Monday, March 24, 2008

Fred Goodman's "The Mansion on the Hill" Book Review

The year of Springsteen's commercial peak, 1985, Dylan's quoted by Goodman: "if you want to defeat your enemy, sing his song." (351-2) This narrative history by Goodman does not, as some previous readers who've posted on Amazon (where this review appeared today) appear to have expected, give you in-depth studies of the music or the lives of Springsteen, Dylan, Neil Young, although these three singers share the subtitle with Geffen.

Instead, this study focuses on such men as the managers and handlers who prospered along with their clients: Dylan's Albert Grossman, Springsteen's Jon Landau, Dee Anthony with Peter Frampton and Humble Pie, Irv Azoff vs. Geffen with the Eagles, and of course Geffen himself as the main character throughout, morphing from agent and advisor to owner of a label with Young and the Eagles and CSNY & Joni Mitchell and Nirvana and dozens of other artists. I found many of the blow-by-blow deal making accounts necessary but rather dull. It's difficult, on the other hand, to provide a thorough treatment of the business that makes music without such details. So, some readers may be engrossed by the complex litigation around Mike Appel vs. Springsteen and Landau, or how Grossman played off the industry differently than Geffen. The author shows his talent in charting the rise of the capitalist behemoth that crushed the fragile naivete of the counterculture. "The shark entered the lagoon"-- as Ned Doheny puts it. Geffen comes to L.A. as the 1970s begin, and the business overtakes the music.

The Eagles and then the Boss, in different poses and for different reasons, appear to be the prime motivators here for getting from coffeehouses and bars to arenas and mansions in Malibu or Beverly Hills. Fitting too that first Dylan left for SoCal and later Springsteen, and how this happened while the songwriters attempted to keep their bohemian aura or streetwise cred proves certainly an instructive tale for any rock fan or ambitious musician. The anecdote of how the Grateful Dead backed down from their expletive that they had insisted be an album title--once they found from WB's Joe Smith that it would not be stocked at Sears-- turns into a marvelous fable about the purported hippie self-righteousness vs. their desire to cash in on their attitude against the Man.

In such comparisons between the late-60s folk-rock Boston clubs that spawned Elektra and Asylum Records and the CBS-Warner battles that characterized the mid-80s stadium sellout scene, Goodman indeed displays his strengths. John Sinclair had been always a footnote to me, but his story, and that of Landau and Lennon and the MC5 became a welcome look into the clash of ideals and the marketplace. The role of not only Landau but Dave Marsh and others at Rolling Stone, however, could have been expanded even more at the cutting of some financial detail, for it made me wonder what Goodman, credited on the dust jacket as a "former Rolling Stone editor," might have been holding back from what needed to be more fully told-- perhaps he's saving it for another book?

Also, to my disappointment, a tale not told fully here as also skimped on in later books. (I have also reviewed on Amazon and my blog Michael Walker's "Laurel Canyon" and Barney Hoskyns' "Hotel California" about this same period; the lapse also enters Hoskyns' earlier history of L.A. pop music, "Waiting for the Sun") Goodman should have covered more into the 1970s the ethos, half-cynical, half-affectionate, that Stan Cornyn appears from Goodman's account to have pioneered at WB Records. I still recall the clever marketing ads to get you to buy "Schlagers"!" and other WB-label cheapo compilations on the inner sleeves of that label's releases in the early '70s.

However, Goodman-- whether discussing the savvy of Geffen, the drive of the Eagles, the abandonment of Sinclair, the reasons why Jackson Browne made his management choices or how payola did and did not differ from an Atlantic A&R rep with a few joints for the d.j.'s he visited with new records-- remains scrupulously fair to all involved. He balances damning recollections of those betrayed with other quotes or editorial insights into why the decisions to move from clubs to arenas had to be made, partially to offset the enormous expenses such lesser entities as Humble Pie had generated on tour and in excess.

Goodman's own bias--one understandable and well-supported with much primary evidence-- against those who manipulated the artists or their earlier supporters when times were rough, or his own explanation of why Landau sought to make rock music criticism more serious, plays well into the trajectory he marks of the shift to the mansion on the hill from "But the Man Can't Bust Our Music." His deadpan recital of such infamous Columbia ads in 1968 issues of RS I found hilarious. The move from spacy folkies at the Boston Tea Party to cocaine cowboys at Doug Weston's Troubadour to the sold-out stadium tours pandering "Born in the U.S.A" may after a few hundred examples turn rather obvious. Still, it's a tale well worth telling. This book should be rewarding reading for those as interested in the "starmaking machinery behind the popular songs" (Mitchell's lyric in "A Free Man in Paris" about Geffen is oddly missing from the narrative) as hearing the songs themselves.

Image: I first tried to Google to give, in the spirit of this review, the underdog a chance. But, the title had the word "bust" that triggered an filter. Google did not seem to mind, so dig it here: Columbia Records 1968 Rolling Stone ad

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