Elliot Roberts RIP: An interview from 1993

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To mark the passing of one of rock’s great managers, here’s a shortish piece I wrote for MOJO in the summer of 1994 – a year after I interviewed Elliot (about Neil, Joni, David Geffen and much more) at his Santa Monica office for my L.A. book Waiting for the Sun. I enjoyed talking to Elliot, and interviewed him again in the noughties for Hotel California and my Tom Waits biog.

FEW OTHER artist/manager relationships have endured as long as the one between Neil Young and Elliot Roberts. It is nearly 30 years since the lanky, shambling singer first knocked on Roberts’s Laurel Canyon door and suggested he manage him as a solo artist. Nor has the former Elliot Rabinowitz forgotten that it was Young, along with his first charge Joni Mitchell, who helped him to establish a decisive foothold in the LA rock community of the early ’70s.

Like David Geffen, his partner in the formidable management company they established in 1970, Roberts was a graduate of the legendary William Morris mailroom in New York. But it was a young Canadian folk singer who proved to be Roberts’s passport out of the Bronx of his boyhood. Living in Greenwich Village, Elliot heard Joni Mitchell singing one night at the Cafe A Go Go and made up his mind there and then to dedicate his life to furthering her career. “I told her I’d kill for her, even though the folk period had died and she was totally against the grain,” he says. “We tried every company in New York, and everyone turned her down.” By 1967 the pair of them were living in the new pop mecca of Los Angeles – “strangers in a strange land”, as Mitchell recalled – and David Crosby was producing her debut album across the hall from Buffalo Springfield at Sunset Sound studios.

Already in disarray at this point, the Springfield were in the process of severing ties with their existing managers Charlie Greene and Brian Stone. It was only a matter of time before they approached Roberts and asked him to help them sort out their differences. When Young stormed out of the preliminary meeting to discuss this, it turned out to be a pretext for his leaving the band and persuading Roberts to manage him solo.

Roberts rapidly found himself at the hub of the coalescing Laurel Canyon scene, consisting of equal parts country-rock bands and confessional singer-songwriters.

“Here I am looking after Neil, and in the meantime I’m making Crosby’s deals, and everyone from Donovan to Mick Jagger is coming down to Joni’s sessions. Then Graham Nash comes to town with the Hollies, so Joni and Steve Stills and I go, and that night we invite Graham back to Joni’s house for this singfest. It was all so fast.” So fast, indeed, that Roberts saw no option but to call his razor-sharp agent pal David Geffen to sort out the various deals which led to the formation of Crosby, Stills & Nash.

One night the two men were driving through Laurel Canyon when Geffen turned to Roberts and said, “Listen, let’s just do this”. It was the start of the Geffen-Roberts empire, one which would take in the formation of the Asylum label and the signing of such hugely successful acts as Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles.

“We were very fortunate in that Joni and Neil drew great people to them like a magnet,” Roberts remembers. “They were totally uninterested in fame and money, yet they knew they were great artists, even when they were failing miserably.”

Asylum Records was literally that: an asylum for the ladies and gentlemen of the Canyon, most of them having affairs with each other and writing songs about them. The scene may have been incestuous but it undeniably produced some of the best music of the ’70s.

“Jackson was up the block, Joni was two houses down, Zappa lived on the corner,” says Roberts. “We really did all walk to the Canyon Country Store, smoking a joint together along Lookout Mountain Road.” What no-one could have anticipated was just how big these artists would become. From the Eagles scuffling at the Troubadour club in 1972 to the Eagles selling out vast arenas four years later was nothing short of a quantum jump.

The Geffen-Roberts empire was eventually broken up, with Irving ‘The Poison Dwarf’ Azoff making off with the Eagles and Geffen himself trying his luck in the movie business before launching the even more obscenely successful Geffen label in the early ’80s. Even Joni Mitchell changed management in the ’80s, entrusting her career to James Taylor/Linda Ronstadt producer Peter Asher. Only Neil Young stuck with the man whose taste and vision were so instrumental in shaping the sound of West Coast rock in the ’70s.

“Neil and I still have screaming fights all the time,” says Roberts, whose appearance suggests Woody Allen after 25 years in the warm California sun. “People were always very afraid of Neil, but he was actually very frail. He’s not any more, because he’s been training for years and he’s beefed up to 165 and he’s an axe murderer. But he sort of glared at people and they’d freeze. He was so intense, nothing was casual. But I never think of him as a Lone Wolf, because he’s a good friend and he’s very funny. And he’s very gracious. He likes to fail. He’s had a lot of bad breaks, bad relationships, and they’ve all affected what he does. It’s not like the art is separate from the life, it’s one and the same with Neil. He’s always Neil.”

