walk on the wild side
The Record Business In ’78: A Lou Reed Memory
Reading The Soundtrack of My Life, the second memoir by record label executive Clive Davis, brings to life a period when Davis was in at least his second chapter as music mogul. It was the mid-70s, when Davis emerged from the messiness of being canned as President of Columbia Records. There were allegations of Davis using company funds of up to $94,000.00 to feather his own nest while covering such expenses as his son’s bar mitzvah. Davis’ supporters, including many of the top acts in the record business, either dismissed Columbia’s charges as envy or boardroom politics. And perhaps some couldn’t care less, given the personal touch Davis brought to Columbia from the late ’60s until his last day on the job in May ’73. In the era of Watergate, Davis, rightfully or not, was a rare species: a beloved executive.
In Fall ’74, when Davis’ first memoir, Clive: Inside the Record Business, was published, Lou Reed helped promote the book by issuing this statement, “Never vindictive, this atypical man is a knowledgeable friend. I myself can only say that this succinct and concise prologue demands a sequel. I myself can’t wait.” Not long after Reed’s proclamation, Davis got on with the life that would make up the bulk of the sequel. In its July 4, 1974 issue, Rolling Stone trumpeted the return of Clive Davis to the record business. Given the response of the industry’s progressive forces and artists like Harry Nilsson in the magazine’s story, the only more positive news for the music world would be a Beatles reunion. Nilsson called Davis the “greatest record executive in the history of the record business — brains and ears, style and class.” But in his return, Davis would have little style and class to work with at first. He would structure a new record company, named Arista, for Columbia Pictures, mostly working with what seemed salvageable from the film company’s Bell Records. Serious observers of the business could see there was little worth redeeming at Bell. It had been successful with lightweight pop and the derided bubblegum music of the early ’70s. Its hits included Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun,” the Sweet’s “Little Willy,” Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and a handful of fluffy releases by Tony Orlando and Dawn. Bell sold millions of 45s but garnered little respect among those in Rock’s rarified milieu.
Davis also had a pair of singer-songwriters, Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester, from the Bell roster, to work with. The sales of Manilow and Manchester would extend beyond the singles markets, with their albums selling in respectable numbers, but that got little respect — and rightfully so — in the world of rock, which Davis considered the music world’s most groundbreaking genre. A record executive doesn’t entice a cutting edge artist by saying you can be on the same label as Manchester or the Bay City Rollers. The situation was different than when at Columbia, Davis could attract talent with the prospect of being on the same label as Bob Dylan and Miles Davis. Still, he wanted to proceed quickly in building Arista. There was also little time to develop, as a patient baseball club does, promising young talent. Instead, Davis had to open his checkbook and sign established artists looking for a new company that’d believe in them and move their new recordings up the charts. Belief and fealty for artists Davis had plenty, along with the checkbook. He signed the Kinks, Eric Anderson, the Grateful Dead, Dwight Twilley Band, Gil Scott-Heron, Eric Carmen and Loudon Wainwright III. Those were artists with gravitas, if not recent hit records. And when he took his first swing at signing a major homegrown talent, Davis landed Patti Smith. The Davis sequal was in full steam.
One had to give Davis credit for quickly assembling top-tier talent. (It helped overlooking his company continued to release product by Barry Manilow.) Most impressive was the success of the Kinks. While they would never complete a work as great as their Muswell Hillbillies album (’71), starting with Sleepwalker, released in ’77, they delivered a string of six infectious studio albums as well as a live 2-record set, One for the Road, which peaked at number 14 on the Billboard charts. After four mostly ill-advised concept albums in the mid-70s with RCA, the Kinks on Arista were a top-flight attraction, renewed and revived.
