Friday, January 17, 2014

40 Year Itch : How Geffen Signed Dylan

   On January 17, 1974 David Geffen's Asylum Records released two of the year's biggest albums on the same day: Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark and Bob Dylan's Planet Waves. While the albums got the lion's share of the publicity, it was also a coming out party of sorts for the 30 year old millionaire record exec. Not his official "coming out", of course, as he was dating Cher. 

  "I was the first person to share his bed and to share his life," she says in Tom King's book about Geffen, The Operator. "People don't believe that, or they don't want to believe it, or they don't understand how it could be. But we were really crazy about each other."

  They dated for two years. Geffen's contract with Dylan, perhaps his greatest achievement as a record exec,  lasted just about a year. The only year Dylan hasn't been associated with Columbia Records in more than 40 years of recording. So how did Geffen lure Dylan away?

   He began by approaching Robbie Robertson of The Band, a group in such desperate need of inspiration they had just released an album of cover songs ( the poor selling Moondog Matinee). Waving a recording contract in front of Robertson's face, Geffen suggested he get The Band back together with Dylan and hit the road like they did in '66. It would be the biggest concert tour of the year!

   With no manager to play interference,  Dylan met with Geffen whose talk about the tour soon veered to talk about an album. After all , you don't go on tour unless you have an album to sell. And because Geffen was putting together the tour, why shouldn't Dylan, whose contract was up for renewal with CBS/Columbia at the time,  leave his old label and record  for Asylum? Geffen sealed the deal with a huge promise: he'd make sure Dylan's next album sold a million copies, would hit #1,  and return Dylan to superstar status. He also threw Dylan a bone: Bob could sign artists to his own Asylum imprint, Ashes and Sands.

   With the contract signed, Dylan and The Band went to work recording the next album ,  in three November days. They had to rush the album, to be called Ceremonies of the Horsemen, to meet the deadline for the January tour. So rushed was the effort, Dylan could never choose which version of "Forever Young" he wanted: the slow, preachy five minute version or the jaunty, tossed off three minute version. So they pressed both on the album that was retitled Planet Waves.

  A word about Planet Waves: half of it's great. "On a Night Like This", "Tough Mama", "Something There Is About You" and "You Angel You" are my favorite tunes and rank right up there with the best of New Morning and Blood On The Tracks. Dylan and The Band sound great together. But I could never stand "Forever Young". "Dirge" and "Wedding Song" are tiresome to these ears.

    As Geffen had promised, sales were brisk right out of the gate.  Planet Waves was shipped Gold and debuted on Billboard's  February 9, 1974 Top LP's and Tapes Chart at #19, 16 spots ahead of Court and Spark. The following week, Planet Waves would top the album charts. Such was the euphoria surrounding Dylan and The Band's 40-date, 21-city tour of the US. And yet the album only sold a disappointing 600,000 copies. Part of the blame belongs to Dylan himself, who decided not to play many if any of his new songs on the tour. By the end, only "Forever Young" remained. 

     Asylum would release the live album that followed the tour, Before the Flood, but Dylan raced back to Columbia. Planet Waves had come out strong but by year's end both Asylum albums Court and Spark and Carly Simon's Hotcakes had outsold it.
     Also Dylan simply didn't like Geffen.
     "He thought Geffen was just interested in being a celebrity," a source told Rolling Stone.Plus Dylan signed a deal with Columbia that  reportedly paid him sixty cents a record more than Asylum and gave him a new, improved royalty on his back catalog.  

Footnote: 13 year later Robbie Robertson released a critically acclaimed eponymous album on Geffen records.

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