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Mr Lucky
Music Reviews

Follow the Music:
The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture


By Jac Holzman and Gavan Daws
First Media

Follow the Music

The title of this book could well be Opening Pandora's Box. Depending on your point of view, Follow the Music chronicles the glory days of Rock and Pop when creative juices were flowing and new heights were being reached at every turn. Or it's the story of indulgent boomers nailing the coffin shut on Popular music as it was known. Perhaps it's somewhere in between. Whatever it is, you're sure to be hooked.

Jac Holzman and Elektra records started out by recording folk and roots music but by the mid-1960s, the Rock Star emerged in a way it never had before and this model has remained almost unchanged since then. Holzman was right there when Rock 'n' Roll became Rock.

Jac Holzman
Jac Holzman Jac Holzman Jac Holzman
Jac Holzman
Author and Elektra founder Jac Holzman, pre-blue jeans

It's always fun to read stories about small independent labels. Almost all of them start out of love and end up failing or being bought by the major labels, rarely, if ever, maintaining the standards they set. Elektra was very quirky, and although it might be hard to put your finger on their image, the sound and look is instantly identifiable. It would be too easy to define the sound as "east coast white intellectual" but much of what they were doing worked perfectly with the burgeoning post-Beat, pre-hippie movement happening in California. You might be tempted to call it "white" music as opposed to "race," but there are many recordings of black folk and blues artists, most notably Josh White.

We have only a minimal interest in Folk music but reading about these early years and the growing interest in this genre is exciting. Quality recordings are made in less than stellar conditions, records are assembled and packed by hand and shipped off with the hope that they'll break even. Jac Holzman and his artists are passionate about spreading their gospel, and in many cases, they achieve success.

Judy Collins
Judy Collins:
She has Walter Keane eyes!

Artists like Theodore Bikel, Judy Collins, Judy Henske and Josh White all are major players in the drama. Bob Dylan, although on a competing label, also figures prominently. It's almost laughable now, but the debut of Paul Butterfield's all-electric Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival is comparable to the uproar caused by Nijinsky and the debut of Rite of Spring. It all seems so sweet and innocent and important. Much like adolescence.

We won't take a stand on drugs, but it is apparent that the introduction of drugs at Elektra (and everywhere else) changed things. Understanding the scope of the 1960s "youth-quake" is beyond our capacities, but it's clear the music and the drug use go hand in hand. In the beginning, both the drug use and music were for exploration. Where can we go with this new freedom? It quickly gives way to indulgence. There's a period where Holzman finances a commune of sorts to allow young talented kids to live and breathe music in an isolated rural environment. The heart of the experiment is to allow the musicians (including Jackson Browne) to focus on music instead of making a living and it's an admirable idea. The reality is they take a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex. Musically, they insert a microphone into the anus of the drummer and have him use his body as a percussion instrument. It's not quite Ella Fitzgerald singing Gershwin. The recording is never released.

Jim Morrison, pre-Grizzly Adams

A lot of the drug use, and music, is described as an aid to peel back the layers and reveal what's "real." You can guess what we think of this theory. But there is a lot of validity in exploring new directions and seeing how far you can go. Unfortunately, it also opened Pandora's box. We don't have a problem with The Doors. We can't deny that their music, lyrics and image touched a nerve with an awful lot of people. Holzman signed them because he liked them, not just to make a million bucks. The real problem is what came after. Jim Morrison seemed to be a real tortured soul who manifested from art student to pretty boy to rock star to grizzly recluse before his demons got the better of him. His legacy is a generation of indulgent punks. Morrison provided the blueprint and the labels indulged the new stars. How is a kid with a kernel of talent supposed to react to fame, money, and drugs? The experimentation and exploration that seemed so important gave way to partying. It's not Holzman and his generation's fault, but once they opened the box there was no going back. Pot and acid were replaced by cocaine. Record company executives were replaced by lawyers. And popular music as we knew it died.

In the book, several people lament the currrent state of coporate Rock and long for the good old days. What they fail to see is that their actions caused the sorry mess we're now in. "Energy" and "attitude" become more important than musical ability.

The book is told in an interview style, mostly from the perspective of Jac Holzman. Most all of the players are represented, adding their two cents and often offering a different side of the story from Holzman. It's admirable that he allows for conflicting and sometimes critical opinions from the other voices. A few of the players try to romanticize the era but they mostly come off as comical. There are a few passages about the business of music that get a wee bit tedious, but it's fascinating (and horrifying) to watch the business leave the hands of the music lovers and fall into the control of lawyers and marketers.

The only false notes come from Holzman's justification of Elektra's merger with Warner and Atlantic. Elektra seemed never to lose money and it's conceivable that if they hadn't joined the corporate giants that they could have continued a trend-setting wave. But Holzman wanted out of the business and rather than turn the reins over to one of the many employees who shared his vision, the label went the way of most independents and lost its personality.

 


 



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