Nirvana manager’s book tells of life in the rock ‘n’ roll trenches

[8 October 2008]

By Patrick Macdonald

The Seattle Times (MCT)

SEATTLE—Danny Goldberg was the manager of Nirvana. In his long career in the music business, he also covered Woodstock for Billboard; did PR for Led Zeppelin; managed Bonnie Raitt and Warren Zevon, among others; headed two of the biggest record companies of the 1990s; and now runs Gold Village Entertainment, a management company that counts Steve Earle, the Hives and Tom Morello among its clients. His latest find: Care Bears on Fire, three 13-year-old girls from Brooklyn whom he hopes will be the next preteen faves, a la the Jonas Brothers.

In his new book, “Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business” (Gotham Books, 320 pp., $26), Goldberg tells of his adventures in the music business with insight, humor and compassion. In addition to working as a rock critic, publicity agent, record-company executive and manager, he became friends with many artists, including Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen.

In town doing publicity for the book last week, he talked about some of the artists he’s worked with, especially Kurt Cobain, whom he calls in the book “the greatest rock artist I would ever work with.”

On Kurt Cobain:

“Just to be in a room with him and watch the way he made decisions, the way he reacted to things, he was obviously a compartmentalized character. He had personal demons and well-publicized drug problems, and killed himself.

“But in his creative, professional mode he had this crystalline clarity about what he wanted to do that was really at another level than anything I had been exposed to before, in spite of the many, many successful artists that I worked with.

“He synthesized classic songwriting and musical chops with the punk ethos more completely than anyone else did.

“There’s no question that he was prone to deep depression before he was famous, there’s no question that he did heroin before he became famous, there’s no question that he had a very tough childhood that haunted him.

“I know one thing for sure: That he wanted to be successful, that he insisted on it. He came to L.A., no one made him. Plenty of artists from that punk scene didn’t come searching managers out, didn’t decide to go on major labels.

“The fact that he wanted success didn’t mean that he liked all the things he got when it happened. He loved the integrity of the punk culture and never wanted to betray it, and it pained him when he thought he was betraying it.

“I wish I had reached out to him a little more. I just keep thinking, maybe there was some kind of spiritual approach. I wish that I had somehow thought of something that would’ve kept him alive. Anybody who’s close to somebody who kills themselves does that to themselves. I can’t quite get over it, to be honest with you. I can rationalize that it’s not my responsibility, but emotionally I’ll always feel a little guilty about it.”

On Courtney Love:

“She’s certainly no saint, and had her own problems with drugs over the years, which did not bring about the best in her. But I believe certain things about her. One is, that he (Cobain) loved her very much. Two is, that she loved him. Three is, that she’s genuinely talented in her own right. Those things I’m clear about.

“I spent some time with her over the summer. She’s got some fantastic new songs. I hope she releases them. The songs are at least as good as anything she’s ever written, maybe the best things she’s ever written.

“Her voice is fine. Whatever she’s been through in her life, it hasn’t affected her ability to sing or write a good song.

“She’s not just a celebrity, she’s an artist. A complicated person, but as an artist, I 100 percent believe in her. On a personal level, she’s been a terrific friend to me.”

On Dave Grohl:

“Dave Grohl has beat the system in an inspiring way. I didn’t see that coming.

“My editor wanted me to tell more stories about him, but I didn’t have any. At meetings, he wouldn’t say much, except ‘I’m just the drummer.’

“He was a great, great drummer and a lovely, lovely guy, but I had no idea how talented he was until the Foo Fighters came along.

“He’s a great survivor. It’s a wonderful story. Not only does he make very good records, and give a lot of himself live, it’s a redemptive story.”

On Krist Novoselic:

“Krist is so serious about his political activism. So disciplined. I am so impressed with him. He’s like a policy wonk. He’s highly sophisticated. Not the image of the big bass player who threw the bass into the air and it hit him on the head. He is so serious. I admire him a lot.

“He’s chosen that path, I think, knowing that he couldn’t do what Dave can do, and he’s doing something very, very special.”

On Bonnie Raitt:

“She was at a low ebb when we started managing her. I thought she could do better than she was doing. She had a very good attitude about conquering her own demons. She cleaned up her act, stopped drinking and doing drugs, started exercising and lost 20 pounds, which she’s never regained.

“We got her on EMI and recorded ‘Nick of Time,’ which turned everything around for her, especially after it won four Grammys.

“Usually when someone wins a Grammy it’s sort of an exclamation point on a sentence that’s already been written. In that instance, it wrote like the whole second half of the sentence. I can’t think of another example where a Grammy meant that much in the career of an artist. It was a moment in time, and it was a complete shock. I never dreamed that was going to happen. And, believe me, neither did she. It put her on another level that she never really has come down from.”

On Patti Smith:

“I was 20 when I met her, and she was maybe two years older. And now I see her all the time because my wife has been her lawyer for the last decade, and she lives in my neighborhood in New York.

“It’s one of the joyous things in my life to have that length of time with her. I never actually worked with her, but she’s been my friend for close to 40 years. She is still capable of doing the most amazing things.”

On Bruce Springsteen:

“He’s unbelievably nice. And smart, of course. I tell that one story in the book (about him wanting to make hit records, and appeal to women) because it kind of fit my narrative, that even the artist with the most integrity, if they were successful, weren’t successful by accident but had some conscious desire to do so.”

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