What the People Need

I recently read Out of the Vinyl Deeps, a collection of music pieces written by the late Ellen Willis, most of which appeared in The New Yorker during her run as rock writer there at the turn of the 1970s.

Rock criticism from the time the form was invented, 40-plus years ago, has a particular flavor. The most influential critics were based in New York and tended to run in the same circles. (Willis and über-critic Robert Christgau were a romantic item for a while.) They dropped the names of New York clubs and streets as if readers in Denver and Dubuque would just naturally know where they were—although in Willis’ defense, she was writing for The New Yorker, which has always acted as if nobody west of Hoboken is reading it.  The strong strain of East-Coast elitism in Out of the Vinyl Deeps forced me to put it down every once in a while in favor of more congenial company. (Enough with the Velvet Underground, already.)

That said, however, I did find some thought-provoking insights in it. For example, Willis suggests that by the early 70s, rock ‘n’ roll had been tamed, and its days as a form of rebellion were over. Whatever came after was going to be called rock, but it wasn’t going to mean the same thing it had meant since the 1950s.

Which provoked the following thought in me: “Well, duh.”

Somebody once said that rock is “music to kill your parents by.” If the phrase was around at the time Willis originally wrote, it too was dying along with the idea of rock-as-rebellion. Starting around 1970, the counterculture generation started having children of its own, and while I have no direct experience of this myself, I am pretty sure that once you become a parent, you can’t be quite so cavalier about embracing continuous upheaval. Cheerleading for the revolution is no longer so practical, and parricide becomes way less attractive.

Willis and her fellow critical heavyweights considered the taming process regrettable, which explains why they got so amped about punk and new wave a few years later. What they didn’t acknowledge is that the taming was also inevitable. In their defense, perhaps it was hard to see while living in the middle of it. And maybe Willis missed it in the 70s because she didn’t have a child (a daughter, who is the editor of Out of the Vinyl Deeps) until the 80s.

One record in particular brings home the irrelevance of the phrase “music to kill your parents by.” Forty years ago this month, the first national chart single by the Doobie Brothers hit the radio around the country. It would debut on both the Hot 100 and the Cash Box singles chart early in September. “Listen to the Music” is most assuredly not music to kill your anyone by. As many times as we’ve all heard it, it still affirms another important function of rock ‘n’ roll as well as anything ever has: to unite us in a community, not to rebel against anything, but simply to be.

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3 responses

  1. It’s a great top-40 cut off a terrific album (Toulouse Street). And Tom Johnson has one of the best rock voices ever.

  2. “Whatever came after was going to be called rock, but it wasn’t going to mean the same thing it had meant since the 1950s.”

    Yes. That’s why you see Billy Joel, James Taylor, Bee Gees, ABBA and their ilk in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    And it’s true everyone can’t continue to live the untamed life of their youth but the taming of rock was indeed regrettable. Let’s face it, not every young musician is going to want to be a James Taylor type and viola! the punk and new wave movement is born.

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