A Dirty Business

With the rarest of exceptions, the music industry is a festering slime pit populated by rabid weasels, an utterly soulless corporate machine devoid of morals and dedicated to nothing other than the pursuit of the almighty dollar at the expense of artistic integrity and all trace of human compassion.

This isn't news to a single sentient human being who's followed music with any enthusiasm since Woodstock and the halcyon Sixties. But phrased a lot less succinctly, it's the glaringly obvious point of Fred Goodman's The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce (Times Books), a tale of artists, record executives, and the managers who mediate between them, and the most eagerly awaited music-business expose since Fredric Dannen's Hit Men.

Does Mansion live up to the hype? There are two ways to read the book, and the answer depends on which you choose. As a sweeping statement about a fundamental change in the biz between the late Sixties and the mid-Seventies, it's a miserable failure, doomed by all-too-familiar baby-boomer delusion (Dylan is one of the last "pure and noble" artists, and almost everyone since has been compromised by commercialism) and outdated notions of authenticity.

But Mansion is also a solidly written collection of tales about the dirty business dealings of the characters in the subtitle and their fellow players -- especially managers Albert Grossman (Dylan) and Jon Landau (Springsteen) -- and as such, it's a hoot. For pure entertainment value it outshines Bruce Haring's Off the Charts, Jory Farr's Moguls and Madmen, and William Knoedelseder's Stiffed combined, though it still doesn't come close to matching the wonderful sense of horror and righteous indignation of Hit Men.

No doubt this is because Dannen was an investigative reporter who raked the muck in other industries before turning his attention to music -- he found it dirtier than anything else he'd covered. In contrast, Goodman is a consummate insider: He's made a career of writing about the industry, first as the news editor at Rolling Stone and then as a prolific freelancer. Mansion is the culmination of his efforts, the result of three years' work designed to answer the question (in his words) "How do you start with guys smoking dope in places like San Francisco and Boston and end up talking about Sony and Time Warner? A to Z, how did you do that?"

The problem is that the book doesn't go from A to Z; it's more like G to N. Goodman writes disparagingly of artists whose goal is commercial success in and of itself -- an attitude he tells us crept into rock starting in the early Seventies -- but he completely ignores the Fifties and early Sixties, periods when a lot of great music was made by pioneering rockers who'll proudly tell you they were only in it for the bucks (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis). What's more, Mansion pretty much stops in the Reagan era, leaving untold the stories of the hip-hop, dance, and alternative revolutions. These included artists such as Chuck D., Dr. Dre, Madonna, Kurt Cobain, and Eddie Vedder, people who understood the machinations of the big bad business and worked from inside to thwart and subvert them.

"There's a million ways to tell the same story, and part of this is for someone else to tell. I'm 41 years old," Goodman told me without apology. "To me, the nonauthentic part of it is, here was this scene that was clearly not about money when it started. I'm talking about the folk movement. It was entertainment, but it was also supposed to be measured by something else. I think it's very much that moment when Dylan goes electric: Here's this guy, he's saying the music is legitimate in the electric form, and he's right. Well, that still exists, but what happens is you have a huge business that's built up, and it's so successful that the business comes to overshadow everything else. It's the musicians that have to fit in, not the business guys. Now the situation is, are you making music because you want to make music in the real and right way and you're moved by it, or are we just talking about the third record in your $80 million contract?"

Of course, it's always been a little of both: Didn't the painters in the Renaissance have to balance the voice of their muses and the demands of their patrons? "I'm not pining away for the golden days, don't get me wrong on that point," Goodman says. "I don't miss the Sixties; there's a lot about it that's anti-intellectual. But I don't like the Nineties. I'm not saying let's go back. I'm saying let's go somewhere else."

But where can you go to completely escape the cold hard facts of capitalism? Ain't no such place on my map, unless you wanna book acoustic gigs in Never-Never Land. Label mogul David Geffen didn't create or patent the devil's bargain for musicians, he just brought his own unique style to it. And that's why I prefer Mansion reading number two: You can simply enjoy the dirt without getting bogged down in Goodman's tedious philosophizing about what's "real and right."

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