University of Minnesota; $22.95) and When Movies Matteredby Dave Kehr (University of Chicago; $22.50), come to seem as if they’ve always been part of the conversation on pop culture history and aesthetics.

Ms. Willis, who died in 2006 of lung cancer, was the first pop music critic at The New Yorker and a longtime contributor to The Village Voice. A long-admired figure in rock critic circles, she’s acknowledged as a pioneer of the form alongside Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs. In clear, lively pieces originally published between 1968 and 1975, on the latest releases by Bob Dylan, the Who and Janis Joplin, her excitement is palpable. Writing in a style that foregrounded her personal response to the music, she was equally concerned with rock’s relationship to various social and political currents, ever measuring music by its ability to fulfill its potential for countercultural expression—an early piece on Dylan, summarizing his emergence from the folk revival, noted that the “pure folk sound and idiom, in theory the expression of ordinary people, had become the province of middle-class dissidents who identified with the common man but whose attitude toward common men resembled that of White Russian expatriates toward the communized peasants.”

Mr. Kehr, a graceful writer, is an auteurist and aesthete: his close readings of films, which ran in the alt-weekly Chicago Reader between 1974 and 1986, pinpoints the stylistic choices that identify the individual signatures of directors like Terence Malick, John Huston and Martin Scorsese. Mr. Kehr illuminates how cinema works, without devolving into technical or academic jargon, and demonstrates an impressive command (so much more difficult to acquire in the pre-DVD revivalhouse geek era) of Hollywood history, genres and aesthetic lineages. Nearly every review delivers some seemingly casual, compact insight: Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven is “an Old Testament movie without a sense of Old Testament sin”; Isabelle Adjani, in Walter Hill’s The Driver, is “the love interest in a film that has no interest in love.”

Both books do what good collections of criticism should: they make you want to watch and listen to the things Ms. Willis and Mr. Kehr write about, whether familiar works (Janis Joplin’s records) or unheralded classics (the films of the prolific Hollywood studio director Raoul Walsh, whom Mr. Kehr makes sound every bit as rewarding as Howard Hawks).

And yet the appearance of these titles can’t help but strike an elegiac note—their introductions, blurbs, the fact that both books were published by university presses, even Kehr’s characterization of his current position at The New York Times as more historian than critic present them as a mournful recollection of a time when movies and pop music with serious ambition carried a significance that they no longer do.

There is also cultural plate tectonics. The ground has shifted: rock and movies have moved away from the center and no longer constitute the territory upon which the culture expresses itself. Rock fashion, rock attitude and rock energy, which have comprised the pre-eminent force in our culture since Elvis, have evolved to the point where they’re no longer tethered to the music that created them. Rock and roll began as an anti-authoritarian subculture, but it has become so thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream that it’s no longer dangerous or weird; it’s merely a middle-class career option. This has left rock fashion and rock energy free to attach themselves to other things both fringe and mainstream—extreme sports, video games …

… And food. The Food Network today is what MTV was in the 80’s, creating mainstream pop stars like Mario Batali and Rachel Ray. Genial populists like Guy Fieri, who hosts Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and the Travel Channel’s Fieri knockoff, Adam Richman, star of Man vs. Food, provide the armchair pleasures and hard-knock chronicles of life on the road that heartland rockers in the Springsteen-Seeger mode once did; high-wire molecular gastronomists like Ferran Adria embody the excitement once supplied by Sonic Youth-style art-rock. The vocabulary and values of Chowhound’s food writers—particularly the valorization of a somewhat problematically constructed “authenticity”—has been assimilated straight from the rock-critical lexicon. If The Villiage Voice’s marquee culture writer was once Robert Christgau, the Dean of Rock Critics, its new one is food critic Robert Sietsema. And it’s no accident that the Pulitzer for criticism in 2007 was awarded to the adventurous Los Angeles alt-weekly food scribe Jonathan Gold (or that both Mr. Gold and Mr. Sietsema used to be rock musicians), and that when Sam Sifton left his post as Culture Editor of The New York Times, he did so to become the paper’s chief food critic.

Meanwhile, see if you can name a film since The Matrix that’s had any kind of influence on global fashion or visual style. Cinema’s position has been taken up by interior design, particularly of hotels, restaurants and public spaces. A new generation of impresarios—people like Andre Balazs, Sean McPherson, Alexander Calderwood—possesses the aura and mystique that formerly surrounded great film directors. These visionaries imbue their establishments with an increasingly sophisticated and cinematic sense of narrativity; to merely set foot in them is to enter an elaborate fantasy. A generation ago, New York hipsters might have patronized fusty places like the Algonquin or the Carlyle out of a sense of retro irony, but today, Mr. Balazs’s Standard and Mr. Calderwood’s Ace Hotel are magnets for the local creative and entrepreneurial elite. These and other places like them have become tastemaking and stylesetting epicenters; it’s no accident that Sofia Coppola is making movies about Los Angeles’s Chateau Marmont, or that the charismatic character Chuck Bass on Gossip Girl owns and operates a sleek Sean McPhersonesque hotel.

Rock and film, meanwhile, now share cultural space with literary fiction; they are niche forms. To say that they were once communal, populist forces with the ability to “change history” may carry false promises—Ms. Willis’s decision to quit rock writing after 1975 was at least partly attributable to her belief that rock had been co-opted by high culture and was no longer an effective vessel for social and political ideas—but they once were the animating forces behind how our world looked and felt.

Today that energy comes from elsewhere. It merely awaits chroniclers as perspicacious and aware as Ms. Willis and Mr. Kehr.

editorial@observer.com