Genius Magnet: An Interview with Danny Goldberg

Words by Tamra Spivey
Photo of Danny with Robert Plant by Neal Preston

Most of us respect some sacred lineage. Even the most cynical among us have their rogue's gallery. Aldous Huxley wrote about the "Perennial Philosophy, "an obscure but ever present and continuous stream of well-written experiences with the extra-mundane. The diaries and manuals of climbers into other worlds. Usually showing up in small clusters, their society changing impacts were often posthumous: Shelley, Keats, Byron; Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman; Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs.

For some of us, rock music belongs in that lineage, laugh though you might (we do). In fact, never before in history had the pagan renaissance achieved such worldwide popularity. For many their first introductions to Rimbaud and Rumi were via the back cover of Patti Smith's Radio Ethiopia. David Bowie described reading "The Book of the Dead" poolside turned many a fan on to the bardo. The Beatles turned a whole generation Eastward and inward when they visited India.

Danny Goldberg has understood all the above since he was a kid in high school experiencing enlightenment in the works of Dylan, Lennon, and Joplin. Later he and his friends helping invent the fledgling rock business came up with the idea of Collective Conscience, a company that would teach corporations how to keep rock culture pure. Unfortunately they waited for phone calls that never came instead of forging a populist manifesto.

Danny has counted among his friends and clients Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain, Allen Ginsberg, Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks, Jim Carroll, Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, Sonic Youth; a who's who of great American musician writers and writer musicians. But Danny was more than a blessing to poets. Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Bonnie Raitt, Jewel, Hanson, Hootie and the Blowfish, some of the biggest bands and hits in rock history involved Mr. Danny G. Yet he still regrets finding no way to bring mass popularity to the MC5, or the New York Dolls.

Danny's new book "Bumping Into Geniuses" has most of what you'd expect from the biography of a music business legend. Interesting insider tips: my favorites come from old school publicity biz legend Lee Solter. Revealed history. Funny stories. Like Warren Zevon's reaction when told Ann Coulter was a fan. A sprinkling of bedroom gossip (Stevie! You go girl!), but there's much more to this book. It's the testament of a life lived surfing the great wave where popular culture rarely but thrillingly interfaces with the evolution of societies.

I won't tolerate anyone talking shit about Courtney. She is a great talent and a friend of mine and Kurt loved her. Of course, she has her own demons and I don't try to hide that but I try very hard in the book to convey their love for each other and how talented and smart she is.

[cover of "Bumping Into Geniuses"]

Media outlets today talk about how rap has replaced rock, and rock has lost all meaning except to a minority. In the media itself, on the surface of popular culture, perhaps. But there are fourteen year olds today who know more about Led Zeppelin than the boomers who were their fans, and they are as likely to be found in Mexico, Poland, Russia, Turkey, Japan, Malaysia, France, Italy, Germany, or Iran, as they are in the United States.

For true believers like them and me this book is a powerful talisman. It can be done. It has been done. This is how it happened. Proof, even, that on the other side of the fence in the corporate jungle, there exist good souls, true allies, who understand what it is we are trying to get at with that beat they tried to say came from the devil when it really comes from everything good.

Danny's book will delight fans of Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and Stevie Nicks with long and loving looks at the inside worlds of these iconic artists. Warts included, making them all the more lovable. Music business nerds like me will enjoy the portraits of all but lost music business freaks (when the noun was a compliment) like Bob Fass, pioneer DJ at WBAI, Paul Nelson the yippie who signed the New York Dolls, and one of my own icons, Jane Friedman who, with her company Wartoke. helped bring us the first Woodstock and the career of Patti Smith.

Danny's prose has a poetic cadence and callback that packs a surprising amount of information into a slim volume. Unafraid to let his enthusiasm shine, Danny provides an experience like the one Led Zeppelin and Nirvana gave him, a reminder of the excitement you felt when you heard that first song.

[Danny Goldberg today]

Tamra: So Danny, what was that first song that opened the heavens?

Danny: "Love Me I'm a Liberal" by Phil Ochs. A bit dated now but at the time it vividly conveyed the distinction between cold war democrats and anti-war radicals. As such it told me who I was and I liked it.

