In an industry replete with narcissists, megalomaniacs and crybabies, Clive Davis stands head and shoulders above the crowd. In his new autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life, Clive sets new standards for transparent self-aggrandizing, at one point comparing himself to another legendary mogul — Moses.
The Soundtrack of My Life is actually Clive’s second autobiography. The first, Clive: Inside The Record Business was published in 1975. The story of that volume is retold in the latest, which once again starts in a log cabin in Brooklyn. One of the most enjoyable sections comes early when Davis describes how he got into the music business (he was an associate in a law firm that handled legal affairs for the Columbia Music Club and was brought in by then Columbia Records general counsel Harvey Shein), his quick rise to the Presidency, the fateful trip to the Monterey Music Festival that resulted in Janis Joplin wanting to bang him, his singlehanded popularization of stereo sound, creating jazz fusion by suggesting that Miles Davis incorporate elements of rock into his music, teaching Bruce Springsteen how to move on stage and his subsequent banishment on the horns of a plugola/payola/bar mitzvah scandal. Clive is, and always has been, very defensive about his dismissal and the ensuing high profile government prosecution. He’s been on a mission for the last 40 years to clear his name. It is kind of his personal Moby Dick. Author Anthony DeCurtis is commended for capturing Clive’s voice while toning down his native imperiousness. That doesn’t last very long though, but while reading this chapter I actually felt sympathy for Clive.
Where the book starts to depart from its predecessor is when Clive is hired by Columbia Pictures head Allan Hirschfield to run the company’s record label, Bell Records. It didn’t take long for Clive to remake the label in his own image, rechristen it Arista Records, and later sell to Bertelsmann AG of Germany. Here is where the book turns into a long slog, a music business War and Peace, if you like. Starting with Barry Manilow, Clive rattles on for hundreds of pages in what can best be described as “Billboard speak”. It feels as if you’re reading a combination of trade magazine reports, album liner notes and record label copy. Speaking throughout the book in superlatives, Clive recounts how he picked almost every hit song every Arista artist ever had, where he found the song, who wrote it, who produced it, which radio stations broke the record, every chart position and sales figures. It’s mind numbing.
The book gets a little more interesting when Clive addresses the period at the turn of the century when his Bertelsmann bosses tried to force him into retirement (company policy dictated a retirement age of 60. Clive was 68 at the time.) He takes the opportunity to settle some scores with BMG Entertainment CEO Michael Dornemann, who he refers to as an “efficiency expert”, and BMG North America CEO Strauss Zelnick, whom he accuses of wanting to get Clive out of the way so that he, Zelnick, could rub elbows with the stars. The plan backfired and Clive , who says he “takes no pleasure” in telling the story, gleefully recounts that he ended up head of BMG in the US while Dornemann and Zelnick both were fired. Clive complains that Dornemann looked upon him as an employee while Clive saw himself as a partner with “phantom equity”. Bertelsmann is, always has been and will continue to be a private company held by the Mohn family trust in Germany. There is no stock. By definition, there is no phantom equity. According to sources intimately involved with Arista and BMG , “The Germans couldn’t stand Clive because he treated them with absolutely no respect whatsoever. They left him alone and endured his massive overspending but Clive always felt that he was the owner of the business and not an employee. The Bertelsmann guys just could not understand his attitude, especially since they paid him a huge salary, sometimes more than Arista actually made every year in profits. It drove Clive crazy that he never had the big billion dollar score like Geffen or Clive Calder. He was always trying to make up for it in his contract negotiations, which went on continually.”
It’s clear that Clive only cares about hit singles. A hit is not enough though–it has to be Number 1. That’s his whole MO. He comes across as having little regard for album sales, pinning everything to the single. That’s fine, but the downside is that you don’t make money from singles. Clive would argue that in order to have big album sales you need hit singles. That’s not always true, even in Clive’s case. Once, when Clive was on vacation, a sales exec saw that an album from a particular artist had stopped selling, though the single was selling well. In an attempt to boost the album sales, he made the correct decision to cut out the single and the album’s sales immediately doubled. When Clive returned from vacation, he called the exec into his office and started screaming “You cost me a Number 1 single!” The exec responded, “But Clive, album sales went from 200,000 to 400,000 when we cut out the single.” Clive just kept screaming he didn’t care. It cost him his Number 1 single.
