The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce
It all seems so quaint in today's climate of corporate-sponsored rock tours, MTV and niche marketing. But there was once was a time, roughly from the ascendancy of the Beatles to that of Bruce Springsteen, when rock music wore a halo of moral and artistic superiority. Not yet entirely co-opted by advertising and television, it staked out higher ground than the rest of popular culture and had pretensions of being able to make the world a better place.
Enter a new generation of hip capitalists weaned on rock-and-roll and infused with its rough-and-tumble spirit. Between the early 1960's and late 90's, the record industry multiplied 40-fold and spawned booming subsidiary enterprises in concert promotion and broadcasting. Today, million-dollar-a-year salaries among top record executives are not uncommon, valuable personal art collections have been amassed, and at least one billionaire, the entertainment mogul David Geffen, has charged into the Forbes 400. Rock-and-roll's world-changing mission has at the very least made some aggressive, smart (and even some not so smart) people exceedingly rich.
The rise of the music industry from a grubby mom-and-pop operation, through its hip phase, into a devouring international behemoth is rivetingly chronicled in Fred Goodman's book, ''The Mansion on the Hill.'' Taking its title from a Hank Williams song in which a poor country boy gazes enviously at a palatial hilltop aerie, the book is a personalized business history with a nostalgic countercultural slant. Its author, a freelance journalist and former editor of Rolling Stone, laments rock's metamorphosis from an idealistic youth-culture platform into a coldly marketed consumer product.
Because it would take thousands of pages to tell the whole story, Mr. Goodman has woven his narrative around a few crucial artists and music-business figures, including Mr. Geffen. The stories of the Beatles and Motown, which have their own books, are not retold.
Well-documented with facts and footnotes, Mr. Goodman's story is essentially a sophisticated moral fable about the collision and fusion of art and commerce. Depending on the players, the alloy that results is sometimes sturdy, sometimes not. But except in the case of one artist, Neil Young, who is held up as an exemplar of quirky independence and integrity, the resulting product is seen as tainted by commercial calculation and marketing savvy.
Early chapters on the music scene in Boston and Cambridge in the 1960's and early 70's and on the first nervous forays of Warner Brothers Records into the rock marketplace offer illuminating pictures of the modern music business spontaneously inventing itself and improvising new interdependent networks of management and concert promotion. The book picks up steam with a gossipy portrait of Albert Grossman, the prototype of the high-powered rock manager. Grossman, who died in 1986, insisted that his early folk-music clients like Peter, Paul and Mary have creative control over their recordings and that they be treated with the respect traditionally given serious artists.
By the mid-1960's, Grossman was the ponytailed king of a folk-music empire, presiding over the hippest (and one of the druggiest) of all rock salons, the circle surrounding Bob Dylan. Grossman and his star client eventually split over money. But at least for a while the two enjoyed a remarkably creative symbiosis.
Having laid the historical groundwork, the book interweaves the stories of two of the most brilliant entrepreneurs to emerge in the 70's: Mr. Geffen and his sometime acolyte, Jon Landau. Mr. Geffen's rise from a college dropout working in the mail room of the William Morris Agency to a billionaire philanthropist, friend of Bill Clinton and out-of-the-closet gay man, is an extraordinary tale of personal and entrepreneurial self-invention, and it has never been told in print as fully as it is here. Mr. Landau, one of the few 70's rock critics to exercise real clout, made his fortune by proclaiming Bruce Springsteen ''rock-and-roll future'' and then contriving to manage Mr. Springsteen and help produce his albums, exercising a decisive conceptual influence over his songwriting. Could any auteurist critic hope for more?
Where the author gives a generally thumbs-up approval to both men for being enlightened, artistically sensitive managers, their Machiavellian maneuvers are also duly noted. Mr. Geffen's bitter clashes with Mr. Young over whether his often eccentric records were sufficiently commercial during the singer's troubled tenure on Geffen Records are recounted to illustrate the strain between art and commerce when the art loses sight of a mass audience.
Mr. Geffen and Mr. Landau emerge as farsighted visionaries in comparison with several others. The book's most flagrant example of managerial myopia is Dee Anthony, whose eagerness to cash in quickly on his client Peter Frampton's mass success in the mid-70's led to Mr. Frampton's overexposure and his being cast in a career-damaging movie, ''Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.''
If ''The Mansion on the Hill'' has a moralistic outlook, its tone is calm, its portraits scrupulously balanced. And rare for a book of this kind, the musical analysis is as astute as the business reporting.
The book is filled with juicy stories of the wheeling and dealing, shoving matches and coups that make the hurly-burly of the record industry a diverting spectator sport, once you know the players. Beneath its corporate facade, the music business is still a traveling circus of rags-to-riches dreamers and crazy egomaniacs jostling one another in their insatiable quest for gold.
– From BOOKS OF THE TIMES: Rock-and-Roll Riches: Innocent Cinderella Story or a Deal With the Devil? By Stephen Holden, New York Times