Bob Dylan just might be our best cultural seismograph. His music has gradually shifted from the angry, apocalyptic protest of "It's a Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" in 1963 to the mellow, born-again Christianity of "Gotta Serve Somebody' in 1980. Crude bad-boy Dylan, the proletarian prophet whose rasing voice has been flattened by faith, and theatrical ex-Yippie Jerry Rubin, the movement's naughty, shaggy iconolast-turned-Wall Street stockbrocker par excellence ("Money's where it's at now, man") -- these twin miracles of metamorphosis -- epitomize what became of the 60s. That peculiar decade's symbolic heroes went mainstream with a vengeance.
Ellen Willis records and interprets the process that brought us from Chicago 1968, LSD and Vietnam to neoconservatism and the politics of reaction in a collection of her essays written during "the economic and cultural slough of the '70s." Most of the 28 pieces in "Beggining to See the Light" originally appeared in The New Yorker, The Village Voice and Rolling Stone. Willis' writing traces the experience of one Jewish radical feminist who characterizes herself as "a lover of rock 'n' roll, a New Yorker, an aesthete, a punk, a sinner, a sometime seeker of enlightenment (and love) (and sex)." Her cultural journalism is intelligent and carefully argued, personal and risky yet never confessional. Although these pieces were neither written nor assembled to comprise any systematic whole, taken together they represent a sharp, critical, provocative commentary on the last decade.
About one-third of these essays concern rock music -- its symbols, its politics, its cultural significance. "How can anyone claim to hate America, deep down, and be a rock fan?" Willis asks. "Rock is America -- the black experience, the white experience, technology, commercialism, rebellion, populism, the Hell's Angels, the horror of old age -- as seem by its urban adolescents."
Rock 'n' roll exemplifies for Willis the elemental energy of a generation born between 1940 and 1950. Its music speaks always about "rebellion, freedom and the expression of emotion."
Yet Willis also writes that rock music represents a bourgeois, commercialized, technology-dependent form of blues, a "white exploitation of black music," a co-optation of the pop counterculture by big business. And there were casualties. Some of the hippie rock stars who were celebrated as "apostles of cultural revolution" died in the cause of "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." That line, as sung by Janis Joplin, one of rock's premier casualties, is says Willis, "as good an epitaph for the counterculture as any."
Willis' feminism permeates the essays in "Beginning to See the Light," and her most vociferous arguments concern abortion, rape and pornography as crucial issues of women's rights. In a piece on Judge John F. Dolling's decision against the Hyde Amendment, Willis convincingly asserts that "the antiabortion movement is the most dangerous political force in the country . . . it is the cutting edge of neo-fascism."
She sharply criticizes antiabortionists who "value the lives of fetuses above the lives and welfare of women, because at bottom they do not concede women the right to an active human existence that transcends their reproductive function."
One of the most effective, and affecting, essays is "The Trial of Arline Hunt," a long narrative about a woman in San Francisco who was raped. Willis records the events leading to the astonishing acquittal of the rapist in a piece of powerful investigative journalism whose impact derives from the underplayed tone of urgency in its writing.
In "The Myth of the Powerful Jew," a piece originally written in response to Andrew Young's resignation from the United Nations in August 1979, Willis argues forcefully that "anti-Semitism is bound up with people's anger not only at class oppression but at the whole structure patriarchal civilization -- at the authoritarian family and state, at a morality that exalts the mind, denigrates the body, and represses sexuality."
She turns to a stunning analysis of her own ambivalent Jewishness in "Next Year in Jerusalem," an autobiographical account inspired by her younger brother's conversion to Orthodox Judaism. Though her first reaction to this family event "was a kind of primal dread," Willis travels to Israel to confront her lack of faith. There she suffers from "acute mental vertigo," realizes, horrified, that despite its rigidly orchestrated role for women Judaism offers both "a plausible intellectual system" and a plausible way of life" and nearly succumbs to the relentless reasoning of her brother -- her "male mirror image" -- and his rabbi.
"Living with Orthodox Jews was like being straight at a party where everyone else is stoned," she writes. "After a while, out of sheer social necessity, you find yourself getting a contact high." Ultimately, however, she returns to New York, "with all the intellectual questions unresolved, because in the end I trusted my feelings and believed in acting on them."
Finally, a sense of Ellen Willis as a committed writer crystallizes in this first (and one hopes not last) collection of her essays. In Israel, she faces an accusation "that journalism, like traveling, was a way of observing life rather than participating in it." In these pieces, she reveals herself to be ambivalent, and even at times selfcontradictory, about the pop counterculture, the women's movement, the radical left, the conservative backlash. But the book itself represents a triumph for the impulse to write it all down, to pursue every last connection. Writing is a compulsion for Willis and, "anyway," as she says in "Next Year in Jerusalem," "writing was not just observing -- it was sharing one's observations, a social act."