[28 April 2014]
There Are Places I’ll Remember All My Life…
The life of a dedicated music journalist can be both thrilling and tedious. On the one hand, we get to discuss our greatest passions for an immeasurable audience, as well as speak with (and possibly influence the career of) our favorite artists. However, we must also deal with a few intimidating circumstances, such as the hypercritical reception of our work and the responsibility of being a link between musicians and their fans.
Naturally, these elements could make for compendium of colorful yet revealing experiences, which is exactly what veteran writer Lisa Robinson offers in There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll. As one of the most revered, successful, and practiced commentators in the industry, she’s seen both the frailty and ferocity of many iconic performers, and she reflects on these moments with tasteful wit and fearless honesty. It’s an exceptional read.
Robinson begins her narrative by tell us about her “first job in the music business, in 1969, when [she] was filing for a few hours every afternoon for Richard Robinson,” a newspaper contributor, radio DJ, and assistant to Neil Bogart, the president of Buddah Records. A short while later, the two were married, and Richard decided to let Lisa take over his column in Disc and Music Echo, a decision that would eventually lead to her involvement in many other publications, including Hit Parader, Creem, Rock Scene, New Musical Express, Vanity Fair, The New York Post, and The New York Times.
This introduction serves several purposes. For one, it presents Robinson’s ethos, as she interweaves her credentials within a lively backstory (she does this throughout the book, too). Along the same lines, her thorough yet informal style is also established; her language is ripe with modesty, confidence, and flair, allowing her to pile on the details without ever sounding pretentious. Best of all, she lets us know of her humble, damn near accidental beginnings, as if to say, “I’ve achieved a lot over the years, but I started at the bottom, without any aspirations or training.” In fact, she flat out states the latter in relation to writing for Disc and Music Echo:
“I didn’t think I could do it, but he said if I could talk—which I certainly could—I could write. He opened the door, [and] I walked right through it and never stopped.”
Even though the book has just started, readers already know a fair amount about who she is, how she writes, and how her incredible career began on a whim. In this way, There Goes Gravity offers plenty of [in]advertent advice and warning for up-and-coming critics. It’s not an overt how-to guide for prospering along the path, but it’s insightful enough in that respect to be worthwhile for anyone interested in the venture. One gets the impression that Robinson is more than happy to share whatever guidance she can.
Of course, the real reason to invest in the work is to vicariously witness all of her stranger-than-fiction encounters with the musical crème of the crop. Fortunately, she provides plenty of fascinating tidbits about numerous acts from every decade. She begins in the ‘70s by detailing happenstances with The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and David Bowie; a bit later, she explores the psyche of ‘80s icons like Michael Jackson, The Clash, and U2. As for more recent tales, Robinson also includes reflections on her meetings with Eminem, Kanye West, and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, among many other ancillary figures. Some profiles receive a lot more attention than others, but each and every one of her subjects feels vital not only to her agenda, but to the history of popular music.
There isn’t a single insertion in There Goes Gravity that isn’t intriguing. From the ways in which Mick Jagger and Keith Richards responded differently to the public to the contrasts between the public and private personas of Led Zeppelin; from a candid exploration of John and Yoko’s relationship to the reasons why The New York Dolls and Lou Reed were underappreciated geniuses; from the rationale behind Marshall Mathers’ controversial aesthetic to the endearing humility of Lady Gaga, Robinson simply knows how to remain invisible yet investigative while artists abandon all inhibitions and social mores, as well as how to get them to reveal their most secretive and earnest views and pasts. It’s a precious trait, which makes for precious stories.
As enticing as her topics are, her writing style is equally responsible for making There Goes Gravity such a hypnotic and effortless read. Each chapter more or less has a primary focus, but within each section lays a plethora of sketches about similar personalities and adventures. For example, her chapter on David Bowie is entwined with observations about Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Johansen, and Tom Verlaine, among others. In essence, she organizes her passages by social scene and genre, not by individuals or even strict time periods. Honestly, it can feel a bit disjointing and sporadic at times, but once you get used to the shifts you realize that they make the text exceptionally more involving and creative.
Robinson is also clever enough to know that these accounts would be much less impactful if she didn’t flesh them out with autobiographical context. In other words, she divulges as much about herself as she does her famous companions at any given moment, and her attention to detail is remarkable. She discusses the thoughts, situations, and décor of everyonearound her, be they a musician, friend, acquaintance, or loved one. Take the following passage, for example:
In those days, no one went to a gym. We all smoked. No one went to Brooklyn; there was no reason to. We didn’t talk about money except to bemoan not having any. No one—ever—mentioned, or cared about, the stock market. I wore huge sunglasses. I wore black and maroon nail polish and carried Bakelite pocketbooks. Along with others, I imitated the campier styles of the 1940s… No matter what time of day or night, if I had to call a musician, my opening line would be, ‘Did I wake you up?’ I never went to sleep before four a.m., woke up around noon, and spent half the day on the phone discussing what had gone on the night before and what was planned for the night ahead. We hung out. We didn’t use the term ‘rock star.’
One gets the feeling that she wasn’t exactly an objective observer of her interviewees; rather, she was an active—if sometimes hesitant—participant, so readers learn as much about her as they do her entourage and entertainers.
In addition, she paints a vivid portrait of the locales, fashion, and characters of the time in order to immerse her audience in her chronicle, letting them imagine themselves in the world she creates. Honestly, I was more enveloped in her representations than I’ve been in many works of complete fiction, which is really saying something about her ability to arrange (and perhaps embellish) recollections.
There Goes Gravity offers a luminous and compelling assortment of rock star encounters, as well as opulent and unassuming peek into the life of a writer who has to catalog and control a bevy of surreal outbursts and sacred secrets from her subjects. It’s packed with outrageous behavior, touching insights, and precious commentary about the world of music, fame, and journalism. Readers feel like they’re beside Robinson as she recalls each incident without sparing a detail. She creates vibrant portrayals of characteristics, interactions, reactions, settings, and sounds with her informal yet expertly arranged prose. Best of all, she offers an invaluable glimpse into the lives of our most adored musicians, and she does it better than anyone else I’ve ever read.