It was a hot day in August of 1971, and five young men (in their birthday suits) sat in a sauna in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. Four of them were musicians. Three were about to meet unimaginable success, and two were out-of-towners who had come to California to find fame, glory, and, obviously, girls. They were slim, good looking, and talented.
But there was one in the quintet, who owned the sauna. He was a short, skinny kid who moved from New York to L.A. to make it in the industry as an agent. David Geffen, the future billionaire Hollywood mogul, sat there that day, next to Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Jackson Browne and Ned Doheny, telling them about his plans for his own record label. “I want to keep Asylum very small,” he announced. “I’ll never have more artists than I can fit in this sauna.” I’ll call that the understatement of the century. (But, hey, at least he was being modest).
Two decades later, David Geffen sold his second label, the one he named after himself, for a sweet $550 million. It was around the same time that The Eagles’ (under his label) first greatest hits album was declared the biggest-selling album of all time. You could say that Geffen was in the right place at the right time.
Two major things happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s in California. First, it was the dawn of the singer-songwriter era, filled with epic tales of music, sunshine, drugs, talent, and greed. But there was also a scene that swirled around the navel-gazers and hippie millionaires of the L.A. canyons. There was the whole business side of things, the side that made people like Geffen filthy, filthy rich.
You have probably heard stories about Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, David Crosby, Gram Parsons, and the countless relationships, both professional and personal, that took place between these artists. You know, the love affairs they had, the drugs and parties, and the decadent journey they took from hippies with acoustic guitars to coked-out stadium superstars.
As massive as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and The Eagles were, there’s space to add the people – the movers and shakers – who shaped these artists’ careers. And in this case, it’s all about that boy from Brooklyn who came to Hollywood to make it big – bigger than he ever imagined.
At the beginning of the ‘60s, the music industry was still centered in New York, whose natives saw L.A. as strange and unsophisticated at best. But the years between 1960 and 1965 saw a remarkable shift. Soon enough, the look and sound of southern California started taking over, replacing Manhattan as the hub of pop music in America.
For one, famed producer Phil Spector took his talents to L.A. and basically blew up the teen-pop realm to new and epic proportions. Captivated by Spector, The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson wrote silky smooth melodies to match the beach and car culture that reinvented the Golden State as the teenage paradise that it became. It wasn’t long after that that other L.A. producers started following suit.
In the mid‘60s, singles from L.A. were occupying the No. 1 spot for impressively long amounts of time – a stark contrast from New York’s radio pop scene. Record company execs in New York started commuting regularly between the East and West Coasts, scoping out the industry scene.
“We’d picked over the East Coast pretty well,” said Jac Holzman of the Elektra label. “L.A. was less the Promised Land than the untilled field.” And when it came to harvesting and thus profiting from such untouched, fertile land, no one did it better than David Geffen. And his story is one for the history books…
Geffen grew up in blue-collar Brooklyn. He was the skinny kid with big dreams of money, fame, and power. He was 17 when his father (who cut patterns) died, leaving him with his mother, who sold girdles, was his No. 1 fan, and called him “King David.” He visited Los Angeles for the first time in 1961, staying with his brother Mitchell, then a student at UCLA.
“From the day I arrived,” he recalled, “California seemed like an enchanted land.” In 1964, however, he was still in New York, working a mail room job at the William Morris talent agency. He lied about having UCLA references of his own and steamed open a letter from the college denying that he had ever studied there.
Elliot Roberts, an agent at William Morris, witnessed Geffen steaming open other letters – Geffen’s way to get jump-starts on the goings-on in the company. To Geffen, it was drive and ruthlessness; to others, it was appalling. To Roberts, however, it was thrilling. Soon enough, Geffen was climbing the talent agency ladder.
As the music industry was changing by the mid-‘60s, and pop was making more and more money, William Morris started bringing in the kind of long-haired musicians that the agency had most likely despised only a few years earlier. But Geffen was the right guy to deal with such emerging talent. “Stay with people your own age,” senior agent Jerry Brandt told him. “Go into the music business.”