This interview is happening while the U.S. financial system is being restructured in the face of possible collapse, an erosion not unlike what you've witnessed in the music business where downloading and now the price of oil have cut deeply into the bottom line. Yet the internet and globalization have opened new frontiers to the music business. What do you think the future of the music business looks like?

The only thing I know for sure about the future of the music business is that concerts will thrive and survive as a business.

As a champion of so many powerful female artists, what's your take on Sarah Palin and the Republican party (great name for a punk band)?

Sarah Palin is anti-choice, predisposed toward more war, and supportive of economics that favor billionaires at the expense of everybody else. I wouldn't be for Clarence Thomas if he ran for president even though I'd like a non-white president and I couldn't support Palin for anything even though I acknowledge the need for more powerful women in politics.

Despite some exploitative spam making the rounds, you did not write that Courtney Love was responsible for Kurt Cobain and Nirvana's problems. How do you like being wildly misquoted?

The misquote was quickly corrected. I won't tolerate anyone talking shit about Courtney. She is a great talent and a friend of mine and Kurt loved her. Of course, she has her own demons and I don't try to hide that but I try very hard in the book to convey their love for each other and how talented and smart she is.

You're a manager who worked with arguably the two most legendary managers: Peter Grant of Led Zeppelin and Albert Grossman of Bob Dylan fame. I'm sure you're neither grabbing people asking "how's yer knob" nor delivering uberhip grunts, but did these men teach you more than what not to do?

They both taught me to value the power of the artist and never to be intimidated by corporations of any kind.

In your book "Dispatches From The Culture War" you discussed how the youth culture and progressive politics, once hitched to the same chariot, were each out in their own pastures. We were half way through Bush's two terms then, hoping there wouldn't be a second. Do you feel Obama has bridged this divide?

Yeah I feel Obama has done a great job of inspiring young people - much better than Gore or Kerry did. As you might imagine, I am to the left of Obama on many issues - I'm for single payer health insurance, for legalizing gay marriage everywhere, for a dramatic de-escalation of the drug war, and many other things he doesn't support. But the reality is we never get presidents who are on the cutting edge. Our job is to be on the cutting edge and move the center among plausibly electable candidates. Obama is the most exciting one since Bobby Kennedy - maybe more so.

A veteran of the ACLU and Air America you must have strong feelings about this election. Even more than the last presidential election this one exemplifies the culture war that is tearing America apart. If you could give advice to the Obama campaign what would it be?

I would urge the campaign to go that extra inch in terms of real progressive change, most of the public is ahead of most of the pundits.

You executive produced The Gits, Kerri Kane's critically acclaimed documentary about the band and the murder of Mia Zapata. You've been involved in classic rock films from The Song Remains the Same to No Nukes. Who do you wish you could make a film about?

I've always been fascinated by Harry Chapin. He gave so much of himself to fighting hunger so I love his activism and of course I love the work of Phil Ochs and the folk milieu of the early and mid sixties. Sean Penn was gonna make an Ochs movie but so far it hasn't happened.

As someone who stood at Woodstock and Max's Kansas City, with the state of the world and rock and roll today, what would you love to see happen?

An American system that subsidizes musical artists the way they do in Canada.

NYC rock legend Nitebob has two biographies. One he's shopping, the other only to be released after his death. You, too?

Nope - I'm Hindu enough so that anything that would embarrass me or anyone else while I'm alive would still embarrass me when this incarnation is over.

Is there anything you wish you hadn't put in the book? Anything you wish you had?

I wish I had put in a little more about Courtney's talent and intelligence to have inoculated a bit more the kind of nonsense you previously referred to. I wrote an extra sixty pages or so on the business that seemed too boring for a general reader. Maybe I'll put it back in for the paperback.

[Danny with Robert Plant by Neal Preston]

Tamra Spivey was Arts Editor and a Senior Editor of Newtopia Magazine. She is lead singer of Lucid Nation and associate producer of The Gits documentary.

Danny Goldberg
Gold Village Entertainment

Genius Magnet: An Interview with Danny Goldberg