The artists will fuck you.
But without them you’re nothing.
That’s the story of Laura Nyro. That’s who made David Geffen his first million. David didn’t make Laura any more talented, but he paved the way for her to make it. He encouraged her, he believed in her, he argued for her, he made things exactly the way she wanted them to be.
And in return, she fucked him.
That’s what you’ve got to know about artists. They’re desperate. They’ve only got one chance, one career, if they screw it up, they’re toast. Just ask Billy Squier…
But just like the artists, David Geffen has dreams. How is he going to make them come true?
By lying, cheating and cunning. By utilizing his gifts of intelligence and negotiation to get close to people and do things for them. This is how they all do it. Geffen’s just more successful than most. If you can see his flaws, just know that those of the others are hidden. They need it. They’ll do whatever it takes to make it. Just like the artists.
Not that will is a skill. It may be necessary, along with ambition, but that’s not enough.
Geffen was smart enough to align himself with Laura Nyro. It’s almost impossible to find legendary talent, it’s equally difficult to sign it. Geffen did both.
And despite his belief, her album didn’t hit.
But he didn’t give up. Like a great running back, he found another hole. Cover records. Not that this was a new idea. That’s how Albert Grossman broke Dylan.
But Albert was older than the acts. He was just as ruthless as Geffen, but was not one of them. Geffen came from the same generation. He understood his acts. He knew how good they were and what they wanted. He made it happen.
And I won’t say they were ungrateful, but great artists believe they can make it on their own, that they need nobody’s help, and this is patently untrue.
You not only need someone smart, you need someone with relationships. Whether it be Ahmet, Mo or even Tom Freston, who’s given credit for breaking Guns N’ Roses in this documentary. You need someone with a Rolodex, who can make things happen.
Most people can’t.
But it was a different era back then. You had to listen to the music to know which way the wind blew. Top Forty radio was the Mac of its time. FM its iPod. Everybody paid attention. One record could change the world. Musicians were the most powerful people in the universe.
They are no longer.
Watching Laura Nyro you think of no one so much as Lady Gaga… But she hasn’t written one track as good as “Poverty Train,” never mind “Wedding Bell Blues” or “Save The Country.” You see Gaga has the chops, but she focuses on the trappings. Once upon a time, the chops were paramount.
Assuming you had a David Geffen in your corner.
And most people did not. The fat cats wanted to be in the movie business. And although the late sixties and early seventies were a legendary time in the picture business, it was music that was driving the culture. You see movies are made by committee. Music, when done right, is the vision of one soul, or a band of them. Execs cannot make the records, they can make the movies.
And one reason music took a dump is because the execs started to believe they were the acts. They got paid like them, but the more they got involved, the worse the music became. Hell, those out there Neil Young albums from the eighties, the ones Geffen sued over, they look positively mainstream today. Neil Young was a twenty first century artist thirty years ago. He realized your only hope is to follow your muse. Which is why Neil still does boffo at the b.o. And most of his contemporaries who sold out are struggling.
And I love that they point out that Geffen speaks his mind and had to learn how to be diplomatic. Dealing with people, especially those more powerful than yourself…is not something you’re born with. If you’re not learning every day, you’re dying on the vine, you’re taking yourself out of the game.
And Geffen has done great things since the seventies. Geffen Records, DreamWorks, charity… But his heyday was the seventies. When he was frustratingly subservient to the artists. Once he became the artist himself, it wasn’t so good. Ironically, Geffen needs the tension, he needs to be subsidiary to somebody, he needs to work the system, the role of king does not fit him so well. But kingmaker? That fits him like a glove.
This documentary was far from three-dimensional. If you want to know more about the real Geffen, read Tom King’s “The Operator.”
But that book will never give you a feel for how it once was. When musicians were as rich as corporate titans, with even more power, while being beholden to no one. Geffen may be a billionaire, but he’s poor compared to the Wall Street fat cats. Like David Bonderman, who just paid Paul McCartney and John Fogerty to play at his seventieth birthday party?
Paul McCartney? Shouldn’t he be king? Shouldn’t he have all the money?
That’s how far we’ve come.
But give Geffen credit. He straddles two worlds. He likes his fine living, but he knows the power of a t-shirt, of being a scrapper, of beating the man at his own game.
This documentary fell apart when it hit the late eighties. There was no mention of the war with Robert Towne over “Personal Best.” Everyone kept saying Geffen doesn’t lose, but you never heard one of those whose every move in Hollywood was blocked by the man…and that happened.
Then again, Geffen showed his vulnerability by quoting Patrick Goldstein.
You see at the end of the day, it’s still the artist who has all the power. One song, one sentence, one album, one article…can infect and change the entire world.
Which is why we’re drawn to these people. Why we want to get closer.
Geffen played it as well as anybody.
But don’t think you can replicate his success. The hunger comes from having a non-working father, being gay, a whole soup of elements that made him him. You can only be yourself.
And this is especially true if you’re an artist.
But what you really need is to be yourself and have Geffen, or his modern day equivalent, on your side.
Because we all want to be taken down to the paradise city…