The thing is, though, at the time, Geffen knew very little about music. One of his first artists was a singer named Laura Nyro, and he’d never heard of her. Nyro was kind of like a Gothic Cass Elliott, and she was quickly won over by Geffen’s infectious enthusiasm. When she bombed at the Monterey Pop Festival, for instance, he rushed to comfort her.
For at least two years, Geffen found himself jetting back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. In NY, he lived in a chic apartment on Central Park South; in L.A., he stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel. With his connections, Geffen managed to get Nyro in the studio and on the map.
He worked as both her agent and publisher, forming Tuna Fish Music together with her. “David was an opportunist,” says Joe Smith, an industry executive. “He was very quick and very smart.” He also had energy that just never seemed to wane. One singer, Essra Mohawk, called him “the elf on roller skates.”
In 1968, Geffen quit William Morris to join Ted Ashley’s agency, but he was still getting at least one phone call a day from Elliot Roberts, which was typically related to Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. By the end of the year, it was clear to Geffen that he needed to start not just his own agency but his own label, as well as personal management firm.
With what can be called sheer stupidity or incredible confidence, he suggested to Clive Davis, the president of Columbia Records, that he leave his job and partner with him in a new label. Obviously, Davis declined. In February 1969, 26-year-old Geffen launched David Geffen Enterprises.
One of his first challenges was a major one: the unravelling of Crosby, Stills &Nash. Early that year, Crosby, Stills & Nash started refining their new material on Long Island. While they were there, they visited Geffen in his fancy New York City apartment and formalized their relationship with him. Elliot Roberts left L.A. in order to be present.
CSN, who at the time “belonged” to Columbia, proposed a no-paper handshake deal to Geffen, which he initially rejected, but ultimately agreed to. Clive Davis was impressed by Geffen’s shark-like talent and released David Crosby without hesitation. He was actually pleased to rid of “the Bad Byrd.”
In exchange, Davis got The Buffalo Springfield’s Richie Furay and his new band, Poco. A tougher sell was getting Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records to release Stephen Stills. Geffen went to see him, which led to a meeting that resulted in a decade of bad blood. You see, Jerry was a well-read jazz fan who despised agents. So, after yelling at Geffen, he physically threw him out of his office.
Then, there was the co-founder of Atlantic, Ahmet Ertegun, who was a little bit cleverer than Wexler and thought a few steps ahead. “I saw in him a potential genius entertainment executive or entrepreneur,” Ertegun said back in 1990. “He was very bright and very fast. He was younger than me, and he had a keen sense of where youth was going in America.”
Ahmet worked his charm on Geffen, who thought he was “the most sophisticated, amusing, and encouraging man I had ever met in my life.” Within weeks, CSN became an Atlantic act. Wexler came to appreciate Geffen: “Later, I saw his devotion to his artists,” he admitted. “His group of California rock poets worked for him without a contract – that’s how deep their trust ran.”
Once the CSN deal was inked, Geffen made L.A. his base. After all, Elliot Roberts was already based there and was bringing in talent, so Geffen knew it was the right time to strike. The two men reinforced their partnership as they drove up to Carl Gottlieb’s house one afternoon (Gottlieb was a Hollywood screenwriter and long-time friend of Crosby’s).
As Roberts recalled, “David stopped the car… turned to me and said, ‘Listen, let’s just do this.'” When Elliot started to complain about having done most of the hard work himself, Geffen told him to shut up. “You know you’ll make twice as much money with me,” he told him.
With a fancy new office on Sunset Boulevard, Geffen and Roberts strategized on exactly how to shape the careers and destinies of the artists of the L.A. canyons. The fact that they were trustworthy guys only helped their cause. “The word got around that there were these music-industry guys who were also human beings,” musician Jackson Browne recalled.
“Crosby told me that Geffen was really brilliant, but you could also trust him. And you could. David and Elliot would have done anything for their artists. In an industry full of cannibals, they were like the infantry coming over the hill.”
