Friday, November 07, 2008

Remembering the Fast Lane

You can check out any time
but you can never leave
"Hotel California," The Eagles

I've been reading Danny Goldberg's new memoir, Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business, and wondering what my life would have been like had I not been fired by Atlantic Records in 1975.

Unlike me, Goldberg climbed to the top of the executive heap, becoming president of Atlantic and several other record companies, and managing the careers of Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Nirvana and Warren Zevon, among others. In addition he has lent his weight to liberal political causes, writing articles in The Nation and other publications and publishing How the Left Lost Teen Spirit.

My paths crossed with Danny's a number of times. We both attended the now legendary Alternative Media Conference of underground DJs, writers and record company "house hippies" at Goddard College, Vermont, in 1970. Covering it then for the rock magazine Crawdaddy!, he now writes that "it would be impossible to explain to those who weren't there what the connection was between the yippies, mysticism, and the crass commercial task of getting rock records on the radio (or, from the station's point of view, selling advertising), but in the moment it all seemed to make sense." Like me, he probably listened to music of the J.Geils Band, meditated with Baba Ram Dass, and took acid (at least I did) supplied by Wavy Gravy's Hog Farm. Although in his book he criticizes the radicals for their "shrill rhetoric" that made it difficult for art and commerce to come together, he also quotes a music industry heavy who tells him 37 years later: "I think about it [the AMC] all the time. All roads led to there and all roads came from there."

We also both worked with Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s. I was their record company's west coast PR man. The picture at the top was taken during Zeppelin's 1973 concert at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, and the teenager on the left is Cameron Crowe, the Rolling Stone writer who immortalized that year and himself in his movie "Almost Famous." Danny worked for their British label, Swan Song and recounts some of the band's notorious antics. I know even more, and if I ever write my musical memoirs I may describe drummer John "Bonzo" Bonham's birthday party when I got thrown fully clothed into the pool by the group's road manager, along with George Harrison. Or the time Atlantic's Hollywood office supplied them with a bicycle, wheel chair and motorcycle to ride down the hallway at the Continential Hyatt House. The boys also threw empty bottles of pricey Dom Perignon champaign at their billboard across Sunset Boulevard (I missed). In the photo at the right, I'm at a music press party with my friend Diane Gardiner, confidant of Jim Morrison and Pam, press agent for the Jefferson Airplane, and Chuck Berry's girlfriend.

Goldberg's stories are more wholesome than mine (if I were to tell all). He gave up drugs and was introduced to a spiritual teacher, the late Hilda Charlton, by Ram Dass. I always divided up the people I knew who worked in the record industry into fans and sharks out for the money. Goldberg defies the stereotype and was apparently both. His book exhibits a fan's love for the music and the often erratic artists who made it, as well as an insider's privileged look at the workings of the business. He married an entertainer lawyer and no doubt was handsomely rewarded for the bicoastal commutes to service his tempermental clients. Many of my former colleagues and friends populate the pages of his book. In the end, he chronicles the decline of the once powerful industry as lawyers and accountants take over the companies, and CD (the "record" is long gone) sales plummet becuase of the popularity of free but illegal internet downloads.

The title of the book comes from a saying of Atlantic's founder Ahmet Ertegun. The way to get rich (as David Geffen told the story at Ahmet's funeral) "was to keep walking around until you bumped into a genius, and when you did -- hold on and don't let go." Goldberg recounts the stories of the geniuses he's met, from Neil Young to Kurt Cobain, and provides anecdotes about how they all ultimately acknowledge the role commercial manipulation must play to enable their art to be heard. Even the purist leader of Nirvana was occasionally willing to compromise in the marketplace. Geniuses need handlers.

But not all are regarded as artists. Gene Simmons of Kiss tells Goldberg: "We are still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but there are three thousand licensed Kiss products, a Kiss toothbrush that plays 'I Want to Rock and Roll All Night' when you put it in your mouth, and everything from Kiss caskets to Kiss condoms. There are no Radiohead condoms."

