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Ellen Willis & Janis Joplin

I’m packing for my little five-day spring break in Mexico, laying out clothes, cleaning house, deciding which shoes to wear, wondering if I will have trouble taking hand-cleaner on the plane, and grading mid-terms. To keep myself company as I ate my dinner of green beans and Mexican cheese, I opened my latest Netflix envelope and tossed a little documentary in the DVD: Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin: Nine Hundred Nights. I’ve always felt close to Janis Joplin. One of the characters I performed in my one-woman show in the 70s and 80s was a Janis/Kendall composite: neurotic and wild, fierce and needy, burning herself to a crisp, wanting to amount to something. If I had been less responsible, more talented, less fearful, more abandoned; if, in other words, I had been someone completely other than I am, I’d have been her. Maybe. Anyway, forget the documentary. What shocked me into a whole new state of attention (abandoning grading mid-terms and packing) was Ellen Willis, cultural commentator, writer, thinker: interviewed for the documentary. In the Special Features on the DVD there’s about an hour of Ellen Willis talking about Janis Joplin, the 60s, utopianism and its dark side, feminism in its early years, and other fascinating topics. I fell in love with Ellen Willis. I could never have been her. I’m not that smart. But I’m drawn to the sharp edge of her intelligence like a battered chrome bumper to a massive electromagnet. As soon as I’d watched these outtakes, I raced to the computer, googled her, and found out she just died this past November.

She was opposed to the anti-porn wing of feminism. She was an anti-anti-Zionist. The dirtiest word in her lexicon was “sentimentality.” She took difficult positions and defended them with courage. I probably wouldn’t agree with everything she said, but as far as I can tell, she always spoke thoughtfully, sharply, critically. I’m glad she didn’t ever critique anything I wrote, because when she put somebody down, she ground them into the dirt with finality. She wrote often about the very topic she talked most provocatively about in her Janis Joplin interview: the tension between utopianism and what she calls the “hard edge” of skepticism; the necessity for both utopianism and skepticism in the architecture of effective political action; the need for imagination and the limits of imagination; and the function of community in creation. I can’t stop everything and spend the night (or the next six months) reading everything she wrote, but I’d like to. She wrote so much about so many subjects I care about, I have to ask myself where I’ve been all her life. How did I miss this? She was one of the Redstockings. She wrote for just about every intelligent journal there ever was.

Quick summary of Ellen Willis on Janis Joplin: Janis wasn’t a victim. Janis believed in the possibility of transcendence by giving absolutely everything she had to her work. At the same time, Janis was desperately needy for approval, for praise, for self-approval. That need drove her–and she was spectacularly driven. Her spirit fed on the utopianism of the late sixties on the west coast, and although Willis says “liberation” and the “liberated woman” was always a myth, liberation was what Janis went for–liberation from every restraint, even the restraint of self-preservation, pushing her voice, her body, her mind to the edge. And then over the edge. She lived the contradictions of that pre-feminist time.

In the year before she died, Ellen Willis reviewed a book about utopianism. Look at this: [quoting the author] “…practical reforms depend on utopian dreaming.” [And then she launches into her own analysis] Again, the sixties offers many examples—particularly its most successful social movement, second wave feminism, which achieved mass proportions in response to the radical proposition that men and women should be equals not only under the law or on the job but in every social sphere from the kitchen to the nursery to the bedroom to the street. (As one of the movement’s prominent utopians, Shulamith Firestone, put it, the initial response of most women to that idea was, “You must be out of your mind—you can’t change that!”) Yet it seems likely that the relationship of the utopian imagination and the urge to concrete political activity is not precisely one of cause and effect; rather, both impulses appear to have a common root in the perception that something other than what is is possible—and necessary. We might think of iconoclastic utopians as the inverse of canaries in the mine: if they are hearing the sounds of an ineffable redemption, others may already be at work on annoyingly literal blueprints, and still others getting together for as yet obscure political meetings. So the formulation of the problem may need to be fine-tuned: what is it that fosters, or blocks, that sense of possibility/necessity? Why does it seem so utterly absent today (you’re out of your mind!), and how can we change that?”

Brilliant. I’m staggering. Yes, Ellen. How can we change that? I’ve got to pick my jaw up off my chest, pull myself together, and get on with my life right now, but I will come back to Ellen Willis’s writing again. I’m sorry I missed her when she was alive. I mean to catch up.

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One response to “Ellen Willis & Janis Joplin”

  1. Paul says:

    Janis Joplin-now she does bring back some good memories !

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