To say that Lisa Robinson has led an interesting life is an understatement; she toured with the Stones in ’75, and Zeppelin on and off from ’72 to ’75, she saw the first New York Dolls shows, she counts Bono, Eminem and Kanye West as personal friends, and she is still in the music industry. The Vanity Fair editor just published a memoir about her first 40 years in the rock and roll business, and she’ll be in D.C. for signings at Politics and Prose on Wednesday and a conversation with NPR’s Bob Boilen at the W on Thursday. (Her book, There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll, is now available for purchase.)
Do you think that The Rolling Stones could have been The Rolling Stones if they started in 2014?
Wow that’s a really good question, I have no idea. I have a feeling that there are bands that are starting in 2014 that probably will last, but I don’t know about fifty years. It’s a pretty disposable culture at this point, they don’t have the chance to build the way they did. People buy singles (they don’t buy albums), but I don’t know, with the return of vinyl in this whole generation—I mean I don’t know how old you are—but people sometimes download entire albums, people love the idea of the feel of a vinyl album. It’s become very sort of hip and groovy again to have vinyl. People are going back on the Internet to discover stuff. If you look at a band like The Black Keys and you look at The Kings of Leon or even look at The National, they’re bands that have managed to build followings with their own generation. For all we know they’ll probably soon be playing stadiums even though they’ve always sworn they wouldn’t.
Listen, I remember the Stones saying “Oh, we’re never going to play Las Vegas.” And then of course they played Las Vegas. You know, Mick Jagger said ‘I never want to sing this song when I’m 40’, and then he rued the day he made that statement and he told them he was just kidding. You know, I don’t really know. I can’t predict the future. I can tell you music will last, it always has; they’ve been saying ‘rock and roll is over’ since the ’50s, and it’s lasted a pretty long time. I think there will be bands for today’s music lovers that they’ll grow up with and they’ll love, and maybe they’ll want their children and grandchildren to come and see them the same way Rolling Stones fans take their grandchildren–well maybe great-grandchildren—to a stadium. So I have no idea, and I don’t think I’ll live long enough to know. But I certainly do think there will be bands that will have a very very last effecting on people.
Let’s look at it this way: people remember the music of their youth, people respond to the music they grew up with. So I just think it’s a possibility, yes.
I’m reading your book and I think the New York Dolls would have been much more successful if they began in 2014.
Well I don’t know about that, because we’re talking about personality and drug addicts here.
We’re talking about personalities and drug addicts for The Stones as well, and we saw what happened with them.
I know, but not quite the same way. I mean, the original New York Dolls drummer died at a very young age. Granted, Brian Jones did, too. Mick Jagger went to the London School of Economics, he was a business major. The New York Dolls were really messed up on drugs. It wasn’t just two people, and they also didn’t have any help. I mean, Andrew Loog Oldham…I mean, just making these comparisons it’s hard to do because you have to put everything into context. We’re talking about a time in the ’60s when maybe there were like four bands that were creating that kind of a buzz and excitement in England. You have the Beatles, you know, The Stones, maybe The Yardbirds, The Kinks and then The Who. It was a kind of a flat, contained scene in England that just exploded, and they had very clever managers that helped them. The Beatles had Brian Epstein, the Stones had Andrew Loog Oldham. By the time The Dolls were playing in New York they were sloppier, and wittier and funnier, but they weren’t really very business oriented.
When you started doing this, you said there was between six and 20 of you at the time. Now there are like six to 20 people in any apartment building in New York doing this type of work.
Maybe, yeah I guess so with blogs and so forth. What are you asking me? Is this good?
Is this good, is this better, are we hearing music differently? Is it good because we’re hearing about more bands because there’s more music writers? Does the quality of the writer go down? Just what are your thoughts on the industry right now in terms of music writing?
Well, I don’t think the industry…you’re talking about three different things because there’s the industry and there’s the journalism about the music and then there’s the music. So in terms of the industry, obviously the industry changed because of the technology. Instead of fighting that, they’re suing their clients. Perhaps if the record companies had embraced the technology sooner and partnered with some of this, they would have found themselves in a better situation. But I’m not holding any benefits for any of these record companies because there’s a whole lot of rich people who made a whole lot of money from this. And the music still survives. In terms of journalism, do I think that now it’s a good thing that fans can connect directly? Perhaps for some of their musical idols, you know, through Twitter or Instagram or Tumblr. Yeah, I think that’s probably a good thing, the fact that there are a lot of people reading blogs and music writing sort of the way I started out with a mimeograph sheet in ’72. I mean, time marches on, things change. I can’t judge whether it’s better, there’s just more of it. The fact that there’s more of it doesn’t mean that it’s better, but I think there’s certainly more opportunities for people to do this.
