Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business
By Danny Goldberg
Gotham Books, 2008
For nearly four decades, Danny Goldberg has had a seat in the back rooms of the music business, where deals are brokered and stars are made. In his memoir Bumping Into Geniuses, the trajectory of his own career rides on the coattails of the entire industry. The title and his tone throughout clarify that even he views it this way: The geniuses are the geniuses, and he loves their work. His career depends on bumping into a genius whose music he thinks will sell.
Goldberg began as a music journalist, and in the beginning of the book, he has enormous respect for critics' powers to steer opinion and therefore the industry. At the outset, that's the career he wanted, but after a few short years he decided — whether by honest appraisal of his skills or by rationalization that he loves music too much to be a critic — that he'd be better off promoting bands instead of evaluating them.
Of course, that went well for him, and it's the results — his management of famous clients — that make his book worth reading. Goldberg's outlook shows in his writing: The most engaging parts come when his career is devoted to a few specific, very famous "geniuses." Throughout the story, from his early job promoting Led Zeppelin to his later work on the final album by the terminally ill Warren Zevon, his appreciation for creative people and his noble treatment of them shine through.
These parts read like enthusiastic, name-dropping gossip — not the malicious kind, or with the implication that his associations raise him above the rest, but with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of one who, even after decades, still gets excited. Writing about those periods, he gives his attention not to his own life but the star's.
While he was promoting Led Zeppelin, he watched critics dismiss the band while audiences made them superstars. When House of the Holy, the band's landmark fifth album, dropped, Goldberg observes that most critics had "never written a positive word about the band and proceeded to run a review that called the album a 'limp blimp.'" His solution was to pitch a story about record concert attendance. Because Zeppelin had sold out a 1973 concert at Tampa Stadium, which was larger than the Beatles' sold-out show at Shea Stadium, he pointed out that the band had "broken the Beatles' record" for concert attendance. He knew, of course, that the fact was more a reflection of the stadiums' size than the bands' popularity, but in the name of getting a positive note in Rolling Stone, he was happy to perform such statistical sleight of hand.
He writes about Stevie Nicks' influence on Fleetwood Mac, her subsequent solo success and her new-age quirkiness, like giving golden moons to beloved members of her entourage or describing them as "very Rhiannon," or "not very Rhiannon." He writes of Kurt Cobain's control of Nirvana, from the songs to the production to the album art, but also his pragmatic acceptance of input from the business side when it came to recording something that would get radio play. Late in the book, he writes of working with Zevon and arguing to give him creative control that he might not have had if the resultant The Wind weren't sure to be his last album and a document of a sardonic songwriter's outlook in his final years.
There are a few spots where Goldberg explains aspects of his own evolving career. They are substantially less engaging than the lives and projects of the geniuses, but they're probably necessary to keep the focus on the author. In his book — as in his career — his real strength has been supporting other people's projects.