The Soundtrack of My Life: Book Review
Clive Davis' self-congratulatory autobiography is full of revelations -- and one big lesson his artists have learned: Do it his way.
This story first appeared in the March 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In his exhaustively detailed new memoir, we come to learn that Clive Davis, 80, is bi. Not so much as in "-sexual" -- though, yes, Katie Couric, there is that revelation, introduced in the last eight pages of this 600-page doorstop, since he apparently felt that saving it for the actual index would be too extreme -- but the real underlying theme of The Soundtrack of My Life is the Sony Music chief creative officer's bifurcated approach toward the hundreds of artists he's worked with in his 52 years in the music business.
He's proud of his early boosterism for such self-contained rock legends as Janis, Bob and Bruce. But he's prouder, it seems, of the more pliable pop singers who needed to be told what to do. And there are a lot more in that latter category. Alternate titles for the tome could include They Did It My Way or I Told You Not to Write Your Own Songs, Dammit!
Indeed, you could have a pretty soused solo drinking game taking a swig every time the mogul traces an artist's commercial downfall to not following his advice, which usually involves giving up purist singer-songwriter delusions and taking outside material. The bisexuality angle that made news Feb. 18 quickly gave way to Davis' beef with Kelly Clarkson over her largely self-penned album My December in 2007, which either stiffed on its own merits or was sabotaged by Davis, depending on whose story you believe. Clarkson apparently thought she'd earned the right to a Nebraska-style serious departure, leading Davis to tell her that he knew the Boss and she, Senator, was no Bruce Springsteen. "My December is a pure pop album about breaking up with your boyfriend. We're not dealing with 'The answer is blowing in the wind,' " he tells the aggrieved pop princess, in the closest thing the book has to a joke.
Who knew Melissa Manchester and Taylor Dayne were auteurist wannabes? Yet he credits their misbegotten insistence of writing their own material for their downfalls -- and says both later admitted they'd blown it. Even the most recent star he broke, The X Factor U.K. winner Leona Lewis, suddenly fancies herself the co-author of her sophomore effort ("As usual in the case of pop artists, this unexpected turn was ill-advised") and suffers the commercial consequences. Others, of course, saw the light. Barry Manilow had a diva fit over being asked to record "I Write the Songs" -- because it was yet another song he didn't write -- but learned to stop worrying and love bombing America with bubblegum cover songs. Maybe the secret feel-good moment of the book comes when Whitney Houston schedules a meeting to announce her intention to start writing songs; Davis tells her to accept her status in the "Olympian" nonwriting tradition of Sinatra and Streisand, and "she never brought the issue up with me again." (Take that, Miss Independent!)
The advice Davis describes doling out over the years is almost unfailingly commercially brilliant -- and also a little depressing, if you share any aesthetics with the rock critics he regularly dismisses as not getting it. After a transitional chapter that is hilariously (and presumably deliberately ironically) titled "Gil Scott-Heron and Ghostbusters," there is a lot of recounting of the likes of Exposé and A Flock of Seagulls before Davis brings himself to finally unapologetically utter the E-word: "ephemeral." Rod Stewart recording five albums of old standards -- and bowing to Davis' insistence that he can't even include any semi-obscure old standards, at that -- might strike you as a tragic turn, not cause for confetti. A chapter extolling his longtime platonic love affair with Patti Smith seems incongruous in this pop-tastic context, until he reveals that Smith deeply wanted a big hit and desired nothing greater than to be on Johnny Carson's show.
It almost feels too soul-killing to continue when he gets to Milli Vanilli, whose scandal he addresses with the same answer he gives about his son's bar mitzvah being put on his expense account in his Columbia days: I knew nothing. But that would be a bad time to give up on the book, as its minutiae suddenly grows more fascinating when he stops talking about negotiating artist deals and gets into his own negotiations, as he outmaneuvers the BMG brass who tried to make him retire 14 years ago in a corporate PR blunder that will still be making jaws drop centuries from now. You can hate Kenny G. and O-Town and still love how Davis defied ageism to end up back on top in his 70s.
By the end of the book, it's still remarkably unclear whether Davis, who grew up not caring about music, ever came to truly love it or just loves his own genius for recognizing what other people will love. But at least it's clear that -- in his own judicious, analytical way -- the mogul has been writing his own song all along.