The Record Company, Rosie, Gave Me a Big Advance
The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce, by Fred Goodman, New York: Times Books, 431 pages, $25.00
America may or may not be a Christian nation. Still, a bit of wisdom from Paul's first epistle to Timothy has a tenacious hold on a segment of the modern, mostly liberal, imagination: "The love of money is the root of all evil." This quasi-religious sentiment can be detected at the heart of a multitude of modern attitudes, from soak-the-rich tax envy to adoration of "public" television over commercial television to a Harper's essay condemning overuse of psychomedication as much because international megacorporations make money off the drugs as because of anything inherently wrong with abusing them.
In The Mansion on the Hill, former Rolling Stone editor Fred Goodman examines aspects of the history of modern rock 'n' roll–the business and the music–through Paul's lenses. His thesis is that rock, which once functioned not as a huge industry but simply as an art form and a "secret language" for young free spirits, has been corrupted by the hegemony of the big money boys. Rock, that once-despised and socially dangerous bastard child of country, folk, blues, and Tin Pan Alley, became the cash engine behind Time Warner, America's biggest media conglomerate (and the only big record company still American-owned). Goodman's book is fun and fascinating for devotees of both rock and the machinations of the rich and famous, because of the stories it tells and the personalities it illuminates. Still, Goodman ultimately fails to make his point. Instead, he exposes the muddleheadedness of cultural criticism that has no base other than generalized animus against money and those who want to make some.
The theme Goodman purports to examine–the corruption of rock 'n' roll by the corporate sharks and assorted money-grubbing sharpies–is too huge and convoluted to be expressed in a unified narrative. Goodman thus chooses a handful of figures to stand in for larger trends. The businessmen whose tales he tells include Ray Riepen, founder of Boston's first big rock club, The Tea Party, and first free-form FM rock radio station, WBCN; Frank Barcelona and Dee Anthony of the leading rock booking agency Premier Talent; Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan's manager; Charlie Greene and Brian Stone, Sonny and Cher's first managers; Mario Medious, legendary FM promo man for Atlantic Records; Jon Landau, rock critic-turned-Springsteen-producer-and-manager; and, foremost, the most successful and wealthiest man in rock 'n' roll history–a man who never played a note of music himself–David Geffen.
Most of these gentlemen, to be sure, come across as concerned only with business, not music; if not entirely ethically disabled sleazes, they are at best fast-talking slicksters rather than serious devotees of rock as an art form. The story of how Greene and Stone managed to sell Sonny and Cher twice to the same record company by calling them different names is particularly amusing. But even after all of Goodman's anecdotes of the sometimes sleazy and sometimes just savvy and cash-conscious ways that his cast have made themselves rich in the rock industry, it's still uncertain how any of it has really, in and of itself, hurt the music, unless you just have something against the very, very rich. (Billionaire Geffen is among the richest–he touted himself, in 1990, as America's biggest taxpayer. He is also one of the Democratic Party's biggest funders.)
The story of Geffen's rise and fall and rise is the book's centerpiece gem, an entertaining and precise exposition of the hows and whys of one man's achievement of enormous wealth. Geffen's business brilliance can best be grasped by the fact that he made his first million off Laura Nyro, of all people, a very briefly popular '60s singer/songwriter, author of such all-too-timely classics as "Wedding Bell Blues" and "Stoned Soul Picnic." By engaging in a dual manager/publisher relationship with Nyro–a stupid way to do business from the artist's perspective, because it's best to have a manager who will solely represent your interests in dealing with the likes of publishers–he made a million bucks for himself and cemented a reputation that helped convince Warner to bankroll a label, Asylum, for him to run.
Geffen thus became a label head as well as a publisher and manager, and launched the careers of Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and the whole popular mellow Southern California sound. He sold Asylum, ran Elektra for Warner from 1973 to 1975, and then left the music division for an ill-fated stint in Warner's film studios. By 1977, he was out of the business.
But in 1980 he returned and once again finagled Warner into financing the start-up of a new label, called Geffen Records. After high-profile and high-cash failures like Donna Summer, Elton John, and Neil Young (and the death of John Lennon), the Hollywood joke about the label became, "What's the difference between the Titanic and Geffen Records? The Titanic had a band." The late '80s success of Guns n' Roses, though, helped Geffen sell his label, which was started with Warner's money yet fully owned by Geffen, to MCA for cash and loads of stock. Mere months later, when the Japanese firm Matsushita bought MCA, that stock made David Geffen a billionaire.