Geffen-Roberts’ clients liked them, but these artists weren’t fool by any means. Just ask Crosby, who said, “Elliot Roberts is a good dude,” but “capable of lying straight-faced to anyone, any time, ever.” As for Geffen, Crosby said he’s the type of guy that can “take your whole company. And sell it while you’re out to lunch.”
It wasn’t only about money with Geffen, though. Part of him really fed off the egos and insecurities of his clients. Driven by his own insecurities and codependency, he would try to make everything perfect for them. He would remain sober and focused while the talent would indulge.
Geffen clearly wanted to be a successful businessman, but he also wanted to be their friend. For years, he was their champion and caretaker. Only much later – after ample amounts of therapy – did he learn to get over his need to be a people pleaser and understand that it was to his own detriment.
Meanwhile, on Sunset Strip, the live music scene was in dire need of a revival. Big bands were now too big to play small clubs like The Whisky. The Strip itself was no longer the bustling mecca it was in 1965-66. But over on Santa Monica Boulevard, it was a different story. The Troubadour was now the go-to clubhouse for L.A.’s folk-rock scene.
The Troubadour was more than just a lusty, boozy place for all the artists in the burgeoning country-rock scene; it was also the only place where one could showcase for record companies. Among the many who were displaying their talents in the Troubadour were Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Ned Doheny, Glenn Frey, and John David Souther.
The scene was set. L.A. drew in different characters and reinvented the California dream. The scene is what attracted them. While the sound originated in Michigan or Texas, it was brought to southern California, which then claimed it as its own.
In 1969, Crosby, Stills & Nash marked a new dawn in the post-hippie California era. Jimi Hendrix himself said, “I’ve seen Crosby, Stills, and Nash. They’re groovy. Western sky music. All delicate and ding-ding-ding.” By the summer of 1969, CSN was Top 10, staying in the charts for over two years.
But there were the devoted Byrds and Buffalo Springfield fans who were turned off by the whole super group packaging of the band. They were still mourning the loss of the innocence that was felt on Sunset Strip in the mid-‘60s. “It all started to become like a big business deal,” said Tom Nolan, the first local rock writer at the time.
According to Nolan, once these super groups became a thing, it “all started going downhill.” And it wasn’t just Nolan who understood who was really pulling the strings behind CSN. When it came to David Geffen and Elliot Roberts, what set them apart from the other agents and managers of the time was that they looked just like their artists.
Not only that – they behaved like them, too. Whereas Geffen was prude in his drug use (or lack thereof), Roberts probably smoked more pot than all his clients put together. The first remarkable change that happened was Geffen and Roberts “becoming powerful,” as David Anderle (the musician, producer, and writer) put it.
An issue that still divides people today is whether Geffen was only in it for the money or whether he truly cared about the music and his artists. Geffen became Vice-President at Creative Management Artists while also co-managing Elliot Roberts’ roster of artists.
In actuality, Elliot was a front for Geffen. “When I worked for Elliot, David was never there, but it was very clear that he had influence,” actress Allison Caine stated. “They were very careful about the propriety of his role as an agent. David never had his fingerprints anywhere.” The way Crosby put it, Roberts was the good cop, and Geffen the bad.
Even though they knew Geffen was smart and capable, Crosby explained that he “never thought he was that nice a guy and didn’t trust him all the time.” He said they needed “an insurance policy. A watchdog.” And that was Roberts, whom Crosby considered “more of a mensch. So he balanced things out.”
Geffen was a people person, though, and empathic enough to understand that the key to his style of management was people. “I quickly figured out that the one ability I’d better have is to create relationships,” Geffen revealed. “It isn’t about how tall you are or how good-looking you are or whether or not you can play football. It’s about whether you can create a relationship.”
Geffen wasn’t any of those things – tall, good-looking, or athletic – but he had chutzpah. He figured he could beat anyone at the entertainment game. Once he earned the trust of an inner circle of artists, he would wage war on everyone else. According to screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, there are two schools of personal management.