Repeatedly going into detail about how he was the driving creative force behind all of his successes at Arista, Clive continues to blow more smoke up his ass. The artists who didn’t make it didn’t listen to his advice, or the public just didn’t get it. With a couple of notable exception of album artists like Patti Smith and Annie Lennox, if an artist wanted to have success they had to do whatever Clive said, and all too frequently that didn’t work. Remember Curtis Stigers and Deborah Cox? How about the Jeff Healey Band or Taylor Dayne? Not a lot of big catalog sellers. At one point he recounts sitting in an opera box at an MTV Awards show watching a stirring performance by Alicia Keys. At the dramatic finish, the crowd burst into a standing ovation–for him. You can’t help but feel Arista were merely vessels for Clive’s creativity, to hear Clive tell it. He is the Señor Wences of the music industry. If you don’t believe it, just ask Kelly Clarkson who publicly checked Clive’s account of their working relationship .
He finally does deal with the Milli Vanilla fiasco is finally dealt with in the book. The duo was exposed as a fraud after winning a Grammy for Best New Artist of 1989. Clive flatly denies that anyone at Arista knew that Rob and Fab had not sung on their Arista US debut album, Girl You Know It’s True. He claims he found out along with the rest of the world when the group publicly admitted at a press conference in November of 1990 that they were not the singers on the Milli Vanilli recordings. But according to sources at Arista at the time, Frank Farian, the German producer/songwriter/creator of Milli Vanilla, revealed the truth to Arista senior executives at least 6 months earlier when he delivered the group’s follow-up album. Clive was aware of this revelation, but planned to release the album nonetheless because it had “too many hit singles”. Clive also rewrites the history of Carly Simon’s career reviving 1987 HBO concert Live From Martha’s Vinyard. He takes full credit for the idea, as does Tommy Mottola in his recent dud of a memoir. Highly placed sources tell me that the whole thing was in fact the brainchild of Arista creative services director Ken Levy, who had worked very closely with Simon for years. Clive and Tommy conveniently forget Levy ever existed.
It becomes apparent that Clive has practically no life whatsoever outside of business. Thus, you really don’t get to know the man. It’s all about the chart numbers and hit singles. We don’t know if he has any outside interest or hobbies. We do learn that he loves his family very much. And we do learn about his sexuality. This has been the big publicity hook but let’s face it: Clive’s sexuality is the worst kept secret in show business. Many feel that he chose to come out at this time because a) it’s no big deal anymore; b) it would help sell books. As one Clive acquaintance told me, “Clive doesn’t do anything unless it benefits him in some way”. Cynical, yes. But I have to give him credit. I truly believe that it takes some amount of courage for an 80 year-old man to publicly come out about his 2 long-term relationships with other men, especially as one obsessed with his image as Clive. He certainly doesn’t break new ground, but it’s one of the few times in the book where Clive shows the faintest hint of being human.
With the Sony-BMG merger, Clive was kicked upstairs, given an invented title of Chief Creative Officer, and now works with a small handful of Sony Music artists, mostly holdovers from his Arista days like Jennifer Hudson and Aretha Franklin. He’s no longer the driving force he may have once been. It’s become clear that the industry has passed him by. Who writes a book about the industry these days and doesn’t discuss the digital revolution or its effect on the business? Clive mentions it only in passing. He seems concerned now only about getting his name on buildings, polishing his legacy. He’s seems to be very proud that his annual pre-Grammy party has upstaged the actual event itself to the degree that NARAS was almost forced to share the spotlight by co-sponsoring the event. When talking about the gala, Clive sounds like a cross between Swifty Lazar, Ed Sullivan and the wedding planner played by Martin Short in Father of the Bride. He loves that party.
But let’s be clear: Clive is excellent at what he does and is absolutely passionate about the music. He deserves a lot of credit and has accomplished a lot. These accomplishments can’t be denied, no matter what you may think of him as a person. However the book could have easily been subtitled, The World According to Clive. I just kept expecting the last page to read “And on the seventh day I rested.”