Most rock & roll memoirs are penned either by rock stars themselves (Clapton, Dylan) or by the original titans of the industry (Ertegun, Yetnikoff), and as our pal Pete Lubin discovered when he tried peddling his own account of his life in the biz, there’s a reason for this: The number of people who purchase books filled with rock-geek trivia — shit, the number of people who purchase books period — is woefully small. It’s surprising, then, to see Gotham taking a flier on an autobiography from Danny Goldberg — but as you’ll quickly discover if you pick up a copy, it’s quite a pleasant surprise.
Goldberg, for the non-geeks among us, was one of the biggest seat-hoppers in the game of high-stakes musical chairs played by the major labels in the ’90s — and before that he was, in order of occurrence, a Billboard staffer, Led Zeppelin’s publicist (and eventual label VP), and manager to Stevie Nicks, Bonnie Raitt, and Kurt Cobain. A man with that perfect combination of dumb luck and ears for talent, in other words — and a veritable treasure trove of behind-the-scenes stories.
Sadly for readers who pick up books like this in search of juice and dirt, Bumping Into Geniuses focuses less on who did what to whom and more on how incredibly fucking awesome it is to fall in love with rock & roll, and then fall ass over elbow into one pile of money after another until you’re sitting on top of the Warner Music Group without any real idea of how it happened. I’m oversimplifying things a bit — and surely Goldberg did have a very clear grasp of how he rose so far, so fast — but that’s the basic tone of the book: It’s a gee-whiz account of Goldberg’s many brushes with greatness. (The title, by the way, comes from Ahmet Ertegun’s quip to a teenage Goldberg that the secret to success in the business is to walk around bumping into geniuses.)
Even if you’ve got to believe Goldberg is being at least mildly disingenuous at several (or even most) points, Geniuses is a satisfying, if breezy, read; anyone who’s interested in what he has to say will surely be able to identify with passages like this one:
I could never have gotten anywhere in the business 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.
Unlike a lot of rock execs — particularly the rapacious band of angry shoe salesmen who roam the boardrooms today — Goldberg was a rabid rock fan first, a power broker second, and that’s what makes his book such a pleasure to read. His obvious love for the music makes it easy to forgive him for giving such short shrift to his time in the boardroom — his whirlwind tour of the upper halls of Atlantic, Warner Bros., and Mercury is over in a blink — and for focusing on the artists he effectively championed (Zeppelin, Nirvana) at the expense of those he failed (Juliana Hatfield, Boston). It feels less like a memoir, per se, than 300 pages of someone saying “Holy shit, did I really do that?”
Where Geniuses ultimately disappoints the most is in its final act, after Goldberg leaves the major-label system and founds the boutique label Artemis. His prestige signing was Warren Zevon, and Zevon is understandably the focus of this portion of the book, but Goldberg not only neglects the rest of his roster, he glosses over the label’s eventual demise, and offers very little perspective on the industry’s 21st century travails. These omissions are disappointing, and they lend a hollow air to the book’s final chapters, but overall, it’s still a very worthwhile read — especially if you love the music as much as its author does.