Stan Lewis, 1927-2018

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In southern soul news: I confess I only just registered that Jewel/Paul/Ronn owner and Shreveport legend STAN LEWIS passed away a month ago.

Here’s a great shot my pal Muir Mackean snapped of Stan outside his record store, on the 1985 travels that produced (the newly-reissued) Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted… more detail at https://www.offbeat.com/news/stan-lewis-obituary/

Bearsville 1971

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From my Small Town Talk:

Less supportive [of Todd Rundgren] by this point was Michael Friedman, who was nurturing a new Bearsville artist named Jesse Frederick. “Todd didn’t appreciate anything, and I’d really stuck my neck out for him,” Friedman says. “I think he felt that I’d deserted him for Jesse, but I stopped being interested because he was pissing people off and I was putting my name on it. He was a good engineer, but I preferred John Simon’s productions. With Todd, everything was sort of molded after the Who and the British sound, which was a much harsher sound than the funky Southern blues style the Grossman artists were involved with.”

More appreciative than Rundgren, Frederick moved into Friedman’s house in Shady and began rehearsing for an album made at the same Nashville studio where Great Speckled Bird had been recorded. 1971’s Jesse Frederick—rootsier and more soulful than The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, though hardly as original—was the first Bearsville album released under the label’s new Warners deal, while the second was a soft-rock effort by three long-haired Christians calling themselves Lazarus, produced at Bearsville by Peter Yarrow.

The third in the Reprise 2000 series—not counting reissues of Rundgren’s first two albums and of Jesse Winchester—was by eccentric Los Angeles duo Halfnelson, produced by Rundgren after he’d been introduced to them by Miss Christine. When Grossman suggested they rename themselves the Sparks Brothers, Ron and Russ Mael reluctantly compromised on Sparks, though success only arrived when they later signed to Island in London.[1]

[1] Following the 1971 release of Halfnelson, Miss Christine left Rundgren for Russ Mael, the more conventionally handsome of the two Maels. She was the subject of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ unflattering “Christine’s Tune’ and a member of Frank Zappa’s protégées/nannies/groupies Girls Together Outrageously. In November 1972 she died of a heroin overdose.

Say it again: the return of my Country Soul tome

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The author copies of BMG’s “30th Anniversary” edition of my first book just showed up, complete with a foreword by country-soul king William Bell (right) dozens of previously-unseen photos taken in 1985 by my accomplice Muir Mackean. Here are the first few paras of the new introduction I wrote for it…

NAMED AFTER an extemporary yelp in the fadeout of Kip Anderson’s bereft 1968 single “I Went Off and Cried,” Say It One Time for the Brokenhearted was my first book. Revisiting it for the second time in 30 years, it feels, in places, as callow and earnest as I was myself at age 26, when I wrote it. I’d retroactively fallen in love with a sub-genre of American popular music that barely had a name, and I was close to evangelistic in my desire to turn people on to it.

The book’s original 1987 subtitle was The Country Side of Southern Soul, its cover sporting an awkward splice of a tuxedoed Ray Charles wearing a Stetson hat. (Tuxedo = soul, Stetson = country: you get the drift.) Brother Ray had, of course, been one of the prime movers in bringing black and white music together—he followed up his groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music albums from 1962 with the even more explicitly titled Country & Western Meets Rhythm & Blues, a.k.a. Together Again, in 1965—but not even he used the term “country soul,” which became part of the revised subtitle for Say It’s 1998 reissue and stays in place for this updated edition. I’m fairly sure I first encountered the phrase in Charlie Gillett’s groundbreaking history The Sound of the City (1970).

As I now look back to the early 1980s, when I first wrote about music for the NME, I ask myself why “country soul” got under my skin to such a degree that I decided to write a whole book about it. Naturally I loved the music, but there was more to it than that: something poetic, something almost mystical. Learning, as a schoolboy, that Aretha Franklin had recorded her breakthrough Atlantic single “I Never Loved a Man”/“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” in a tiny studio in (of all places) Alabama—engineered, moreover, by a local white man named Rick Hall—gave me a thrill and instilled a curiosity that led me on a long and winding journey to—well, the very studio where Franklin made that record…

Don’t delay: Buy Say It One Time for Brokenhearted here…