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NONFICTION

There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock ’n’ Roll

By Lisa Robinson

Riverhead Books

368 pages, $27.95

By Jeff Miers

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

“Scenes aren’t meant to last. The best of them sneak or burst into the consciousness of a few. They blow up into something they weren’t to begin with. And then, they eventually burn out.”

This is music journalist Lisa Robinson, writing in her newly published memoir “There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock ’n’ Roll,” in reference to the inevitable commodification, and subsequent collapse, of punk rock as a cultural force. She might as well have been referring to the golden age of rock journalism, a time of unfettered access to the music’s prime movers, and an era marked by the brave naivete that comes only to those who, because they are the first ones in the door, don’t know any better, and are thus freed from self-consciousness.

Just like punk rock, rock criticism blew up into something it wasn’t to begin with, burned bright for a while, and then burned out. Today, the mode of journalism Robinson had a major hand in creating is largely a pale reflection of its former self, a form of snarky cultural critique that more often than not says more about the writer’s desire to appear attuned to the trend of the moment than it does about the music itself.

But things weren’t always this way, as “There Goes Gravity” makes plain, repeatedly.

Robinson was in the right place at the right time during the pivotal years of her career. She documented rock’s transition from throwaway pop pleasure, to seminal cultural and musical force, and back again. And unlike many of the stars whose lives she shared often intimate, up-close-and-personal bits of, she’s lived to look back with both anger and wistful fondness.

The names Robinson is able to throw around possess significant gravity, and include the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Patti Smith, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the New York Dolls, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Michael Jackson, U2, and, later, Lady Gaga, Jay Z, Kanye West and Eminem. And man, can Robinson throw.

Her rampant and unrepentant name-dropping is hard-earned. As the first prominent female music critic in a male-dominated business, Robinson had no choice but to construct an ego on par with those of the stars she covered. She seems to have had little trouble doing so.

Robinson cut her teeth covering rock in its barely post-’60s form, and worked her way into regular contributor gigs with the likes of New Musical Express, Creem and Hit Parader, before eventually landing at the New York Post as a syndicated columnist. Because rock was only just settling into its role as a major arena spectacle, Robinson was able to climb through a window that has long since been slammed shut. She found herself on the Rolling Stones’ private jet, and became good friends with Mick Jagger and, eventually, Keith Richards.

A similar scenario unfolded with Led Zeppelin, at the peak of that band’s eminence. Wisely, she tape-recorded everything, and amazingly, no one ever seems to have tried to stop her doing so. When Robinson filed her reports on these experiences, she did so in a playfully catty tone, one that was ably balanced by a command of language and narrative rhythm that made her effortlessly readable.

At the same time, Robinson, perhaps unwittingly, helped to spread the seeds that would grow into rock journalism’s undoing. I read her religiously growing up, and her “insider’s view,” as presented in the pages of Hit Parader, helped foster the image in my mind of rock as an exclusive club for the cool and beautiful outsiders’ clique. The last page of Hit Parader was often a photo spread, showing Robinson backstage, at clubs, or sharing what always appeared to be sidesplittingly hilarious personal moments with rock stars.

She shamelessly flaunted her access, and who can blame her? Robinson wrote well, always, but she primarily wrote about the music purely as a cultural force, and was more interested in its power as arbiter of fashion than in its properties as actual music. At the time, there was enough technical bloviating elsewhere in the music press to make Robinson’s intellectual take on the one-step-above-Tiger Beat school of reporting seem fresh, fun and interesting by comparison. But today, the Robinson-esque tendency to equate music with fashion and music criticism with cultural commentary is rampant, entrenched, cancerous. Can we blame her for this? Partly, yes.

Though funny and engaging throughout, Robinson’s tone can occasionally be off-putting. Born and raised and still living in New York City, she writes with the firm belief that she is, and has always been, at the very center of the cultural universe. This elitism is not difficult to find in native New Yorkers. (It’s even easier to locate in those who’ve adopted the city as their home, and are eager to distance themselves from a past they now see as parochial.)

Of course, if you routinely hung out at your neighborhood watering hole without the likes of Patti Smith, Lou Reed and the Ramones – taking a break only to jet around the world with Zeppelin and the Stones or listen to Bono’s champagne-fueled prattle and hum on the cultural significance of U2, eventually landing a cushy semiretirement gig handling the music content for Vanity Fair – you’d probably think pretty highly of yourself and your city, too.

Robinson makes it plain that, at her core, she is a New York bohemian intellectual with serious punk rock credibility, whose dalliance with fancy rock and pop stars is at once incredibly significant and a mere dalliance with showbiz. She can be painfully dismissive of one artist while consistently venerating the work of another, without offering much to back up the distinction. She offhandedly refers to Kanye West and Lady Gaga as brilliant artists on par with the likes of, say, Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page or David Bowie, offering little other than the fact that she says so as supporting evidence. (She also refers to writer/arranger/producer/musician Jon Brion as a genius, and in this case, she happens to be right.)

“There Goes Gravity” is in the end saved from being hoist on the petard of its own self-important snottiness by the strength of Robinson’s writing and the underlying wistfulness in her tone. Robinson knows she was incredibly lucky, just as she knows she worked hard to maintain integrity in a business that has very little. She also seems to know that the past is irretrievable, even if you’ve tape-recorded most of it, and had yourself photographed drinking and hobnobbing with the biggest stars who populate it.

One can read the book’s title as acknowledgement of the fact that, though she might enjoy Gaga and Kanye and Jay Z, that earlier era had the weight of a zeitgeist to anchor it. This current one has none. So “Gravity” is both an account-taking, and a bittersweet fare-thee-well.

Acknowledging that you can’t go home again, even if you never left home, Robinson offers a narrative heavy sigh near the book’s end, recounting her decision to skip Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion concert.

“I didn’t go. I prefer to remember them the way they were. It’s been a long time. The song couldn’t possibly be the same.”

Jeff Miers is The News’ Pop Music Critic.