There’s the manipulative “Svengali school,” and there’s the nurturing protective manager who indulges the client’s “every whim and wish.” Geffen was the latter. But Geffen “never felt [he] was too protective.” He put it rather eloquently: “I felt I was functioning as a dam against the river of sh*t that comes pouring down on artists, and it was a job that I took very seriously.”
Geffen used any means necessary to get the best deals for his talent. “He could also exploit any insecurity you had about yourself and make you feel you weren’t worthy,” Gottlieb said. One of Geffen’s early “victims” was Paul Rothchild, who produced the first CSN demo tapes only to be unceremoniously taken out of the frame before they started recording at Wally Heider’s.
You can say that Rothchild is a bit bitter towards Geffen. For Rothchild, it was “the beginning of the end of the love groove in American music… When David Geffen enters the California waters as a manager, the sharks have entered the lagoon.”
Geffen and Stephen Stills were an unlikely pair of allies. Stills craved success just as much as Geffen. Geffen was Stills’ ticket to super stardom. What made these two even more unlikely was the contrast between the uptight and politically conservative Stills and Geffen, who was clearly gay.
Despite his uneasiness about Geffen’s sexual orientation, Stills often stayed at his Central Park apartment. One night in 1969, Geffen and Stills went to Ahmet Ertegun’s posh apartment on the Upper East Side. The three men discussed ways to make CSN the biggest band ever. That’s when Ertegun, scratching his goatee, asked Stills, “Did you ever think about getting Neil Young in the group?”
Joni Mitchell never made it to Woodstock, but she created the festival’s anthem, Woodstock, anyway. And the reason she didn’t show up was because of Geffen, who was more concerned about her appearance on The Dick Cavett Show the following day and urged her to stay in New York. Geffen recalled picking up The New York Times at the airport:
“It said ‘400,000 People Sitting In Mud’.” So, he said to Mitchell, “Let’s not go!” But it was pretty much for nothing, considering that CSNY flew out of Woodstock in a helicopter and appeared themselves on the Cavett show. Then, Mitchell and Young started having discussions of their own…
When Mitchell opened for CSNY in Chicago in August 1969, Young took his fellow Canadian to the side and whispered to her that it should be the other way around – that they should be opening for her. Young later wrote the song Only Love Can Break Your Heart about the end of Mitchell’s affair with Graham Nash.
The Nash-Mitchell break-up affected everybody in the Geffen-Roberts inner circle. But as Mitchell and other female artists of the ‘60s were becoming part of the feminist uprising, Geffen was becoming a bona fide millionaire.
His protégée Laura Nyro had three Top 10 smashes in a row, adding value to her Tuna Fish Music catalogue. In late 1969, Columbia’s Clive Davis took over the novice company for over $3 million. By this point, everyone wanted Geffen to represent them. He bought a home above Sunset on Alto Cedro Drive, making a nice spot for himself in Laurel Canyon.
Geffen became a regular at the Troubadour, and people nearly worshipped him. With their nearby offices on Sunset Boulevard (once the base for Phil Spector), Geffen and Roberts started building their musical empire, with no remorse and all the while keeping a low-key vibe.
In their office, guitars were casually lying around, and Neil Young’s piano sat in the corner. At any given moment, you could find Crosby or David Blue there, according to Henry Diltz, a photographer of the scene. Geffen basically lived in that studio. He was also too impatient to deal with all the on-the-road craziness, so he left Roberts to handle it.
Meanwhile, Geffen was concentrating on his next phase: launching his own label. But he and Roberts had one mission together, and that was world domination. Their strategy was to create a protected circle of significant artists. “Geffen-Roberts definitely changed the tone of things,” says John York of The Byrds. “It created this whole stratum of stardom that was complete nonsense but was a great way to market the music.”
Geffen’s weapon was clout, and he had more of it than anyone else in the business. By clout, I mean he could shout louder than the rest. Geffen on the telephone meant screaming the terms of a deal or ranting to some minion. Artist manager Tony Dimitriades met Geffen at a Top of the Pops taping in London and saw Geffen standing outside the studio, shouting at the top of his lungs.
