Sunday, November 12, 2006


Remembering Ellen Willis

The weekend of mourning Ellen Willis began with the e-mail I received from my friend Donna Gaines, who wrote:

"The Original Riot Grrrl: Ellen Willis (1941-2006)

On November 9, Ellen Willis, died following a sudden relapse of lung cancer. I remember the first time I saw her byline--the policeman's daughter from Queens didn't hide her sex as "E.Willis" or stick to "women's issues." In New Journalism, writers like Ellen Willis, Tom Wolfe and gonzo Hunter Thompson dove right in, they read the social world like a Zap comic, like the Ramones. Willis wrote about the family, Lou Reed, Janis Joplin, Israel, Elvis, about everything. After leaving the Village Voice, she became a professor in the journalism department of New York University and the head of its Center for Cultural Reporting and Criticism.

My longtime Village Voice editor and friend, Ellen Willis taught me how to write, beating the academese out of me, she put my suburbia on the cover of the Village Voice and sent me to Bergenfield."

Donna is referring to Bergenfield, N.J., where an epidemic of teenage suicide had broken out. Donna, with her PhD in sociology and black belt in heavy metal, went to find out what was up with all that. The result was an overpowering Voice cover story and ultimately a book called "Teenage Wasteland."

Donna continued: "I can still hear her screaming, "You're over-explaining!! Just say it!!"

My transformative experience with Ellen was yang to Donna's yin. Ellen brought me into academia, getting me a fellowship to study in the NYU Graduate School of Journalism's then new Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, which she created, for the 1997-1998 academic year. Not only did I spend a year working towards my Master's degree, tuition-free: Ellen found $10,000 for me as the Elizabeth Arden-Chen Sam fellow. (Readers of Liz Smith's gossip column in those days were familiar with the name Chen Sam; Chen was Elizabeth Taylor's spokeswoman, and had recently died of cancer.)

I had met Ellen a few times many years earlier, near the start of my rock critic career. If memory serves me well, I met her at a get-together for Greil Marcus, visiting from the West Coast, at John Rockwell's downtown loft. Robert Christgau was there; so was Dave Marsh. Ellen had been the New Yorker's first rock critic. This was the early '70s, and I was the shy and star-struck speechless, trying to figure out what I could possibly say, in the midst of what was, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy's reference to Thomas Jefferson, the greatest gathering of rock and roll genius since Little Richard dined alone. On strictly rock critic terms, Ellen is the author of the definitive intellectual fan essay on the Velvet Underground, that appeared in both "Stranded," the Greil Marcus-edited collection of desert island disc essays, and in her own collection of essays, "Beginning to See the Light" (Knopf, 1981).

Ellen's Cultural Reporting and Criticism program helped me kick my thinking up several notches. I'd already spent 25 years as a rock critic; I had my template, I trusted my taste and ability to write. But the CRC program gave me the opportunity to frame my arguments with more focus and discipline. It also afforded me the opportunity to teach critical writing for two subsequent semesters to undergraduate journalism students at NYU. Ellen's guidance, and that of some other key teachers (Susie Linfield of the CRC, and Jay Rosen, to name a few) helped me renew myself as, Rosen and I once joked, a recovering anti-intellectual.
It wasn't until the last day of class party for the Cultural Reporting and Criticism students (there were about 20 of us) at the Apple bar and restaurant in the Village , that Ellen and I realized that the two of us, as well as Lester Bangs, shared the same birthday. December 14 won't be the same without her.

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