The Way the Music Died: Memoirs of a Corporate Crime

Exploding:

The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group , by

Stan Cornyn with Paul Scanlon. Harper Entertainment, 470 pages, $39.95.

Stan Cornyn started out writing liner notes for Sinatra, back

when the charts were crowded with the likes of Andy Williams and Steve &

Eydie-comfort music for adults who had no pretensions to taste-and the suits

saw rock ‘n’ roll as little more than hillbilly gibberish laid on top of a

migraine. Mr. Cornyn worked for the legendary Jack Warner, one of a

hardscrabble litter of kids from Youngstown, Ohio, known as the Warner

brothers, and a classic American showbiz vulgarian: Warner sucked back his osso

bucco, puffed Cubans and calmly screwed his brothers out of their share of the

family business. The Beatles hadn’t broken stateside, and Warner’s idea of a

“youth market” was Connie Stevens mewing “You’re the maximum utmost” to a

greaser nicknamed Kookie, begging him to “Lend Me Your Comb.” Then the tsunami

hit, taking everyone, squares and all, with it. Even Mr. Cornyn-something of an

osso-bucco guy himself-remembers venturing down to the Haight to help sign a

bunch of ruffians known as the Grateful Dead. Hey, don’t drink the punch!  

Exploding: The Highs, Hits,

Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group is Mr. Cornyn’s

account of his 30-some-odd years in the record business as a promotion man. He

picked the right 30 years. Jack Warner had turned to music in the late 50’s as

a growth driver, and set about building a label out of thin air. Nonsense like

Kookie and a young comedian named Bob Newhart kept the enterprise breathing

until the youth movement exploded, and Warner caught lightning in a bottle by

snapping up the right independent labels. By the time Stan Cornyn retired,

everything had come full circle-global blockbusters like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and the Eagles’ Hotel California proved rock could be as

formulaic and soothing as Vic Damone and yet qualify as youth music. Jack

Warner’s massive Hollywood hilltop estate passed to David Geffen, jeans-clad,

pumice-smooth and every bit as lethal as Jack Warner. A revolution in taste,

and a revolution in business mores, had been completed.

So what day did the music die? Buddy Holly? John Lennon? Kurt

Cobain? Having read Exploding , my

pick is Ruth Brown. Her career fell between the great torch chanteuses of the

30’s and 40’s-Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday-and the rhythm-and-blues giants

of the 50’s and 60’s, like Etta James and Aretha Franklin. Ruth Brown cut some

tremendous sides-“So Long,” her first, and Atlantic’s second hit ever, remains

a corker to this day-and she charted frequently enough for Atlantic to be

referred to as “the house that Ruth built.” But by 1965, Atlantic had seen the

writing on the wall; it spelled “CLAPTON IS GOD.” The label shed its R&B

portfolio and started signing the second wave of great British acts (various

Clapton supergroups) and the big fish (the New Yardbirds, soon to be re-named

Led Zeppelin). Rock was transforming the label into a giant corporate entity,

and its founder, Ahmet Ertegun, from a blues enthusiast into a tycoon. Mr.

Ertegun sold out to Warner and partied with the junk aristocracy of rock’s

burgeoning jet set. To make ends meet, Ruth Brown went to work as a maid.

And yet Mr. Ertegun remains one of the heroes of this story.

True, the “rock” that enticed Warner to buy Atlantic was just “rock” and no

longer “rock ‘n’ roll.” It had lost much of its connection to black music; it

was by whites and mostly for whites, often lofty and “progressive”-that is to

say, arty and forced-in ways rhythm and blues never would be (the two big

exceptions are Hendrix and Sly Stone.) But in jazz, the polarities were

reversed: Whites were more often the crowd-pleasing “trads”-Bill Evans’

heavenly piano, Stan Getz’s lush playboy tenor sax-while blacks were the

“progs.” Both Coltrane and Mingus recorded visionary works on Atlantic, which

produced a delicious irony: Zeppelin fans, laying out their hard-earned lawn-mowing

money for Physical Graffiti , were

subsidizing some of the most mature American music ever made. To account for

the schizophrenia of the Atlantic catalog, Mr. Ertegun spun an ad hoc theory:

“You have to develop a second ear. The first ear is your private taste, which

is what moves you personally. The second ear is one that, when you listen to a

piece of music and you personally think it’s terrible but it’s a hit

commercially-the second ear has to say, ‘This is great!’ The second ear, if

it’s good, is in tune with the taste of the public.”

Ahmet Ertegun is the most compelling character in Exploding -which is very revealing. If

Mr. Cornyn’s book often reads like a succulent reheated hash of other people’s

stories, it’s because his protagonist, Warner Music Group, was itself only a

conglomerate built out of other people’s independent labels. W.M.G. deserves

credit for betting on the indies, but what Mr. Cornyn chronicles is a series of

dilutions-of Atlantic, Elektra, Sire, Interscope (each corresponding to a trend

in music: R&B, singer/songwriter, punk/New Wave, hip-hop)-within the larger

W.M.G. culture. The repeated narrative arc is straight out of Pynchon: dynamism

on the margins, a rise to popular dominance, a descent into corporate entropy.

Throughout, W.M.G. remains impossible to personalize or romanticize: From Al

Jolson on, it was only a machine for manufacturing profit. (Offered Margaret

Mitchell’s best-seller Gone with the Wind ,

Jack Warner growled, “Civil War crap, cast of thousands. We’re not in the

business of making big movies, we’re in the business of making big money.”)

That’s just the nature of a corporation: Atari and Buns of Steel become growth engines; the once legendary music

division flatlines and is eventually dismantled, as coolly as Atlantic once

dropped Ruth Brown.

Villainy aside, two quotes from Exploding call for comment. When the legendary producer Jerry

Wexler retired from Atlantic, frustrated with how rigged and faceless the

recording industry had become, Mr. Ertegun mused, “It is a mistake to invest

the music we recorded with too much importance … it isn’t classical music, and

it cannot be interpreted in the same way. It’s more like the old Fred Astaire

movies: They’re fun, but they’re not great art.” Later, in a warmer temper, Mr.

Ertegun’s protégé David Geffen spit forth: “Bob Dylan is as interested in money

as any person I’ve known in my life. That’s just the truth.” Each is an obvious

case of defensive self-pleading. Both, nonetheless, point to a silliness on the

part of rock snobs: their boundless appetite for anti-commercial authenticity,

and their need to graft the highfalutin notion of posterity onto an art form

that’s often evanescent and manipulative. Is Bob Dylan in it for the money? Or

is he our Keats?

Having inspired more deadbeat rhapsody than any other artist

going, Mr. Dylan now inspires endless cynicism about his real motives. He makes

it easy, kissing up to Sony records honcho Tommy Mottola at the Academy Awards

while the rest of us get that sour eye, like he’s choosing between you and a

rat’s ass. Nonetheless, the temptation to explain away Robert Zimmerman as a

charlatan or epic fiend comes from the same place as the rhapsodies. When you

hear that voice singing “Girl from the North Country” (or when Louis Armstrong

solos, or when Bill Evans makes a piano float), something inside you collapses

like a house of cards. The two ears align, the aura of exploitation running

throughout the music business lightens, and every dour prediction about mass

culture is sent running for cover. At just these moments, we-all of us- have a culture. It’s cruel to think it

can’t last.

Stephen

Metcalf writes for Slate , The New

Republic and The Nation.