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The Modern Lovers Week – Day 1: Rethinking Rock Crit History with Lillian Roxon

TO CELEBRATE THIS WEEK’S RELEASE (FEBRUARY 9TH) OF OUR 33 1/3 ON  THE MODERN LOVERS’ THE MODERN LOVERS, WE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF MODERN LOVERS WEEK BY AUTHOR SEAN L. MALONEY!

 

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It was the necrophilia of it all that shocked the adults, not the funkiness of three bitchy white girls who told it straight out that in motor-bike gangs you don’t just hold hands.”

– Lillian Roxon on The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack”, 1969

 

Lillian Roxon is the greatest rock critic of her generation. Cooler than Bangs, hipper than Meltzer, wilder than Guralnick, Lillian Roxon had all of the cool opinions before everybody else in our field. She was hanging out with the Velvet Underground while Lester still lived with his parents. She wrote the Rock Encyclopedia, which was the first real canonization of the artform, before the crater at Woodstock had cooled. Her prose was personable and sharp, hip and enthusiastic. Her focus was inclusionary and progressive, her knowledge vast and her taste impeccable. She’s the Joan Didion of music nerds. And yet she’s sort of a persona non-grata in the contemporary rock-crit canon. As an industry, as a culture we need to change that.

A refugee from fascist Italy, Roxon was raised in Brisbane during the years the Australian city was the launching point for the American war effort. She would spend her early adulthood running with radical bohemians in fiercely provincial 1950s Sydney. She ended up writing about celebrity gossip which would morph into music coverage and eventually see her and Nuggets-favorites The Easybeats gisland-jump to Swinging London just in time to witness the birth of psychedelia. With each stop her reach spread, her work appearing in publications across three continents. So when she came to New York City and discovered the backroom at Max’s Kansas City it would become her muse. She’s the Dorothy Parker of proto-punk.

Roxon’s 1973 death at the age of 41 is one likely reason that her name  evokes quizzical looks among even the most ardent fans of rock criticism. Another is her immense popularity. While Rolling Stone and Creem were still underground pubs barely reaching beyond the head shops,she was published in major publications across three continents. Her column for the New York Sunday News, The Top of Pop, reached deep into the suburbs in a way that no hippy broadside or niche glossy could. Her shampoo company-sponsored radio spots reached into places that most creepy-dude rock-critics would never be allowed entry.

She did this all while advocating for bands like the Velvet Underground, MC5 and The Modern Lovers. She was a master at throwing shade at celebrities — her 1972 column “Down with Soft Rock” is savage – but she was also a tireless supporter of underdogs and outsiders. A brief mention of The Modern Lovers in her column would start the major label courtship process for the band that would result in their classic debut. She was a vocal advocate for women’s liberation,  a feminist force to be reckoned at a time when rock criticism was perversely misogynistic. She was besties with Linda Eastman before Linda met that dude in that band and was worsties with pioneering feminist author Germaine Greer.

But more than any of that she was a brilliant writer who could communicate bold new ideas in a clean, creative manner without all intellectual grandstanding that makes many of her peers a slog to read forty years later. (We get it, y’all read some Kerouac. Dial it back, dudes.) She never lost sight of the magic that comes with being a music fan, miraculously never got jaded at a time when burnout was settling on many corners of the rock crit world. She was a badass that broke down barriers and pushed into pockets of culture that still matter generations later. That her legacy is oft overlooked is one of the great musical tragedies of 21st century.

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