Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Music for Goniffs

HIT MEN
Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business
By Fredric Dannen
Times Books/Random House

MUSIC MAN
Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic Records, and the Triumph of Rock 'n' Roll
By Dorothy Wade and Justine Picardie
W.W. Norton

Fredric Dannen's Hit Men focuses on Columbia's Walter Yetnikoff where Dorothy Wade and Justine Picardie's Music Man is a biography of Atlantic's Ahmet Ertegun. While Music Man isn't exactly a puff job, it's far less serious--reported rather than researched, often chatty, with no clear overriding theme. Yet both music-biz exposes traffic in the same narrative goods--the carryings on and derring-do of the rock and roll minimoguls, who over the years have gathered myths that rival those of the artists who made them rich and famous. And in the end, it isn't Dannen's vague anti-Mob thesis that renders Hit Men more satisfying, just the quality and quantity of his yarns.

Whatever else it wants to be, this is as entertaining a collection of anecdotes about an uproariously unsavory subculture of egomaniacs, sybarites, goniffs, and music-lovers as any greed fan could wish. Exploiting sources that range from trial records, confidential interviews, and other journalists' notes to People and the trades (all documented in a meticulous 40-page appendix), Dannen has a knack for the telling quote and a healthy appetite for the juicy story: supermanager Irving Azoff sending a rival with a strong-willed wife a boa constrictor and a note that says "Now you have two of them!," or industry toastmaster Joe Smith reading from Clive Davis's "official biography": "Clive was born in a manger in Bethlehem . . ." Dannen understands such crucial economic issues as corporate centralization and the extortionate "recoupable" expenses artists are stuck with. And while most of the crime reporting that justifies Hit Men's blatantly ambiguous title is public record, it's convenient to have it all in one place.

But Dannen could use some guys in white hats. He doesn't approve of the high-handed vulgarian Yetnikoff, Mob-linked biz legend Morris Levy, or the independent promotion men of "the Network," especially the now discredited (though not convicted) Joe Isgro. Like the devil with his tunes, however, these villains make good copy. So does Dannen's mythic hero, the elegantly acerbic oldtime CBS Records chief Goddard Lieberson. But the trouble Dannen has breathing life into his modern role model, Columbia and PolyGram executive Dick Asher, was by all reports a problem that also plagued Asher's mother--honest the man may be, but he's such a stick-in-the-mud that not even Dannen claims he's widely liked, and the failure of his virtues to signify cripples the book. Dannen establishes that the independent promotion Asher presciently combatted (though later he caved in) is a protection racket covering for payola, and half-convinces me that some of its proceeds end up with hoodlums. But he never comes out and says how it hurts the people who create and listen to rock and roll.

This is partly because Dannen, whose day job is with Institutional Investor, doesn't know much about rock and roll. Too much of his scant musical detail is erroneous: the so-called "old blues song" "Piece of My Heart" was written by biz music-lovers Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns; Wilson Pickett is of a later generation than Ray Charles and was never produced by Ahmet Ertegun; Barry Manilow's "Mandy" isn't based on Looking Glass's "Brandy"; like that. Though he's coy about his own tastes, you can see him pursing his lips as he writes the word "disco"--and, more to the point, genuflecting imperceptibly when he types the letters "M.B.A." He isn't so naive, philistine, or old as to claim that without payola this crap wouldn't get on the radio, but what interests him about today's music business isn't the music. It's the bottom line. In this he has much in common with Walter Yetnikoff--and even more with Dick Asher, whose great contribution to the pop weal was the Americanization of Julio Iglesias, and Clive Davis, who started out marketing '60s upheaval and evolved into the crassest of (musical) "hit men."

Though they're too polite to harp on it, Wade and Picardie sincerely regret the similar evolution of Ertegun, the onetime teenage jazz collector whose superb ears and fondness for night life seeded history's most musically and commercially significant independent label, and whose transformation into a corporate animal made Atlantic a citadel of bigtime schlock after he and his partners sold out to Warner Brothers in the late '60s. In frank pursuit of fabulous characters and hot gossip, but with a clear commitment to such simple values as racial justice and good a&r, they go over the same crime connections that preoccupy Dannen (and several that he misses)--less completely and conclusively, but to a more useful end. For it's Wade and Picardie who get the damning quote out of Morris Levy. Dying of cancer while awaiting his first prison term, he was apparently eager to go on the record, and he knew what he knew: "Artists are pains in the asses. Artists, a lot of them, are just imbeciles and they are ignorant."

Levy, who ended up owning as much great '50s rock and roll as Atlantic itself, emerges as each book's most fascinating character, far richer than was suggested by a reputation more dreadful than either could unactionably detail. Yet Dannen seems insensible to the friendly record he's helped Levy create, while Wade and Picardie, whose sympathy for artists is more convincing than Dannen's, know he isn't altogether damned. Sure their tendency to romanticize rogues--starting with Ertegun, whose greatest gift they pinpoint as "his ability to make people believe he likes them"--is a familiar rock and roll fallacy. But at some level they recognize what Dannen will not--historically, crime and pop music go way back. All the formally renegade urban styles--jazz up through at least the '30s, and also Argentine tango and Greek rebetika and Portugese fado and many others--thrived in the underworld, and the ad hoc unpredictability of the work has always favored tough guys who know how to collect what's owed them.

There's no reason to be complacent about this--over the years it's ruined a lot of talented men and women's livelihoods and sometimes cost them their lives. But there's also no reason to be offended--or to expect that excising criminal corruption from record industry debit sheets would reduce the retail price of a compact disc by one penny. Even today, goniffs and vulgarians rise in the music business because it's not quite respectable. They usually have better musical instincts than your average M.B.A., thank God. But they've never showed the slightest inclination to take less than everything they could get. And of course, this doesn't distinguish them all that sharply from your average M.B.A. Just like the Mob, they take the basic principles of capitalism somewhat more literally than business reporters think is good for business.

New York Times Book Review, Aug. 12, 1990

Postscript Notes:

The following appears to be a quote from the book Hit Men. Not sure how it was presented:

Each big record company had Top 40 promoters on staff in every region of the country. The staff promoters called on stations in their territories and attempted to urge new singles on the program directors, the radio people with power to add a song to the playlist. Top 40 radio was a paradox, though. It alone could make a hit record in most cases, yet it strived to play only records that were already hits. No Top 40 station wanted to be first on a new song, and this made the program director [PD] a tough sell. . . .

It became a Darwinian struggle to get a record added. You could beg and plead that you were going to lose your job (some did), but program directors could not be moved by sympathy. Top 40 stations lived and died on ratings. . . . The PD wanted to be assured . . . that the single was a priority. The record company was going to be behind the artist.