Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Day The Music (and Free Speech) Died

Two pieces of interesting news landed on my desk this week; one is very sad and the other is somewhat surprising. The fact that they both surfaced on virtually the same day insures they'll be inevitably linked in the strands of memory I still have as I cling precariously to the rigors of daily life from here on out.

The first item concerns the death of Ahmet Ertegun, the man who founded Atlantic Records. Normally, the death of an 83-year-old record executive means little to anyone who didn't know him personally. Considering that Mr. Ertegun was a legend in his industry -- he was the one who discovered and signed over 30 major artists, including among his more-famous signings Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Cream, Aretha Franklin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bette Midler, Roberta Flack and ABBA -- people noting his death isn't nearly as surprising. The list of his accomplishments within the music business is nearly endless -- as are the accolades he received during his life. Most notably, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recently renamed a wing of the Museum to Mr. Ertegun in his honor.

So anyone who is into the British rock of the mid to late 60's, or of the R&B and the Blues of the early 60's from which this music came, should know his name.

The first time I learned about him resulted from his appearance at Atlantic Records' 40th Anniversary Celebration at MSG in 1989. He was responsible for bringing the surviving members of Led Zeppelin together to perform with John Bonham's son Jason. Then, in 1993, I met Mr. Ertegun backstage at a Robert Plant concert; he wasn't hard to miss, considering he was wearing an Armani suit and the rest of the backstage contingent, including the band -- and Robert Plant -- were sporting mostly black leather.

That, unfortunately, will be my last memory of him; dignified, professional, and always "in" it, but not central; behind the scenes, directing, observing and learning, and always searching for the next member of the Atlantic Records family. Somehow, I have a feeling he's sitting, watching Ray Charles bang away on a piano somewhere. I'm not sure if they're in heaven or hell, but wherever they are, I have a feeling they're both smiling.

The second item concerns the termination of Judith Regan, the woman who landed at HarperCollins and rose the ranks to creating her own division but who was ultimately dismissed over her intent to publish OJ Simpson's "confession," which I originally discussed in these pages about a month ago. Ms. Regan's rise was as much a result of dedication, hard work and intelligence as it was a result of her interest in tabloid-esque journalism. She nurtured projects from bona-fide authors, but her tenure at ReganBooks will most likely be remembered for her involvement with projects from Jose Canseco, Drew Barrymore and other celebrities. And her decision to green-light the OJ project -- not simply in book form, but the decision to interview him -- was likely her decision to create buzz and gossip, not to avenge abused women. However, to her credit, the bulk of her projects at ReganBooks wasn't a who's who of literary accomplishment, so my guess is that her termination was the result of in-house politics, not as a response to a complete backlash to the OJ project(s). To wit, industry estimates suggested her involvement in HarperCollins resulted in 25% of that organization's annual revenue, so to simply jettison an individual responsible for a quarter of the company's revenue over one bad decision is not plausible. Still, her dismissal isn't entirely shocking; however, even considering the OJ debacle, I still have a lot of respect for her. She's smart, very tapped into her various industries, and will emerge somewhere else, likely with a vengeance. I'm looking forward to her next move, and I'm looking forward to her retribution with respect to her former employer. It should be interesting.

I've encountered a variety of opinions with regard to her decision to publish OJ's "confession;" almost all agree that it was a bad idea, if for no other reason than selling a book, or advertising (for the interview) would no doubt be akin to profiting from murder. However, I've never seen CBS or any other legitimate TV network to squash an interview from someone like Manuel Noriega or another head of state reputed to be responsible for mass murder or genocide. What OJ purportedly did was repulsive and disgusting; however, there are a variety of people whose stories occupy books and TV interviews which did not inspire this much revulsion, let alone the dismissal of one or more of the people responsible for those decisions. I guess this story will continue, but I hope this incident doesn't set a precedent for legitimate networks and publishers. It's one thing to opt not to publish or publicize material which may be derogatory or despicable; it's quite another to censor and to dismiss people willing to look beyond social response and move forward with conviction.

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