The Blind Leading the Deaf Through a Desert

Vegas, baby! RS's founder attends a music biz conference and finds the only thing missing is rock and roll

Las Vegas in 1969. Credit: MyLoupe/UIG Via Getty Images

Las Vegas —— Right now I am no longer in Las Vegas, but listening for the first time in three days to the new Beatles album, and just any one song on it tells me more about music, rock and roll, and the recording industry than I was able to find out in two days and two nights at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, attending and speaking at the annual Bill Gavin Radio Programming Conference, the biggest, most important and influential conference held each year in the record-radio business.

Attending were at least a dozen presidents of multi-million dollar corporations  — some of them representing multi-billion dollar corporate superstructures —— disc jockeys and promotion men in huge numbers and of all sorts, the programmers of the big radio stations, and so on. In general, record biz hoopla. ("Hi, my name is Dump Deegan, swing shift jock at WSHT in Baltimore and we're just doing the underground thing late at night like we really dig it, but yuh hafta unnerstand the boss doesn't dig the music but we're trying to turn him on.")

Kind Reader, forgive the first-person viewpoint, but there is simply no other way to chart this little trip —— certainly not in any logical sequence — than through the formless and shifting ego. One wants to foreswear the ego unless one happens to be as good as Norman Ego; Tom Wolfe, you were right! You must get back to Vegas just for a day to dig a new casino built since you were there: the Circus Circus Casino, an electrographic neon sign artist gone wild, not just in designing the sign, but the entire fucking casino. All three floors of it. You just have to get back.

Las Vegas is where the record-radio industry goes to have its annual Bill Gavin Convention; or it is where Bill Gavin, a radio programming consultant, chooses to have it, and it is an amiable locale to everyone. The top record companies hold their own conventions elsewhere, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Nassau, San Francisco, or in scattered parts of the country —— but the most important of them all is in Las Vegas and that's where it's at.

Not everyone prefers to be in Vegas, but that is where they are, nonetheless. The Hotel Riviera was mercifully free of Muzak but also totally devoid of rock and roll, the most important item on the agenda. Except for a handful of executives heavily devoted to the creative end of the record business, particularly A&R, and an even smaller handful functioning in non-business music capacities (only one or two actual performers) the conference atmosphere and approach was most like a meeting of washing machine and refrigerator distributors and manufacturers.

There were only two variations on their style: for one thing it was integrated and there was more than a fair proportion of black people, mainly disc jockeys, promotion men, middle-level record people and an occasional vice president. The other was the style itself: carefully trimmed reddish sideburns, yellow-tinted sunglasses in the wide-lens, gold-wire rim fashion, moccasins and/or buckskin jackets with fringes, all of it so neatly done.

Three other basic molds included cigar chewers and sports shirts (generally the owners of local record distribution operations and old time record men); very dignified pin-striped sports suits and white shirts (the highest executives of the biggest of companies, the ones with the fantastic amounts of personal money to spend and a corporate style based on that assumption) and the hip people, whose styles of clothes and dress ranged from the well-heeled to the not so well-heeled, all of them identifiable by the excess of their unmanicured, long or longish hair, the wildness of their eyes and their general weird and strange behavior.

I arrived on a Friday night, as the talk I was invited to give, on the FM radio panel, was scheduled for Saturday. The room I had at the Hotel Riviera where the conference was headquartered, was an orgy of plasticized antiqued pieces, done in olive green and brown drab flaked with gold; long mirrors and plastic-leafed bushes in front of royal green artificial silk curtains. The bath-room, right off a separate dressing room, contained an ice box and a wall-telephone next to the shower.

My window held a panoramic view of the hotel and casino strip. The particular feature from my side of the hotel was a glorious and intimate view of the Stardust Hotel sign exploding stardust bursts into the night. Tom Wolfe, in a piece in New York Magazine, footnoted this information: "The most spectacular effects, as in the new 188-foot high Stardust Hotel and Casino sign in Las Vegas, still use fields of light bulbs for the most brilliant effect, plus plastic facings, acrylic colors, and neon for outlining letters and other highlight effects. The Stardust sign, by Ad Art Company, of Stockton, California, has 25,000 bulbs, 611,000 watts of power, and solid state programming with 27 different lighting sequences."

