The Shorty Q&A with Kurt Cobain’s Former Manager Danny Goldberg

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Danny Golberg has been the president of three major record companies. He got his start in the music business in the 1960s, with an entry level position at Billboard Magazine.

From there he moved into music journalism, but  he didn’t like to criticize the rock bands so he moved into public relations. He handled PR for Led Zeppelin and Kiss and managed Bonnie Raitt and Kurt Cobain. He was the president of Atlantic, Warner Bros., and Mercury Records. His memoir of life inside the rock and roll business, Bumping Into Geniuses, is out from Gotham Books.

Rumpus: How did you start out in rock and roll? You make it seem kind of random.

Danny Goldberg: The first step was completely random. I just needed a job and wanted to get my own apartment. I didn’t even know what Billboard was. I thought it was a magazine about highway signs. Today kids are very sophisticated about things like charts but in the 60′s, when I got my first job, there was no real pop awareness of the business. So the first step was completely random and lucky. Once I realized there was a business I was quite taken with it. I was at Billboard a few months and a promo guy form Capitol gave everybody a copy of The White Album the day it came out. That was one hell of a perk. It dawned on me you could be part of it without being a musician. After that I did the best I could to climb whatever ladders were in front of me.

Rumpus: You don’t have much bad to say about anyone. Is that part of your success?

Danny Goldberg: I’m in a community that means something to me and I didn’t particularly want to say bad things about people I’m going to see again. I was not a very good rock critic because I really just put musicians on a pedestal and I had a couple of experiences where I wrote critical things about people and felt guilty about it. Being a super fan or cheerleader is very useful for a publicist, not so useful for a journalist.

Rumpus: You mention that it isn’t enough to have talent. You have to have a talent for having talent.

Danny Goldberg: I think that artists that I’ve met who have been successful all had some desire to be successful. Not that they would always do things the easiest way or most commercial way, but they had a focus that helped propel them. Like Stevie Nicks doing the songs with Tom Petty at a certain time or working with a producer that, at first blush, was not part of the community that she was into. Or Bruce Springsteen focusing on trying to get a pop radio hit. The music business is competitive and having musical talent itself is not sufficient.

Rumpus: You knew Patti Smith was a star before she was a musician.

Danny Goldberg: She was a poet and would do drawings and paintings. Everything about her exuded creativity. Every sentence she uttered. She had an intensity that just came out of her.

Rumpus: Is Kiss art? I think of Kiss as the ultimate commercial band.

Danny Goldberg: I think Kiss was in it to be successful and make money. I don’t think they had a poetic subtext to what they did. One of the likable things about Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley is that they’re totally unapologetic about that. That’s what they wanted and that’s what they got. It was kind of polar opposite of Patti Smith who started with this romantic asthetic commitment to what she was doing and if it did well that was great but it wasn’t her first concern. Kiss was always directed on how to sell records, how to get an encore, how to please people so that they buy stuff.

Rumpus: Why were hugely successful bands like Kiss and Led Zeppelin so concerned with their media image even after they were filling stadiums?

Danny Goldberg: Always pushing for more is a characteristic of people that are really successful. Never being 100% satisfied seems to drive people to do more. So, although it can be an unattractive quality it can also be a very useful quality in someone. It just depends on how it’s harnessed.

Rumpus: The section of your book about Kurt Cobain made me want to cry.

Danny Goldberg: He’s the most talented person I ever worked with because he was talented in so many different ways. He’s a guitar player and a lead singer and he wrote all the songs. He did everything for Nirvana that it took Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to do for Led Zeppelin. Kurt also designed the album covers and wrote treatments for the videos. He even designed the t-shirts. He was really a comprehensive genius when it came to the art of rock and roll. As an artist he was the most talented and as a person he was the most tragic. I never worked with anyone who killed themselves, before or since. It’s just a terrible feeling and a terrible loss. I’ll never get over it.

Rumpus: You’ve often stood at the intersection of art and commerce. Anything you want to say about that?

Danny Goldberg: I don’t understand the question. That’s what the whole book is about.

Rumpus: Any advice for people wanting to get in the music business?

Danny Goldberg: Well, the only advice I can give would be platitudes, but I’m happy to give them. One is don’t get easily discouraged because everyone who has ever accomplished anything has been rejected. What matters isn’t the people who reject you, but the people who don’t. Perseverance is a big deal. Be loyal to your friends in the bad times because they’ll remember you in the good times. Regular stuff like that.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founding editor of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. His second movie, based on his novel Happy Baby, is forthcoming. More from this author →