But to a teenager, Lisa Robinson seemed to be having the most fun. In March 1973, she, her husband and Kaye launched Rock Scene magazine, which featured just photos with funny captions. “You could see what happened before or after the show, particularly at parties and backstage,” she wrote in her juicy 2014 memoir “There Goes Gravity.” “. . . It made everyone in that small scene think they were huge stars.”
Rock Scene made a lot of readers think those people were huge stars, too. Lou Reed, David Bowie and Iggy Pop were still edgy enough to raise eyebrows and had not yet vaulted into the mainstream. The Patti Smith Group, Blondie and the Ramones had yet to create a vast landfill of torn T-shirts, leather jackets and Converse high-tops. It helped that Robinson worked with soon-to-be legendary photographers like Peter Hujar, Bob Gruen, Roberta Bayley and Leee Black Childers, all of whom shared her attitude toward rock-and-roll: “Some people took it very seriously. Some of us — who thought it was supposed to be about fun and sex and the thing that got us out of our parents’ house and changed our lives — did not.”
The tireless Robinson also wrote for other publications, contributing a gossipy column to the New York Post (and, much later, Vanity Fair). She interviewed and hung out with the likes of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. “Often, I was the only woman in the room and certainly the only one who wasn’t sleeping with any of them,” she wrote in “There Goes Gravity.” In the 1970s and early ’80s, rock-and-roll’s ground zero for rampant misogyny, Robinson witnessed very young teenage girls (and sometimes boys) lining up to get intimate with rock stars twice their age.
Male performers crowd Robinson’s memoir: Jagger, Bowie, Reed, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Lennon, Phil Spector, Michael Jackson, Eminem, Joe Strummer. But women? Patti Smith, championed early on by Robinson, is there, but you could blink and miss Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks, who barely get mentioned. An exception is Lady Gaga, who rates a thoughtful chapter toward the book’s end. Of the nearly 50 photographs, only four feature women: Smith, Yoko Ono (with Lennon), Fran Lebowitz (Robinson’s good friend and the book’s dedicatee) and Lady Gaga.
It’s presumably to address this conspicuous absence that Robinson has now compiled “Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls,” a well-intentioned but slapdash attempt to give equal time to women in popular music. Even the title is defensive — maybe no one asked her, but the girls were certainly there.
Robinson says she’s done more than 1,000 interviews with women, and this slim volume can’t possibly do justice to the voices she taped over the years. Instead of the long, funny, carefully observed profiles in “There Goes Gravity,” we get brief sound bites from women she has interviewed. A few — Beyoncé, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Bette Midler, Mitchell, Nicks, Lady Gaga — get more screen time.
Chapter headings signal the book’s focus: “Hair & Makeup,” “Fame,” “Abuse,” “Love & Marriage,” “Motherhood,” “Sex,” “Drugs,” “Stage Fright & Bad Reviews,” “Age.” Only three chapters, including one on business, suggest that these women might be serious artists. Throughout, there’s an unappealing emphasis on physical appearance: “Gwen Stefani was a normal sized teenager.” “Janelle Monáe once took four hours to get ready for a photo that wound up looking like every other photo she’s ever taken.” “The very large Lizzo has had no problem getting on award shows and magazine covers wearing both skintight gowns and something akin to one of those Ice Capades outfits.” “Maggie [Bell] was a big girl with long, curly reddish hair — not especially pretty in any sort of conventional way.”
Instead of insights, we get banal observations like, “Some women are incredibly disciplined,” or, about Norah Jones, “It was one of those voices that immediately sounded like no one else.” And don’t even get Robinson started on Madonna, whose “Like a Virgin,” she believes, “ruin[ed] the culture.” Madonna, she writes, “was aggressively sexual, but not sexy. Styled, but not stylish. Successful in spite of her tinny little voice. Successful because of her drive and her image.”
Near the end of “Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls,” Robinson quotes Smith on her band’s music from the ’70s: “We had a lot of guts, we had a lot of bravado, and we had a lot of heart.” Female performers have always possessed all those things, and now more than ever use them, along with their drive and style and image, to fight political oppression, climate change, domestic violence, racial and sexual injustice. Sometimes a culture needs to be ruined so that a better one can take its place. Too bad Lisa Robinson didn’t focus more on how women are shaping music’s future, rather than sifting through the ashes of the past.
Elizabeth Hand’s 16th novel, “The Book of Lamps and Banners,” was published this fall.
Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls: Women, Music and Fame
By Lisa Robinson
Henry Holt and Company. 231 pp. $27.99