The Mansion on the Hill
By Jim DeRogatis
With the rarest of exceptions, the music industry is a festering slime pit populated by rabid weasels, a soulless corporate machine devoid of morals and compassion and dedicated to the pursuit of the almighty dollar, artistic integrity be damned.
This isn't news to a single sentient human being who has followed music with any degree of enthusiasm for any portion of the last 40 years. But phrased a lot less succinctly, it's the glaringly obvious point of The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce. Written by Fred Goodman, a former news editor at Rolling Stone and now a prolific freelance writer specializing in the business of music, the book is a tale of artists, record executives, and the managers who mediate between them, and it's the most hyped expose in its field since the publication of Fredric Dannen's Hit Men in 1990.
In his introduction, Goodman states that he intended the book to serve as a moral fable about art versus commerce, focusing on that oh-so-familiar period from the mid-60s through the mid-70s, which is when he believes the music lost its innocence and idealism to the industry. The title refers to both the Hank Williams song about poor kids dreaming about the good life and Neil Young's considerably more jaded tune about members of his generation selling short their dreams.
In addition to Young, the key players are Bob Dylan and his fast-talking manager, Albert Grossman; Bruce Springsteen and his secret Svengali, Jon Landau; and the man in whom Goodman pretty much sees evil incarnate, David Geffen, who rose from mail-room clerk at William Morris to artist manager to founder of Geffen Records and now to co-owner of the entertainment megalith Dreamworks SKG. Through these characters and a host of supporting players (many of whom have ties to the Boston rock scene of the 60s), Goodman charts rock's transformation from what he sees as a pure and noble underground phenomenon to crass and commercial big business.
The book opens with his rose-colored recollection of a summer at camp during the early 70s, when rock 'n' roll was a "secret language" teenagers could use to suss one another out. "First you'd check to see if the basic language was there--the Beatles, the Stones...Motown and Stax; the San Francisco groups; Dylan," he writes. "After that you'd probe special interests for signs of sophistication or character flaws. For instance, a passion for a perfectly acceptable but lightweight group like Steppenwolf showed a certain genial rebelliousness but suggested a lack of depth; a girl who listened to Joni Mitchell could probably be talked into bed but you might regret it later....It was, I recall, a remarkably accurate system.
"Nearly 25 years later," he continues, "much of it spent as a music-business reporter, I'm not sure that secret language still exists." Goodman goes on to admit that the music was started by blatant careerists--Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis--but contends that Dylan and other 60s heroes shifted rock's parameters to include "a quest for legitimacy, values, and authenticity." Rockers borrowed these traits, he posits, from Phil Ochs and other folkies, whom he presents as paragons of artistic integrity.
"It's easy to forget that in the early 60s the sound track to West Side Story was the number-one album in Billboard for 54 weeks--and that for certain rock stars today its sales figures would be considered disappointing," Goodman writes. "That commercial revolution had a huge and not necessarily positive effect on rock music. It bred financial opportunities for artists and a certain professionalism that has proven to be at odds with a quest for authenticity....What I find most troubling is that the scope and reach of the business often make it impossible to tell what is done for art and what is done for commerce--which calls into question the music's current ability to convey the artistic intent that made it appealing and different to begin with."
To everyone but the most myopic baby boomers, Goodman's preaching is sure to come off as naive and nostalgic. For starters, he never even considers the possibility that rock is still a secret youth language today, probably because the vocabulary has grown beyond his ken. For many teens the music of artists like Trent Reznor, Billy Corgan, and Alanis Morrisette is as powerful as the work of Dylan, the Beatles, and Joni Mitchell; for others, Alanis fandom shows a certain genial rebelliousness but suggests a lack of depth. And Goodman's notions of authenticity are extremely outdated, if not downright meaningless, in a postmodern era when critics have long since accepted that nothing is really unique or original, and that from Dylan to Beck, the greatest artists have simply been the most talented synthesists.
As for trying to tell "what is done for art and what is done for commerce," why on earth is that relevant? Rockers have always been motivated by both artistic and commercial impulses, but you could say that about almost any artist in any field at any time, from Michelangelo to Langston Hughes. Strip away the romantic nonsense about the struggling artist concerned only with beauty and honesty and you'll find a person trying to uphold those ideals while still putting bread on the table or paint on the palette. Besides, plenty of great rock has been made by awful or shallow people--Lou Reed instantly springs to mind--and Lord knows plenty of saints have made boring records.
