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Beginning to See the Light

Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll

Ellen Willis

Publication Year: 2012

From the New Yorker’s inimitable first pop music critic comes this pioneering collection of essays by a conscientious writer whose political realm is both radical and rational, and whose prime preoccupations are with rock ’n’ roll, sexuality, and above all, freedom. Here Ellen Willis assuredly captures the thrill of music, the disdain of authoritarian culture, and the rebellious spirit of the ’60s and ’70s.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

I want first of all to thank my close friends, feminist co-conspirators, and colleagues at the Village Voice, Karen Durbin and M. Mark. They have officially or informally edited many of the pieces in this book, as well as freely shared their insights into politics, music, sex, love, friendship, my virtues and faults. ...

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pp. xiii-xxii

Until I started putting this collection together, I did not realize how consistently I've been obsessed with the idea of freedom. In one way or another, my pieces on such apparently diverse subjects as rock-and-roll and feminism, radical politics and religion reflect my belief in the possibility of a genuinely democratic culture— ...

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Introduction to the Second Edition

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pp. xxiii-xxxvi

Shortly before I started working on this introduction, I saw "Thelma and Louise." I loved it, and vicarious revenge against the rapists and sexist creeps of the world was only part of the reason. While the plot could not have been more contemporary—for months, date rape had been in the headlines, ...

I: Out of the Vinyl Deeps

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pp. 3-25

Nearly two years ago, Bob Dylan had a motorcycle accident. Reports of his condition were vague, and he dropped out of sight. Publication of his book, Tarantula, was postponed indefinitely. New records appeared, but they were from his last album, Blonde on Blonde. Gruesome rumors circulated: ...

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You Can't Go Down Home Again

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pp. 26-34

It was a hot, bright Saturday afternoon, and some nine thousand sunburned fans roamed through Newport's Festival Field sampling the folk music workshops. Although there was a semblance of a schedule (the staff had mimeographed a map of offerings ranging from Folk Dance to Banjo, from Bluegrass to Blues Jam Session Open to All), ...

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The Who Sell

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pp. 35-40

Early in 1966, I got hold of two 45s a tourist friend had brought back from England—"Anyway Anyhow Anywhere" and "Substitute," by an unknown (in the States) rock group called the Who. The records turned out to be driving, snarling, harder-than-Stones rock-and-roll, with tough, sophisticated lyrics. ...

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Elvis in Las Vegas

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pp. 41-44

Las Vegas is more like Hollywood than Hollywood, because the money is changing hands right out front. Committed to veneer as an art form, over-thirty and relentlessly white in essence, if not always in packaging, Vegas is the antithesis of the cultural revolution. ...

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Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning

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pp. 45-50

You have to give the producers of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair this much credit: they are pulling off a great public relations coup. They have apparently succeeded in creating the impression that the crisis in Bethel was a capricious natural disaster rather than a product of human incompetence, ...

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See America First: Easy Rider and Alice's Restaurant

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pp. 51-60

In 1969, the Year of the Pig, participants in what is known as (descriptively) youth culture or (smugly) hip culture or (incompletely) pop culture or (longingly) the cultural revolution are going through big changes. For choices have to be made now; they can no longer be left to a dubious mañana. ...

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Jani's Joplin

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pp. 61-67

The hippie rock stars of the late sixties merged two versions of that hardy American myth, the free individual. They were stars, which meant achieving liberation by becoming rich and famous on their own terms; and they were, or purported to be, apostles of cultural revolution, ...

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Hard to Swallow: Deep Throat

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pp. 68-75

It gets harder and harder to find someone who will say a good word for pornography. Angry feminists, chagrined liberals, Henry Miller and Pauline Réage fans, all agree that this is not what we meant, not what we meant at all, while the legions who never wanted to let the genie out of the bottle in the first place feel both outraged and vindicated. ...

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It's Later Than You Think

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pp. 76-79

Don't look back (Idi Amin may be gaining on you), but the seventies are behind us. Sometime during 1976 they just faded out. Historians will recall the seventies as nasty and brutish, but mercifully short. The eighties, contrary to a lot of people's gloomy expectations, are going to be different. ...

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Tom Wolfe's Failed Optimism

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pp. 80-88

My deepest impulses are optimistic, an attitude that seems to me as spiritually necessary and proper as it is intellectually suspect. In college and for some time afterward, my education was dominated by modernist thinkers and artists who taught me that the supreme imperative was courage to face the awful truth, ...

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Beginning to See the Light

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pp. 89-99

On November 7, I admitted I was turned on by the Sex Pistols. That morning I had gone from my shrink to my office and found that a friend who takes an interest in my musical welfare had sent me a package of British punk singles and albums. He had been urging me to listen to the stuff, and I had been resisting; ...

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How's the Family?

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pp. 100-102

Christmas week: if Phyllis Schlafly and her cohorts could observe my friends right now, they might conclude that the plot against the American family is a paper tiger. As a group, the people I know are surely in the vanguard of the plot if it exists at all; ...

