Singing A Different Tune
Is There Any Such Thing As An Unlikely Bedfellow In The Music Biz?
By Dave McElfresh
The Mansion On The Hill, by Fred Goodman (Times Books). Cloth, $25.
July 14, 1997: IF YOU THINK rock musicians are a tacky bunch, check out the management and record company executives who back them. Fred Goodman's not the first to bring their carnival-barker sleaze tactics to the surface: Prior to this overview, there was Jory Farr's Moguls And Madmen, Fredric Dannen's Hit Men, and Stiffed, by William Knoedelseder.
But Goodman proves the best at fleshing out management figures that are familiar names to music fans: Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, is presented as both a brotherly, protective figure and a bastard (in spite of audaciously spending his client's earnings, he sued Dylan and won $2 million). Jon Landau's career is traced from his days as a cub reporter for both Crawdaddy! and Rolling Stone, on up through his admirable management of Bruce Springsteen. Whether a Springsteen fan or not, it's hard not to respect the story of Landau's commitment and the book's overview of the rise and fall of Springsteen's previous money-grubbing manager Mike Appel, which is in itself worth the read.
David Geffen is another major figure in the book, his history traced from days with Warner Brothers through the founding of his own recording labels. He, too, is presented as a shark behind the desk, but a loving supporter of clients like Joni Mitchell, the Eagles and one-time girlfriend Laura Nyro.
Goodman's angle emanates from a decidedly East Coast perspective, primarily pursuing figures associated with the Boston and Woodstock areas, and eventually touching on the L.A. scene. Someone else will someday record the trials and tribulations of West Coast recording royalty like Lenny Waronker, Mo Ostin and Joe Smith, but this remains a fine look at the interactions between a number of other significant American cutthroat managers and their artists.
You may find yourself equally surprised by Springsteen's compromises and Neil Young's complete unwillingness to compromise. We're inclined to think of our musical heroes as artists who crawl out of bed at 8 p.m., show up for their scheduled concert, and go home to work on their next album until the sun rises. Goodman presents quite a different picture. He's a superb writer whose detailed interviewing regarding the shadowed side of stardom is at times outright astounding. Corporate figures at the top of the totem pole tell tales bordering on libelous; each page is a head-shaker, revealing how the money end of the music business has little concern for the music produced.
Goodman uncovers the musical chairs, so to speak, that the industry's upper management go through when a label like Columbia is bought out by a non-music related conglomerate. Come the end of the book, the reader is left wondering how good music ever filters through all the board meetings, egos and management compromises.
The most attention is given to the Springsteen saga. Neil Young, whose eccentric recording diversions have made him a marketing nightmare, is a close second, though. Dylan, unfortunately, receives far less coverage than the other two; a regrettable imbalance considering Dylan's superiority as a music figure and the vicious, engaging management tales involving Grossman. Surely the coupling resulted in far more tension than Goodman reveals here.
Several points recommend Mansion On The Hill above the other music industry exposés. Goodman focuses on three major artists who are still hot stuff, rather than just their corporate representation, with two of the three still in cahoots with the management figures here pursued. And Goodman's reliance on information from a lot of horses' mouths (approximately 200 people were interviewed) provides a sordid history that amounts to more than a book-length copy of National Enquirer.
His is an insightful glance that'll make the reader think twice about Warner Brothers, David Geffen and Neil Young next time some familiar song filters through the radio.
The book's title comes from the Hank Williams song of the same name, which Goodman sees as a portrait of some top-drawer artists who once may have shared the reflection, "as I sit here alone in my cabin, I can see a mansion on the hill." Hank himself would have warned to be careful what you pray for, believing his soulfulness would most likely have flown away along with the mansion's first mortgage check. Goodman's view presents a rather sad tale of what happened to those who could afford the property.
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