He yelled, “I need to speak to Ahmet Ertegun!” Dimitriades was “awestruck.” He saw “this young guy, probably 25 years old, wearing dirty jeans and a T-shirt, and he was talking to the suave head of this legendary record company.”
Geffen was a schemer, no doubt. And bending truth was part of his method. For instance, he manipulated Richard Perry into producing Barbra Streisand’s Stoney End album. After that, Geffen pressed Nyro to tell Streisand that her song Wedding Bell Blues was personally written for her. Nyro wasn’t only appalled by the suggestion, she rejected it.
He wasn’t even 30, and his hunger for success was so powerful that he made his dream – of being the next Mo Ostin or Ahmet Ertegun – come true, albeit in a devious way. He kept his eye on the industry’s power shifts.
Record label execs were being replaced, artists were coming and going, but big heads like Ostin, Ertegun, and Wexler always stuck around. Geffen sat back and watched it all go down, but not without making mental notes. Although Ertegun was a tad irritated by Geffen’s pushiness, he saw him for the awe-inspiring force he was.
After making CSNY happen, Geffen now wanted more of Atlantic’s money to develop a young artist he became particularly fond of: Jackson Browne. Browne had already been in the business for several years, but he was always nearly about to make it and was still deal-less.
Early on, Browne had written to Geffen, “I’m writing to you out of respect for the artists you represent,” Geffen recalled. Remember, his desk was flooded with demo tapes by hopeful musicians. According to Geffen, the letter “went on and on… I figured, ‘My God, this guy can’t be any good.’”
So, he tossed Browne’s tape in the garbage. He only listened after his secretary, Dodie Smith, found the tape in the garbage and convinced her boss to finally give it a listen. “It was the only tape we ever took that was unsolicited,” Elliot Roberts recalled. The song they listened to was Song for Adam.
Geffen was apparently smitten with Browne and his good looks. “Jackson was very pretty,” he told writer, Michelle Kort. Another person who was attracted to Browne was Laura Nyro. The two toured together throughout the winter of 1970/71 and even embarked on a brief yet stormy affair.
It wasn’t just Browne’s beauty that attracted Geffen; his soothing music spoke to him, too. So, Geffen went to Ertegun, urging him to sign Browne. Ertegun, however, was unconvinced. Geffen, of course, continued to push harder, while Ertegun continued to refuse. What Ertegun did was tell Geffen to start his own label and just sign Browne himself.
Geffen did just that. And Ertegun didn’t just encourage Geffen; he offered Geffen 50 per cent to be his partner in the label. Ertegun wanted the label to be called either Benchmark or Phoenix, and Atlantic would handle the distribution side and cover all expenses. It was the perfect deal, and it didn’t cost Geffen a cent, as his biographer, Tom King, noted.
For Geffen, the name Asylum spoke to him. It related to his desire to create a sort of “talent sanctuary” that would give his artists the freedom to create without having to deal with the pressure of the music industry.
They looked at A&M, a small boutique record company with a large number of talented people – talent that the big record companies didn’t have any interest in. So, Geffen and Roberts simply had their pick. They managed to build their own stable of artists and picked out some of the best artists from larger labels by offering the singers and musicians more creative control.
“I was young and naive,” Geffen confessed. “When we started Asylum, we never expected it would turn into the company it became.” As he explained it, he and Roberts were just as excited by its unfolding as the artists were when their records came out and did well.
There was no doubt that Geffen’s impact was felt throughout the music industry, especially on the West Coast. It was a wake-up call for any big wigs who were growing lazy and smug. “If you want to talk about what happened to the L.A. scene in the first half of the 1970s, you can sum it up with one name,” says David Anderle. “David Geffen happened.”
But by the end of the decade, the industry in the West started to shift. By 1979, when Linda Ronstadt moved to New York, Los Angeles was starting to lose its appeal. It didn’t take too long for L.A. to go from new and hot to old and lame.
