|MILESAGO: Australasian Music & Popular Culture 1964-1975||People|
Journalist and author
Born 1 February 1932, Savano, Italy
Died 10 August 1973, New York City, USA
Lillian Roxon was a noted Australian journalist and author of the 1960s and early 1970s. She was a pioneer of rock music writing and criticism and author of the world's first encyclopedia of rock. She was born Lillian Ropschitz in Savano, Italy. Her family, originally from Lvov in Poland, moved to the coastal town of Alassio in Italy, where Lillian was born. Because the Ropschitz family were Jewish, they migrated to Australia in 1937 to escape the rise of fascism, and they settled in Brisbane. Shortly after their arrival, the family anglicised their names; the surname Roxon was Lillian's suggestion.
Lillian was short and was always sensitive about her fluctuating weight (she was often cricised about it by her father), but she was also beautiful, vivacious, witty, erudite, charming, outgoing, fearless, ambitious and extremely intelligent. Interviewed by biographer Robert Milliken, Lillian's close friend, the artist Margaret Fink gave this eloquent describtion of how Lillian looked when they first met in Sydney in 1951:
"I was struck by her phenomenal beauty. She was nineteen with the most strikingly beautiful face, one of the most beautiful faces I've ever seen. Her pale eyes were extraordinary. The gentlest, flawless olive complexion with just a blush on those fantastic cheeks which weren't too round. There was a refinement in her face that didn't appear in her body. And under her eyes, the most wonderful faint, mauve shadow. Her mother had very dark shadows under here eyes, so she would have inherited that. Marvellous teeth, fabulous smile, perfect nose, dreadful hair."
Lillian began her university education at the University of Queensland, at a time when it was still rare for women to undertake tertiary studies. There she met and had a brief affair with Zell Rabin, who became a close friend and gave Lillian her first job in America and who, as editor of the Sydney Daily Mirror, became a key associate of Rupert Murdoch in the early Sixties. She pursued further studies at the University of Sydney in the early 1950s, where she associated with the freewheeling libertarian movement known as The Push.
Beginning her career in newspapers in Sydney, Roxon rapidly developed into a gifted writer. She worked for several years for the tabloid magazine Weekend (which later evolved into the pop magazine Everybody's), owned by media magnate Sir Frank Packer and edited by renowned author Donald Horne.
In 1959 Lillian moved permanently to New York, becoming the first Australian women appointed as a foreign correspondent and the first Australian journalist to establish a high profile in America. From 1962 until her death she was the New York correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and over the next ten years she carved out a singular career reporting on arts, entertainment and women's issues for the Australian, American and British press.
In the mid-Sixties Roxon became fascinated by pop music and the rise of groups like The Beatles, The Byrds and The Rolling Stones and she began to write regular articles on the subject. In early 1967 she visited San Francisco and was one of the first mainstream journalists to write about the nascent hippie phenomenon, filing a landmark story for the Herald on the subject. She also contributed to the famous Oz magazine in the late 1960s.
Through her writings and her interest in pop, she became one of the leading lights of the social and musical scene that centred on the fabled New York music club Max's Kansas City, which was frequented by members of the Andy Warhol circle, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, Jim Morrison and many others. Her articles about the burgeoning rock scene are now credited as being foundation stones of serious rock writing, and she has since been hailed by one critic as "The Mother Of Rock". She was friendly with many leading music stars but rarely became personally involved, although she reportedly had a brief fling with Easybeats singer Stevie Wright when the band visited New York in 1967.
Although she looked young enough to mix easily with the rock crowd, she was at least ten years older than most of the musicians she wrote about (she would now be in her seventies). Unusually for the time, she did not smoke or take drugs and only rarely drank alcohol. These factors, and her renowned wit, combined to give her writing a degree of ironic detachment that influenced many younger rock writers. She was without doubt one of the first mainstream journalists to treat popular music with any degree of seriousness and to regard it not as a trivial 'flash in the pan' but as an important social phenomenon.
During the late Sixties and early Seventies, Roxon became close friends with critic and rock manager Danny Fields, writer Bob Gruen, Village Voice journalist Blair Sabol, musician and writer Lenny Kaye (later the guitarist in Patti Smith's band and compiler of the original 'Nuggets' LP), photographers Linda Eastman (McCartney) and Leee Childers and famous Australian academic, author and feminist Germaine Greer, on whom Roxon exerted a strong influence, even though the two later fell out and conducted a public feud in their various writings. Australian singer Helen Reddy credits Roxon for her first awareness of the women's movement and for providing much of the impetus for writing her international hit "I Am Woman".