My tenure in the record business was short, from 1970 to 1975. I began with Atlantic Records, an innocent husband and father from Pasadena who had written record reviews for a daily newspaper. Five years later my marriage had ended, my kids stayed with me every other weekend in my tiny Venice apartment, and I had a drug problem. In the interim, I had flown on the Starship with Elton John, gotten thrown into a Montreal jail with The Who and their entourage, consorted with groupies eager for backstage access, partied at Willie Nelson's picnics in Austin, bought weed for Robert Flack, road managed for Dr. John, listened to Joni Mitchell and David Crosby sing in a Seattle hotel room during a CSNY tour, sat on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, shared a hotel bedroom (but not the bed) with photographer Annie Liebowitz on the Rolling Stone tour to Hawaii, accepted a Grammy award for George Carlin, listened to dinner jazz by Stephane Grappelli at Atlantic's convention in Paris, and more. This photo was taken at a Lynryd Skynyrd party during their inaugural tour opening for The Who. I was clearly showing the strain of debauchery. Getting fired was a blessing, and it undoubtedly saved my life.

It wasn't all bad. I have retained friendships with some of my partners in crime. I met Jerry Hopkins when he was Rolling Stone's first Los Angeles editor, and we have stayed in each other's lives (with one significant gap) ever since. He is the reason I came to Bangkok and our friendship makes even the gloomy days bearable. I hired Pete Senoff to replace me during one of my three terms at Atlantic, and although he's now doing something in the medical field, he keeps me posted on Atlantic reunions (with photos of the gold-wearing no-talent boss who fired me) and the whereabouts of mutual friends. Michael Ochs (brother of Phil) recently retired from tending his huge collection of rock memorabilia and is now married to one of the secretaries at Gibson & Stromberg, the Hollywood PR firm that nutured fragile egos of performers and writers in the 1970s. Jazz critic and magazine editor Colman Andrews is one of the premier food critics in New York City. PR queen Bobbi Cowan has a Facebook page. Diane Gardiner died last year about the same time as Corb Donohue, a music biz regular who had owned the first head shop in Los Angeles with Jerry in the early 1960s. Jerry and I caretake their memories, along with those of John Carpenter, a sweet man and music writer for the Los Angeles Free Press in its salad days, whose demons would not let him loose. He died in 1976 under the wheels of a car while wandering drunk in the Santa Cruz Mountains, not far from my house. R.I.P., John.

My kids and some friends have urged me to write my own memoirs. My ex-wife among others could not stand to hear my stories about those many nights of excess and glory in the music business. Now, over thirty years later, I can barely remember the details. Goldberg paints interesting portraits from close up of Patti Smith (who called me on the phone one night to ask me to describe Jim Morrison's grave in Paris which I'd recently visited), Jackson Browne (we had drinks at the Troubadour and I knew his guitarist David Lindley from Pasadena), Bad Company (I traveled on their first tour of the U.S.), David Geffen (played poker at his house one night with members of the Eagles), and Warren Zevon (whom I never met) who played his impending death by cancer for all it was worth (telling David Letterman to he wanted to "enjoy every sandwich" during his last days). I never got into the music of Nirvana but I've heard about the Cobain legend, and Goldberg tells the story of his friend's rise and fall with love and admiration. I have no such personal encounters to relate, and certainly no wisdom to impart, which is why this blog is the only memoir I'll leave behind.

Below, I'm having a bit of fun with Ochs, one wild night of many in the V.I.P. booth at the Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.


Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

That was great - I've been meaning to mention the Goldberg book since Sandy pointed it out to me a couple of weeks ago-- I wondered if the two of you ever crossed paths....


Danny said...

Will--thanks for writing about my book. i loved seeing the photo of Diane Gardiner. I lost track of her some years ago. If you are in touch please send her my love.

Danny Goldberg

Ed Ward said...

Wow, I don't remember seeing you when you were that degenerate, although I do remember visiting you and your wife in Santa Cruz once. Congratulations for getting older...and wiser!