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Rock criticism’s brilliant pioneers

By Robert Christgau
Barnes and Noble Review

Willis_Out coverIt’s a little silly for me to do the full-disclosure tap dance around the books at hand. I’m quoted 10 times in Kevin Avery’s Paul Nelson biography-collection-tribute, “Everything Is an Afterthought,” and thanked prominently in the acknowledgments. Paul and I were friends in the ’70s, although he had many closer ones, and I edited a few of the pieces Avery chose; Paul helped me move into the apartment where I’m writing this and was directly responsible for the recording career of my beloved New York Dolls. And with Ellen Willis I have no “objectivity” whatsoever — we were a couple from 1966 to 1969, and, except for my wife, no one has influenced me more. Six years younger than Nelson, Willis died four months after him in 2006, when she was only 64. At a memorial colloquium the next year, I called for a collection of the rock criticism she’d written decades before, and I meant all of it. Overseen by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, “Out of the Vinyl Deeps” is pretty much the omnibus I imagined. I blurbed it. I’m in the damn video.

I believed Willis was a better critic than Nelson before I read these books, and for whatever my objectivity is worth, I still do. But I believed even more that both collections deserved to exist before their authors attracted attention by dying. From where I sit inside the whale, ’70s rockmags and alternaweeklies generated a lost trove of American criticism. With Willis and Nelson added to the eight other names now compiled one way or another — Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Robert Palmer, Richard Meltzer, Dave Marsh, Nick Tosches, Jon Landau and myself — the early record is in a sense complete. The Village Voice, Creem and Rolling Stone archives could yield multi-author miscellanies that document the democratic babble of that brief era with the diversity it deserves. But Willis and Nelson cultivated distinct voices that merit consideration on their own terms — very similar in their passion for lucidity, very dissimilar in their ideological impetus.

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Out of the Vinyl Deeps