MILESAGO - Recommended Reading
|LILLIAN ROXON: MOTHER OF ROCK
by Robert Milliken
Black Inc. Melbourne, 2002
ISBN 1 86395 139 3
Towards the end of his book, Robert Milliken notes that there were "many cruel ironies" surrounding Lillian Roxon's untimely death more than thirty years ago. Just 41 when she died, she was a gifted communicator, a brilliant networker, an inveterate telephone jockey, a voluminous letter writer and one of the leading lights of the glittering set who convened nightly at the legendary music club Max's Kansas City. Yet, tragically, this most social of people died all alone in her New York apartment, and perhaps that's cruellest irony of all. Another great irony is that the effort of writing the book that made her famous, and the toll it took on her health, probably contributed to her early death.
There are some small compensations -- by the time she died, Lillian had already achieved a considerable degree of fame in America and around the world, and she had lived out her dream of 'making it' in New York, on her own terms, in an industry and at a time when the possibility of having any kind of career at all was still just a dream for most women. With her writing, and above all by her own example, she did much to raise popular awareness of feminism and feminist issues -- and of course there is her the famous Rock Encyclopedia. But for all those achievements, you're left feeling sad about the loss of a remarkable personality and a great talent who could have done so much more.
I was totally captivated by this superb biography and by Roxon herself -- someone about whom, I confess, I knew shamefully little besides her name and her book. Milliken expertly pieces together the fragmented stories and events of Roxon's crowded, busy life across four decades and two continents -- her struggles and triumphs, her friendships and feuds -- welding it all into an engaging, moving and illuminating narrative. We learn a great deal about a very talented woman who has been overlooked for far too long, and of whom Australia can be justly proud, yet it still leaves you impatient to know more.
As Clinton Walker opined in his review, it would indeed be great to have some of the banter and discussion and gossip that flew around the tables at Max's, where Lillian presided as a latter-day Dorothy Parker over a cast of America's brightest music stars -- but most of these bon mots are now presumably lost in the ether.
What we do get is a concise, compelling account of a short but remarkable life, and of the remarkable transformation of Lilly Ropschitz, the bright young Jewish immigrant girl from Brisbane, who turned herself into Lillian Roxon, the sassy, savvy, accomplished, witty rock-chick from Downunder, who wowed New York and carved out a career as one of the first female foreign correspondents in the male-dominated Australian newspaper industry and became one of the pioneers of rock journalism when popular music was still considered a vulgar fad by most of the mainstream media.
The book is peppered with well-chosen quotes from Roxon's writings. The brief, tantalising extract from her unpublished novel, loosely based on her life in Sydney in the Fifites, leaps off the page. If the rest of her novel is as good as the excerpt, it's a real tragedy that Lillian didn't live to see it published and that it still languishes in the Mitchell Library. Surely it would have proved that she was much more than the mere gossip columnist she was sometimes accused of being. Indeed, it's quite likely that, had fate decreed otherwise, she might have developed into a very fine author.
In this and her other writings, Roxon's knowledge and intelligence, and her typically Australian sense of ironic humour shines through. Equally evident is her ability to encapsulate what was going on around her in a way that was entertaining, quite personal, yet based on acute observation, whether it was in smoky pubs inhabited by the members of the fabled Sydney Push or in the bars and clubs of New York.
Milliken clearly likes his subject -- it's hard not to -- but he does not downplay the contradictory sides of her character. She was a self-confident, independent, free-loving proto-feminist career-woman -- yet she privately fretted about marriage and children and worried about her weight and what her mother thought of her. She was revered as a loyal, generous, helpful friend -- yet on occasion she turned on friends whom she felt had wronged her and savagely cut them down with her incisive wit. She was an ambitious girl from a provincial city who left her old life behind, went to New York and became a famous writer who hobnobbed with the stars -- yet she never forgot childhood friends and faithfully wrote to them right up until her death.
As the back cover blurb says, Lillian was born at just the right time. When she became known as a rock writer, she already had more than a decade of journalism experience behind her. She also had the knack of finding and befriending important, influential people, like her Sydney magazine boss Donald Horne. Her youthful looks allowed her to mix easily with the young musicians she wrote about, but she was a good ten years older than many of them. Remarkably for the time (and for her profession) she did not take drugs and drank only occasionally. She was passionately interested in pop music as a social phenomenon and clearly loved a lot of the music too, but she was not blind to its weaknesses. She knew scores of the biggest stars yet she rarely became intimately involved with them (Stevie Wright was a rare exception).
