Saturday, August 23, 2014

More Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll: An Insider View

There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll by Lisa Robinson

A book Review by: Kurt von Behrmann

                Access is crucial to any journalist. However, acquiring it in the rarefied realm of contemporary music presents special challenges. The biggest obstacle is gaining the trust of musicians, particular those who have achieved stratospheric success.  Lisa Robinson had entrée into that world, and all that comes with it, the good, the bad, the ugly and even the boring.

 “There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll” chronicles Robinson’s encounters with acts that achieved iconic status and those that were seminal in the underground music scene of 70’s in New York.  The thrust of the book focuses on her stint as a traveling journalist with the Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin.   Both from the U.K., wildly successful and huge fans of African-American music, their respective tours included the obligatory chartered jets, stretch limos and the inevitable conflicts that place egos and artistic integrity into battles of the wills.

                Robinson correctly notes that unless you are part of the self-indulgence that comes with the rock and roll highlife – quick sex, long drinking bouts, endless supplies of drugs and the usual mayhem that accompanies creative people on the road, you are on one tour and they are on another.  Robinson was not a part of the party.   It is obvious from her observations she was aloof from the debauchery. 

                Even if you were not a participant in the shenanigans, it seems a little odd that a reporter would not want to be front and center to the action, if there was any.  Clearly things were happening on tour, but Robinson has either turned a blind eye to the excesses or had no real knowledge of them.  What emerges rather quickly is that Robinson is both fond of her subjects and a little protective of them.  This certainly fosters great friendships, but it hardly makes for exciting reading.

                If you are expecting an expose of the behind the scenes workings of pop music in high gear, you will be disappointed.  A Wendy Williams type of insider providing the “hot topics” is not here.  There are no truly sordid stories here that one may not have read about elsewhere.  

                But, that doesn’t meant that Robinson has nothing of importance to say.  What she does communicate well is the excitement of being on tour and the attendant luxury that comes with huge global success.  She does convey some of the wonder and thrill of perpetual jet travel, meeting the famous and staying in high end hotels in exciting cities.  There is plenty of that here.   

                But there is also a down side.  There is the unexpected consequence of having some so much so soon and so often that it can lead to a type ennui.  After a while the travel becomes tedious and one hotel starts to look very much like the other.  When your world becomes work, travel and work, even with the trappings of success, it can lead to a blur. Even the performances themselves suffer from the unrelenting pressure to maintain stardom.  It is hard getting to the top, and just as hard staying there.  The fear of slipping into irrelevance is omnipresent when you are a proven winner.   

                Robinson captures those feelings, but she seems to be unable to draw any conclusions from what she sees.   She makes note of the chemical dependencies and one night stands with groupies, but she never looks deeper to ask the penetrating question, why?

                Robinson seems content to list her encounters with high powered Rock and Roll acts, but seldom offers up any type of conclusions or assessments of what she has discovered.  There are comments here and there, but nothing that really sums up what all of the travel, music and mayhem was really all about.   There is clearly meaning here, but it feels decidedly ambiguous.   While ambiguity can be a useful tool for an artist, it can ruin a reporter.

                Short of funny anecdotes, or stinging gossip, Robinson does manage to get a few digs in from time to time.  For the most part, she genuinely likes her subject and makes no bones about that.  But, if a celebrity doesn’t connect with her, the dislike is openly expressed.

                One can argue about the talents of Madonna, but one cannot deny that she was a game changer.  Utilizing the emerging world of music videos, hers were about image and sexuality married to dance music.  Like her or not, she created the template for solo female acts that is still in use today.   

                Robinson did not feel the need to accord her a place in the pantheon of game changers in contemporary music, which is her choice.  But she had no problem finding her distant and self-absorbed.  Robinson was looking for something more from Madonna.  Whatever that something was, it left a substantially negative bad taste in the author’s mouth.

                Allegedly, according to Robinson, Sir Elton John didn’t have a particularly high opinion of the material girl either.  “The only thing she has done for the gay community is take their money,” supposedly said Sir John.   

                Another musician that “irked” Robinson was Yoko Ono.  For a period of time, John Lennon and Robinson enjoyed some rather detailed exchanges.  Ono was also included on some of these conversations. The relationship was cordial.   In one of the books better crafted moments, Robinson makes a surprising revelation about Ono. It doesn’t speak well of her. It also provides a dramatic moment that is much needed in a narrative that at times seems to be monotone at moments.

                A thread that comes up periodically are the conflicts of fame and creativity.  Robinson outlines the phases of a band from garage to recording studios and the price paid for success.  It is in the words of the musicians themselves that one witnesses a self-awareness that is worldly, wise and a bit cynical.

                Common to all of the bands are the years of struggle. The battle to make music, be seen, be heard and obtain that most sacred of documents, “a recording contract” are the first phase.  Following the support of a record company, sales start, recognition and fame follow, if lucky.  With the fame comes the money, the acclaim, the awards, the adulation and sometimes the hangers on.
                In the world of popular music, it is an unstated rule that you can’t appear too ambitious.   The image of a musician is someone who loves what he or she does and the other aspects of success are incidental.  The truth of the matter is that all successful musical acts are wildly ambitious.  They simply do not put it in print.
Madonna, early one, happened to be very open about her ambitions.  For acts based on usurping authority and traditional values, ambition and success can be the death of a muse and the annihilation of artistic integrity.

                Robinson does successfully touch upon this point at several times. It is worth noting.  The biggest problem for an act is both success and obscurity.  If you are a maverick and a rebel, a certain kind anyway, you need the edge that comes with the struggle.  If you hang onto your principles and play long and hard, you win an audience and have a muse.  But, if you fail to reach an audience, you are forever stuck in a bohemia where you have limits and restrictions on what you can do.  Certainly, you can inspire and brave new ground, but without some support of some kind, your art dries up and evaporates.   One cannot stay in the underground for too long.   If you do, you  risk sliding into obscurity.

                Should success hit, you have support, an audience and fame.  Now your work hits worldwide and everyone knows you.  First comes acclaim and then the monetary rewards.  Now come expectations.  Then come the compromises that arrive with fame.  Without notice, you are living the type of life your musical was critical of, and now you may well risk losing the muse that inspired you to create music in the first place.

                Sure, these are simple scenarios, but they do reflect the winning and losing side of fame and the downside of remaining a cult act.   Robinson does bring light to the conflict and a few other realizations that add up to the fact that life on the road is never easy, and trust is a dicey concept when you are successful and everyone wants a piece of you.

                Lisa Robinson’s tour through rock and roll from underground bars in New York to world tours, makes for fascinating reading if for no other reason that peering into the inner lives of successful musicians is always intriguing.  There Goes Gravity depends on the reader having that interest.  Flowing in and out of time, sometimes it becomes awkward going from one tour to the next awkwardly going in and out of sequence.  The repetition of some statements doesn’t help.  Also annoying are some rather clichéd lines that crop up from time to time.

                This is not a particularly poorly written book, but neither is it a particularly exciting one.  What should have been a world of wonder and ideas starts to seem rather pedestrian.  The biggest failing of the book is the failure to capture the personality of the musician in question. Too quickly the book feels like a fleeting note pad of meetings, conversations and events that don’t add up to much more than descriptions.  Minus any analysis, all that is left are descriptions.    The occasional biting comments help. The provide some change in rhythm.  A few stories of seedy activity or self-importance ruining an image supply some spark, but they cannot become a substitute for real insight.

                This is not a bad diversion.  It does open a door into a world few enter, and that is the main selling point of the book.  For an insider view, it should have been significantly more insightful and definitely more fascinating.

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