Bumping Into Geniuses
My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business
A giant of the music industry grants an all-access pass to the world of rock and roll, with mesmerizing stories of thirty0five years spent working with legends
Danny Goldberg has been a hugely influential figure in the world of rock and roll. He did PR for Led Zeppelin; he managed the career of Nirvana; he ran Atlantic, Mercury, and Warner Brothers; he launched Stevie Nick’s solo career. In Bumping into Geniuses, Goldberg grants an all-access pass to the world of rock and roll, with mesmerizing stories of forty years spent working with legends, including Patti Smith, Warren Zevon, Bruce Springsteen, Kiss, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, Hole, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles, Susan Blond, Michael Des Barres, Steve Earle, Led Zeppelin, and more.
But there’s more to this story than just Goldberg’s varied career. It’s also a look at the industry itself: a business that was complex and chaotic – a mixture of art and commerce, idealism and selfishness – and sometimes, rock’s most gifted and influential musicians were able to transcend it all.
Secrets of the Rock and Roll Business
“There aren’t any secrets,” Atlantic Records president Jerry Wexler growled at me, as if I were the stupidest person he had ever met. I was nineteen and it was the winter of 1969, more than thirty - five years before Wexler would be immortalized by Richard Schiff's portrayal of him in the movie Ray. I was writing a column for the weekly trade magazine Record World when Wexler had asked one of his executives, Danny Fields, to gather a group of young journalists who wrote about rock and roll. The real Wexler was far more imposing than the cinematic version. He was broad - shouldered, with a salt - and - pepper beard and sunken eyes that gave him the look of an Old Testament prophet. He had a thick Bronx accent, an intimidating intellect, and the ultimate rock and roll and R&B pedigrees.
Some months earlier, at the storied Greenwich Village nightclub the Village Gate, I had seen a talented R&B singer named Judy Clay dedicate her hit, “Storybook Children,” to Wexler, who stood up and waved with an understated noblesse oblige.
I had no idea what a record company president did, but I was stunned that such a soulful singer would publicly acknowledge a mere businessman. I soon discovered that Wexler had also worked with Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Sam and Dave, and had been the person at Atlantic who actually signed Led Zeppelin.
My awe at Wexler’s résumé was reinforced by seeing his house in Great Neck, Long Island, which had an entire room filled with gold records and a living room with original Légers. Amid thick marijuana smoke, Wexler played records on his state - of - the - art stereo, alternating an acetate of a forthcoming Delaney and Bonnie album with the Beatles’ Abbey Road. It was a relief to know that even an insider like Wexler was a Beatles fan. “Those guys sure know what they’re doing,” he sighed, listening to the end of “Carry That Weight.” During a moment between songs, in a lame attempt to enter the conversation, I asked Wexler if he was going to an upcoming conference on the music business. “I never go to those things,” he snarled. “The premise is that you can go there and learn secrets. First of all, there aren’t any secrets.” He paused dramatically and then, with a wolfish grin, concluded, “And second of all, if there were any secrets, we wouldn’t tell them.”
Over the next several decades I would come to understand what he meant. Although I never came close to equaling Wexler’s historical contribution to the music business, I was lucky enough to find myself in many situations that would make rock history. I had a press pass to the Woodstock Festival. I worked for Led Zeppelin from 1973 to 1976, first as their publicist and later as vice president of their record company. I managed Nirvana when Nevermind came out and Bonnie Raitt when she won four Grammys. I did PR for Kiss and Electric Light Orchestra. I worked closely with Bruce Springsteen on the No Nukes movie. At the peak of Fleetwood Mac’s popularity I helped launch Stevie Nicks’s solo career. And twenty - four years after meeting Wexler I was given his old job as president of Atlantic Records. What few secrets there were could not be of any help to anyone else. But there were stories.
I can’t be objective about the music business. I know it hurt a lot of people; artists were often lied to, royalties weren’t always paid, bad people sometimes got promoted while good ones were fired. Drugs, misogyny, and death stalked rock and roll. A lot of shlock was produced. A lot of pretense masked shallow, materialistic quests for fame and money. It’s not like I don’t know these things and it’s not that I mind writing about them. It’s just that the part of the music business I know best, the rock and roll business, also produced and popularized a lot of music that I love. And it gave me and a lot of my friends a place in the world.