If not revival, Lou Reed did hope for more attention from the record-buying public. Or at least his record label. So he called Davis, a friend that he’d spend Thanksgiving Day with, watching the Macy’s Parade with from his Manhattan apartment. Reed was taken with how well Arista was progressing as an artists label and wanted to join Clive’s team. After seven solo albums with RCA, Rock and Roll Heart, Reed’s first album on Arista, was released in October ’76. However, it didn’t fare as well as Coney Island Baby, his last RCA album, released the year before. Perhaps with the next Arista effort, Reed would apply the personal touch as Davis did.
Arista was proving to be not only an artist-friendly label but one that was also customer-friendly. In Atlanta, operating out of an independent distributor, was the Arista promotional staff, led by Candy Masengale, helpful and friendly to a fault. Masengale enjoyed working with those of us at the Atlanta Peaches Records and Tapes, doing her best to swing ad dollars and in-store promotions our way. She was always willing to listen to our ideas over lunches on her (or Clive’s) dime while ignoring our cracks about Manilow. On a spring day in ’78, Masengale offered to have Lou Reed come by Peaches, meet his fans and put his hands in cement in front of our store, just like the movie stars at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. He would join an elite group of artists whose handprints, footprints and signatures were set in concrete along Peachtree Road.The artists included Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, The Isley Brothers, Boz Scaggs, Dolly Parton, The Allman Brothers Band, and Ashford and Simpson. Reed was happy to join such an elite crowd. His latest Arista release, Street Hassle, had received good reviews so now, in seeking a larger audience, he’d press the flesh and make like a star. At the time, he was on tour with Ian Dury and the Blockheads of Stiff Records, the UK new wave label Arista marketed in America. Reed, Dury and the Blockheads, scheduled to play in Atlanta the evening of April 5, would make an afternoon stop at Peaches on Peachtree.
Arista wanted prominent in-store display for Street Hassle as well as prime space for Dury and his fellow artists at Stiff Records. Done — and since Candy Masengale was always so good to us, something special was done for her : I called a mortuary.
About 25 miles south of Peaches there was a funeral home I knew about in Jonesboro, Georgia, not far from where Lynyrd Skynyrd posed for the cover photo of their first album. Jonesboro is also the birthplace of Jesse Fuller, the blues singer who wrote “You’re No Good,” the first song on Bob Dylan’s first album. With a large Civil War cemetery and a large government center in the middle of town, the smell of death could surround you in Jonesboro. Naturally, it was a good place to seek out a coffin. The manager of the funeral home said we could borrow a pine box for a few weeks. My Plymouth Arrow hatchback had enough room for the coffin, so me and my Arrow and Tony Paris made the journey to Jonesboro.
As respectfully as any pallbearers, Tony and I brought the pine box into Peaches and placed it in a front corner of the store. Some Stiff Records posters, along with copies of the label’s albums, particularly Dury’s, were placed around the coffin. Another tasteful and innovative display at Peaches Records and Tapes. Hopefully, Candy Masengale got a picture and sent it to Clive Davis.
The day after our procession from Jonesboro, Peaches hosted Ian Dury and Lou Reed. A sense of ecstatic chaos filled the store. Dury walked over to the coffin and paid respects to his display. Reed, quite the gentleman, greeted his fans, among them a dozen or more Peaches workers. The always congenial Ricky Paul, a Peaches buyer, kept Dury company when Reed headed outside to do the prints. Dury, who had not hit it off with Reed, told Ricky that we “should put an imprint of a syringe in the cement” along with Reed’s prints and signature. We passed on Dury’s suggestion and went on with the hosting.
Reed really enjoyed his visit. Like a lot of artists on a promotional call, he wanted to pick up some music. Being on the road, cassette tapes were the order of the day. He picked out a couple of armloads of cassettes. We quickly jotted down the titles he chose so we could settle up with Arista later on. Candy would send us some stock copies of Arista product to pay for Lou’s shopping spree. Eventually, Arista would likely subtract the value of the product Candy sent from Lou’s royalties. Lou may not have known that. He was very cheerful, perhaps believing we were making a gift of the tapes to him. Upon leaving, he shook my hand, and said, “Thank you for everything. You all are very sweet people.” And we were, even if we wanted his label to pay us for the product.
