What Would David Geffen Do?

David Geffern

Watching the unfortunately titled (I’ll get to why in a minute) Inventing David Geffen on PBS, I was struck by what an amazing trendsetter Geffen was.  He had an unflinching talent to read and then create cultural moments.  First with music, then with film.

Think about it.  Geffen was responsible for the success Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, CCSN, Jackson Brown but also Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Counting Crows, Hole, and Beck. Not to mention the co-founder of DreamWorks.

Given his track record, I think PBS make a mistake in framing his biography in terms of self-invention. Yes, I know he was gay and coming out was big for him personally.  Yes, he was a poor kid from Brooklyn.  But that seems like a minor subplot in an otherwise bigger life.  The story, it seems to me, was his unwavering ability to discover, nurture and create a cultural context for his artists.   His gift was three-fold:

1. Geffen understood the historical moment.   In “Doctor My Eyes,” Geffen artist Jackson Browne sings “I’ve been waiting to awaken from these dreams,” and with that line articulates the post-60’s malaise. Many of the music he represented in the 1970’s had a feeling of introspection and inwardness, which was how the country seemed to be feeling. Likewise, in the indulgent Reagan era 1980’s Geffen gave us Aerosmith, with more sex, less guilt.  And then there was Nirvana in the 90’s ready to deal with all that Gen X rage.

2.  Geffen understood and could spot talent, even potential talent.  Lots of people can read “the times” and make trending predictions. But he could take something raw and nurture into something better.   Not that his artists were always happy with his decisions, but that he took his work seriously—and that created a culture of craftsmanship around him.

3.  Finally, he knew how to market the hell out of his artists and fought like the Brooklyn kid he was to do so.  It’s not easy to sell something that is ahead of its time but Geffen managed it over and over and over again.

The question is:  Was Geffen an artist as much as Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan?  Or maybe Andy Warhol is a better analogy?  Or maybe we need another word for what he did.  I like the idea of culturist—someone who is able to not only predict and understand cultural changes but is able to create works of art that articulate a moment.

I think we all need to embody a little David Geffen as we grow are careers, our art, our businesses. We must understand our cultural moment, nurture our talent and those of the folks around us, and then tell our story as loudly and passionately as possible.