What Are They Reading?
BEGINNING TO SEE THE LIGHT: Sex, Hope and Rock and Roll.
By Ellen Willis.
University Press of New England (reprint). 1992.
Like most media junkies, I read a lot of mediocre crap--from Z magazine to The Star to the Times arts section. That's not good for a writer; one can pick up bad habits reading bad stuff. When I want to learn how to write--and think--better, I read my favorite essayists, including Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken, Joan Didion--and Ellen Willis. I just finished reading Willis's 1981 essay collection Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope and Rock and Roll (named, of course, after the Velvet Underground song). In her 1968 essay "You Can't Go Down Home Again," she presciently describes the growing consumerism of the Newport Folk Festival, long before its takeover by Ben & Jerry's. Other essays focus on sex, Bob Dylan, the family, Woodstock's inspiring collective spirit (and infuriating hippie passivity) and the frustrations of "women's music." Like the late Andy Kopkind (a longtime Nation editor), Willis has a shrewd sense of the zeitgeist.
Other essays are disturbingly relevant today. In "Learning from Chicago," Willis writes incisively about the protests at the 1968 Democratic convention; a policeman's daughter, she describes demonstrators' cop-hating as "another pretense that white bohemians and radicals are as oppressed as ghetto blacks," and "fierce bohemian contempt for all those slobs who haven't seen the light." Though street protests have been more peaceful in the past year, some activists still deliberately attempt to provoke the police, and almost seem to view such conflict and self-victimization as a demonstration's primary purpose. Willis also deftly tackles the dreamy macho "logic" that underlies such confrontations: "the myth of insurrection (let's stop talking about it and do it) and the myth of revelation (this time we're going to make everyone see the whole motherfucking mess once and for all)." And you don't have to share Willis's devotion to Israel to find "The Myth of the Powerful Jew," her 1979 meditation on anti-Semitism, strikingly perceptive; like much else in this fine book, it deserves a revival, given the wave of stupid and dangerous provincialism now sweeping the globe.