Roxon also played host to any Australians who visited New York City, including The Easybeats and singer Lynne Randell and artists such as Clifton Pugh. Roxon accompanied The Monkees on their first major U.S. tour in 1967, for which Randell was the opening act. The tour also famously included Jimi Hendrix on the early dates but he abruptly quit after a poorly-recieved performance at the Forest Hills Auditorium in Los Angeles. A story circulated that he had been removed from the tour after pressure from the conservative women's association The Daughters of the American Revolution but it was in fact concocted by Roxon, who was a past master of "beating up" newsworthy angles from her days with Weekend. It was repeated in her entry on Hendrix in the Encyclopedia and was accepted as fact for many years and included in numerous accounts of Hendrix's meteoric career.
Linda McCartney (then Linda Eastman) was one of Roxon's closest female friends in the Sixties and she did much to further Eastman's career, but the friendship ended abruptly in 1969 when Eastman moved to London, married Paul McCartney and cut all ties with all her former friends, a move which wounded Roxon deeply. Lillian's delayed retaliation came four years later with her famously scathing review of the McCartneys' first American TV special. Published in the New York Sunday News on 22 April 1973, Roxon's review panned the documentary and poured scorn on Linda, slamming her for being "catatonic with horror at having to mingle with ordinary people", "disdainful if not downright bored ... her teeth relentlessly clamped in a Scarsdale lockjaw", and "incredibly cold and arrogant".
During 1968-1969 Roxon had been commissioned to write what became the world's first rock encyclopedia. It was published by Grosset & Dunlap in late 1969 and the work for which she is best remembered. Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia was extremely successful, is still regarded as a landmark in popular music writing and is often quoted. However the work had to be written concurrently with her regular duties as the Herald correspondent and her other press commitments. The punishing schedule took a heavy toll on her health, and she developed asthma.
In the early Seventies Roxon's profile expanded and she became more widely known for her pioneering feminist views. She wrote a groundbreaking and highly personal report about the August 1970 women's rights march in New York, which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald under the title "There is a tide in the affairs of women". She wrote a regular column on sex and sexuality for Mademoiselle magazine (which continued after her death) and during 1971 she hosted a rock radio show that was syndicated to 250 stations. She became friends with David Bowie and his first wife Angie and was a major champion of Bowie's music as he tried to break into in America.
Lililan's health declined during the early Seventies as she struggled with her asthma and juggled a haphazard treatment regime, often getting advice by mail or phone from a doctor friend in Australia, who supplied her with medicines not available in the United States. One of the common treatments for asthma the time was the steroid cortisone, which caued her to put on weight, placing added strain on her heart.
Lillian made what was to be her last visit home to Australia in early 1973. In early February, while she was still in Sydney, she was interviewed by the ABC's Jeune Pritchard for a GTK special on the Rolling Stones tour of Australia, which was then underway. The brief snippet of black-and-white footage shows Lillian looking bloated and unwell. After returning to New York she wrote one of her last articles, which reported on the landmark New York concert at Max's Kansas City by Iggy Pop and The Stooges. Her final piece, filed in early August, was on rising British glam rock star Marc Bolan.
Early in August 1973, dressed in a flamboyant gown and feather boa, Lillian attended a performance at Max's Kansas City. A few days later, alarmed at her failure to return telephone calls, friends summoned the police, who broke into her apartment on East 21st Street and found her body. She had died of a massive asthma attack on or about 9 August 1973, aged 41. Her memorial service was held at the Universal Funeral Chapel, New York. She was survived by her two brothers and her sister. Both parents pre-deceased her and she never married or had children, and her estate was sworn for probate at $44,378. In November 1973 her younger brother Jack set up the Lillian Roxon Memorial Asthma Research Trust in Melbourne to help Australian researchers to study overseas.
Roxon wrote a novel, loosely based on her years in Sydney, which was never published. This manuscript now resides in Sydney's Mitchell Library along with her large collection of letters and other papers (Roxon was a voluminous letter writer) donated by her family and her friend Margaret Fink. The Rock Encyclopedia was revised in the late Seventies by writer Ed Naha and reissued but the revised version, although more up-to-date, is generally considered to be inferior to the original, which is now a sought-after collector's item.
REFERENCES / LINKS
Lillian Roxon: Mother Of Rock (Black Inc, Melbourne, 2002)