Wednesday, February 19, 1997
Has rock music’s development from a rebellious underground to a
multibillion-dollar industry damaged its credibility?By Kristin
Daily Bruin Senior Staff
In the ’50s, rock now considered tame was so controversial that
Elvis’ pelvis wasn’t even allowed on television. In the ’60s,
venues barred rock acts from playing in fear of violence, mayhem
and drug use. Today, Eddie Money sings "Take Me Home Tonight" on a
Carl’s Jr. commercial and Tina Turner prances around in L’eggs
pantyhose. What happened?
Rock’s position within the artistic, social and economic spheres
has changed radically during its short life span. As the boundaries
between these spheres collapse, they shake rock’s very foundation,
one of unrestricted expression and anti-corporate rebellion. Some
good has come of this Â rock musicians today have artistic
control, money and mainstream acceptance their predecessors never
dreamed of. But who remains to head the rebellion when the kings of
the anti-establishment become the establishment? Is "music
business" an oxymoron?
Enter Fred Goodman, freelance journalist, former editor of
"Rolling Stone" and "Billboard" magazines, and author of "The
Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen and the
Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce." His book explores rock’s
past and questions its future, both as an art form and as a
multibillion dollar business. Goodman introduces his readers, some
of whom don’t even remember the dawn of MTV, to the dawn of the
rock industry and its key players Â those who transformed the
infant rock underground into the powerful art form and corporate
circus it is today.
"I just wanted to do one book on music, so I thought, well, what
are the questions that really concern me? And I just sat down and
took it from there. People would say to me, ‘What’s the book
about?’ and I had a joke answer, but it turned out to actually be
what the book is really about: ‘How do you start with guys smoking
dope in places like Boston and San Francisco and wind up with Sony
and Time Warner?’"
Rather than just provide answers, Goodman also provokes the
questions any rabid music fan eventually asks when he realizes
there’s much more to music than making it. Goodman explores how the
marriage of rock music to big business impacts the lives of its
heroes, its moguls and its fans. One of his goals throughout the
book is to treat the industry and its pioneers fairly and
thoroughly, without letting his opinions or the industry’s
judgments get in the way.
"They’re very complex people. And at all times, I’ve tried to
not make anybody one-dimensional. As a writer, you want to write
the book you want to read. And I hate books that tell me what to
think. … Rather than a book that tells me what to think, I want a
book that makes me think. And the trick to that is to let somebody
Goodman breathes life into such legendary pairs as Bob Dylan and
manager Albert Grossman, Bruce Springsteen and his mentor John
Landau, and David Geffen and his empire. He speaks of them as he
wrote of them: with candor, knowledgeability and plenty of juicy
anecdotes that reveal the genius and seamy underbelly of the
Rock essentially began with Dylan and Grossman. Though many know
Dylan as the first, and possibly greatest, "rock artist," few know
that Grossman’s influence on Dylan and the industry determined the
course of both.
"Albert Grossman is a guy who has always been portrayed as the
evil manager of Bob Dylan. And that just doesn’t do the guy
justice. He’s the guy who said, ‘Bob Dylan’s a real artist. He
should do whatever the hell he wants Â and who the hell are
you? You are just the goddamn record company.’ … Everybody talks
about Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager Â the Beatles had
bad deals. They got half a penny a record. Or Col. Tom Parker, the
legendary manager of Elvis. What did he do for Elvis? He helped him
make a lot of bad B movies."
Part of Grossman’s attitude comes from taking artists more
seriously than they had been taken in the past. They were no longer
puppets or songbirds, and their attitudes and contracts reflected
"The fact is that the music means so much more to these people
(rock artists of the ’60s) than it did to, say, Dean Martin. He
could hear one of his own records and go, ‘When did we do that?’
These people, they really care; it’s important to them. They don’t
want to be told how to be packaged and sold. Their image is
important to them, because they take themselves seriously. And
that’s what guys like Grossman allowed them to do. They get the
artists that freedom."
Grossman’s vision and persistence paved the way for today’s
artists, who have control over everything from their images to
their producers to their album art. And Dylan, with his nasal voice
and fiercely honest, intelligent lyrics, was his equal. As Goodman
writes, the six-minute single ‘"Like a Rolling Stone’ erased every
rule of pop music.
"The idea when I started the book is that there’s Dylan and then
there’s everybody else. We shouldn’t be comparing him to Bruce
Springsteen, we should be comparing this guy to Picasso. I can’t
think of anybody Â a novelist, a filmmaker, a painter Â
who has had more influence on this generation than Dylan. This is
the great creative genius of his generation," Goodman gushes. "He
takes this pop, trivial thing Â ‘take my girlfriend to the
dance,’ you know Â and uses it to talk about the most adult,
obscure and ambitious you can imagine. I mean, rock ‘n’ roll is
capable of talking about anything, and it’s because of Dylan. And I
think for that alone, the guy is it."
While few musicians have even shaken Dylan’s pedestal, a handful
of businessmen have achieved the status and influence of Grossman.
One man has surpassed it Â David Geffen. While Grossman was
the artists’ champion and the labels’ adversary, Geffen was a new
breed, a straight businessman who desired stardom equal to and
power greater than that of his artists. He got it.
"Grossman is a guy who’s not really interested in being a big
business mogul. He likes money, he gets it, and then he goes off
and he grows pot in upstate N.Y. and sits around and eats a lot.
That’s what he wanted to do, God love him. Geffen’s not interested
in the bohemian lifestyle. At the end of the day, he keeps moving.