All this helped to form the classic Roxon style -- conversational, even gossipy, yet never merely trivial; involved and personal yet keenly observed and remarkably free of the overweening egotism that mars so much of the genre. Her rock writing especially is marked by a passionate interest in her subject that was tempered by a degree of ironic detachment and an almost motherly sense of amusement at the sometimes ridiculous antics of 'the kids'. It is a style that her sucessors have often tried to emulate but which has seldom been matched.
As well as confirming her as one of its most sympathetic, insightful and witty chroniclers, Milliken also convincingly makes the case for Lillian as one of the great nurturing spirits of the rock era, . The list of people she tirelessly helped, promoted, advised and encouraged includes Linda McCartney, Germaine Greer, Helen Reddy, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, as well as the many journalists and rock writers who still speak of her in reverent, glowing terms. Yet, among these many rewarding friendships and the fame, there was also sadness. Although they had a sometimes difficult relationship, perhaps her closest male friend was former Daily Mirror editor Zell Rabin, who did much to assist the expansion of the Murdoch press empire in the early Sixties. He and Lillian had been lovers for a time at university in Brisbane, and Rabin (then the chief of the Sydney Sun's New York bureau) employed Lillian when she first arrived in New York in 1959, but he died of melanoma in 1966 and his death affected her greatly.
A few years later Roxon fell out in spectacular fashion with two female friends, despite the fact that she did much to promote both of them, and these rifts were a source of great unhappiness for her in her last years. The late Linda Eastman (McCartney) was probably Lillian's closest woman friend in New York in the mid-to-late Sixties, but she dropped Lillian and her other New York friends like hot bricks as soon as she married her Beatle in 1969. Linda's shutting-out of Lillian -- which Milliken suggests was instigated by the press-wary Paul -- clearly caused Roxon deep distress, and sadly it was a breach that was still unsealed when she died. Linda later expressed regret and told a friend that she was sure they would have eventually made up had Lillian lived. To her credit, she agreed to talk to Milliken for the book, but sadly she died of breast cancer before the meeting could take place and so we will probably never know the full story from her side.
The second and more public rift was with a younger Australian friend from her Push days, Germaine Greer. Unusually, the formidable feminist icon allowed Milliken to interview her but she comes across as being as curmudgeonly now when speaking of Roxon as she was when Lillian was alive. Greer gamely admits that she admired Lillian greatly, but clearly there was a great deal of friction between them and the friendship was eventually strained to breaking point -- mainly, it would seem, by mutual jealousy and insecurity, which is a great shame for two such strong, talented women who, as Lillian herself said, ought to have been close allies.
Another valuable feature of the book is the selection of Roxon's writing that forms the appendix; this includes many excerpts from the (now quite rare) original edition of the Encyclopedia. Also included are her wonderful Quadrant essay about the writing of the book, her landmark Sydney Morning Herald report about the 1970 New York women's rights march, her famous article about Germaine (written partly in response to Greer's backhanded dedication to Roxon in The Female Eunuch) and her classic column on Creedence Clearwater Revivial and the rise of the new corporate face of rock.
Looking back from a distance of thirty years and more, several things stand out. Above all it's obvious what a fine, funny writer she was and how effortless she made her craft appear -- according to Milliken, she had the rare gift of being able to write straight to the page, without corrections or revisions. The Encyclopedia remains an important and oft-quoted work not merely because it was the first of its kind, but because her unique style and her great understanding lifts it far above the mundane, trainspotting efforts that such books can so often be, making it an almost Pepysian chronicle of a unique moment in modern history.
Another great strength is that while she acknowledges the sometimes ridiculous nature of the pop world, she was also one of the first people in the mainstream media to recognise that rock music contained much that was new and exciting and valuable, that something significant was happening in society and culture and that it deserved to be written about in a meaningful way. Luckily for us, she was also one of the very few people around at the time with both the means and the opportunity to do so.
I cannot recommend this book too highly. The late, great Lillian Roxon deserves every bit of the long-overdue recognition she is getting and Robert Milliken deserves an enduring vote of thanks for giving it to her with this terrific biography. Buy it, borrow it, beg for it -- but read it. I guarantee that if you have any interest in popular music and its place in modern social history, you'll love this book.