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Jackie, We Hardly Knew You

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pp. 103-105

They say that Jackie's father, "Black Jack" Bouvier, was flamboyant, sexy, and irresponsible, while her stepfather, Hugh Auchincloss, was kind, solid, and dull. Kitty Kelley's Jackie Oh! is the sort of book Black Jack might have grinned at; Hugh would no doubt have preferred Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, ...

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Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life

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pp. 106-109

There are two kinds of sex, classical and baroque. Classical sex is romantic, profound, serious, emotional, moral, mysterious, spontaneous, abandoned, focused on a particular person, and stereotypically feminine. Baroque sex is pop, playful, funny, experimental, conscious, deliberate, amoral, anonymous, ...

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Velvet Underground

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pp. 110-124

A change of fantasy: I have just won the first annual Keith Moon Memorial Essay Contest. (This year's subject was "Is Ecstasy Dead?") The prize is a fallout shelter in the bowels of Manhattan, reachable only through a secret entrance in CBGB's basement. ...

II: American Girls Want Everything

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Learning from Chicago

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pp. 127-140

The Chicago protest was one of those rare political events that is not merely attended, but lived. What was most remarkable about it was how much living was concentrated in such a short time; the week of the Democratic Convention summed up a period of movement history as no other action has done since the historic Mississippi Summer Project. ...

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Herbert Marcuse, 1898–1979

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pp. 141-144

When I heard that Herbert Marcuse had died, I immediately thought, "The same year as John Wayne." For people like me Marcuse was something of a star, a presence, a symbol of certain values. I felt connected to him, though not in any simple way. ...

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Glossary for the Eighties

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pp. 145-148

As the seventies draw to a close, it is painfully obvious that militant critics of our society have fallen on hard times. Young, eager, and sexy only a decade ago, they have aged badly. By now the least perceptive of them have realized that radical is no longer chic; where once crowds of people hung on their every word, ...

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The Family: Love It or Leave It

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pp. 149-168

When I talk about my family, I mean the one I grew up in. I have been married, lived with men, and participated in various communal and semicommunal arrangements, but for most of the past six years—nearly all of my thirties—I have lived alone. This is neither an accident nor a deliberate choice, ...

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Postscript: The Backlash According to Irving

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pp. 169-171

There is no more conspicuous evidence of postsixties confusion than the enormous success, both critical and popular (over 2,500,000 paperback copies in print), of The World According to Garp. Though Garp has its virtues as a novel, I think it owes its status as a phenomenon to its point of view: ...

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Toward a National Man Policy

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pp. 172-175

As if the United States didn't have enough problems, it seems that we are suffering from a serious man shortage. At first, most women assumed the situation was temporary, a side effect of unavoidable dislocations in the country's psychic economy. There was a lot of private grumbling, but no calls for action. ...

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The Trial of Arline Hunt

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pp. 176-204

Jewel's is one of a cluster of singles bars on Union Street near I San Francisco's fashionable Pacific Heights district. The canopy over the door is stamped with the bar's motto, "Where Incredible Friendships Begin." At the entrance a sign warns that "blue jeans, T-shirts, collarless jerseys, tank shirts, transvestites, etc." are "taboos." ...

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Abortion: Is a Woman a Person?

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pp. 205-211

If propaganda is as central to politics as I think, the opponents of legal abortion have been winning a psychological victory as important as their tangible gains. Two years ago, abortion was almost always discussed in feminist terms—as a political issue affecting the condition of women. ...

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Abortion: Overruling the Neo-Fascists

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pp. 212-218

Jadge John F. Cooling's 328-page decision striking down the Hyde Amendment is heartening in a way that transcends its strictly legal impact*: for the first time a federal judge has taken the offensive against the arguments and tactics of the right-to-life movement. ...

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Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography

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pp. 219-227

For women, life is an ongoing good cop-bad cop routine. The good cops are marriage, motherhood, and that courtly old gentleman, chivalry. Just cooperate, they say (crossing their fingers), and we'll go easy on you. You'll never have to earn a living or open a door. We'll even get you some romantic love. ...

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The Myth of the Powerful Jew

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pp. 228-244

Obviously, the fury of black people at Andy Young's departure reflects a decade or more of increasing tensions between blacks and Jews. What is perhaps less obvious is how much the entire incident reflects deteriorating relations between Jews and non-Jews generally. ...

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My Podhoretz Problem—and His

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pp. 245-258

Mention Norman Podhoretz to a radical, or even a liberal, and chances are the response will be something like "That asshole! I can't take him seriously!" Chances are also that the vehemence of the dismissal will belie its content. The left's reaction to Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir has been no exception; ...

III: Next Year in Jerusalem

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Next Year in Jerusalem

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pp. 261-318

In the spring of 1975 my brother Michael, then twenty-four, was on his way home from his third trip through Asia when he arrived in Israel, planning to stay a few weeks before heading back to New York. On April 28 he wrote to our parents: "I've been staying at, of all things, an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva— ...

Permissions Acknowledgments

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pp. 319-320

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About the Author

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p. 361-361

Ellen Willis (1941-2006) was a groundbreaking radical leftist writer and thinker whose true loves were rock music, feminism, pleasure, and freedom. She was the first pop music critic for The New Yorker and an editor and columnist at the Village Voice. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780816681808
E-ISBN-10: 0816681805
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816680788

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2012