Clive Davis is not the sort of man who sits around waiting to be canonized. Like everything else in his storied five-decade career in the music business, Davis decided to do the dirty work himself. If you want something done right …
So we have the 586-page weighty tome that is “The Soundtrack of My Life,” an often incisive, but decidedly nonbawdy tour through Davis’ life in music, its highs, its lows, and its singular displays of relentless tenacity. But just as Davis rather studiously approached his career, turning a lack of background in (and technical understanding of) music into a plus, and employing his reportedly charming personality in order to lead artists down a path of his choosing as much as their own, so does Davis oversee the telling of his own story.
In other words, as fascinating as “Soundtrack” is, we can be assured that we are reading only what Clive wants us to read, nothing more and nothing less.
It would not be difficult to view Davis’ autobiography as a monument erected by himself, in his own honor, and to his own glory. His ego appears to be abundantly healthy, as is apparent even in the early chapters reporting on his pre-music business life, and his sense of his own place in 20th century popular music a less than humble one.
Yet Davis doesn’t truly ever gild the lily here, even though he provides himself with ample opportunity to do so. It would in fact be difficult to overestimate Davis’ stature in the pop music world, particularly during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, a time period during which he worked with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Patti Smith, the Kinks, Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead, Luther Vandross, Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston. For most of these artists, Davis served as much more than mere record label head. In many cases, he discovered the artists, signed them, nurtured them, subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) directed their artistic decisions, and developed what certainly seems to be a genuine affection (if not out and out love) for them.
We learn that young Clive had it tough – he was orphaned by the time he’d become a teenager, and lived in poverty, managing to earn full scholarships to both New York University and Harvard Law School by sheer force of will. He ended up as a lawyer for Columbia Records, but circumstance – and the tutelage of Columbia president Goddard Lieberson – meant that he all but stumbled into a position as company president within a short period of time. And then he was off and running, his complete lack of knowledge concerning exactly what he was doing serving as no hindrance to his self-belief. Attending the Monterey Pop Festival as possibly the most clean-cut, straight-laced white man on the festival grounds, he fell hard for Janis Joplin, and had an epiphany – this would be his life, this ability to turn gut feelings and a sense of music’s power to simultaneously capture and elevate the zeitgeist into multiplatinum careers for the artists he chose, and a steady ascendancy in the business for himself.
Well, mostly steady.
He was run out of Columbia at the height of his success during a payola probe that sounds, at least in Davis’ telling, much more like a witch hunt than a legitimate attempt to unearth any corporate wrongdoing. Unceremoniously fired from the label he’d all but singlehandedly transformed from bit player into industry leader, Davis then had no choice but to sit silently by while his name was dragged through the muck in a sort of trial-by-media. He was ultimately exonerated from charges of wrongdoing, but Davis’ bristling anger all but leaps from the page as he recounts this challenging era of his life.
Unsurprisingly, Davis landed on his feet, started Arista records, and carried on discovering, signing, breaking, and mentoring artists in just about every imaginable idiom of music, from adult contemporary pop (Barry Manilow) to the pop-R&B blend that would explode in the ’80s with the Davis protégé Whitney Houston, and come to define in a large part every decade since. (Houston is unquestionably the template for the contemporary diva, matched in stylistic impact only by Madonna.)
Without ever stooping to the level of “I told you so,” Davis employs the breadth of “Soundtrack” to repeatedly pat himself on the back. Even if he is completely justified in doing so, it can all be a bit much. But if Davis did it, we hear about it.
He might be rejoicing over spotting Pink Floyd prior to their massive commercial successes and signing them away from Capitol for a then-incredibly generous $250,000 advance, (“After the group’s deal with Capitol ended in 1974, the albums Pink Floyd released on Columbia included ‘Wish You Were Here,’ ‘Animals,’ and ‘The Wall.’ Needless to say, that $250,000 became an incredible investment,” says Davis, though apparently it wasn’t “needless to say,” because he said it.) or recalling how he brought Earth Wind & Fire to the masses after hiring the band to play the yearly Columbia sales convention (“It never surprised me that the band became such an international phenomenon … Earth, Wind & Fire went on to sell well over 15 million albums for Columbia during their years for the label, and created music that eventually led to their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.”)
Whatever the scenario, the reader can rest assured that the hero of the anecdote will be Davis.
Thing is, Davis was a hero in the recording business – and as he goes to great lengths to point out in the book’s latter bits, is hardly retired today. As Chief Creative Officer of Sony Music Entertainment, Davis is currently at work on new projects with Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana and Jennifer Hudson, all of whom are artists owing Davis a certain degree of gratitude for past successes.
Anyone thinking of entering what’s left of the record business should treat “The Soundtrack of My Life” as a sacred text, or at least a scholarly textbook. Davis practically invented the record business as we knew it from the late ’60s up through the invention of file-sharing. His taste during this time was mostly impeccable. (Though this writer is hardly alone in suggesting that Davis has something to answer for regarding those dreadful albums of Great American Songbook standards he talked Rod Stewart into recording. Ugh!) Unquestionably, Davis has bountiful wisdom to share, and he does so here with charm and charisma.
Readers less interested in the inner workings of the music business and more in gossip, inside dirt and behind-the-scenes naughtiness might find this dense work far less engaging. Aside from a rather off-hand, late-in-the-book outing of himself as a bisexual who has been involved in “a strong monogamous relationship for the past seven years” – Davis drops this bomb out of nowhere, failing to connect the dots between two lengthy marriages to women and the fathering of four children with them, and the “sudden” shift in sexual orientation – the author rather heroically refuses to dish any dirt. That’s to his credit.
Though Davis’ rather wonderful memoir was certainly not intended as such, “Soundtrack” does indeed feel a bit like a love-letter to a time that is perhaps irrevocably lost to us. The glory days of the record business for which Davis and a handful of others acted as architects are gone now. Guys like Davis - curious, passionate men who, though they clearly want to make money, have a genuine love for music and want to put the artist’s work ahead of the concerns of board members and stockholders- don’t really exist at the major label level.
So the “Soundtrack” of his life is not likely to resemble the soundtrack of anyone under 30 who might happen upon Davis’ book. And that’s a plain shame.
The Soundtrack of My Life
By Clive Davis with Anthony DeCurtis
Simon & Schuster
586 pages; $30
Jeff Miers is The News’ pop music critic.