Ellen Sander was one of the first wave of American rock critics, during a time when “the rock n roll press… consisted of anyone who was low enough on the staff totem pole to be sent out to cover a rock group. A handful of determined freelancers challenged all that, puddle jumping publications until the savvier periodicals took notice.” Her work appeared in Vogue and Hit Parader, and her essay about Led Zeppelin was anthologized. Despite all this, I only knew her through her poetry: my broadsheet journal Cabildo Quarterly published some of her stuff a few years back. She mentioned via social media that a collection of her rock essays was to be re-released by Dover Publications.
The augmented edition of Sander’s Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties is a revelation. Through her essays, interviews, and reviews, she casts a critical light on the decade through its musical and cultural progression, starting with immersion in the early 1960s folks scene, moving through Monterey Pop and Woodstock, to the calamitous signpost that was Altamont.
Often, essay collections like this lack cohesion. They don’t always need a throughline, if the writing is good enough to keep readers engaged. Sander’s writing is consistently excellent throughout: she’s able to shift from discussions of the general feelings of her generation to the specifics of gigs and songs without a hitch. In addition to this, she befriends and follows several different musicians, which adds a kind of story arc to her narrative. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds (endearingly referred to throughout as Jim) and David Crosby pop up throughout Trips in different permutations of their careers. But beyond this, the decade is the throughline: folk and hippie scenes are discussed both in terms of music and lifestyle before rock establishes itself as a cultural phenomenon—and, sadly, after rock becomes a lens through which the most regressive, sexist behaviors filter. Sander’s essay on Led Zeppelin’s tour, during which band members assault Sander, is harrowing and absolutely crucial.
I held my nose and watched the Epix four-part punk rock documentary a few months back and was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t entirely horrible. Sure, the punk origin narrative is fairly hidebound at this point, but as more time passes, voices beyond all the standard white dudes are being not only heard but integrated into the canon. It’s encouraging. I mention the doc in this book review because our perception of history is constantly being reexamined. It was great to see Jayne County and Palmolive and Kathleen Hanna in the discussion, as they should be. When we reconsider the history of rock music as a whole and consider where punk music and culture fits into it, we need a polyphony of voices. Ellen Sander is such a voice. –Michael T. Fournier (Dover, doverpublications.com)