The Eagles, who hold claim to the second-biggest-selling album of all time, 1977’s Their Greatest Hits: 1971-1975, are not at the heart of The Mansion on the Hill, an epic tale tracing the rise of rock music from 1964, when it was ignored and shunned by the entertainment business, to the present, where it is a $20 billion-a-year enterprise. Instead, author Fred Goodman, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and occasional EW writer, frames the book largely by the colorful and often dramatic stories of such artists and visionaries as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, and David Geffen.
Still, it is Glenn Frey who gets at the heart of modern rock music. ”We thought of the Eagles as the rock and roll Camaro, the best-designed car of the seventies and eighties,” Frey says. ”And we always tried to improve the basic design. We realized that rock and roll is a war of attrition. The longer you survive, the more you become an institution.”
Frey’s words may haunt those who think rock and pop music today often sounds as though it came off an assembly line. The Eagles’ hard-boiled careerism ensured that the band became an enduring commercial powerhouse while retaining a veneer of pure artistry. It’s the same savvy business sense that has made some people in rock, like Geffen and Springsteen, succeed beyond anyone’s expectations — while others, like Peter Frampton, became one-hit wonders. ”Frampton and his handlers forgot that he had to have something to say,” Goodman writes. ”Record buyers didn’t.”
Ultimately, Mansion on the Hill is the story of a lot of very tough guys — both the artists and the managers and agents behind them — who stumbled into the business before it was a business and made up the rules as they went along. Goodman spares no detail in his portraits of Machiavellian managers like Albert Grossman (Dylan), Irving Azoff (the Eagles), and Jon Landau (Springsteen) as well as billionaire-in-training David Geffen. Paul Rothchild, who had helped produce Crosby, Stills and Nash from the group’s inception, bitterly remembers being ousted by Geffen in the early 1970s. Geffen’s arrival, recalls Rothchild, ”meant the sharks have entered the lagoon. It used to be ‘Let’s make music, money is a by-product.’ Then it becomes ‘Let’s make money, music is a by-product.”’
Mansion on the Hill, named for the title of a song covered by Hank Williams, Young, and Springsteen, is a mesmerizing read, especially for those who already know the lengthy cast of characters and want the dish that Goodman can more than provide: the pre-openly gay Geffen’s strange fixation on the singer-songwriter Laura Nyro (”Wedding Bell Blues,” ”Stoned Soul Picnic”). ”The others are business,” Geffen said of Nyro. ”Laura is a passion.” The talented but eccentric Neil Young, who once signed a new contract in the middle of a Western backlot at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank and later asked that he be allowed to park his trailer there and wait out a predicted earthquake. The dissing of longtime rock writer Dave Marsh by his former publisher Jeff Albertson as an ”insecure sycophant.” The description of Springsteen early on as a nerd. ”Bruce was like a social misfit,” says a former associate. ”He couldn’t handle his own stuff. He had a little mousy girlfriend who did all his talking for him and he had a different one every week. They were all of the same variety: very mousy, very New Jersey, very Gentile.” There are almost-chilling details about some of the canny methods Landau employed to make Springsteen a working-class hero — giving him a biography of Woody Guthrie to read and carefully constructing his embrace of Vietnam War veterans.
In the end, it is a minor player, J. Geils Band manager Dee Anthony, whose ”three rules of success” exemplify Goodman’s long tome about how an underground movement became such a big, crass business. ”The first thing is,” says Anthony, ”get the money. The second thing is to remember to get the money. The third thing…is always remember to get the money.”