In an interview, Goodman phrased his big question thusly: "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?" Problem is, Goodman's perspective starts at about G and ends someplace around N. By dismissing everyone before Dylan as strictly showbiz, Goodman fails to address the fact that Berry and Little Richard broke social taboos and opened doors in race relations, even if they were only trying to make a quick buck. And by ending his tale in the Reagan era, with Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., he leaves untold the stories of hip-hop, dance music, and alternative rock. These movements included artists such as Chuck D, Dr. Dre, Madonna, Kurt Cobain, and Eddie Vedder--people who got wise to the machinations of the big bad business and worked from inside to subvert it.
For all of these reasons, The Mansion on the Hill is a miserable failure as a morality tale. But there's another way to read the book, and that's as a sort of business-oriented Hollywood Babylon for the rock world. For sheer entertainment value, Goodman's book easily outshines other recent exposes, including Bruce Haring's Off the Charts, Jory Farr's Moguls and Madmen, and William Knoedelseder's Stiffed, offering plenty of ammunition for all of those who think that music follows a close second to politics in terms of corruption and careerism.
Always a solid judge of good gossip, the people page of the New York Daily News conveniently boiled the book's 432 pages down to a handful of Goodman's most enticing hints and allegations, including: that Dylan's famous motorcycle accident was just a minor mishap and that Bob may have lay-lady-laid Grossman's wife on his manager's wedding day; that Young sometimes faked epileptic seizures to pick up women; and that Geffen had a nose job, that he originally threw away Jackson Browne's demo without listening to it, and that his mom called him "King David."
Unfortunately, the personal motivations of Goodman's subjects largely remain a mystery. Without a word of explanation, Geffen goes from madly desiring his client Laura Nyro to being one of the most powerful openly gay men in the industry. Young is transformed overnight from a transparent wannabe in Buffalo Springfield to a brave artist following his heart--never mind that moves such as recording with Pearl Jam, touring with Booker T. & the MG's, and headlining the H.O.R.D.E. festival all seem carefully calculated to reach out to different segments of the market.
And despite Goodman's periodic moralizing, The Mansion on the Hill 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 of other industries before turning to music--and finding it dirtier than anything else he'd covered. Goodman, on the other hand, is a consummate insider. The reason he can dredge up Arlo Guthrie's disparaging comment upon accepting his father's induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame ("I don't know where Woody would be tonight if he were alive, but I can guarantee you he wouldn't be here") is that he was there as an affiliate of the sponsoring organization.
Where Goodman's privileged status is best used is in his examination of the relationship between Springsteen and Landau: here'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 'n' roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Rock writer Rob O'Connor jokes that it should have read, "I saw Jon Landau's 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 the coproducer of Born to Run and elbowing aside Springsteen's first manager, Mike Appel, to grab control of the Boss's business and eventually lock out everyone else in his inner circle.
Goodman charges that Landau virtually remade Springsteen, creating a political and social conscience that wasn't there before and that, by the time of Born in the U.S.A., proved to be very good for business. "Creatively and financially, Landau's influence had been profound, providing many of Springsteen's artistic touchstones and the framework for his new civic and social consciousness," Goodman writes. "But with Springsteen, it was increasingly difficult to tell what was personal and what was persona. As a performer he was making millions of dollars putting on shows in football stadiums that ended with the benediction 'Let freedom ring--that's what we're here for, even if we have to fight for it every day.' But pressed on his own sense of civic responsibility by Rolling Stone reporter Kurt Loder, Springsteen couldn't remember ever voting in an election."
In Goodman's view, one of the most useful tools in the Springsteen propaganda machine was Landau's friend Dave Marsh. Goodman charges that while Marsh was the Rolling Stone record reviews editor, he wrote "grotesque puffery" about Springsteen (including not one but two biographies) despite the fact that his wife, Barbara Carr, was Springsteen's assistant manager. "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 beholden to clubs for their expenses.
It's a shame that Goodman didn't delve deeper into this issue and the role of rock journalism instead of trying to make his grand points about music-business morality, but that remains fodder for someone else's book. When I pressed him for more detail, Goodman said he's said all he's going to say about Marsh, Springsteen, and Landau and now he's leaving it to the readers to draw their own conclusions. "One of the problems with rock books in particular is that so much of this stuff is diatribes," he said. "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's 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.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): book cover.