One nonsecret of the rock business is the intertwined nature of art and money. No one became a rock star by accident or against their will. Bob Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles, begins not with a reference to Woody Guthrie or Allen Ginsberg, but with a meeting Dylan had as a young man with music publisher Lou Levy. Levy showed him the studio on the west side of Manhattan where Bill Haley and His Comets had recorded “Rock Around the Clock,” which is widely considered the song that made rock and roll music a part of mainstream American culture.
Dylan did inject a folk music aesthetic into the commercial rock culture that existed. Steve Earle, who grew up in Texas in the 1960s, saw folk music as the vehicle that “brought art into rock and roll.” The great beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg saw Dylan’s song “A Hard Rain’s A - Gonna Fall” as “the passing of the torch of Bohemian illumination and self - empowerment.” The ideals and aesthetics that informed folk music of the early and mid - 1960s would continue to be present in varying degrees in the minds of many successful rock artists for decades to come.
But one of the main points of Dylan going electric was not merely that he was adapting a more complex musical backdrop for his songs but that he was consciously entering a world and a business defined, at the time, by the Beatles. One of the salient points about Dylan’s rock single “Like a Rolling Stone” was that it went to number one on the pop charts. If it hadn’t been a hit, it wouldn’t have mattered anywhere near as much. Members of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and the Byrds all started as folkies. Far from selling out, they were buying into a rock and roll culture and business that, from the very beginning, had been as much or more about money and success as about the nuances of the art. The trade - off was that rock and roll, corrupted as it had to be to win in the marketplace, was a vehicle that could impact millions more people and, yes, make artists lots of money The contradictions between art and commerce were not something that took folk artists by surprise, but were implicit in their decision to enter the world of rock and roll in the first place.
As the rock and roll business developed, most rock stars amassed unprecedented power in relation to the corporations that profited from their work. In addition to exploiting rebellious creative talent, the business itself was repeatedly transformed by that talent.
I was one of millions of rock fans who went to high school in the 1960s and one of a thousand or so who figured out a way into the business of rock and roll in the years that followed. I had all of the contradictions of rock and roll. Like most of my colleagues, I soon got caught up in the sometimes grim reality of what did and what did not make money. And like most of them I never stopped being a fan.
In 2007, at a memorial service for Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records and Wexler’s former partner and my former boss, David Geffen repeated one of Ahmet’s aphorisms about the rock business. The way to get rich was to keep walking around until you bumped into a genius, and when you did — hold on and don’t let go. In the early nineties, when I finally got an executive job at Atlantic, the story had been repeated so many times that it had become an axiom. Of course, no genius was likely to let you hold on very long if you didn’t have anything to offer them. One had to know something valuable about aspects of the way the business worked. Some successful rock businessmen started as record producers. Some began as tour managers or concert promoters. Many offered financial expertise. I began in the subculture of rock criticism and publicity but, over the years, developed a reasonable number of clues about radio promotion, the workings of record companies, and the dynamics of touring as well. Like anyone in business I spent a fair amount of time arguing about and keeping track of money, but I was always of the school that was a little more interested in making the pie bigger than in calculating the distribution of the crumbs.
I was in tenth and eleventh grade in 1965 when the rock and roll business was in the middle of a dramatic expansion and reinvention that began with the launch of the Beatles in 1964. Although the Beatles had initially come across like a turbocharged version of the pop pinup idols that had preceded them, they soon spawned an intensification of focus on rock and roll by both artists and fans. In March 1965 Dylan released the first of his albums to include electric guitars, Bringing It All Back Home, a coherent and brilliant body of original songs such as “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Gates of Eden.” It made a dramatic contrast to the disposable pop/rock albums that had one or two hits and lots of fi ller. (Even the Beatles’ early albums had contained a number of “cover” versions of old songs to pad out the Beatles’ original material.) In July 1965, the Rolling Stones released Out of Our Heads, much of it edgy and rebellious for the time (this was the album that had “Satisfaction,” and the first ironic commentary on the record business itself, “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man”). Responding to the challenge in December 1965, the Beatles released Rubber Soul, which was widely considered their first serious album. These albums and others created and defined a new business. Previously, the primary rock and roll product was the single, which sold for around a dollar. After 1965, the dominant creative and business product of rock and roll was the album, which sold for five to ten times as much. To the new generation of rock fans like me, these albums were worth every penny. Every photo, every word of the liner notes, and every single song was another window into the minds of artists who were perceived by their fans as the coolest and most interesting people in the world.
