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Beginning to See the Light

Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock-and-Roll

Copyright Date: 1992
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 360
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  • Book Info
    Beginning to See the Light
    Book Description:

    From the New Yorker’s 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-and-roll, sexuality, and above all, freedom. Here Ellen Willis captures the thrill of music, the disdain of authoritarian culture, and the rebellious spirit of the ’60s and ’70s.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8180-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (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—a community based on the voluntary cooperation of equals. If this book can be said to make one central assumption, it is that there really is such a thing as liberation, however hard it may be to define or describe, let alone attain.

    My definition is political; it...

  5. Introduction to the Second Edition: Sex, Hope, and Madonna
    (pp. xxiii-xxxviii)

    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, temporarily elevated from the status of one issue among many to the preeminent metaphor for public anxiety and ambivalence about male-female relations—the underlying theme tapped feelings and desires that had been dormant, at least in public, for a long time. Expecting to enjoy a hip genre movie,...


    • Dylan
      (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: Dylan was dead; he was badly disfigured; he was paralyzed; he was insane. The cataclysm his audience was always expecting seemed to have arrived. Phil Ochs had predicted that Dylan might someday be assassinated by a fan. Pete Seeger believed Dylan could become the country’s greatest troubadour, if he didn’t explode. Alan Lomax had...

    • You Can’t Go Down Home Again
      (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), groups formed and dissolved and regrouped pretty much as they pleased. Some people tried to guess where the celebrities would go—the workshops provided informal contact with performers, and everyone wanted informal contact with B. B. King, Taj Mahal, and Janis Joplin—but most took potluck....

    • The Who Sell
      (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. “Substitute” was—though I didn’t think in such terms then—the best rock-as-paradox song ever written. (“Street Fighting Man” is second.) It embodied the tension between the wildness of rock and its artificiality. Its hero remarks that he might look tall, but only because of his high heels: “I look all white, but...

    • Elvis in Las Vegas
      (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. Its hopelessly reactionary nature is best exemplified not by the fountains in front of Caesars Palace, or even by the ethnic comedians, but by the existence of—yes—prominent citizens who want to Make Las Vegas Beautiful, which means toning down the neon on Fremont Street and creating vest-pocket parks. Andy Warhol, tolerant as he is, would...

    • Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning
      (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, that the huge turnout was completely unexpected (and in fact could not have been foreseen by reasonable men), and that they have lost more than a million dollars in the process of being good guys who did everything possible to transform an incipient fiasco into a groovy weekend. Incredibly, instead...

    • See America First: Easy Rider and Alice’s Restaurant
      (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. After hearing Nixon’s speech—“North Vietnam cannot defeat us; we can only defeat ourselves”—who can doubt that America as we have known it could completely disappear between one day and the next? Or maybe it already has, and what we are feeling now is phantom pain from an...

    • Janis Joplin
      (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, a considerably more ambitious and romantic vision of freedom that nevertheless had a similar economic foundation. Young Americans were in a sense the stars of the world, drawing on an overblown prosperity that could afford to indulge all manner of rebellious and experimental behavior. The combination was inherently unstable—Whitman’s open road is not,...

    • Hard to Swallow: Deep Throat
      (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. Die-hard (so to speak) porn liberationists like Al Goldstein ofScreware embarrassments to what is left of the hip subculture that spawned them—as out-of-date as skirts up to the thighs or inspirational speeches hailing...

    • It’s Later Than You Think
      (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. Not fun and games, by any means, but an active, energetic decade that we can really live in, not just live through.

      How do I know? Well, to explain I have to try to convey what life has been like these many months in occupied New York. The city, as...

    • Tom Wolfe’s Failed Optimism
      (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, to scorn the soft-minded optimism of religious and secular romantics as well as the corrupt optimism of governments, advertisers, and mechanistic or manipulative revolutionaries. I learned that lesson well (though it came too late to wholly supplant certain critical opposing influences, like comic books and rock-and-roll). Yet the modernists’...

    • Beginning to See the Light
      (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; I was skeptical about punk, in both its British and American versions. The revolt against musical and social pretension, the attempts to pare rock to its essentials, the New York bands’ Velvetesque ironic distance had a certain...

    • How’s the Family?
      (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; they travel light, have sharp elbows, and are deeply ambivalent about marital and parental bliss. But come December and they all seem as obsessed with family as if they had never read Marcuse: they worry about aging parents and confused siblings, haggle with ex-spouses over who gets the kids for which holidays,...

    • Jackie, We Hardly Knew You
      (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’sJackie Oh!is the sort of book Black Jack might have grinned at; Hugh would no doubt have preferredJacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, by Stephen Birmingham, author ofThe Right People. All the trappings of the Kelley book—the title, the garish cover, the Lyle Stuart imprint, photographs by the intrepid Ron Galella—shout juicy trash; Birmingham’s book exudes a claustrophobic aura of good taste. The content of both books corresponds to their packaging. The...

