Want to learn something new about music mogul Clive Davis? Well, as of Feb. 19, there’s Davis’ new book written with veteran Rolling Stone writer Anthony deCurtis, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” which offers 608 pages of reflections by the former head of Columbia, Arista and J Records, and now chief creative officer for Sony Music.
That volume is already generating plenty of media interest, in no small part to Davis’ revelation that he is bisexual -- a topic that doesn’t crop up in another new tome released last month, “Clive: Working for the Man in the Age of Vinyl.”
It’s labeled “a memoir,” and rightfully so, because despite the placement of Davis’ name so prominently in the title, it’s really less any sort of analysis or expose about the record industry titan than a soul-searching reflection by author Don Silver, who spent two years in the late '70s and early '80s working for Davis as he was building Arista into a pop and R&B powerhouse after being fired from Columbia.
At just over 100 pages, Silver’s book is nowhere near the kind of exhaustive look at a life and career that Davis' book is. Half of the book has gone by before Silver even gets hired at Arista, the outcome of an intense lobbying campaign on the part of the self-described rock music obsessive and supremely frustrated musician.
Silver landed a job at 22 with Arista in the artists and repertoire department -- the talent discovery and development part of the company. He periodically drops in his assessments of Davis, who helped guide so many careers over the last half century, from Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead to Barry Manilow, Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys.
Sometimes he expresses sincere admiration: “Clive Davis was the consummate song man… He could somehow hear and react to everything going on in a record simultaneously on first listen and speak directly to its strengths and weaknesses.”
And there are confessions of disillusionment about the man Silver admired in his youth and went to work for hoping to find a true mentor, someone who shared his passion for popular music as art but who had the vast body of experience that could guide a young apprentice.
“At this point in his career, pretty much all Clive cared about were hits,” Silver writes. “Even if I sent him something original, innovative, virtuosic, whether it would be received or reviewed favorably, or played on jazz or album-oriented FM radio, was amazing live or blazed a new trail in music, unless a Top 40 hit could be found, he passed.
“It may have been different in the '60s and early '70s, but by the time I got there, if Clive didn’t think a record was going to sell briskly, he wasn’t interested.”
And there's outright criticism of Davis’ much lauded business instincts: “A fair amount of time he guessed wrong, sometimes fatuously going on and on (for example) about how music videos and MTV, which had just launched, would fail and disappear. We used to joke that the only reason Clive supported the shift from vinyl to CDs was because the new technology bore his initials.”
Ultimately, however, “Clive: Working for the Man in the Age of Vinyl” is about a young music fan’s search for self, with some glimpses at others behind the curtain who were working with Davis. Silver explores the great era of excess in the music business: “This was New York City in the 1980s and sex and drugs were everywhere… Virtually everyone in the music business did blow.”
Silver charts his own alienation from his early, idealistic self through his dispiriting time working in a business created to commercialize art. “In retrospect," he writes, “I can see the absurdity of searching for an answer in the workplace and also how the freight of that expectation would be too much for any person to carry.”
Over the course of the sometimes disjointed, episodic narrative, Silver finds his way back to a grounding in love of music with a touching reunion with a boyhood friend, eventually channeling his own artistic drive into writing rather than music-making. (Silver’s debut novel, “Backward-Facing Man,” received some enthusiastic reviews upon its publication in 2005.)
He even includes a photo of himself and two friends with their guitars and a mandolin several years ago at the annual Merlefest folk music festival in North Carolina. Silver beams a smile that suggests he’s happily abandoned the struggle to, as another writer once put it, “try to tell a stranger 'bout rock 'n' roll.”
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