Because the rock music of the late sixties was so radically different from the pop versions that came before it, most of the A&R executives at record companies who had controlled the production of commercial records were marginalized and a young generation of rock producers, songwriters, guitar players, singers, and the young friends who became their business associates grew rapidly in wealth and clout. The corporations were making so much money from selling albums by the likes of the Doors and Cream that they were more than happy to keep their hands off of the creative process. Although in future years the record companies and radio stations would start to assert more pressure for orthodoxy, the new template had been established. Rock and roll was a business in which the creative elements were mostly controlled by rock and roll auteurs who demanded and increasingly received a much bigger share of the economic pie, and who had much more control over their work than previous generations of performers. Dylan could have been speaking for many artists when he described the leverage he found once he had success. “I had gotten in the door when no one was looking. I was in there now and there was nothing anyone could, from then on, do about it.”
Among the biggest and most talented rock stars I would meet when I got into the business, even those with the fiercest sense of integrity balanced their artistry with streaks of pragmatism. In 1980, I worked with Bruce Springsteen in the context of making No Nukes, a political concert documentary that featured several live Springsteen performances. While waiting for the editors to cue up an edit one night, Bruce mused about how elusive a Top 40 hit single had been for him. (Born to Run was a press phenomenon, and the title song had been a huge album cut on rock radio stations, but Top 40 barely touched it.) I was amazed to hear that Bruce had recently met with Kal Rudman, who ran a radio tip sheet called the Friday Morning Quarterback, filled with radio and promo hype. Rudman talked fast with glib high - pressure shtick. Although, like Springsteen, Rudman was based in New Jersey, he was the personification of the old-school pop business hype that was the ultimate contrast to Springsteen’s intense, poetic, unpretentious rock and roll persona. (In Rudman’s tip sheet, a hit song was called a GO - rilla.) “Kal explained to me,” said Springsteen in his urgent, hoarse drawl, “that Top 40 radio is mainly listened to by girls and that my female demographic was low. And I thought about the songs on Darkness and I realized that the lyrics really were mostly for and about guys,” he concluded, shaking his head ruefully. “So on this new album I’m working on — there are some songs for girls.”
Just to hear the Boss utter the word demographic was a shock to my system, but then again why wouldn’t he want to appeal to as many people as possible? The River album was released several months later, and, in addition to its many poetic gems and macho celebrations that protected Springsteen’s identity, the album included the single “Hungry Heart,” which featured a sped - up vocal, a romantic lyric, and retro harmonies by the sixties pop duo the Turtles, with the result that Springsteen did, as planned, finally have his first Top 40 hit.
Of course, the fantasy of rock and roll liberation was often dashed by the reality of the business. More than one rock star I knew found the classic parody of a rock documentary This Is Spinal Tap depressing because of its painful similarities to real life. Drug and alcohol abuse were far too common. The tragic arc of Elvis Presley’s career was a metaphor for the dark side of rock and roll: materialistic, druggy, and predictable. Kurt Cobain, the greatest rock artist I would ever work with, shot himself to death. He was only one of dozens of brilliant rockers who died decades before their time.
The idea of this book is to give some impressionistic views, through my eyes and through the examples of a handful of artists, of the rock and roll business from 1969 through 2004. It is by no means an attempt at a comprehensive overview. For one thing, when I made my first tentative steps onto the stage of the rock business in 1968 I had been too young to really experience the seminal rock and roll in the fifties of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, et al. I had been a mere fan during the early - sixties British invasion of the Beatles and Rolling Stones and during the initial years of psychedelic rock.
