Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Cheetah [Hearts] Commentary

When last I mentioned Ellen Willis's name in these precincts it was to announce and recommend the celebration of her rock criticism at NYU April 30, keyed to Out of the Vinyl Deeps, the collection edited by her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz, which I also recommended at that time and recommend again right now. My plan at the time was to come home and post about the conference that very weekend. But that proved more difficult than I'd anticipated, for two reasons. First, the conference was less wonderful than I'd expected. Second, it was more momentous for me than I'd expected.

Still is, in fact, so I'll be brief on those two points before putting the crucial fact indicated in my title in the public record. In the matter of wonderful I'll just say that when I report on such ecumenical conferences I always tend to say the same thing--that the journalists smoked the academics. At this one, the academics were great: Willis's husband Stanley Aronowitz on her political ideology, Michael Berube on her aesthetic ideology, Daphne Brooks unearthing a photograph of a college-age Willis with Lorraine Hansberry in a valiant attempt to address the inconvenient fact that Willis's rock criticism was very light on African-American music, and ringer Scott McLemee of the National Book Critics Circle explaining why Willis's pop bent was preferable to Susan Sontag's elitism. With one major exception, the middle-aged journos were fine too. But the young critics Nona brought together were for the most part distressingly ignorant, and I'll leave it at that. I could write reams about any of this stuff, in part because rock criticism is a big deal to me and--to get to momentous--because Willis was such a major figure in my own life, as hours of discussion afterward made all too clear. But for now (and maybe forever) I'll let it be. Except for that one thing.

Nona W. A. got something wrong in her introduction, and now I see it popping up in reviews of Out of the Vinyl Deeps. I consider it important enough to have made it the focus of my own brief talk at the conference, so I want to repeat now: Ellen Willis's first piece of rock criticism, her monumental and still resonant essay on Bob Dylan, was not initially published in the nine-issue "counterculture" magazine Cheetah, where this budding left-feminist intellectual was second in command. It was first published in Commentary--as of late 1967, when it appeared, not yet fully transformed into the loathsome vehicle of neocon belligerence we have come to studiously ignore and/or know so well. I was involved in how this happened, but I'll let that be too. The reason I think it's important is that it illustrates how fluid the culture of the late '60s was. First, this young Marxist-libertarian hybrid is so palpably intelligent and as yet unformed that she not only gets an assignment from a Commentary all too aware that there's a youth culture out there it had better get a grip on, but then publishes an essay that compares Bob Dylan not, as Ellen used to say, to Robert Burns, as Commentary presumably hoped, but to Andy Warhol, an artist it is safe to guess everyone there loathed. Then, this cheesy "counterculture" magazine seeded with Diners Club money (credit cards! that might be an idea!) publishes a slightly revised version of an essay that had already appeared in one of America's most highbrow outlets.

I'll close by observing that it wasn't "magazines" that made these assignments. It was editors: first Marion Magid, who from what I read proved a total Podhoretz loyalist but had something resembling an open mind at the time, and then Larry Dietz, who had the chutzpah to hire this hyperintelligent woman (Willis, not Magid) when he inherited his cheesy-mag-he-tried-so-hard-to-make-not-cheesy from an earlier e-in-c who took too many drugs. When Dietz emailed me about Willis's book a month ago, I saw that even he had forgotten that the Dylan essay first surfaced in Commentary. But when I reminded him, he agreed that this was a telling and truly remarkable detail--the chopped walnut on the cheeseball, so to speak.

Articles, July 19, 2011


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