Sex, Hope and Rock and Roll: A Conversation with Ellen Willis

Ellen Willis wasn’t my grandmother in the traditional sense. I didn’t see her very often, so I had to read about her. I was intrigued by the Velvet Underground reference in “Beginning to See the Light”, an essay from her collection of the same name, and I assumed that since she was a graduate professor and married to Stanley Aronowitz, my paternal grandfather, she shared his involvement in Academia. But after reading this essay I discovered quite a different Ellen than the mortarboard donning, latte-sipping professor I had envisioned. I discovered a sardonic and brilliant woman who was as interested in punk rock as she was in critical theory.

In “Beginning to See the Light”, Ellen describes how she discovered punk rock. As was the case with my own punk origins, she didn’t discover the genre on her own. Rather a friend of hers, who happened to be British, pressured her into listening to this music that so many people at the time were writing off as a fast, loud, and dangerous noise. Punk rock was shoved under my reluctant nose much like it was hers (although the people who introduced me to it were quite American). Ellen’s perception of punk rock was that it was merely a replica of the mid-60s New York City art scene, in which the Velvets had already made their mark doing nearly the same thing: rejecting traditional and commercial song structures for the sake of art. She also had a serious problem with what she viewed as the inherent misogyny of punk rock, and thus the “light” she saw was the realization that punk’s chauvinistic attitude, rather than the men creating punk music, was what she had a problem with.

She writes: “[U]nlike Johnny Rotten, I realized that the disgust, not the body, was the enemy.” Punk rock was dangerous and even sometimes mean spirited, but it was exciting to her, and excited her to the point that it pushed her to the brink of self-liberation. She could find worth in something that she also realized could be hateful and wrong, and bring it into her own life to better herself. I had to meet this woman.

Seeking advice on graduate school, I arranged to meet with Stanley and Ellen at their apartment in Washington Square one afternoon in late 2004. As usual, my grandfather was immersed in some academic assemblage, so I waited with Ellen, to whom I hadn’t spoken in more than five years. I remember sitting on the couch next to her, too nervous to even sneeze as my sinuses succumbed to the allergens emitted from their cat A.J. (named after the wisecracking son on The Sopranos). When she explained the origin of the cat’s name, donning a sincere grin that eventually became very familiar and even comforting to me, I was put at ease, as if her dedication to a popular television program made me feel that I could relate to her.

Nonetheless, I didn’t know which way to take this conversation. In the presence of an extremely talented writer and celebrated journalist, I remember thinking: “Should I offer my thoughts on the notion of ‘the family’ in conjunction with Tony’s ‘other family’? Should I ask what she thinks about Carmela’s desire to stray from her monogamous relationship with Tony and the double standard he sets when he pursues his extramarital affairs as opposed to her mere mental exploration of such possibilities? Should I just ask her if she thinks Paulie is an asshole?”

I didn’t understand how to talk with Ellen about something I considered, at the time, to be low art. But my questions could have been answered simply by reading one of her many essays on pop culture. In “Tom Wolfe’s Failed Optomism”, for example, she acknowledges the aspects of popular culture that are perceived to be low without denouncing them. She describes how her academic background in modernist thought initially caused her to shrug off the romantic and mundane elements of popular culture, yet how she could not shake what some of her teachers called “soft-minded optimism”. Ellen seemed to believe what her professors had taught her about aligning herself with high culture and hardened realism, or “the awful truth” as she describes it, yet she writes that although she “learned that lesson well”, it “came too late to wholly supplant certain critical opposing influences, like comic books and rock-and-roll.” In this way, the high and low arts were inextricably bound in Ellen’s world; the high gave meaning to the low, and vice versa.

Had I read this essay before shooting the shit with her about the Sopranos, I would have been able to realize that while Ellen was a paradigm for critical thought, she wouldn’t have judged me for introducing the more elementary and entertaining elements of the show into the conversation. Most of Ellen’s work, especially from the first half of Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll — the first section of which is devoted to popular culture, the second to feminism and the third containing the incendiary essay “Next Year in Jerusalem” — reflects her perception of popular culture, the Sopranos included (even if the show wasn’t created until decades later). Ellen saw the good, the bad and the ugly in all spheres of popular culture, and wasn’t afraid to call them out.

It was also during this first meeting that I came to understand Ellen’s love for music. I hadn’t read much of her pieces on music, other than the piece on punk rock, but I had known that she was the first rock critic for the New Yorker. Needless to say, although I figured I listened to some of the same music as Ellen, I was still intimidated. Ellen’s writings on music are among some of the most important pieces in rock journalism. And although, to my knowledge, she was not a musician, Ellen had an almost lyrical way of explaining herself, making it seem like she were one. Much like her favorite artists, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, her words were strong, yet calculated, so that it seemed like she never wasted a breath.

When I would ask her a question, or pause expecting her to interject, she too would pause before answering or retorting. What followed was always poignant and acute; her words appeared before me like musical phrases, her sentences like songs. They usually started out slow, gaining momentum and meaning as they flowed freely and easily from her lips. Having a conversation with Ellen was like the dialectical equivalent of listening to “Bringing it All Back Home” in reverse: side B first, with the more political – though not inherently topical – tracks; then slowly moving to the louder, electric songs on side A that reveal Dylan’s wittier side. This album is a perfect analogy for Ellen, as it constructs and defines all facets of Dylan’s musical career, from the acoustic tracks to the electric tracks; the anecdotal, episodic songs to the longer and more typical political songs.

The same can be said for Ellen’s work and conversational skills. She concludes her aptly-named essay “Dylan” with a phrase so poetic it could have been written by the singer himself, and sung in Royal Albert Hall in 1966: “[I]n a communication crisis, the true prophets are the translators.” Ellen acknowledges, like she does in the “Tom Wolfe” essay, the lower aspects of art, this time pop music, and praises Dylan for manipulating the genre to benefit those who might not have otherwise listened to such a radical thinker. Dylan, acting as the high artist with radical ideas, relays important messages to the masses without dumbing them down. What Ellen might not have known is that in describing him, she was also describing herself — although even if she did know, she would have been much too modest to admit it. But she could deliver the message to anyone, from the scholar to the schoolboy, and in this way, she was a lot like the Bob Dylan her essay described.

When I learned of Ellen’s passing, I was conflicted, to say the least. To be saddened by the death of one of your favorite writers is one thing, but to have a familial connection to that same person is completely different. I had to at once mourn the loss of one of my greatest inspirations and of my grandmother. Her legacy — although she would probably cringe at my referring to it as such- will extend far beyond what she ever could have imagined.

One of the last times I saw Ellen, she gave me a copy of Beginning to See the Light, with an inscription on the title page. It reads “To sex, hope, and rock and roll and whatever that means today.” The modesty of this simple quote is indicative of the breadth of her influence as a writer. She knew what sex, hope and rock and roll was today, but she wanted me to find out for myself.