December 13, 2012

PBS’s Inventing David Geffen

Not only did I know that I wasn’t one of the smart kids, so did everybody else. I feared that I’d never accomplish anything really wonderful, and that I’d have an incredibly ordinary and boring life, and it scared me. – David Geffen

David Geffen is not a subject every documentary nut might automatically run to. But it’s intriguing when someone who is normally press-shy decides to come forward and share his successes, hardships and mistakes. Geffen, the billionaire music and film mogul, is the subject of the latest in Susan Lacy’s stellar American Masters series on PBS, and the entire documentary is currently available to view for free on Thirteen’s website. Along with Geffen, it features dozens of his colleagues and past and present clients including Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Clive Davis, Steven Spielberg, Elton John and other amazing characters from the music industry such as these two guys:

johnkalodner

geffendude

Geffen’s astonishing career began, as these things tend to, in a mail room, and has torn through the film and music industries, redefining how each was run in the process. Sitting down to watch this documentary feels something like cracking open a self-help book that everyone you know has fallen head over heels for: How to Become One of the Richest People in America By Only Doing Things Your Way by David Geffen. You might hope for a lightbulb to go off in your head somewhere between Geffen’s fond discussion of his hard-working Ukrainian immigrant mother and his realization that he knew how to, as he puts it, “bullsh– on the phone.” Even if you don’t come away from this two-hour experience deciding that you will not tolerate underpaid blogging or data entry one day longer and that your destiny is to be a, I don’t know, Broadway songwriter, you will come away enlightened (and if you’re a documentary-watching purist, you may not want to read on until you watch the documentary, as this review contains some descriptions of the enlightening things you’ll find therein).

I’ve always thought that each person invented himself. For whatever reasons, through whatever circumstances, through whatever he’s gone through, that we are each a figment of our own imagination, and some people have a greater ability to imagine than others. – D.G.

When Geffen was 18, his father died. He was told by his mother, who owned a clothing store in Borough Park, Brooklyn, “You’d better learn to love to work, because we have no money, and you’re going to be working the rest of your life.” All Geffen knew at that point was that he loved movies and wanted to get the hell out of Brooklyn. He went to California, slept on his brother’s couch in L.A., got fired from lots of jobs, played an extra in a movie, and was told by a film industry woman that since he professed to have no talents, he should become an agent. He moved back to New York and got a job at William Morris, mostly because he wrote on his application that he had graduated from UCLA (he never attended college). Working in the mail room, Geffen was able to intercept the letter from UCLA notifying William Morris that he had never been a student there.

It’s that kind of wily attitude that seemed to propel Geffen. He figured out how the William Morris machine worked by eavesdropping on conversations and learning to read private memos upside down. Soon, he was going out every night looking for talent, and by the age of 27, he had moved back to L.A. and co-founded Asylum Records, the home of Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, The Eagles and numerous others, with Elliot Roberts, who had been Joni Mitchell’s manager.

Geffen’s good taste and understanding of his musicians’ sensibilities were just as important as his ability to win an argument – to push for bigger venues, bigger advances and bigger royalties, which was certainly not the typical approach by record label executives at the time. It’s clear that Geffen genuinely loved the music he supported, and maybe some very small part of him wanted to be on the stage too. But early on in his adult life, he seemed instinctively to know not to try on too many hats – that his role was to be the mentor, the “dad,” not the star. (Jackson Browne once called him the “Medici of rock ‘n roll.”)

A few years into Asylum Records, both running a label and managing many of its artists, Geffen did become disillusioned, feeling that his round-the-clock efforts were not appreciated by his increasingly demanding clients. The expression, “I’ve created a monster” comes to mind, especially during the scene when Geffen recounts being forced to bring the Eagles marijuana from California to New York and getting arrested at LAX in the process. But eventually the consolation prize – to paraphrase Geffen, his artists were getting rich, but he was getting filthy rich – started to look pretty favorable.

I don’t think people get to be successful without ambition. And I don’t think people get to be successful unless they have very strong egos. But I don’t see either of those words, either ambition or ego, as pejorative words. – D.G.

Geffen entered intensive therapy for three years in his early thirties, and around that time seemed to realize something that a lot of us find hard to accept: no career is completely fulfilling, and even one that occupies most of your waking hours, as his does, can’t be expected to. When Geffen became a billionaire after holding on to his second label, Geffen Records, for as long as possible, he found that he still didn’t want to stop working. “The thing I didn’t know about myself is that I would never stop,” he says. “Work was more fun.”

But here’s what “fun” involves for Geffen: being ruthless, restless, hungry, demanding, competitive, persuasive and stubborn. “Showbusiness…it doesn’t happen to guys from Brooklyn,” remarks one of Geffen’s childhood friends. But maybe a guy from Brooklyn is exactly what showbusiness needed. As one colleague at Geffen Records notes, “He always trying to get everybody to be looking down the hall at what the next guy was doing.” This certainly had the right effect. “You know,” adds the colleague, “At any given point in time, one of us would be having a big success.”

Inventing David Geffen includes a long segment about how Geffen, once loyal to the Clintons, very visibly turned his back on them when President Clinton enacted Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (Geffen is gay). This highly influential person helped cause the downfall Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. You can only applaud Geffen for sticking to his guns when Bill Clinton wouldn’t.

I came away from Inventing David Geffen both inspired and flummoxed. I still don’t really understand how one person can accomplish all that he has. But here’s a good starting point: back in the ’70s, while in therapy, Geffen asked his therapist how to “get rid of the voices in my head.” The therapist replied, in that obvious yet mind-blowing way that therapists often do, “You’ll never get rid of them. Never. Your job is not to listen to them.” TC mark

image – [PBS]

Liz Colville

Liz is a writer based in New York City. She has written for The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Pitchfork, New York