There were many vital aspects of the business (engineering the sound of albums and selling them at record stores are two that come to mind) that I was to know little or nothing about. Although I tried to live by and impart commonsense principles of business such as the difference between hype and income, between the gross and the net, and about the need to spend less than one makes, my focus was primarily on working with artists to protect their art, market it, and get them paid as much as possible. I am neither an accountant nor a lawyer and have little of interest to share about the way artists spent their money or were screwed out of it after they made it.
Moreover, my perspective is very American. Although I worked closely with several British artists and represented several who toured and triumphed all over the world, the bulk of my experience was in the United States.
Large gaps in my memories are interspersed with vivid scenes that exist in my memory as if on videotape. I have written those scenes with quotations from people as I recall them but the truth is that other than a few interviews I conducted in writing this book, there were neither tapes nor notes. The conversations recounted merely represent my personal recollection of them.
No one artist or group of artists can contain the sprawling and complex totality of rock and roll, but I believe that the artists I write about here, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Hole, Warren Zevon, and Steve Earle, among others, represent a broad and powerful portion of the psychic real estate of the rock and roll kingdom. I am not objective about any of them. I love them all."A behemoth in the rock 'n' roll industry."
"Goldberg tells of his adventures in the music business with insight, humor and compassion."
-The Seattle Times
"An insightful behind-the-scenes view of the music industry from 1969 through 2004...Reading Bumping Into Geniuses is like having a laminated backstage pass to the music business, intertwined with a juicy slice of countercultural history."
-Paul Krassner, Los Angeles Times
"There's no doubt [Goldberg] loves the music business - lives, eats and breathes it. His new book Bumping Into Geniuses is one of the best on the subject."
-San Antonio Express-News
"Danny Goldberg chronicles the phases of his career - rock journalist, record- company president, manager to musicians ranging from Kurt Cobain to Warren Zevon - with the sort of candor few record-biz execs would attempt....Admirably blunt, but also spiked with tart humor."
"[A] surprisingly excellent book, an engaging, droll and - incandescent artistes to the contrary - largely demystifying look at the evolution of the rock trade from Woodstock to grunge...There is an elegiac quality to Bumping Into Geniuses." -The New York Times Book Review
"Bumping Into Geniuses is such an important text for 2008...Goldberg's book presents a time when popular music really mattered, when the authentic fed the commercial and the commercial widened the scope of the authentic."
-Milwaukee Express News
"Goldberg summons up some fascinating anecdotes as he writes about these performers with much honesty and compassion, bringing it all back home."
"A good taste of life in the music biz...It's not only the tales themselves that make Bumping Into Geniuses a great read; it's how Goldberg tells the stories. You really get the feeling that he loved every moment. He appears to have learned as much from his minor setbacks as he did from his major successes."
-The Jewish Journal
"For readers wanting a look behind the curtain, Goldberg offers valuable personal experience that only the music industry's elite are equipped to share."
-The Hartford Courant
"For anyone interested in the rock and roll industry, or simply the mores and temperaments of the musicians themselves, Bumping into Geniuses is an incredible insider's tale."
"Goldberg is an industry icon... In Bumping Into Geniuses, [he] explains how the essence of music changed from being about the artistry to being about the business, but he also shares -- to the best of his recollections -- insider stories about Jimmy Page's drug haze, the irritation of the Eagles' management when the band received bad reviews and how Stevie Nicks came up with the name for her hit "Edge of Seventeen." ...Goldberg's affection for music, as a fan, is also always palpable."
-Richmond Times Dispatch
"Early in Bumping into Geniuses, a young Danny Goldberg disqualifies himself as a music journalist on the grounds that he loves rock n roll far too much to be anything like objective. That was probably true then and it's probably true now...but that doesn't mean that he can't write. This book renews my faith in the music, confirms my suspicion of the business, and answers a lot questions that I've always meant to ask Danny myself."
"Since I first met Danny Goldberg in 1970, he has had an honest relationship with the music business. He believes in the transcendent beauty and power of rock and roll and at the same time has a unique perspective on the business which has presented and preserved it. Danny writes about rock and roll with his characteristic mix of intelligence, reverence and humor."
"In chronicling his remarkable rise from rock writer to record-company chief, working with acts ranging from Led Zeppelin to Nirvana, Danny Goldberg demonstrates that there's more to the music business than just business."
-Kurt Loder, MTV
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