Clive Davis’ book is more about music stars than music business
He may be one of the most influential music executives in the world, but Clive Davis was never a music geek. He didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll as a teen, doesn’t describe that lightning-strike moment when sound first truly explodes. He didn’t collect albums, and seldom paints himself as an aesthete. Yes, throughout his new autobiography, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” he’s attending concerts and knows talent when he sees it — he signed Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen and Whitney Houston — but more with an ear for commerce than for challenging musical norms.
Davis offers a sense of this in his proud description of himself at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, where hippies, rockers and folkies including the Grateful Dead, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin and the Who set the tone for the rock explosion to come.
“Here’s what I wore to the revolution: A V-neck tennis sweater in the traditional white, maroon and black, over white pants,” recounts Davis, then the president of Columbia Records. “In reverse-hip sense, that outfit probably made me the most far out person on the fairgrounds …"
For nearly half a century, Davis, 80, has been a dominant figure in the music business. From the mid-1960s to the present, he headed multiple major labels including Columbia, BMG and the Sony Music Group, and founded Arista and J Records. He has been a ubiquitous voice, and ear, of the biz, and fostered genres including arena rock, soul, funk, punk, disco, hip-hop, early electronic dance music and R&B.;
In the process, Davis witnessed cultural history firsthand. He signed artists including Janis Joplin (whom he calls “one of the best investments I ever made”), Bruce Springsteen, Sly Stone, Patti Smith, Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys, and played key roles in the careers of Bob Dylan, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Notorious B.I.G., Carlos Santana, Outkast, Kelly Clarkson and Aretha Franklin, among hundreds of others.
This success has understandably bred confidence in Davis, a trait that on occasional lapses into self-aggrandizement. When David Geffen suggests Davis partner with him at Asylum Records, for example, Davis calls the offer “a characteristically incisive move” on Geffen’s part; Davis too brags that Johnny Cash always addressed him as “Mr. Davis.” And he’s lent his name to both a theater and an institute at New York University. If only he’d step off his pedestal and detail the business he helped revolutionize.
Tracing his beginnings in blue-collar Brooklyn, the loss of his parents at an early age, his journey through Harvard Law School on scholarship and his rise in the record business, Davis portrays himself as a driven young man whose way with numbers, instincts, luck, acute sense of a shifting marketplace and keen ear for hits helped land him in a front row seat to legendary moments.
Davis’ first industry job, for example, was as a lawyer at Columbia Records, home to a young Bob Dylan. Davis was asked to inform a cocky young Dylan that his song “Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues” was libelous and couldn’t be released.
Several years later, he writes of meeting with Janis Joplin at CBS’ Manhattan offices after they signed a contract — she wanted to seal the deal with sex. Davis politely declined.
It was the era of big money and huge, competitive egos, a time when executives raided rosters for superstars and label heads negotiated musicians’ contracts “like kids swapping baseball cards that just happened to be worth millions of dollars.”
The pages of “The Soundtrack of My Life” are filled with fantastic scenes and revelations: Davis took classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz to an East Village discotheque at the peak of disco’s popularity. The executive once suggested that Sly Stone tone it down with the “glittery outfits, the coordinated stage moves and the platinum hair.” Davis swears he didn’t know Milli Vanilli lip-synced (and he declines to note that Whitney Houston did the same during her memorable rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl).
This book, Davis’ second autobiography, is also the moment that Davis has chosen to publicly reveal his bisexuality, and what seems to be a swinging lifestyle after years of marriage: “There were married couples, gay couples, and single men and women, both straight and gay,” he writes.
Unfortunately for the narrative, he includes this information not as it’s occurring in his life, but shunted to the final chapter, where he in one brief section explains the seeds of his sexual evolution. Had he included mention of these rendezvous as they occurred in his life, the reader’s image of Davis as a detached, lawyerly businessman with a good ear would have been disrupted early on. Instead, the revelation’s placement leaves more questions than answers (most of them gossipy, of course).
The most bittersweet and heartbreaking chapter regards Davis’ signing of a teenage Whitney Houston to Arista. He goes through his life with the late singer, whom he helped make one of the bestselling recording artists of all time. Davis reprints a number of letters he wrote to Houston over the years, including a tough one written after she performed at a Madison Square Garden concert in 2001.
It began, “When I saw you Friday night at the Michael Jackson concert I gasped. When I got home, I cried. My dear, dear Whitney, the time has come.” He pleads with her to get help. His telling is touching, and reveals in detail both the depth of his love for both her person and her artistry.
His insight, however, on backstage business dealings and the way in which his companies dealt with profound technological changes remains frustratingly one-dimensional — and does a disservice to history.
Surprisingly, “The Soundtrack of My Life” deals very little with the details of Davis’ industry, which has shifted massively in his lifetime. He mentions the “era of the blockbuster album” without including his perspective on why this was so. During his reign, in fact, three format shifts occurred, each of which changed not only the financials but artistic decisions. He doesn’t discuss the advent of either the cassette or the compact disc, and sidesteps discussions of payola, racism and controversies involving independent radio promoters, and avoids details of typical label contracts, which were often notoriously unfair to young artists.
Most glaring, despite heading the thriving Arista label when online file-sharing service Napster and MP3 technology upended the entire business, and moving to BMG as digital supplanted physical and the repercussions were being felt, Davis ignores the issue altogether with a late-book declaration that formats never interested him.
It’s a cavalier explanation, especially for someone whose presence was so transformative. As a witness to so many shake-ups, Davis could have offered so much insight into the boom and bust of his industry. Unless he chooses to write a third memoir, the full extent of his impact on the music world will remain incomplete.
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