How to Prepare for the Past


On Music


Lillian Roxon died forty years ago this August.

Lillian was an Australian journalist who moved to New York in the late 1950s to cover popular culture for the Sydney Morning Herald and who fell madly in love with the city and with the sixties rock scene as it emerged. An unbridled enthusiast, scenemaker, and troublemaker, she was also one of the original Wild Grrrrls: bawdy, carousing, fiercely independent, unashamedly smart women on the town.  Together, she, Germaine Greer, and Linda Eastman terrorized the city. At least the parts of the city that men frequented.

I met Lillian when I was about sixteen. She had just published The Rock Encyclopedia, and I devoured it, read it cover to cover. This was pre Creem, and almost all there was for music junkies was Hit Parader, Teen Beat, and 16 Magazine. So of course I bought her book. And corrected it. The spirit of the book was wonderful, but the facts were all askew, and for a young trainspotter that was unforgivable. She had John Stewart from the Kingston Trio listed as a member of Buffalo Springfield. Things like that. I sent her about thirty handwritten pages of corrections, and she sent back a note graciously asking if I’d like to work on the second edition with her.

There was no second edition, but she became my patron, taking me off to Max’s Kansas City and to clubs I never could have gotten into, not to mention taking me to all the back rooms and backstage scenes I didn’t even know existed.

After her death, I was surprised to discover that she’d had a crush on me and had written to Germaine Greer wondering if she should do anything about it, not knowing whether she should make me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or take me to bed. I was totally oblivious, not a clue about that, though, in retrospect, I remembered an awkward encounter in which she placed my hand firmly on her left breast (she was describing an encounter with Leonard Cohen in Nashville, with looks passed across a smoky room, he eventually whispering something in her ear and cupping her breast like so).

When I started playing guitar and writing songs, maybe six months later, I called her up and wanted to play my songs for her. I had no one else to play them for. They were awful. Truly bad. My son Harry, when he was four or five, was writing far better songs (he had one called “Touch Break Everything” and another with the very Van Morrison-ish title, “There’s Only One Who Loves the Love, and She’s a Girl,” though it’s mostly about aliens landing on the roof and peeking in through windows, so Van has no cause for concern).

Anyway, I was excited about these songs of mine which, if memory serves, had to do with secrets and moths’ wings and how they make love on the moon. Lilian wisely put me off. A crush was one thing, but bad music was something else entirely. “I won’t know if they’re any good,” she told me. “I mostly write about the scene. Not the songs. But my friend Danny will know! Why don’t you play them for Danny?”

Danny was Danny Fields. Danny was her best friend and was very smart, very connected. He was always the hippest man in the room and continues to be. He was part of Andy Warhol’s scene, part of the inner sanctum at Max’s Kansas City, the house hippie at Elektra Records, responsible for taking care of the Doors, responsible for signing the Stooges and the MC5, responsible for breaking the story about John Lennon claiming the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and later for discovering and managing the Ramones, and on and on.

Lillian picked me up in a taxi and dragged me downtown to Danny’s place. It was dark, there were no lights on, but candles filled the room. Edie Sedgwick, his roommate at the time, was sitting in a corner in her bra and panties cutting out pictures from Vogue. Jim Morrison was passed out drunk on the couch. Nico, from the Velvet Underground, was locked in his bedroom. She’d locked herself in as she was convinced that Jim Morrison was after her. “HE IZZ AN ANIMAL,” she’d scream every few minutes. “DO NOT LET HIM IN!” There was no danger of that. He was comatose. Danny was on the phone with Leonard Cohen, who was looking for Nico.

That was the scene I stumbled into holding my cheap nylon-string guitar. My songs seemed very, very small. Danny wearily put his hand over the receiver and nodded in my direction.

“So,” he drawled or sighed or mumbled, or all three at once, “Lillian says … HELLO DARLING … Lillian says you … songs … oh, songs. What ever would we do without songs?” This was said with the enthusiasm you’d expect of someone saying, What ever would we do without turnips? You could tell, even from a distance, that songs per se did not make his world go round. “Play me a song,” he commanded without much enthusiasm.

Edie Sedgwick didn’t look up. There were clearly more pictures that needed cutting. Jim Morrison didn’t budge. Nico didn’t stop shrieking in German and English. And Danny returned to consoling Leonard Cohen about Nico. I played a song called “Secrets.” There was a part that went:

Now hold me like a promise
Like a moth upon your tongue

“EWWW,” Edie Sedgwick said. “I hate moths.”

“No,” Danny said. “That’s good. A moth upon your tongue. That’s good. Play another.”

“But this one, the moth one, isn’t finished,” I pouted.

“I know that,” Danny said archly. “Play another.”

Jim Morrison started snoring and rolled over. Leonard Cohen called back, still looking for Nico. I started another song. This one had to do with footprints and snow. It sounded quite like the one about the moth. Danny got up and wandered into the kitchen. Lillian was already there. I stopped playing.

Nobody noticed.