I think he’s going someplace himself. It’s not just that he loves
these artists and he thinks they’re wonderful. He’s an empire
"He wanted to be a success in the entertainment business. As a
kid he fantasized about being a studio mogul. He’d go to Radio City
Music Hall and walk down the aisle and imagine that he’s going to
accept an Academy Award as a studio head. So, it’s not that he
loves music; music is a way for him to get there."
In addition to his brilliance and notorious drive, Geffen had
impeccable timing. The rock community was laying the plans for the
tower of industry it would become, and Geffen got in on the ground
floor. He also took the express elevator to the top, becoming a
millionaire at 27.
"Here’s a guy at the William Morris agency. He’s working with
comedy writers, doing TV stuff, and it’s like he’s just another
agent," Goodman says. "And it gets pointed out to him that because
he’s young he can really succeed with these rock artists. They are
starting to make a lot of money, but the agency doesn’t really know
what to do with them. Another agent says to him, ‘Schmuck. Why
would (comedian) Norman Jewison want you to be his agent? You’re 27
years old. Go with people your own age, and then you’ll be riding
in a limousine.’ And it turns out to be good advice."
Geffen’s flair for business and Grossman’s emphasis on artist
control practically define the modern era of the music business.
The two men had razor-sharp business instincts and used them to
shape their artists’ careers, but they kept a laissez-faire
attitude toward their artists’ work. Bruce Springsteen’s
producer/manager John Landau became more directly involved in his
client’s art, blurring the line between rock and business. And in
blurring that line, Landau crossed another line that was taboo,
according to Goodman. Dictating artistic rights was one thing;
influencing artistic content to boost sales was another.
"What fascinates me about Landau is that he has a very complex
role in Bruce Springsteen’s career," Goodman says. "Albert Grossman
was just a manager. Grossman never said to Dylan: ‘Hey, record this
song. Hey, release this single. Hey, read this book.’" But Landau
"And music responds and gets shaped in a particular direction.
So Landau is not just having a role as a business manager. He’s
also mentor and friend and guru. So now it’s very hard to say
what’s business and what’s art. Because you’re not just asking this
guy to advise you on business. This guy is in some ways helping set
the agenda for your work."
How is this different from other artists who openly borrow
ideas, and how does it diminish their work? Artists like Madonna
borrow from everyone from Frida Khalo to Marilyn Monroe. "The
difference is that you’re not supposed to do that with John
Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie," Goodman says. "That’s not supposed to
"And there’s some level at which it strikes me as supremely
cynical. It’s imaging of something that’s not supposed to be
imaged. Maybe that’s naive, but that’s my own personal take on the
issue. Other than that, I think Springsteen is a good artist. But
again, that’s my whole point. It’s very hard to tell which part of
it is business and which part of it is art. And when you can’t
tell, what does it mean?
"I have nothing against commercial success. As Don King would
say, ‘This is America.’ But I can’t find a moment in Dylan’s career
when he makes a record for money. He gets as much money as he can
from the record company, but show me the record he made to be a
hit. There’s no moment in his career like that moment in
Springsteen’s career when Landau’s going, ‘God damn it, let’s have
that hit already.’"
This attitude is more prevalent than ever in today’s light-speed
music industry, where a band’s career could rise to meteoric
heights and crash and burn within a year or two.
"It’s a boom and bust. But what strikes me is that the boom and
bust happens so much faster now. I can go back and look at bands
from the ’60s, and it takes a really long time to get from the
really hip underground bands to the really gross knockoffs. And
then when you have the new age, punk movement in the ’70s, it takes
a little less time to get from the Clash to the Knack. And now it’s
a blink of an eye to go from Nirvana to Silverchair or whomever you
hate. Why? Because the business is so much bigger."
And with nine out of 10 acts guaranteed to fail, record
companies go for what they know will sell. "Nothing succeeds like
success. I mean, there’s a million knock-off bands in every genre.
But that’s what sells. Look what happened in Seattle a couple years
ago. I mean, the city was largely ignored. So a scene grows up, and
it’s a really artistic, trippy scene. Then it has some commercial
success and it becomes more and more commercial-driven. It’s like
the record company gloms on and the business world discovers it,
and then it becomes more business, less original.
"And that’s just a cycle. Once that starts, you’ve got to go
look somewhere else to see where the next place is going to be.
Where it’s going to come from, though, is anybody’s guess. I
guarantee you. As soon as music looks really dead, that’s when
something’s going to happen. It’s just too important to people. It
moves people in such a broad basis, and on a basis that has nothing
to do with business.
"The records that used to move me still move me. And the
cynicism I feel about the business never changes that. That’s the
great part. The music does stand alone. Time becomes the great
arbiter of this stuff. ‘Does it move you?’ That’s the only question
that really matters."
Goodman considers the plights of rock insiders then and now,
young upstarts like Landau and artists like Kurt Cobain. Both were
visionary rebels with a love of music, but, despite their talents
and lasting contributions, they ended up cogs in a corporate wheel.
Like the San Francisco scene of the ’60s that became the Seattle
scene of the early ’90s, this cycle also continues.
"You know, there’s a nonmusical question to this book, too. This
thing starts out with everyone not wanting to be their parents, and
the story begs, well, do you have to wind up being your parents at
the end of the day? It’s not about business at the start, but at
the end, it’s so much about business. You swear you’ll be
different, but at the end, you’re not so different. So, believe me,
this ain’t no love letter to the ’60s."
"Mansion on the Hill" by Fred Goodman (Times Books) is now
available for $25.
GENEVIEVE LIANG/Daily Bruin