The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of
American Pop Culture
By Jac Holzman and Gavan Daws
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
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.
and Elektra founder Jac Holzman, pre-blue jeans
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.
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.
She has Walter Keane eyes!
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.
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.
Morrison, pre-Grizzly Adams
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
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.
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.
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.