    • Classical and Baroque Sex in Everyday Life
      (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, focused on sensation for sensation’s sake, and stereotypically masculine. The classical mentality taken to an extreme is sentimental and finally puritanical; the baroque mentality taken to an extreme is pornographic and finally obscene. Ideally, a sexual relationship ought to create a satisfying tension between the two modes (a baroque idea, particularly if the tension is ironic) or else blend them so...

    • Velvet Underground
      (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. It is fully stocked: on entering the contest I was asked to specify my choice of drugs (LSD), junk food (Milky Way), T-shirt (“Eat the Rich”), book (Parade’s End), movie (The Wizard of Oz),* rock-and-roll single (“Anarchy in the U.K.”), and rock-and-roll album. The album isVelvet Underground, an anthology culled from the Velvets’ first three L.P.s....


    • Learning from Chicago
      (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. Chicago was an emotional marathon; between bouts of rage and fear, exhaustion and boredom, pessimism and euphoria, we slept little and badly. It was an experience from which, as I write this, I am still learning.

      It started out badly. The...

    • Herbert Marcuse, 1898–1979
      (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. I discovered his books at a time when I was groping toward a radicalism that would make sense of my experience as a middle-class American.Eros and CivilizationandOne Dimensional Manexcited me because they were about problems I was struggling with—the relation of psychology to politics, the idea of a cultural revolution,...

    • Glossary for the Eighties
      (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, now the same words are almost certain to elicit an uncomfortable silence, a tactful change of subject, or an outright sneer. But most radicals have not yet caught on that “the same words” are actually at the root of their problem....

    • The Family: Love It or Leave It
      (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, but the result, of an accretion of large and small choices, many of which I had no idea I was making at the time. Conscious or not, these choices have been profoundly influenced by the cultural and political radicalism of the sixties, especially radical feminism....

    • Postscript: The Backlash According to Irving
      (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), ofThe World According to Garp. ThoughGarphas its virtues as a novel, I think it owes its status as a phenomenon to its point of view: John Irving attempts to square an emancipated, profeminist stance with a profoundly conservative defense of the family, and because he is such a good storyteller he almost pulls it off. The novel evokes the positive side of family life with vivid conviction, and Garp’s unorthodox household—he stays home...

    • Toward a National Man Policy
      (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. As recently as last month, the optimists were urging, “Let’s wait and see what happens. These things are cyclical. Men always wilt in humid weather.” But lately the atmosphere has begun to change. More and more I hear ominous talk of a “man crisis” and allegations that the...

    • The Trial of Arline Hunt
      (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.” The doorman wears a suit. Inside, the middlebrow, stained-glass-and-wood-paneling decor seems a perfunctory attempt to disguise the stark functionalism of the place, which is dominated by two bars, one sitdown and one standup, surrounded by lots of space. Unlike Hal’s Pub across the street, Jewel’s serves no...

    • Abortion: Is a Woman a Person?
      (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. Since then, the grounds of the debate have shifted drastically; more and more, the right-to-life movement has succeeded in getting the public and the media to see abortion as an abstract moral issue having solely to do with the rights of fetuses. Though every poll shows that most Americans favor legal abortion, it...

    • Abortion: Overruling the Neo-Fascists
      (pp. 212-218)

      Judge 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. The ruling does not contain a word of denunciatory rhetoric, yet simply by accumulating facts it damns the movement as cruel, dishonest, and fanatical, devoid of decent regard either for the health and welfare of women or for anyone’s freedom of conscience.

      Much of the opinion is devoted to an exhaustive, scarifying compendium of the destructive effects of...

    • Feminism, Moralism, and Pornography
      (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. But you’d better not get stubborn, or you’ll have to deal with our friend rape, and he’s a real terror; we just can’t control him.

      Pornography often functions as a bad cop. If rape warns that without the protection of one man we are fair game for...

    • The Myth of the Powerful Jew
      (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. Any useful discussion of black-Jewish conflict must begin by acknowledging two basic realities. One is that American Jews are white* and predominantly middle-class and so tend to have a white middle-class perspective on racial issues. The other is that blacks are part of the gentile majority and so tend to share the misconceptions about Jews and the overt or...

    • My Podhoretz Problem—and His
      (pp. 245-258)

      Mention Norman Podhoretz to a radical, or even a liberal, and chances are the response will be something like “Thatasshole! I can’t take him seriously!” Chances are also that the vehemence of the dismissal will belie its content. The left’s reaction toBreaking Ranks: A Political Memoirhas been no exception; the general tone was captured best by Nicholas von Hoffman inNew York, going on at vituperative length about how boring and inconsequential Podhoretz is. Anyone so hated by people who insist he doesn’t matter must be hitting a nerve. And in fact, Podhoretz hits nerves all the...


    • Next Year in Jerusalem
      (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—when I got to Jerusalem I went to visit the Wailing Wall and got invited—they hang around there looking for unsuspecting tourists to proselytize. It’s sort of a Jewish Jesus-freak type outfit—dedicated to bringing real Judaism to backsliding Jews. I haven’t...

  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 319-322)