The book ends with what seems meant to be a horror-movie vision of Geffen, now running the new entertainment megaconglomerate Dreamworks SKG with Steven Spielberg and former Disney chief Jeff Katzenberg, beginning to feel his political oats and hoping for a Clinton administration berth. Not bad for a Jewish kid from a blue-collar neighborhood in Brooklyn without a college degree. Despite Goodman's horror, it's really quite an inspiring American success story, and nowhere does Goodman succeed in linking Geffen's successes with any harm to rock as art. Sure, you might hate those early '80s Elton John records–who doesn't?–but is that because of "the collision of rock and commerce" or just because Elton didn't have a strong batch of songs in him at the time?
Goodman has held the fake dichotomy his book tries to elucidate close to his breast since the days of the folk music boom of the early '60s: the idea of folk culture vs. junk culture, the folkie ideologues' insistence that other kinds of popular music (and this included rock in these pre-Dylan-going-electric days) were nothing but "entertainment that…consumer society produced solely for the sake of being sold."
Dylan, in Goodman's tale, smuggled that folk authenticity into rock, and the classic mid-to-late-'60s music that makes up the pantheon of baby-boomer rock mythology soon was wrapped in it as well. With very little content analysis–try arguing with examples, as Goodman doesn't, the depth and sophistication of most '60s rock gods–Goodman asserts that rock 'n' roll used to mean something, man, back before the money boys and sharks took over. He wants rock that can "invest a humdrum life with meaning" and echo "the aspirations of the earlier underground movement," music about "community, not money or stardom…a celebration of rock and roll as the best part of themselves." At his vaguest–and when discussing what's best in rock he (like most others) becomes hopelessly vague–he wants the music to "include a quest for legitimacy, values, and authenticity."
It might be true that the quality of music is buoyed when the artists' motivations are financially "pure," at least to the degree that the musicians make the music because they sincerely love it and want to express something with it. In addition to all the businessmen, three rock performers' stories are central to the book (though the businessmen get more attention, and come across as more interesting to boot): Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Bruce Springsteen. They are all mostly painted as having begun, at least, with pure artistic motives (although an early hanger-on of Young's first big band, Buffalo Springfield, complained that if you "promise them a Maserati, they'll follow you anywhere").
Springsteen's keyboardist Danny Federici supplies the poignant quote that Goodman uses to cap off what he portrays as the tragedy of Bruce Springsteen's rise to fame and wealth. It serves as a summation of the book's message, with the E Street Band standing in for rock as a whole: "We started out as a band, which turned into a super, giant corporate money-making machine."
But why that happened is one point that Goodman's anti-money stance doesn't let him directly confront. It happened because the E Street Band did their job as a band so well, in the ears of millions, that those millions wanted to buy their music and wanted to see them perform. And because, way back in the beginning, when they were still just a band, Springsteen and his then-manager chose to enlist the help of Columbia Records (now owned by Sony) in the manufacturing and selling (and ownership) of his music.
Old-school rock critics of the Goodman variety, because of their backgrounds in a sort of vague '60s-inspired radicalism, feel it necessary to rebel against the Corporate Man, yet they usually only start to complain when everything works too well. To avoid hypocrisy, mustn't you admit that Springsteen in fact sold out the instant he, an obscure nobody, signed on the dotted line with the corporation? Instead, it's only when he becomes very, very rich selling his music that something is seen to have gone terribly wrong.
An entire world of rock music–where much of today's best rock comes from–is in fact produced by tiny bedroom capitalists out of surplus income without any expectation of widespread fame or wealth. Strangely, old-school anti-capitalist rock critics like Goodman are usually the last to mention this. You'd think a book about rock vs. commerce would at least show signs of knowing that the world of independent, underground rock exists, but this one doesn't.
Goodman's dichotomy–art vs. money –is falsified by the reality he refuses to confront. That selling the art can bring in tons of money doesn't mean that money is necessarily defeating art. It just means lots of people want to buy the art. Goodman also shows, but refuses to tell, how the very infrastructure of clubs and booking that helped bring rock to the people came about only because money-grubbing sharpies like Barcelona made it happen–and they made it happen because they knew people's desire for rock music could equal money for them.
Goodman pays lip service to the idea that it is "possible to both achieve commercial success and rise above it [but it] requires an absolute faith and focus in the intrinsic value of the work itself rather than smart career moves." But he doesn't bother to explain why commercial success is something one must "rise above," if it comes about from doing grand work.