After Reed, Dury and the gang left that afternoon, it was observed that it might rain that evening. So Reed’s prints, still wet, were brought to the store’s loading dock, under cover, safe from the elements. The prints could be set in its designated place outside the next day. No big deal.
But it was a big deal the next day when the Reed prints went missing. Such a big slab of concrete doesn’t just walk away, and it was a big chunk for someone to carry off without notice. Was it an inside job? Speculation led to a few night shift employees who could’ve pulled it off. Members of the night crew said the prints were left on the loading dock and not brought inside, reasoning they were hesitant about moving the partially dry prints. Therefore, in the wee hours of the morning, some very bad people — certainly not Peaches employees — must have driven to the back of the store, discovered the Lou Reed prints, loaded them in the car and beat it on home. Of course, a cover-up was suspected. The employee considered the most-likely suspect was a great admirer of Lou Reed. A co-worker noted how dizzy and feint the suspected employee was when she got close to Reed. It was also observed that the next day she didn’t seem upset over the missing prints.The matter was discussed quite often, even as we continued our friendship with the suspect, probably one of the world’s nicest people. Some thought it a sure thing that the Reed prints could be found in our friend’s apartment. Others weren’t so sure. They still aren’t 35 years later.
If our friend did abscond with the Lou Reed prints and still has them as a showpiece for her home, then given what happened to the other Peaches prints at the Peachtree location, we should say “good for her.” At least there’s one Atlanta print still intact. In 1982, after a Florida-based company, through bankruptcy proceedings, bought the southeastern Peaches stores, the Atlanta location was closed and soon after the prints were destroyed. There were allegations that the Florida company was behind the destruction since they didn’t want another record store, rumored to be moving into the Peaches location, to inherit them. Others assumed it was the developer of the property’s handiwork. Demolishing is an Atlanta tradition, after all.
It was also in ’82 that Lou Reed found himself back at RCA. The partnership with Clive Davis didn’t pan out. Davis writes about it in his “sequel.” In a club appearance after the ’79 release of his The Bells album, Reed spotted Davis.
….. he saw me in the club, gave me the finger, and said, “Here, this is for you, Clive. Where’s the money, Clive? How come I don’t hear my album on the radio?” It was an embarrassing incident, and Lou quickly issued a press release apologizing: “I’ve always loved Clive and he happens to be one of my best friends. I just felt like having a business discussion from the stage. Sometimes, out of frustration, you yell at those you love the most. I have a mouth that never sleeps, and I suppose that’s why I make rock ‘n’ roll records.”
Lou Reed continued to make rock ‘n’ roll records, achieving a great comeback with his critically acclaimed New York album, released in ’89. It was Reed’s most successful album since the release of ’72’s Transformer, which featured the hit single, “Walk on the Wild Side.” It was also in ’89 that Davis dealt with the Milli Vanilli affair. He addresses that embarrassment in his new memoir, but one can’t help but think that yes, Milli Vanilli were embarrassing frauds, but other Arista artists such as Whitney Houston, Kenny G, Carly Simon, and Air Supply from the early ’80s on were also vexing to hear. One could be embarrassed to know millions of fellow Americans bought their records. Think about it: All that pandering pap is a major part of dumbed-down entertainment, as seen on American Idol, that leaves one embarrassed for the culture. One also feels bad for Clive Davis, an engaging and nice man with great work in his past, for being part and parcel of significant cultural decline. This can’t be what he had in mind when he pursued the Kinks, Patti Smith and Lou Reed in hopes of building a great record label.
(Author’s Note: Thanks to Ricky Paul, Chuck Pennscott, Peter Stone Brown, Tracey Friedman and others who helped as this story was being assembled.)
- Image: promotional image (fair use).