Amidst all this, the record-radio circus is enacted downstairs in the Riviera lobby as the velveteen-trousered troops of the manufacturers and the silk shirts and on and on chase each other around the casino floor, weaving among the slots, around baccarat tables, through roulette wheels, over blackjack stools, in the endless hustle.

And who was there, if not to hustle or to be hustled?

My God, I ran into Brian Rohan, the hippie attorney from San Francisco, who first got into the scene through his defense work for Ken Kesey; now Brian Rohan, the wheeling-dealing lawyer for a dozen rock groups from San Francisco. Brian Rohan is out tonight in Las Vegas cruising the casino. Kesey would you dig it?

And John Carpenter, one of the original rock and roll hippies, once the manager of the Great Society, a partner in the Family Dog, there when the rock and roll scene started long ago in its relaxed and luxurious abundance (so little of that left now). Yes, John Carpenter, now the rock critic for the Los Angeles Free Press, weekly chronicling the doings of the Los Angeles pop society —— so open and foolish in his heart. Yes, John Carpenter is here tonight in Las Vegas, looking totally wigged in the most unconscious way, with a cape over his shoulder —— yes, John Carpenter, flown here, fed and housed by Columbia Records.

There are the dozens of cats whom you've never met before saying to you: "Nice seein ya again, babe." You ask yourself, "Whaaat?" I was walking around with the Big Daddy, Tom Donahue, one-time king of San Francisco Top 40 stations, now the king of the FM rock scene —— you can't miss Big Daddy, 300 pounds and a black beard, and everybody stops Tom for a handshake and a "Hey, Babe." It was not in Big Daddy's stars to be inconspicuous.

The Gavin Conference is not important for what it's accomplished; most of the significant issues are honeyed over in ten-minute speeches. What's important is that industry respect for Mr. Gavin is so high that he has been in the position for the past three years of providing the only neutral ground for a radio-record industry get-together, and it looks like everybody is there, in the land of the silver dollar hustle.

There's Tom Dowd, chief engineer for Atlantic Records, a graying but boyish figure, so impeccable in his musical abilities, so pleasant in his manner, a warm man of the music accepting awards for himself, Jerry Wexler, and Atlantic Records (named by Bill Gavin as the record company of the year, which it obviously was in 1968).

Some of the record executives are fascinating people, either men in close creative contact with the music, the men to whom serious artistic attention must be paid, and others wielding tremendous corporate wealth and power in the rock and roll field, also men to whom attention must be paid, men who operate in a highly rarified sphere, one which affects sideways the course of popular music.

Clive Davis, for instance, president of Columbia Records. No one calls him Mr. Davis. His style is so good that everyone knows him and knows him as Clive —— "Oh yes, just yesterday I told Clive that ... " Columbia Records is the largest, in terms of sales, record company in the United States. Alone among the pre-rock major labels, it has gone with rock and roll, done so with taste, and made millions in return. Everyone at Columbia says that this is due to Clive.

Next to his boss, Goddard Lieberson, president of the Columbia Group, Clive is the suavest three-button double-blazer, pin-stripe in mute blue executive in the record business. He is a supreme cultivation of the cultural style of the modern American corporation. Clive speaks in the softest tones, with inflections and eyebrows, and the most well-picked words. To me, it is slightly incredible to hear a person speak in such a literate manner of rock and roll —— always with the right question or bit of information —— in such dispassionate terms and with such elegant turn of phrase.

But the Columbia Rock Machine does have some real turn-ons. So what do you make of that?

Earlier there had been Big Daddy, wandering around the casinos, among the 24-year-old couples, who are so amazingly an innocent part of the American Dream that they have come to Vegas to play the slots for their honeymoons. Soon they all turn exaggerated and disproportioned —— the LSD faces of yesteryear.

Later that evening, I returned to my room, a little dazed. Room service delivered my two cokes and a turkey sandwich with potato salad. They had not included a napkin or a fork or a knife and spoon, but they did bring two beer can openers.

Local Las Vegas TV commercials are all based on a car-lot salesman level version of the Johnnny Carson format, where the sponsor himself sits at a table with the TV announcer and gives a personal talk about his muffler service, beauty salon, motel or Chinese kitchen (the Chinaman brought with him a plate of sweet and sour pineapple shrimp.) The late-night movie was Across the Pacific, with Humphrey Bogart pursuing the traitor, Sidney Greenstreet.

