Friday, November 28, 2008

Stick with me and I'll make you big.

A review of Bumping into Geniuses my life inside the rock and roll business, Danny Goldberg, Gotham Books 2008.

I picked this book up for the obvious reason – I remembered Danny Goldberg's name from Led Zeppelin articles – and stayed to read it through. Goldberg started as a music journalist, albeit not a very successful one, became a publicist and a manager. He eventually climbed up through the ranks of Big Music to the top – president, CEO, something like that (he mentions title inflation was a problem). On the way he worked for Led Zeppelin, KISS and Kurt Cobain. His facility as a journalist means he knows how to write and keep the story interesting, and his life story certainly hasn't been devoid of people to write about.

My first thought, on beginning to read, was that Danny Goldberg would turn out to be a real PR guy – a smooth-talking liar, the fast talker with an eye on his 10% and no real liking for music apart from what the stars can earn for him. I was wrong; for a start, it's not called "10%", it's called "ten points". Goldberg gives the points formulas for managers, promoters, publicists, writers, arrangers, and so on – and does it in such a way I remained as entertained as I was when he was talking about Kurt Cobain or Jimmy Page. I was wrong about the other bit, too – he loves rock music and seems genuinely, unaffectedly happy when he can get good music into other people's hands. There's just one moment where this wavers: talking about Styx and apparently forced into gabbling by an outbreak of honesty, he says, "I cannot deny that my interest was largely fueled by images of the millions of dollars I could make by commissioning their income, but when I did the requisite homework I was genuinely moved by their most recent album, Paradise theater." The fact he's honest there leads me to believe he's telling the truth about his love for the others.

Where I'd heard of Danny Goldberg before was in terms of his famous coup in telling the world that Led Zeppelin had beaten the Beatles' 1965 Shea Stadium attendance record for their show at Tampa Stadium in 1973. The phrase "bigger than the Beatles" has always been a blockbuster, and Goldberg was clever enough to flog this to news outlets at a time when no-one could be induced to utter the words "Led Zeppelin" on air (and could scarcely be motivated to print them). It was a breakthrough for Zeppelin and for Goldberg, even though, as he says in this book, "the contrast with Shea Stadium was a reflection of the size of the stadiums, not the relative popularity of the groups". He didn’t tell anyone that then, of course. Much later in the book he describes his "validation" at Led Zeppelin's 2007 O2 show, where the music was preceded by a short 1973 newsclip in which the "long-forgotten local newsman breathlessly explained that Led Zeppelin had 'broken the Beatles' record'."

In this book Goldberg gives his own take on a number of incidents in the Led Zeppelin mythology, starting with his hiring in 1973 because of the lousy relations between the "uncool" Led Zeppelin and the hippie press, exacerbated by the Rolling Stones' fawning mainstream media coverage. The Stones, who hung out with Princess Lee Radziwill and Truman Capote, earned Newsweek covers. Led Zeppelin could hardly get an inch of copy, and if they did it was positively hostile, a situation that led to drunken members of Zeppelin occasionally abusing journalists verbally, or even physically, which – guess what! – did not improve the tone of the reviews they were getting.

He gives a first hand account of the incident where John Paul Jones looks out at the kids arriving for a gig and says, "Come on, kiddies, and bring us your money," and Robert Plant admonishes him, "Jonesy! Those are our fans." He tells how Bonham or Grant would grab him by the balls and say, "How's your knob?" He describes the impossible task of keeping groupie photos taken at the Rainbow from being published and possibly seen by the band's wives, and the even less likely to be successful orders to have not only every mention of "Swan Song" removed from Brian De Palma's movie The Phantom of the Paradise, but also the scene where a musician is electrocuted on stage. (Peter Grant had suffered very badly after the accidental electrocution of Les Harvey on stage; however, unlike the words Swan Song, he did not own a copyright on generic depictions of electrocutions.)

There are less well known anecdotes. He mentions that while Peter, Jimmy and Jonesy "sought refreshment in the dressing rooms" during Moby Dick, "Robert usually stood on the side of the stage watching his boyhood friend reinvent rock drumming on a nightly basis." That's probably the sweetest and most moving story anyone's ever told me about touring Led Zeppelin. It's so different from the usual tales of debauchery and infighting.

I won't tell all the Zeppelin stories – read the book, if you're interested. In other chapters Goldberg discusses his personal and professional relationship with Stevie Nicks, Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt, Beep Fallon, John Cougar Mellencamp and others. His diversions into the business side are short, clear and educational, and his anecdotes are unpretentious and telling. Here's one:

Howard told…Mellencamp, "If you want to be a star, you need to be like a hooker and make every interviewer feel they are the best you've ever met. […] To be a star you need a story that helps other people understand who the hell they are and gives validation to parts of themselves they thought were insane."

Good book, thumbs up, five stars etc.

1 comment:

rocdoc said...

i read this book a few months ago and thoroughly enjoyed it for mamy of the same reasons you mentioned - and that by-and-large, goldberg seemed like a pretty decent guy.


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