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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Monday, January 24, 2011


It's 25 years ago tomorrow that Dylan's most high-profile manager, Albert Grossman, died.

This is his entry in The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia *:

Grossman, Albert [1926 - 1986]
Albert B. Grossman was born in Chicago on May 21, 1926, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who worked as tailors. He attended Lane Technical High School and graduated from Roosevelt University, Chicago with a degree in economics, though he’s also said to have studied child psychology under the great Bruno Bettelheim (later the author of the pioneering work The Uses Of Enchantment, a 1970s study of the inherent psychological wisdom of the fairy tale). Perhaps this helped Grossman to psych people out, which he was extremely good at, in his later business dealings in the music industry.

After university he worked for the Chicago Housing Authority, leaving in the late 1950s in unclear circumstances  -  it’s often suggested that he was fired for misconduct  -  to go into the club business. Seeing folk star Bob Gibson perform at the Off Beat Room in 1956 prompted Grossman’s idea of a ‘listening room’ to showcase Gibson and other talent, as the folk revival movement grew. The result was the Gate of Horn in the basement of the Rice Hotel, where Jim (later ROGER) MCGUINN got his early inspiration and kicked off his career as a 12-string guitarist. Grossman moved into managing some of the acts who appeared at his club, and in 1959, with Boston-based club owner George Wein, who had founded the Newport Jazz Festival, Albert started up the NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL. ‘The American public,’ he told ROBERT SHELTON, ‘is like Sleeping Beauty, waiting to be kissed awake by the prince of Folk Music.’

He was a pudgy man with derisive eyes, with a regular table at Gerde’s Folk City from which he surveyed the scene in silence, and many people loathed him. In a milieu of New Left reformers and folkie idealists campaigning for a better world, Albert Grossman was a breadhead, seen to move serenely and with deadly purpose like a barracuda circling shoals of fish. Other people  -  among them Jones and HOWARD ALK  -  liked him, finding him loyal, flexible and tolerant, polite and considerate on a personal level and possessed of a dry sense of humour.

Either way, he protected those whose careers he managed, building them up, gaining them far more of their dues and defending their interests more fiercely than the nicer, more amateurish managers in the Village. His clients included Bob Gibson and Hamilton Camp, ODETTA, PETER PAUL & MARY, JOHN LEE HOOKER, IAN & SYLVIA, GORDON LIGHTFOOT, Richie Havens, TODD RUNDGREN, THE BAND, the Electric Flag, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. Sometimes he advertised that he was managing an act before they knew it themselves (as for instance in the 1965 Newport Folk Festival programme, when MIMI & RICHARD FARINA  -  and their manager  -  were surprised to find themselves on Grossman’s list of clients).

He moved in on Bob Dylan’s career very early  -  secretly his manager by the time he encouraged IZZY YOUNG to lay out the money to hire Carnegie Chapter Hall for Dylan’s launch there in November 1961, though not officially in place as manager until August 20, 1962  -  and who is to say that Dylan might not have taken a little longer to break through had Grossman not been wheeling and dealing for him? Nor can it be denied that he accommodated this most intelligent, difficult, hustler of a client superbly  -  giving him space, not only figuratively but literally too, out at his house near Woodstock (where DANIEL KRAMER photographed him so memorably in early 1965), and never telling him, as others were quick to do, that he should stay where he was artistically, or stay sober, or play safe.

Grossman is to be seen in all his stealthy pomp, like the Cheshire cat without its grin, oozing in and out of the scenes of Don’t Look Back as he guides Dylan through his 1965 British tour and out the other side into superstardom.

In 1969 he built the Bearsville Recording Studio near Woodstock, and in 1970 founded Bearsville Records. He had a pudgy finger in every possible pie, taking his percentage from venues and festivals his clients played, from their fees and royalties, from their music publishing, from the studios they recorded in, from the record labels that released their work, and sometimes from the houses they rented out of town.

By this time he was coming to the end of his association with Dylan. But he guarded Dylan’s premium value to the end. At the Isle of Wight Music Festival in August 1969, by this time with his long hair in a ponytail (a rare sight on a man in his 40s), he was prowling around the hospitality tents ahead of Dylan’s appearance. Asked if he’d heard the rumours that various members of THE BEATLES were going to join him on stage, he replied, sotto voce: ‘Of course the Beatles would like to join Dylan on stage; I should like to fly to the moon.’ Bob Dylan has never been given that level of guardianship since. The contracts between them were officially dissolved on July 17, 1970.

There are two interesting comments on Grossman in the SCORSESE film No Direction Home. One is Dylan’s: ‘He was kind of like a Colonel Tom Parker figure…you could smell him coming.’ The other is JOHN COHEN’s: ‘I don’t think Albert manipulated Bob, because Bob was weirder than Albert.’

Albert Grossman died of a heart attack while flying on Concorde to London on January 25, 1986. He is buried behind his own Bearsville Theater near Woodstock, New York. His widow Sally, née Bueler, an ex-New York City waitress whom he’d married in 1964, and who is the woman in red on the front cover of Bringing It All Back Home, continued to oversee his domain after his death. In 2004, reportedly, she began to sell off some of her late husband’s holdings, including the theatre complex, the Bearsville restaurant and the studios.

[Albert Grossman to Robert Shelton, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, London: Penguin edn., 1987, p.88; Grossman on Dylan & the Beatles, remark to this writer, Isle of Wight UK, Aug 31 1969. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, London: Thames & Hudson, 1976.]

* What I don't mention in this entry, but include in the entry on C.P. LEE a propos of his book Like The Night (and indeed Like The Night Revisited) is this:

It may be suspect to claim to tell us what Dylan and ALBERT GROSSMAN notice and don’t notice as they take their taxi-ride to Didsbury in May 1964, but what they might have noticed is nicely drawn, and so are they. The richly comic way that they’re seen as mesmerising exotica by a young Mancunian, Neville, whose task is to look after them at the TV studio: this is beautifully rendered, and with great vividness, from Bob’s spidery shyness to Grossman’s fleshy coldness to Neville’s dilemmas and delight. (C. P. has more than a soft spot for Albert. He speaks ruefully here and there in the book of how we all wished in vain for Dylan’s mid-60s cool, but actually C. P. would settle for Grossman’s.)


Anonymous Kieran said...

What about the current incumbent, Jeff Rosen? He seems to have succeeded in steering the horse quite well, bringing many marketing innovations to Bob's career, and maybe helping to keep him focussed on cementing Brand Dylan in the publics consciousness...

10:44 am  
Blogger raggedclown said...

At least Grossman genuinely liked the music and the artists he managed, unlike today's managers, who are just pushing a product. There is a scene in the unreleased footage of 'Dont Look Back' in which Grossman just throws his head back and listens contentedly, eyes closed, while Baez sings; a rare moment of relaxation.

2:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The dry comment in the article to the effect that Dylan´s business relation with Albert was terminated in June 1970 is more than a little coy.

2:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Difficult, hustler of a client"

"And never telling him, as others were quick to do, that he should stay where was was artistically, or stay sober or play safe"

Very enjoyable stuff

5:09 pm  

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