Saturday, May 25, 2013

Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia (book)

by Lillian Roxon

Rock music was always slightly disreputable, which is a major part of its popularity and charm.  And because of this, few critics took it seriously. One of the first was Lillian Roxon, and her Rock Encyclopedia was a critical landmark:  the first attempt to list the groups that made the genre.

Roxon was born Lillian Ropschitz in Italy.  He family, fleeing fascism in Europe,* migrated to Australia in 1937 and changed their name to Roxon.  Lillian became a journalist and moved to New York city in 1939 as an overseas correspondent.  By the mid-60s, she turned her attention to rock music.  She became part of the rock scene by being willing to take it seriously and she had a good eye for what groups might make it big.

By 1968, she had developed enough of a reputation to put together the major project:  the world’s first encyclopedia of rock.   The book covered all the major acts, of course, but also many minor ones, and included what she saw as interesting new groups.** 

But what made the book special was Roxon’s writing.  This wasn’t a dry listing of groups and their history, but an entertaining and lively personal journey through the music.  Some of the entries were unforgettable, as this description of how B.B. King was introduced to rock fans at a concert where he was billed beneath Elvin Bishop and Eric Clapton:

“Well, for a start, old B. doesn’t even stand up. He doesn’t have to. He just sits back in his chair, still relaxin’, smilin’ a little and smokin’ his Tiparillo, and suddenly he lets go a little pure and ever-so-simple soul.  Like he’s been doin’ this for a long time.  No fancy playing now, just a couple of strokes, and – well, the whole room is wiped out.”

She could have a wonderfully dry sense of humor as in this entry about the Royal Guardsmen:

“Their song depicting Snoopy (the Peanuts dog) fighting the Red Baron became a million seller in three weeks. One month later, they did a sequel to it.  And one year later, `Snoopy’s Christmas.’  Some people question the Royal Guardsmen’s imagination.”

After the book, Roxon continued to write on rock and on feminist issues, but her health started failing as she developed asthma.  She died in 1973.

The Rock Encyclopedia is her legacy.  There was an attempt to revise in in 1978 with Ed Naha brought in to update the book, but Naha*** was not in Roxon’s league as a stylist, and the book was rewritten to eliminate some of the more obscure entries and adding new groups from the previous decade.  It was considered inferior to the original.

The book is a bit dated, and some of the groups have been forgotten.**** But the book was and still is the perfect snapshot of where rock was in 1969.

*She was Jewish.

**The Rock Encyclopedia, for instance, had an article on Soft White Underbelly, a group from Stony Brook, Long Island that had not even put out an album yet.  You’ve probably never heard of them, but you have heard of the name they finally settled on:  Blue Oyster Cult.

***Whose most famous work was his screenplay for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

**** Acts such as the Brotherhood, the Candymen, Even Dozen Jug Band, Penny Whistlers, and Stone Country, and Jeremy Steig and the Satyrs, who had two entries in the Encyclopedia, under “Jeremy” and “Steig”.


Anonymous said...

This was, once again, amazing. I've never heard of this and I think my rock-connoisseur friends neither.

Sooke said...

I would guess she moved to NYC around 1959, not 1939.