Last week’s interview with Tracey Thorn (part one and part two), and Thorn’s column in The Spectator on how women are interviewed and reviewed in the music press, prompted some thoughts and some soul searching.
It served also as a reminder that some of these issues existed on the “other side of the typewriter” too, in a media industry that hardly welcomed women either. Australian pioneer, Lillian Roxon bore the brunt of that but also sailed past or just pushed through as many of those barriers as she could.
Ten years ago an ABC documentary on Roxon, her groundbreaking work in the USA, and her creation of the first rock’n’roll encyclopedia, sparked this story.
Even if Lillian Roxon had never written a word about Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop and Helen Reddy, even if she had never compiled the first encyclopaedia of rock or played mother to the New York demi-monde, her story would be worth telling for the way she found herself right in the middle of some of the key moments of 20th-century culture.
The daughter of a family of European intellectuals who fled the Nazis and found themselves in the ultra-provincial Brisbane of the 1940s, Roxon was a flamboyant teenage member of the Sydney Push, that self-mythologising group of artists, radicals and philosophers who operated as the bohemian quarter during the stuffy 1950s.
Roxon was to see even more radical behaviour when she moved to New York just as Andy Warhol's Factory and Dylan’s folk scene emerged in the early 1960s and from her table out the back of the seedy club, Max’s Kansas City, soon was to befriend the key figures in what became the real punk rock, some years before the cartoon Sex Pistols “invented” it. Oh yes, she also was an inspiration to and help nudge into public consciousness her equally strong compatriot Germaine Greer.
That Roxon was not only there for all that but chronicled it in her radio shows, her writings for the Sydney Morning Herald, various women's magazines and eventually her groundbreaking Rock Encyclopedia, is what inspired producer Robert de Young to make the film Mother Of Rock.
"One thing that I was impressed with about Lillian and her story was how prescient she was really in terms of the people she recognised as being the important people of the period, people like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and the punk movement happening out of New York,” de Young says. “Yes, Germaine Greer said unkindly, when she was here to launch the film, that Lillian had her face pressed against the glass, looking into this world but my feeling was that there was an element of truth in that, she was a journalist, but she was actively involved as an actor and promoter in the scene.”
Using readings from her writings (voiced by Sacha Horler) as well as Roxon’s own voice on phone conversations she and her friends recorded in the years before her death in 1973, as well as a mix of archival and recently shot footage, Mother Of Rock tells this almost unbelievable tale as something of an antidote to the usual expat suspects.
For writer/director Paul Clarke, a former journalist and musician who has made documentaries about surfing and Australian rock music, such as Long Way To The Top, this correcting of the public record was a passion of what you might call Roxonian quality.
"When the media portrays famous Australians it's always Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Richard Neville and Clive James and Barry Humphries. It's always them who we celebrate and I thought we need more heroes,” says Clarke. “I wanted to put Lillian into that pantheon of someone people could look up to. Lillian is far more interesting in a lot of ways and did just as much as the others, in the milieu that I'm interested in anyway."
If what she did is less well known here than in the USA, the fact that Iggy Pop, Greer, Alice Cooper, former record label head Danny Goldberg, author David Malouf and photographer Leee Black Childers all made themselves available for Clarke is some testimony to the regard in which she is held - for her writing, her support and her catalytic role in a turbulent time.
When Germaine Greer, who had a major unresolved falling out with Roxon at the publication of The Female Eunuch, helped launch the film at the Melbourne Film Festival she told the audience that "all I wanted was for Lillian to like me and I've just flown from London just to say ‘like me Lillian, like me’, and she is dead and I still feel like that“.
Those who doubted her likely changed their minds after watching the film and seeing some of what drove Roxon was a need to know and to share.
"I think that [Roxon] felt frustrated by the world that journalism offered her and she was incredibly inspired by the deviant energy of the Factory crowd. In a sense, time has justified that energy," Clarke says. "It's an interesting role for her. Some of her writing was as a really creative publicist but when you read her descriptions in the Rock Encyclopaedia, they are just wonderful journalese. And they really haven't dulled in 30 or 40 years."
At the beginning of Mother Of Rock Clarke and de Young quote one of Roxon’s pithy aphorisms, that “rock stars are like avocados: when that moment of perfect ripeness comes they are, by definition, doomed”. It may well be that 38 years after her death Lillian Roxon is proving that writers at least have longer seasons.