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Monday, Oct. 27, 2008

The Business of Rock

Remembering a world long gone

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With a melancholy spirit, Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business (Gotham) reflects on a time when real artists had legitimate control and the chance for exposure in the music business.

It is also the story of how critics define who is authentic, along with how and perhaps why this is not the way it ought to be. One realizes that the geniuses in the book-and all of them are geniuses, going by author Danny Goldberg's reasonable definition-would have little or no chance in today's music scene, which is not so much fickle as totally fractured. Goldberg knows of what he speaks as a veteran manager and publicist for some of the world's top bands.

The author presents the alluring concept that the dividing line between authenticity and commercialism is not so clear and certainly not static. And that music criticism at one time served a function that, like it or not, it shall never serve again.

In utterly exasperated prose, Goldberg tells a steady story in spite of the abrupt narrative jumps, romanticized style and occasional lapse in factual detail. In the end, nothing matters but his dedication to the artists with whom he worked. His love for their quirky and complex approach to making music often got in the way of what he intended to accomplish for his bosses. His genius is that he never did get in the way of the artists and now has moving stories to tell.

"When Dylan started playing rock 'n' roll, millions of folk fans, college kids and high-school iconoclasts like me suddenly decided it was not moronic to appreciate rock 'n' roll," he writes. This ran counter to the industry's preference for rock by the early '60s, which meant music stuffed into mindless "beach movies." (Watch Dick Dale be a beatnik surfer in Beach Party and try to reconcile his career with post-Pulp Fiction acclaim.)

In one of the more important areas of the text, the struggle with critics refusing to take Led Zeppelin's music seriously versus the group's immense popularity helps illuminate the question of authenticity in a commercial world. But Goldberg makes no distinction between the favored ones that critics turn into hip outsiders and those who never gain this artistic credence. His anti-moronic stance within the industry has led him through working relationships with Neil Young, Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, Stone Temple Pilots, Styx, Boston, Kansas, Foreigner, Warren Zevon, Nirvana and more. He worked as hard for Patti Smith as he did for Stevie Nicks. He believed neither should suffer a moron's perspective, and one has to give him tremendous credit for his consistent work ethic.

As Goldberg points out, critics from Dylan's time through the end of the 20th century could make or break an artist at the high-culture level. And it was within the heightened culture of rock criticism that artists sought their true audience, no matter that many said otherwise. (Led Zeppelin privately wanted critical acclaim but publicly scorned it.) There was a time when recognition within rock music demanded the seriousness normally handed out to literary types. Critics had a serious job to do sorting it out. It was not all about selling product. One could fill a stadium and never get the attention of, say, Greil Marcus or Dave Marsh or, certainly, Jon Landau. It mattered. It should have.

But no longer, and this is why Bumping IntoGeniuses is such an important text for 2008. Most artists have too much control now and little reason for it. Many critics no longer do their homework, or if they do it's done without research skills and aesthetic intelligence.

It wasn't so long ago when authentic music and commercial music differed-the distinction mattered on one level and didn't on another. Nowadays we have little genuine authenticity but plenty of prefabricated, test-marketed "authenticity" in a world submerged in commercialism. Emotion is now called production. Songs are underdone. 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.

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