How are you discovering new music?
Well, it’s hard for me frankly because I have this day job at Vanity Fair. Usually I go see stuff when I need to write about it for a column I do in the magazine called “Hot Tracks”. I really just try to check out everything I can; people tell me about stuff, I surf all around the Internet and look for stuff and one thing leads to another. And then of course, you know, being a journalist at a glossy mainstream magazine, I get pitched a lot of stuff, and sometimes I pay attention to it and sometimes I don’t. It depends on who is telling me. If there’s somebody representing somebody who I respect a lot because they’ve never led me astray in the past, I will certainly listen to them. But I can’t possibly listen to everything I get because I mean, it must be the same with you, right?
It’s the same.
Yeah, I mean, you get too much, there’s not enough time. So I do the best I can. I remember my hairdresser told me about a band a few years ago, and you know, I just went along, and I went and I listened to them and I thought, “Oh this guy is good, he sounds a little bit like John Lennon, OK,” and, “Oh, this band is cool they sound a little bit like Led Zeppelin.” And the thing is, it’s hard for me because I’ve been around for so long and I’ve heard so much stuff that I try not to be jaded, but I always see where the influences are.
But that’s not a bad thing, knowing the history has to make you a more informed listener. If you really understand that a band is a derivative of Sabbath, why not go to the first four Sabbath records instead? That’s a good thing.
Well, I don’t know if that’s a good thing. Again, put it in context. I could tell people, “You think this is good? Go listen to that.” On the other hand, I think that’s being a terrible snob, and I also think that that is again taking something out of context. Kids in their twenties…I don’t know hold old you are—
Your generation wants to have your own bands. Somebody even in their 40s can say to me, “I love xx, I love The National.” You know, I may hear it and I just may not like it, but if he likes it, it means something to him because he discovered them when there were a teensy little band in England and he’s followed them through their four independent releases. You know, I could try to turn him on to something and say, “Oh, well you should go back and listen to The Smiths, or you should listen to this, or you should listen to you know early Radiohead,” whatever. I mean, I don’t like to do that. I love turning people on to stuff but I would never put myself in that position of being that judge because I think music…this is why I wasn’t a critic, because I think that music is so emotional and personal to the person listening to it, and what it says to them, that I just think that I’m glad that should exist for everybody.
You’ve probably seen concerts from every angle, probably more than most individuals. Is there anything a normal concert-viewer should know going into say see a show at Madison Square Garden? Should they prepare themselves for different things than if they were going to a small club?
You’re talking if you’re sitting in the audience, right?
Okay, well, that’s hard for me because I’ve been so spoiled that I don’t sit in the audience anymore. Well, actually, I’ll tell you one thing, when I was writing the cover story on Jay-Z’s tour for Vanity Fair, I went to two different stadiums. (Yankee Stadium on the hottest day of the summer, literally was like 101, and then I went to Baltimore.) For women, don’t take a pocketbook, that is one tip, because you’re going to have to be shlupping it around and if you really want to get up to the stage and really want to be in a big crowd you don’t want to be burdened by carrying anything. If it’s in the summer you should be really careful, take water. I mean I don’t know if they let people walk into stadiums anymore with bottles of water but because when they make you buy it there it’s so crazy the charges is like $6 a bottle when there’s a $10 minimum.
Speaking of Jay-Z, you went to the Jay-Z and Eminem show at Yankee Stadium. I think the old Yankee Stadium right?
No, it was the new one.
The new one, okay. In the last photo of you in your book, there’s a photo of you and Eminem.
You’re thinking of Eminem at Saturday Night Live.
Have you ever asked Eminem why he doesn’t smile?
No, but I think I know why. I don’t think I can get to many rap artists to smile.
You have Jay-Z smiling in the book!
Yeah, Jay-Z and I were laughing about something.
I think it’s a hip-hop sort of stamp.
Well, of course.
