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is one of the last "pure and noble" artists, and almost everyone since has been compromised by commercialism) and outdated notions of authenticity.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."
Always a solid judge of good gossip, the New York Daily News boiled Mansion's 432 pages down to a handful of bulleted items on its "people" page, recounting Goodman's take that Dylan's famous motorcycle accident was just a minor mishap and that he may have lay-lady-laid Grossman's wife on his manager's wedding day; that Neil Young sometimes faked epileptic seizures to pick up women; and that Geffen's mom called him "King David," he had a nose job, and he threw away the demo by his star discovery Jackson Browne without even listening to it.
These and other tidbits appear almost as asides while Goodman struggles unsuccessfully to paint his big picture. Unfortunately, his subjects' personal motivations remain largely a mystery. Without a word of explanation, Geffen goes from being madly in love with and wanting to marry his client Laura Nyro to becoming a leading homosexual activist. And Young is transformed overnight from a crass wannabe in Buffalo Springfield to a brave artist following his heart without regard for commercial concerns -- never mind that moves like recording with Pearl Jam, touring with Booker T. & the MG's, and headlining the next H.O.R.D.E. festival all seem carefully calculated to reach out to different segments of the market.
Some of the book's longest stretches seem merely to restate the obvious: Haven't we all read before about Grossman and Dylan creating the cult of the artist and thumbing their noses at the record company? And is there anybody who isn't familiar with the story of Geffen's bitter feud with Irving Azoff and the Eagles, a battle that prompted Joe Walsh to flash his famous T-shirt, "Who is Irv Azoff and why is he saying those terrible things about David Geffen?" You could argue that Goodman's newly reported and carefully end-noted details make these stories fresh again -- or you could just page ahead to the really good parts.
Goodman is at his best when writing about Springsteen and Landau, in part because it's a rare example of rock journalism reflecting on itself and asking tough ethical questions. A former critic for Rolling Stone and the Boston Phoenix, Landau is the guy who wrote, "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." My colleague Rob O'Connor jokes that it should have read, "I saw Jon Landau future and its name is Bruce Springsteen," because, as Goodman shows, Landau went from botching the production of the second MC5 album to skillfully inserting himself as co-producer of Born to Run, then elbowing aside Mike Appel to become Springsteen's manager, and finally locking out everyone else in Bruce's inner circle.
"Landau is a guy who understands the business and he understands the art," Goodman says. "That's my fascination with him: He's where business and art intersect." But you know which way Goodman's scales are tipped.
He maintains that Landau virtually remade Springsteen, creating a political and social conscience that wasn't there before and which, by the time of Born in the U.S.A., proved to be very good for business. In Goodman's view, one of Landau's most useful tools was his friend Dave Marsh, formerly Rolling Stone's reviews editor, who wrote "grotesque puffery" about Springsteen (including two biographies) despite the fact that his wife, Barbara Carr, was a Springsteen employee. "If there was a parallel in journalism to the way Marsh covered Springsteen," Goodman writes, "it could be found in the glowing biographies of popular baseball players [written by beat reporters who were essentially on the teams' payrolls]."
Marsh is famous for raging back with ten-fold intensity against any slight, and the rock journalism world has been anxiously awaiting his reply to the book. (Goodman talked to him but didn't include his comments.) Marsh told me via e-mail that he hasn't read the book and doesn't plan to, then added, "Fred seems big on revealing conflicts of interest. I doubt that he chooses to tell his readers that I have been explicitly critical of his reporting, especially his willingness to believe whatever snake oil that unsavory types like D.A.'s and federal prosecutors were selling.
"The only grievous part of this from my perspective is that I am told that Fred adopts a very sexist attitude toward Barbara Carr's achievements in working with community groups on Bruce's behalf during the Born in the U.S.A. tour," Marsh continued. "It is true that Barbara met some of those people through me; it is also true that the great majority were identified by Barbara through her own research, and she did an exemplary job of it, too."
Goodman says he said all he's going to say about Marsh, Landau, and Springsteen in Mansion, and now he's leaving it to readers to make up their minds. "What I'm ultimately trying to do in the book is to present a balanced-enough picture that people can see the points I'm raising and draw their own conclusions. One of the problems with rock books in particular is that so much of this stuff is diatribes: 'What's the politically correct way of thinking?' I'm just one of these guys who never believe that the story is black and white. There's something admirable about Bruce Springsteen, there's something admirable about Jon Landau, but there is also something where you're cocking your head at certain points."
Ultimately, the same can be said for Fred Goodman and The Mansion on the Hill.
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