The minute I read about Lisa Robinson’s There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll, I knew I had to read it. Not only am I a lifelong music fan, but especially as a teen I was enthralled with rock journalists. (I had no idea, of course, that by the mid-1980s, when my aspirations were hot, that Rolling Stone was basically considered to have already seen its better days.) Robinson became a rock journalist almost by accident during a time in the early 1970s when that term could only be applied (and not altogether seriously) to a small handful of people. She eventually ended up writing for music publications including CREEM and NME (New Musical Express), and today is an editor at Vanity Fair. Her husband Richard Robinson (they are still married) was a radio DJ who also wrote several music columns. When he grew tired of writing one of those columns, Robinson took over. It was a casual decision that led to a fascinating career.
Although the book does follow a structure in terms of subject matter, Robinson’s writing style is sometimes conversational to the point of rambling. She’s fond of non-sequiturs:
When [The Rolling Stones were] in Los Angeles for a week in July for several shows at the L.A. Forum, Lorna Luft followed Bianca [Jagger] around the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Finally Bianca said, “I find it strange that all we ever talk about is me.” Annie [Liebovitz] said that Mick and Bianca seemed “madly in love,” adding, “That’s one of the best marriages I know,” and it might have been. Mick told me, “From what I’ve seen, your articles aren’t bitchy enough. Aren’t you going to put in my remarks about Robert Plant?”
The first few chapters are the most disjointed, but after that she settles in and you begin to realize what an opportunity it is to read about even the smallest bit of who and what she knows about the world of music. By no means does the book include stories about every band, every act, or every interview. Instead, she has arranged ten chapters around some of the most influential performers of the last 45 years. And of course, as a companion, I’ve provided playlists (with a link to the full one at the end) based on songs and bands mentioned in the book.
Chapter 1: The Rolling Stones
Robinson went on tour with The Rolling Stones for the first time in 1975 to promote their album Exile on Main Street. It’s strange to think that in 1975 the Stones were already considered “old” for rock and roll stars. She seems to respect Mick Jagger, whom she basically refers to as a chameleon adapting himself to each audience, but she clearly prefers Keith Richards. She tours with them several more times throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Robinson really sets up with this chapter how the music business was beginning to change, spending huge amounts of money on tours to keep the bands happy. It serves as an interesting juxtaposition, too, to some of the bands she discusses in the later chapters.
Chapter 2: Led Zeppelin
Robinson seems overall much more fond of Led Zeppelin than she does of the Stones. Led Zeppelin was much less of a business than the Stones, more of the typical rock band wrecking hotel rooms, collecting women, and causing a general ruckus (primarily due to John Bonham). As she points out, Mick and Keith were slick city boys, whereas Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and the rest were all basically farm boys who made it big in rock and roll.
Chapter 3: David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, New York Dolls, Television, The Ramones, Patti Smith, and CBGB
For what it’s worth, Robinson was friends with many of these people, but she was (and is) admittedly a tremendous gossip. As I read this chapter I sometimes felt that a better title for the book might have been Kill Your Idols. I could have done without some of the more personal and pointed things she has to say about some of these people, but she did a tremendous job of bringing CBGB to life. Essentially, for Robinson, CBGB was her neighborhood bar. When she wasn’t on tour with a big-name band, she was at CBGB hanging out with her husband and her friends, drinking beer, eating the frightening food cooked in the tiny kitchen, and watching the parade of major future musical influences. She gives Television and the New York Dolls (and David Johansen) some much needed, much deserved attention.
Chapter 4: John Lennon and Yoko Ono
I’m not a big Beatles fan. I like them, I own several of their albums, but I don’t revere them the way I do some other bands. This chapter focuses primarily on John Lennon after the Beatles. Robinson gained an audience with Lennon by first interviewing Yoko Ono. She talks about Yoko’s influence on John, and other influences as well. This chapter is tangentially about the other Beatles as well (especially George Harrison, whom she seems to like, and Paul McCartney, for whom she seems not to care much at all). She also talks about Phil Spector’s influence on Lennon and Harrison.
Chapter 5: Michael Jackson
This was probably my favorite chapter in the book, and I am not ashamed to say it made me cry. Robinson first interviewed Michael Jackson when he was a child, a part of the Jackson 5, being managed by Barry Gordy. She interviewed him again throughout his career, as he grew more wary of and finally completely estranged from much of his public. It’s an inside view that is not at all exploitative and reminded me again of what a tremendous talent was lost to the world.
Chapter 6: The Sex Pistols, The Clash
This chapter is primarily about The Sex Pistols and The Clash, but really also a general look at what was happening in London versus the New York CBGB scene. She toured with the Sex Pistols and was aware they were “of a moment,” but when she talks about The Clash, she basically gushes (I don’t blame her). She also talks briefly about the Buzzcocks, Chrissy Hynde and The Pretenders, and Elvis Costello (in fact, she claims that she is the person responsible for getting Elvis Costello signed to CBS Records), among others.
Chapter 7: U2
As with the Beatles, I like U2 but I am not a huge fan. Robinson also seems to like U2 but is not a huge fan. In fact, this chapter reads like something of a case study. U2 is apparently always very aware of trying to push certain boundaries, to never let itself get comfortable, so much so that it’s a strategy that’s almost become schtick. Like the Stones, they are entertainers but they are also very aware that they are a business, a money-making entity with a high level of influence. Unlike the Stones, they are straight arrows who are also very aware (or at least, Bono is) of how they fit that business to a particular social model.
Chapter 8: Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West
I must really give Robinson a great deal of credit for not resting on her music laurels and being a journalist who always laments “when music was real.” With everything she has seen and everyone she’s known, she’s certainly kept her eyes open. I like Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye (although the Kim Kardashian thing…well) as entertainers, but I admit I came away with a new view of and more respect for the three of them. Her overall point is: They are the punk rock legacy, if not in sound, then in attitude. And they also make great music.
Chapter 9: Lady Gaga
Robinson genuinely likes and respects Lady Gaga. She spent a day with Lady Gaga and her parents, in addition to conducting several other interviews. She finds Gaga curious, intelligent, artful, talented, friendly, and self-aware in the way of a performance artist, which is the way Gaga has come across in every interview I’ve seen with her. No surprises here, really, except perhaps how much Robinson dislikes Madonna. You’ll see no comparisons of Gaga to the Material Girl here.
Chapter 10: Bob Dylan, Howlin’ Wolf, Chess Records, and Highway 61
As a native New Yorker, Robinson hated the American South. She had never been there and never saw any reason to go there (unless on tour with a band, being whisked in and out). Every image she had seen on the television and every story she had read in a newspaper or magazine convinced her that the South was full of racist, ignorant hicks. The problem: Robinson is a blues fan, ,and a rock and roll fan, and so many of the artists she admires the most were influenced by blues singers and songwriters coming out of the American South. In 1988, she paid someone to drive her down part of the legendary Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans. With this, she intersperses the story of producing Chess Records 50th Anniversary Collection of Howlin’ Wolf recordings.
And finally, here’s a link to my full There Goes Gravity Spotify playlist, all three-plus hours of it. Enjoy!