The extended example Goodman uses to dramatize his point is singularly poorly chosen. He tells the story of Bruce Springsteen in greater detail than that of any other musician. Goodman shows us Springsteen's beginnings as a confused kid under the tutelage of sharpie Mike Appel, who simultaneously managed him, ran the production company through which his contracts were signed, and owned his publishing. He then chronicles the confused adult who escaped Appel through a series of lawsuits prompted by rock critic/social climber Jon Landau. Landau ran Rolling Stone's record review section even as he worked as a producer for major record labels. He was originally slated to produce the first record by his pals the J. Geils Band, but couldn't finish the job. So when the record came out, he just gave it a glowing review in Rolling Stone, without mentioning his connection with the band.
Landau became one of Springsteen's biggest fans in the rock critic fraternity, boosting Springsteen's profile enormously with his famous quote, used by Columbia in ads, that "I have seen rock 'n' roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen." In a move that could be considered insider trading, Landau talked up the value of Springsteen and then bought in cheap. After producing Springsteen's breakthrough album, 1975's Born to Run, and guiding Springsteen through the morass of lawsuits to extricate himself from Appel, Landau came out at the other end Springsteen's manager, producer, and best friend and confidant.
He also began changing Springsteen's personality, or at least his image. The scruffy, rock/youth-myth-oriented Springsteen was fed books about Woody Guthrie and imbued with a "social conscience." Landau encouraged him to record an all-acoustic solo album of dark meditations on poor Americans gone wrong, Nebraska, in 1982. While not a smashing commercial success, it provided an even stronger critical push that helped propel Springsteen's breakthrough to the next level of superstardom.
Springsteen's and Landau's next move shows the ambiguity of Goodman's characterization of "smart career moves." The fact is, it's difficult to know what a smart career move will be beforehand.
Springsteen's follow-up to Nebraska, Born in the U.S.A., became a mega-selling monstrosity–something that Goodman bitterly quotes a Columbia executive calling "a great marketing experience"–but it was by no means a sure thing. And while Columbia, of course, did all it could to push the album, there's no reason to believe that Springsteen made the work with anything less than artistically pure motives.
In fact, the Guthrie-style ideology that Landau fed him put Springsteen squarely against the morning-in-America Reagan re-election Zeitgeist. Sure, many listeners–including Reagan's campaign staff–managed to misread the LP's title track, a bitter rant from an ex-vet, as mere patriotic effusion. But there's no way Springsteen, or Columbia, could have known that. In the way the album's opening title track and its conclusion, "My Hometown," cast themselves in opposition to the prevailing political winds, and the way the hit single "I'm on Fire" emulated the stark music of Nebraska, Born in the U.S.A. was in some respects an artistically daring move.
It still made tons of money for Springsteen, and for many charities for poor American workers. Goodman pokes at Springsteen for not putting enough of his money where his mouth is when it comes to charity. He has a point. While I hate to pretend that Springsteen is obligated to share his wealth with thousands of strangers, it does grate to hear someone who is fabulously successful from capitalism excoriate "the system's" flaws, without acknowledging that he has the resources to right–all by himself–the flaws he sees (families without enough money to buy new cars, the jobless) for thousands of people.
Landau for much of this book is portrayed as an unethical, anti-art, money-grubbing climber. Still, he is the man who imbued Springsteen with the "social conscience" that so many bleeding-heart critics loved about him. The story of Born in the U.S.A. is more complicated, then, than the simple moral about marketing overpowering art that Goodman tries to derive.
Goodman provides a clue to the complicated relation between money and authenticity when he points out that there was an audience in the early '60s Boston folk scene who rejected anything out of New York because they thought it "had some kind of manufactured zeal behind it." An anti-commercial ethos, it seems, can sell. (Goodman tells of a Columbia employee bragging that its corporate money, in record ads, kept the radically anti-capitalist underground press of the late '60s alive.) There are ironies about marketing and commercialism and money that Goodman misses.
Money doesn't just follow grubbing after money. Money follows anything that people want, and people want, or are capable of wanting, that beautiful and mysterious music that Goodman in his youth called a "secret language" as much as cheap garbage. People's desire to pursue that secret language of rock is what built the industry Goodman looks at cross-eyed in this book, and what made American record companies a favorite foreign takeover target in the 1980s. Markets and money make stories that are more complicated than Goodman thinks. Luckily, he is honest enough as a reporter that people looking for those more complicated stories can find them here as well.