But I think it started out with all of them looking tough and you know, they thought it was gangster, and I think that still carries over. I can get Kanye to do a little bit of a smile but it’s hard. Kanye, if you notice, always looks like he’s scowling in pictures. Eminem just has a poker face. Eminem has a dead pan face. There’s been times where he’s told me jokes and I look at him and I think he’s serious, and then he goes, “I’m kidding.” But it’s also about the dead pan face. I just think it’s a hip-hop thing, I really do.
Of course. I am a big, big Kanye fan but it’s hard to be a big Kanye defender and you have become a Kanye defender.
Oh my god, isn’t it hard to become a Kanye defender?
Once you drink the water, you’re in forever.
I can’t agree with you more. I think that his body of work is astounding. I think the record he did with Jon Brion was amazing. I think “We Major” is like one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s like a little symphony to me. I had to ask how many tracks were going to be on that and Kanye didn’t know. And then I asked Jon Brion and he said it was a loop made by some guy in a garage. I have music on my iPod on a loop, I listen to that album over and over and over again and because Lou Reed, before he died, wrote a review of that album online. I assume you saw that. And to me that was bringing my life full circle. It’s very weird, to connect Lou Reed with Kanye somebody may think that’s strange.
Oh, no, it’s not.
To me, it made perfect sense. And to me, Yeezus is a punk album. That’s like a hardcore punk album. It’s like I listened to a lot of hardcore punk in the 90’s, and, you know, stuff coming out of San Francisco and the Dead Kennedy’s, The Crewnecks, and Murphy’s Law, and a lot of that stuff from Europe. And to me, it’s right up there with that . And I know Kanye well, and I know him personally, and sometimes I think he just gets a little carried with his passion.
Well, he’s always right.
I think so, and he was certainly right when he said George Bush doesn’t like black people.
Listen, Bono was in the White House with George Bush, and Eminem wrote “Mosh” and Kanye said that on TV, and so he had me forever with that one.
Is there any artist that you’re still excited to hear new material?
Always Kanye, always Eminem. Well, here we’re going way back blues wise, Gary Carter Jr. I love, because I think he’s taken a real…he’s taken an ancient art form, you know, he’s taking the blues, he’s taking Jimi Hendrix, and he’s made it his own thing. I’m always interested in what Gaga’s going to do. I think she’s going to have one of those careers…if she keeps herself together, she’s going to have one of those careers like Elton John. You know, ups and downs, and peaks and valleys, but very melodic tones and pop rock. And she’s got a great voice and a lot of passion. I mean, incredibly interested in what’s going to happen with Adele and her next record because she was so concerned with writing love songs and now she’s happier, so let’s see what she’s going to come up with. I mean, the list goes on and on, there’s a lot of people I’m interested in seeing what happens next.
I’m still doing this for a reason, you know what I mean?
I have one point of contention with you in the book. You really think Eminem’s album was better than the Arcade Fire album that one album of the year that year (Arcade Fire won Album of the Year at the 2010 Grammy Awards (held in January 2011) for their album The Suburbs, beating out Eminem’s Recovery)?
I really do.
I mean, come on, Eminem should have won when he had “Stan” on the album (Eminem was nominated for Album of the Year in 2000 for The Marshall Mathers LP but lost to Steely Dan’s Two Against Nature).
We can’t argue about this because it’s rap criticism stuff, but this is the kind of stuff I never did in my life.
But it’s so much fun.
I remember emailing David Bowie right after that happened and I said ‘I can’t believe that Arcade Fire…’ because he loves Arcade Fire, and I don’t like Arcade but you know, to each his own. And I said what’s the Blondie song that’s just like the Arcade Fire song? And he said you know what you’re right, I have to check it out. And I think he told me eventually which one it was. And I said I can’t believe Arcade Fire won, because Eminem’s album was definitely album of the year and he said absolutely I agree with you. Yeah, I did think it was better, again.
But that’s the thing that makes all of this so great. I just don’t like to get into that thing where people argue who’s better: Michael Jordan or Lebron James; you know you have to put everything into perspective. Music means different things for different people and people react emotionally, physically with what they grew up with, what they saw live, who speaks to them more, and you know, that’s why I never was a critic, that’s why I just wanted to write about the personalities.
If you’d like to view an extremely thorough interview with Mrs. Robinson and Fran Lebowitz from earlier this week: