Like Fredric Dannen’s 1990 “Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business,” “The Mansion on the Hill” tells a great story that’s weakened by a humdrum thesis--or, to be more precise, tells a bunch of great stories that cry out for a thesis strong enough to hold them together. Lacking Dannen’s convenient suspicion that rock ‘n’ roll is a Mafia plot, the best Fred Goodman can do for a narrative and analytic thread is to cry somewhat incoherently in his beer about the long-lost ‘60s. But where Dannen strives to pinpoint murky relationships between minor record executives and the mob, Goodman--a business reporter who, unlike Dannen, has always made music his beat--sticks to far more significant bizzers who don’t need crooks to help them win at information capitalism.
Foremost among these is David Geffen, as of 1990 the industry’s first billionaire. Bruce Springsteen and his producer-manager, lapsed rock critic Jon Landau, place a clear second. Note, however, that the other star attractions proffered by Goodman’s subtitle, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, play exemplary roles no larger than those of, for instance, Dee Anthony, a hilariously (if chillingly) unclassy manager few potential readers have ever heard of, or Dylan’s legendary handler Albert Grossman. Stars move product, and Times Books is in the entertainment business too--as is Goodman, this publication and your humble reviewer. The differences among us, decisive though they may be, are matters of style and degree--a truth that Goodman glimpses intermittently, if at all.
Geffen is a fascinating figure, and if no one has yet satisfactorily explained his synthesis of solicitous empathy and ruthless greed, much less what it portends about the way we live now, that’s excellent reason for Goodman to try. He organizes facts expertly, with special attention to both the fiscal machinations underlying Geffen’s empire and the unflappable charisma that has discouraged any but the most foolhardy from getting in his way. Starting off at Hustler U., a.k.a. the William Morris mail room, Geffen discovered--as had Grossman, several of whose acts Geffen briefly booked--that a passion for music was a shrewd businessman’s most bankable asset in hippie-era rock. Having established his bona fides with his immensely remunerative representation of Laura Nyro and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Geffen created a record label he dubbed Asylum for such Los Angeles soft-rock icons as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and the Eagles. Delighted to have a killer deal maker shielding them from the stink of lucre, these unsullied souls were shocked when he sold their safe haven to Warner Brothers for $7 million in 1970.
Goodman leaves little doubt that it’s been 20 years or so since Geffen cared for one of his “significant artists,” to use his pet phrase, the way he loved Laura Nyro in 1967. His enduring passion and genius are financial. Worth $30 million by 1980, he took $25 million of Warner money and parlayed Geffen Records, where younger hirelings nurtured the multi-platinum, into his billion. Now he is a Broadway angel, Hollywood producer, philanthropist and liberal macher who brutalizes perceived rivals while skillfully manipulating his own legend. What makes him tick is probably a gift for power itself. No wonder nobody understands him--the very few who share this ability don’t waste time writing about it. Still, Goodman might have noted that other billionaires exert their largess less humanely and wondered why Geffen doesn’t.
The author’s small interest in such distinctions very nearly wrecks the Springsteen sections, where it is difficult not to suspect some unstated personal animus against the artist and especially Landau. Since Goodman is a stickler about conflicts of interest, I should note that I knew Landau slightly way back when he was once close to his sometime associate Dave Marsh, an intimacy that suffered a permanent crimp in 1975, when I publicly accused Springsteen of not being God. He isn’t, and no matter when you think he peaked, it’s reasonable to believe his best years are past. Nevertheless, Springsteen has proven both more vital and more moral than skeptics would have deemed possible. While a return to the wordy sprawl Landau excised from his music in the late 1970s might be refreshing ‘long about now, Goodman’s attempt to paint this uncommonly honest and idealistic rock star as an irrelevant hypocrite simply isn’t convincing. A failure to vote is hardly proof that you don’t care about the working class.
The author’s grudging admission that Springsteen “provided entertainment value in an extremely ethical manner” merely muddles his story further. Relying on such sources as a rejected early fan who confides that Springsteen “isn’t very bright” (an opinion that--even in the unlikely event it’s true--might help explain why he was rejected) and a faithful lighting designer who develops “a bad cocaine habit” after Springsteen fires him (leading one to wonder whether it was merely mild before), Goodman can’t get over the inevitable fact that Springsteen isn’t the wartless paragon hagiographers like Marsh claim.
Thematically, this obsession connects to Goodman’s belief that what made rock a form of unparalleled promise was its roots in the hippie counterculture where, according to Goodman, it “assumed the mantle of meaning and intent from folk music.” He can see that hippiedom’s wuzzy vision of peace and love had even less chance of coming true than the Movement’s inflamed fantasies of overthrowing capitalism. But that doesn’t stop him from blaming Landau for refusing to act on these illusions--and for believing that the best thing about rock ‘n’ roll was the musical spark that originally made it such a hot commercial item, not its noble links to Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Hence he’s concluded that only within the music business can rock ‘n’ roll make its impact as rock ‘n’ roll. This vision has severe limitations, especially in its resistance to formal innovation and cultural weirdness. But Landau and Springsteen have made lots of remarkable music out of it, not all of which has been calculatedly market-ready.
Don’t misunderstand me. For any longtime fan, it has been confusing and often disheartening to watch a popular form get rationalized into a $12-billion business--to watch the meaning of “commercial,” a term Goodman tosses about with unseemly abandon for a business reporter, change from something like “If we do this, kids will like it” to “If we do this, we can maximize our audience share and/or optimize our profitability.” My nomination for the bleakest moment here comes when Dee Anthony drills his charges in Al Jolson’s stagecraft--for 25 years I’d wondered why fools from Peter Wolf to Peter Frampton suddenly started milking the same shtick at the same time. But I’d understand if more casual observers cited Goodman’s succinct, damning account of rock’s international corporatization. Similarly, I understand why many prefer Neil Young’s eccentric career to Springsteen’s. I do myself. But eccentricity is the opposite of a political or social solution, which can only begin with a cogent analysis of the cultural contradictions well-meaning artists like both Springsteen and Young are living through. Regrettably, this ain’t it.