Los Angeles was becoming the place where once hungry dreamers came to have their souls die. People were falling from grace and diving headfirst into a spiritual void. The Sunset Strip and Laurel Canyon went from a place that represented change and social justice to being a place obsessed with money and celebrity.
One of the more honest accounts of the hollowness of the late-‘70s rock scene can be heard on Jackson Browne’s album Running on Empty. Recorded in 1977, the album was all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but more importantly, the feeling that it had become an empty ritual.
Geffen nearly left the entertainment industry in late 1976. At that point, he was Vice-Chairman of Warner’s movie division, but he despised the job. And so, he quit, understanding just how fickle his friendships in Hollywood really were. He also regretfully came to see just how unpopular his arrogance had made him.
Clive Davis hosted a post-Grammys breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where a music business lawyer by the name of Brian Rohan physically attacked Geffen. To add insult to injury, Rohan was widely applauded for it. The next year, Geffen was diagnosed with bladder cancer, only to learn that it had been a misdiagnosis.
With such a cancer scare, Geffen decided it was time to slow down. “I had had enough at that moment,” he said later. He felt the need to get away from it for a while. He spent three years in New York. By day, he taught and lectured on business; by night he would frolic around with Calvin Klein and others from the Studio 54 crowd.
By 1980, he was ready to make a comeback, with a new label: Geffen Records. The people he used to compete with in 1970 when he started Asylum Records were still around but considerably older. “I was still pretty young,” Geffen recalled. “I thought, ‘If I could do it then, I can do it now.'”
Backed by Steve Ross and Mo Ostin, Geffen Records had a slow start. Talent like Elton John and Donna Summer were flops of his. But Geffen used his friendship with John Lennon to create a deal that paid off nicely after he was shot dead in December 1980.
Warner VP Eddie Rosenblatt was his president and brought with him an amazing A&R staff. With his new label came a new approach. “I wasn’t starting off with that deep personal involvement with the artists… I decided to be a complete businessman.” Instead of finding new talent, it became about finding the best of the best.
Throughout the ‘80s, his talent-finders brought in multi-platinum artists, like Cher, Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, and Nirvana. Along the way, he managed to upset and alienate the very Reprise/Asylum artists (like Young, Mitchell, Henley) – who had brought him such success in the ‘70s.
Any notion that he would recreate the “boutique” ambience of Asylum in the new decade was quickly dispelled when Young’s and Mitchell’s albums failed to sell. “David started feeling real pressure,” Elliot Roberts recalls. “[He felt] that he wasn’t as good as Mo.”
In 1983, Geffen made a famous move of suing Neil Young for making “musically uncharacteristic” records. He not only made an enemy of Young but of his longtime partner Elliot Roberts, too. “We stopped hanging out at that point,” Roberts revealed. “I couldn’t trust him anymore, and he couldn’t trust me. Horrible. It ended our friendship.”
Meanwhile, Joni Mitchell blamed her commercial failure on Geffen, claiming that he didn’t pay her publishing royalties. More than a few times, their interactions ended in screaming matches in Geffen’s office, Joni demanding to be released from her contract. His old pals became his new enemies.
In 1994, Mitchell returned to Reprise and Mo Ostin. Geffen told his biographer, “If I didn’t talk to her for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t miss her for a minute.” Ouch. Don Henley said, “David Geffen used to care about music. But he’s not in the record business anymore. He’s in the David Geffen business.”
Still, Laurel Canyon was no longer the rock sanctuary that it had been. The early Troubadour stars were now living in richer canyons like Stone and Benedict and Coldwater and Mandeville. Mitchell, for one, moved to Bel Air and Beverly Hills and bought beach homes in Malibu.
At the end of the day, David Geffen is nostalgic for the singer-songwriter era. “It was the greatest ride that one could possibly imagine,” he says. “Artistically, financially, fulfilling dreams and aspirations and making friends with incredibly talented people and watching them grow and succeed… it was thrilling.”
He also said that the ‘80s, which were definitely more successful for him, “weren’t nearly as magical.” The now 77-year-old has a net worth of 9.2 billion. So, yeah, I think he made some good moves.