Q&A: Talking ’70s Rock Style and Life on the Road With Lisa Robinson

By
Photo: Christopher Simon Sykes

Lisa Robinson was one of the few women reporting about music in the 1970s. This outsider status, she says, fueled a different perspective on the quickly transforming rock scene.

"I looked at the more — I wouldn’t say frivolous side," she explains. "Because I could absolutely match any of these boys in terms of musical knowledge. But they were serious critics. I was interested in the personalities; I was interested in the clothing. I was interested in the style, years before MTV made style a big deal." 

Her memoir — There Goes Gravity, out yesterday — offers a magnificent, acute account of style from '70s rock to punk to mainstream pop. She touches on myriad aspects of the music scene, with a particular focus on the relationship between performers' costumes and their personas: Mick Jagger with his “off” excess; Patti Smith yearning for a mink coat and tailored pants; punks "in various stages of meticulously arranged disarray."

Robinson spoke to the Cut about groupies, routine sexism, and Patti Smith's style.

I was so impressed with your meticulous descriptions. Were you taking notes?
I was. And I also have a great memory because I wasn’t taking drugs. I took notes from every single concert — they were all labeled with individual envelopes with the dates on them, on those pink Beverly Hills hotel pads.

You write that because you were one of the few women, some bands were dismissive. How did you react at the time?
Led Zeppelin was the first big band I was around, and Led Zeppelin literally gave misogyny a new meaning. I mean, Jimmy Page was very sophisticated because he had been a studio musician from London, and so was John Paul Jones. But Robert Plant and John Bonham were from the north of England, farms, and to me they were hicks. I thought they were great musicians, but I was not nervous around them. I mean, I was from New York City. Born and bred here — New York woman who had snuck out of her bedroom at 12 to see Thelonious Monk, who was far more sophisticated than these rock and roll guys were. So I wasn’t impressed. I know they thought of me as, “Oh, this is just some chick from rock magazine.” Then they started to have respect for me, because they knew that I knew as much as they did about the music that influenced them.

But in general? Mick Jagger once said to me, “There’s no reason women are on tour unless it’s to fuck or because they have a job.” Well, I was there with a job. And the thing is, I was only interested in the music. I was never interested in the drugs or the sex around a tour. I thought it was sleazy; I saw so many people being demeaned in those situations.

What was your relationship like with the women that were around, like wives or girlfriends or groupies?
Well, nobody was really traveling with their wives then, except Mick Jagger was with Bianca. And Keith was with Anita Pallenberg at the time — even though she wasn’t his wife, she was the mother of his children and his constant companion. Led Zeppelin never brought their wives to America. They came to rape and pillage, basically. It was a playground for them. As far as groupies were concerned, if it was a "tour girlfriend" — Jimmy had one of those, Robert had one of those — I wasn’t, like, disgusted by it. It was their choice.

Which musicians do you think executed their look most perfectly?
Patti Smith certainly did. The Clash did. Even though it was very contrived, they looked the same onstage as they did offstage.  Keith Richards was Keith Richards, when he was on or offstage — he was exactly the same, the cool, outlaw look.

These people didn’t have stylists. They had style. Janis Joplin had style.

Patti Smith had no money, so she had to put a look together. Patti loved to talk about clothes. Because she was so, so-called androgynous, or was trying to look like Bob Dylan in his Don’t Look Back phase or Keith Richards, people didn’t realize that Patti was a girl and she knew about Balenciaga and she knew about Yves Saint Laurent and she wanted a mink coat.

Mick Jagger would get done up in some ridiculous costume and I always said to him, “You should go onstage looking the way you do offstage, it’s much cuter.” I think I wrote about this, and he said, “You can’t go onstage looking like some old blues musician.” Well, now he is an old blues musician, and he should go onstage looking like that because it would look better, anyway.

This interview was edited and condensed.