A Prince Among Stones: That Business with The Rolling Stones and Other Adventures, by Prince Rupert Loewenstein, Bloomsbury, RRP£20/$27, 272 pages
The Soundtrack of My Life, by Clive Davis with Anthony DeCurtis, Simon & Schuster, RRP$30, 608 pages
Ever since the days of Elvis, a great pop star has always needed a great manager. Elvis was unlucky. Tom Parker was a brilliantly astute businessman, but his famously controlling ways ultimately crushed his young charge. The Beatles were more fortunate. Brian Epstein understood them on a profound level and served them well.
Epstein’s death in 1967 occurred at a time when popular music was cementing both its cultural importance and its potential for dizzying financial reward. Lawyers, managers and agents were alert to the changes. As record sales mounted, a frantic jostling for position began. Pop stars, generally insensitive to contractual nuance, were courted, and then shafted, by unscrupulous money makers. There was a crisis of trust between artist and executive that was rarely resolved with good grace.
But some men stood out. The authors of these two books are respected, long-term survivors in a world with a notoriously short attention span. Clive Davis, a mentor rather than a manager, joined Columbia Records as a young lawyer and rose swiftly to become the company’s president, and later founder of Arista Records. He helped discover or sign a stellar list of pop and rock musicians – Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Whitney Houston – who became both artistically significant and commercially lucrative.
Prince Rupert Loewenstein, an aristocrat stockbroker who had studied medieval history at Oxford, became business manager of the Rolling Stones in the late 1960s, and stayed with the band for nearly 40 years. In contrast to Davis, he happily admits to knowing little – and caring still less – about the music of his clients. But he did know how to turn those sleazy riffs into money; an awful lot of money.
Loewenstein’s charming and drily humorous memoir – by far the better read of the two books – is more insightful on his own early background than on the turbulent business he was to enter with such distinction. This is to be welcomed. There is a fascinating 13-page appendix on the prince’s ancestry (he is a descendant of the Bavarian royal house of Wittelsbach), a four-page family tree, and a succession of anecdotes proving that rock aristocrats have a way to go before they can match the flamboyant excesses of the real thing.
Here is a typical memory from A Prince Among Stones: the 14-year-old Loewenstein asked by his mother, who is sitting in a bar at the Ritz, to sell a Balthus painting “because Mummy needs the money”. He sells the artwork to a gallery up the road for £40, and returns in a hurry. “By the end of lunch, the money was no more,” he writes.
That kind of spontaneous extravagance, Loewenstein says, paradoxically made him respect money. He joined American stockbroking firm Bache & Co and then bought the merchant bank Leopold Joseph, which is when he was approached by a friend in late 1968 asking if he would take a meeting with Mick Jagger. “The name of [the Rolling Stones] meant virtually nothing to me at the time, but I asked my wife to tell me about them.”
There is a splendidly hazy air of detachment in the author’s account of life with the Stones. He is on the whole uninterested in their music, their drug-fuelled lifestyles or their personal feuds. He describes his role with the band as “a combination of bank manager, psychiatrist and nanny”.
When their unprofessional behaviour in a Paris meeting with their record company threatens a lucrative deal, he takes Jagger and Keith Richards for a restorative walk around the Place Vendôme. “It was the rock ’n’ roll equivalent – though substantially less lofty – of one of Aristotle’s walks through the shady colonnades of the Lyceum in Athens.” Classy. No wonder the group loved him.
There is nothing so lyrical in Davis’s perfunctory and self-congratulatory account of what is, by any measure, a remarkable career. The best parts of The Soundtrack of My Life concern his rise to power in the 1960s, where there is at least some self-deprecation at play. He describes turning up to the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 wearing “a V-neck tennis sweater in the traditional white, maroon and black, over white pants”.
But the nerd knew his music, if not its mysterious new ethical codes: he signs Janis Joplin, yet is surprised to hear from her manager that she would like to “ball” him to cement the deal. It is a rare racy moment. Most of the remainder of the book takes on a familiar pattern. Davis discovers bright new act; new act can’t find the right material to make a hit; Davis brings new act a hit; and new act makes multimillion selling record.
There is a kind of instinctive genius at work here: not many would have chosen the title track of Simon and Garfunkel’s beautiful album Bridge Over Troubled Water as a potential hit single – and enough artists have attested to Davis’s musical intelligence, and charm, for us to take him at face value.
But there is a sense of decline in the latter part of his account, which can’t help but mirror the demise of the art form itself. By the time he gets involved with American Idol, it is hard to keep up the pretence that anything he does actually matters any more. At the age of 80, he is still working, and remains an optimist. But then he delivers this chilling line, almost as an afterthought: “Audiences seem to have lost interest in artists and what they have to say.”
He follows this in the book’s final chapter with his coming out as a bisexual, which has kept Los Angeles gossip columnists absorbed, and shows us that there was always a hint of rock ’n’ roll buried beneath the accountant’s uniform after all.
Thanks largely to the powers and arguments of men such as Davis and the gracious Prince Rupert, pop stars don’t get shafted any more. Indeed, they are more powerful than ever. By using social media, they get to say what they want, when they want. One of Davis’s rare antagonists, the first American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, is already involved in an online battle with him over his account of their relationship. The talent is turning on its mentors and Svengalis. How Elvis could have done with Twitter, all those years ago.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer