Bob Dylan "went electric" in July of 1965. Now, I had once heard that Dylan went electric, I'd heard neighbors and family mention this fact off-hand once or twice in my youth, and, frankly, I probably also heard it on a Behind the Music
. I didn't care that Dylan went electric. Why would anyone?
Ellen Willis set me straight on the subject of Dylan's electrification, as she set me straight on several other subjects. I now care, and have an opinion. Willis, the afterword notes, had an interest in the sociology of pop music and it is on that aspect that she writes fascinatingly and abundantly. Willis was an active participant in counter-culture who was disillusioned with counterculture. Here she skillfully and eruditely takes down the radical left and the reactionary right with out a hint of irony or annoying flippancy that populates today's writing on culture. One need only compare the opening essay that Willis wrote, at the ripe old age of twenty-six, on Dylan for Cheetah
to her (at the time of publication) twenty-six-year-old daughter's opening essay to see what terrible things our cultural predilection for irony has done to intelligent writing these days. Willis hauntingly comments on this cultural phenomenon in her 2001 Salon
review of Dylan's Love and Theft
In post-September 11 America, the inescapably topical is also enveloped in history and myth. In the gap where the towers used to be rise many ghosts: of our Cold War alliance with Afghan mujahedin, the Gulf War, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the Iranian hostage crisis, Vietnam, the Israeli-Arab war of '67, World War II, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, World War I, the Civil War, the American Revolution, and beyond, back before the New World, the New Eden, was envisioned. The American imagination will be taxed with demands for unquestioning unity and generic patriotism, will be burdened or inspired by our sense of loss and defiance, identification and separateness, new tensions between individual and collective. And irony (which in some quarters has been prematurely pronounced dead) will be very, very important. [Bold face mine.]
Cultural awareness and consciousness-raising is as much a part of Willis' project as myth busting. Her piece on Woodstock is a must-read for anyone who ever dreamed of having been there; you'll stop. Her writing on class is difficult for the sledge-hammer that it takes to your liberal fantasies that you are making the world a better place but her feminism makes it much easier to bear for this reader than Mike Davis, whose writings resemble hers.
The only problem with this collection is its repetitiveness; it covers too few performers. The editors laid it out there from the start: Willis ignored huge swaths of pop music in her tenure at the New Yorker. I grew up listening to James Taylor (Willis hates him) and Gordon Lightfoot, Alan Jackson and Tanya Tucker so bands like Mott the Hoople and the Velvet Underground are completely unfamiliar territory.