When Clive Davis released his memoir ‘The Soundtrack of My Life‘ in February, his extraordinary achievements over five decades in the music industry were dwarfed by the revelation of his bisexuality, sending everyone into a tweeting frenzy. Bisexuals will be disappointed to learn that Davis’ coming out is merely a footnote in a 550-page book. Don’t look for any profound lessons on whether and how his sexuality shaped his character or if he operated in the conservative business world with a different kind of awareness or empathy.
But then again profundity is clearly not the aim of this memoir. ‘The Soundtrack of My Life’ is a completely dispassionate story of a man who launched the careers of music legends like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Andy Williams, Simon and Garfunkel, Dionne Warwick, Carlos Santana all the way to contemporary phenomena like Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson and many more. It is ironic because these artists and their songs have aroused strong emotions in listeners. Their voices have been with us during births and christenings and weddings, when friends died, when a new love blossomed or left us with a broken heart, when the political winds changed, or when natural disasters hit us. Indeed their music has been the soundtrack of our lives.
Davis’ insistence on objectivity, a formal reverence for everyone he writes about becomes evident early on in the memoir. Even life changing events fail to offer any insight into the writer’s emotional journey. His mother’s death is described in precisely six sentences: “I got a call that my mother had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was being taken to Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. It was late afternoon, and I was home alone; my father was traveling for work. There was no one I could ask to take me to the hospital. Eventually, I managed to get there, and I saw her lying on a mobile bed. She turned, saw me, and waved me away as if she didn’t want me to see her so ill. And then she died.” He even describes his first and second wives as statistics: name, height, hair color, and general disposition, and we have to be satisfied knowing simply that his marriages were “wonderful”.
Such restraint runs throughout the book. Like a needle in a haystack one can find a handful of insightful remarks such as: “Complete originality only goes so far, and is rarer than people think. It’s even rarer that it has commercial potential.” But the overarching tone of the book can be summed up by one of Davis’ mantras: “I believe that hard work makes things happen and helps you be prepared to take advantage when luck comes your way.” And this all-American formula for success – hard work and luck – seems to be what propelled Davis to turn recording labels like Columbia, Sony, and Arista into profitable ventures. Otherwise the book reads like a rote list of artists, how some of their signature songs became worldwide hits, how much money their albums grossed, and which awards they won. Some of his decisions were based on his unshakeable belief in a particular song (like ‘Stoney End’ for Barbra Streisand or ‘Mandy’ for Barry Manilow). But don’t look for clues to his business savvy or any specific leadership strategy that he believed in. Hard work and luck were the soundtracks of Davis’ life.
In an industry that has generated some of the most salacious memoirs, ‘The Soundtrack of My Life’ is a breath of fresh air, a respectful catalog that focuses on people’s virtues and forgives their follies. He has plenty to say about the artists he promoted to dizzying heights in their career trajectories but it all reads as if he was preparing a detailed business report for his board of directors. If there is any sentiment within these 550 pages it is reserved for people like Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, Aretha Franklin and, of course, Whitney Houston.
As for his bisexuality, it takes up four pages in the final chapter. It is awkwardly written, using terms like “sexual preference”, and the descriptions of his male partners contain no names, no character traits or particular human qualities that attracted him to these men. He does criticize – with polite restraint, of course – our society’s misunderstanding about, and denial of, bisexuality.
Coming out is difficult at any age but for Davis it must have been a particularly significant decision to come out publicly at the age of eighty (the book suggests that Davis has been out to his family for nearly two decades). Openly bisexual singers, songwriters, and musicians – from Joan Baez and David Bowie to Ani DiFranco to recent additions Lady Gaga and Frank Ocean plus many more – have always been part of the music industry. But Davis is the highest profile executive to come out. While this is unlikely to knock Davis off his pedestal, it remains to be seen whether the industry can nurture an environment for others to come out at any age without negative consequences on their career or without the irrational fear that bisexuals can’t be inspiring leaders. The industry’s reaction to Davis may be an encouraging sign.
It is remarkable that a majority of what we have in our iPods has something to do with Clive Davis. If you want a how-to guide for business management practices in the music industry, ‘The Soundtrack of My Life’ is the book for you. Your time will be better spent, however, listening to the songs that score the soundtrack of your life.