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BOOK REVIEW

Here's one rock fan who crashed the scene

Bumping Into Geniuses My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business Danny Goldberg Gotham: 290 pp., $26

September 18, 2008|Paul Krassner | Special to The Times

"The WAY to get rich," Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, once said, "is to keep walking around until you bump into a genius, and when you do, hold on and don't let go."

Danny Goldberg offers an addendum to this formula: "Of course, no genius is likely to let you hold on very long if you don't have anything to offer them."

His memoir, "Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business," provides an insightful behind-the-scenes view of the music industry from 1969 through 2004.

"I could never have gotten anywhere in the business," Goldberg writes, "if I had not been a rock and roll fan first. . . . Rock was a way for a nerd like me to connect with regular kids while still maintaining my own identity.

"If a stud like Mick Jagger could complain that he could get 'no satisfaction,' it meant that it was okay if I didn't. If John Lennon could sing 'In My Life,' it was safe to express emotion. If a genius like Bob Dylan could feel betrayed by a friend as expressed in 'Positively 4th Street,' it meant that I was not a loser. . . . To listen to these records was like coming indoors out of the freezing cold and holding my numb fingers near the radiator, feeling at the same time both pain and relief."

The turning point came when Goldberg met Led Zeppelin in 1973. Doing public relations for them, he realized he could establish his own identity in the music industry.

This agenda affected his perception: "Like most of the people around them, I internalized defiant reverence for the band. After my first month on the road with them, I had come to feel that anyone who didn't appreciate Led Zeppelin was an idiot."

Even as Goldberg evolved from a PR guy into a rock executive, he remained a devoted fan. When he met Stevie Nicks, she was, he tells us, "at her defining moment as a rock icon, and . . . I was besotted. In the way a fan is besotted."

Their professional relationship was as symbiotic as her duet with Tom Petty on "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around," which became a No. 1 hit.

When Bonnie Raitt's career was in commercial decline, Goldberg felt that "if I couldn't find a way to help get Bonnie's career on track, my own career would be meaningless." By virtue of her talent and his dedication, she won four Grammys in a single night.

Goldberg considers his relationship with Kurt Cobain "the most important of my professional career." The first time he saw Nirvana, he was overwhelmed by Cobain's "mystical and powerful connection with the audience. . . . After years of increasing cynicism about what rock and roll had turned into, I felt the naive excitement of a teenager."

Cobain was a moody individual, with "a sweetness and gentility," but on one occasion he seemed particularly depressed. When asked why, he replied, "I'm awake, aren't I?"

His suicide deeply affected Goldberg, as did the death of Warren Zevon. When David Letterman asked Zevon if he had anything to say about facing death, he responded, "Just to enjoy every sandwich." Goldberg wanted to title a posthumous tribute album "Werewolves of London," but Zevon's son insisted on "Enjoy Every Sandwich."

"Bumping Into Geniuses" is sprinkled with revealing tidbits: Paul McCartney tells poet Allen Ginsberg, "You know, I read 'Howl' before John did." Having just met his idol Elvis Presley, Robert Plant sings "Treat me like a fool," and Presley sings back, "Treat me mean and cruel."

Patti Smith meets Goldberg for the first time at the Scribner Book Store on Fifth Avenue in New York, where she has a day job as a clerk. When she asks him, "What book do you want me to steal for you?" he requests the "I Ching" and in turn gives her a copy of Dylan's unreleased basement tapes.

Gene Simmons concedes, "We are still not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but there are three thousand licensed Kiss products, a Kiss toothbrush that plays 'I Want to Rock and Roll All Night' when you put it in your mouth, and everything from Kiss caskets to Kiss condoms. There are no Radiohead condoms."

Goldberg learned that "it was the artist's job to be creative and my role was to be their advocate." Here, he traces his path from cluelessness -- thinking that Billboard magazine "had something to do with ads displayed on highways" -- to sophistication.

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 is the author of "Who's to Say What's Obscene: Comedy, Culture and Politics in America Today," to be published next spring.

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