The next day, Saturday, I attended two panels, speaking at one, and heard Goddard Lieberson, head of the Columbia Group, give the luncheon keynote, if I may borrow a phrase from the GOP convention. The morning panel was a discussion of Top 40 Radio which took place in the Versailles Room. One heard some intelligent and informed remarks —— about six times in the entire panel. Joe Smith, the vice president and general manager of Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, was by far the most intelligent.

Joe came up through the record promotion end, with a genius for talking, and engaging charm. He was once William E. Buckley's roommate at Yale. Anyway, Joe got up there and, in his totally stone blunt and totally forgiveable and humorous manner, told the panelists representing the Top 40 stations and those in the audience connected with the Top 40 scene, that they were tasteless, boring, narrow-minded, ignorant, stupid, uncreative and totally without any sense of humor. He was right and they all knew it and applauded. Unfortunately that won't change things very much.

The luncheon took place at noon. Mo Ostin, general manager of Reprise Records happens along, and Mo is one of the genuine "our people" in the record business. Mo says "Man, I never got to tell you what finally happened."

I thought, "Whaaat?"

I hadn't seen him in two months and the first thing he does is resume a conversation I had completely forgotten about that we'd had at the Big Sur Folk Festival. "What happened" was that Mo and his young son were having difficulty finding a place to stay. They winded up driving about 200 miles in all directions but could only find No Vacancy signs. Mo said they finally ended up spending the night in their car.

Mo knows. We had lunch at the same table and the conversation went back and forth. "Man," I said, "this place is so incredible. Last night, I spent the evening wandering around the casino ... " And Mo interrupts and says "Smashed out of your head," and then he laughs.

Lieberson was introduced at length by his protege, Clive Davis. Lieberson said of the record industry, "We think of singles and albums and bands and 4 and 8 and 16 tracks, we think of product. But we don't often enough stop to think of music and its qualities ... "

He told the audience that contemporary music is good and valuable in its own right (although he had to justify it by comparison with modern classical composers, bringing in, of course, some salient details from the Columbia "Bach to Rock" promotion) and, of course, Lieberson is right: rock and roll is music, and that ought to be an equally salient point to the record industry as sales.

For lieberson's speech, the Columbia sales staff and promotion men all showed up wearing red, white and green Columbia Records polo shirts.

The FM radio panel, on which I participated, was moved from the smaller Montmarte Room to the larger Versailles Room because of the unanticipated interest in the subject of the new rock music. Since this was the only forum that was developed for the music itself (neither Lieberson nor Davis attended), it seemed to me one of the most important posisble discussions of that weekend.

Although it hardly worked hard enough, it was a unique panel, with Tom Donahue, myself, and Jac Holzman, president of Elektra Records. The topics raised concerned sex, revolution, education, dope, and music. As such, it was the only panel where the reality of today's music was touched upon.

Following our panel, Jac Holzman and I took a nervous stroll through the hotel. In the elevator, Jac pointed out that the place was wallpapered with imitation alligator-skin, done in a pinkish-red hue. A few minutes later we were off to visit Las Vegas, waiting for us right outside the hotel door. Right across the street from us, the location of Circus Circus Casino, the grandest of them all!

Circus Circus Casino is the newest gambling structure in Las Vegas; unlike all the other famed casinos, this one does not have a hotel, and thus makes all its money from gambling, something no other business there has been able to do. They seem to be doing it remarkably well. It is a place of American wonder; decadent is not the word for it, the word is "unreal."

From the outside the Circus Circus Casino appears in the shape of a gaudy red and white circus tent. At the entrance is a neon sign atop a merry-go-round as a tribute to electrographic sign art advertising; inside the place is built on the theory of the Guggenheim Museum with three lazily descending spiral floors, with a thousand games and distractions on each floor, until it reaches the bottom where there is the casino pit, location of the tables, slots and wheels.

The pit is open all the way to the roof, and thus every floor has a view it. But thirty feet over the open casino pit is a circus net and above that platforms for a high-wire balancing act and swings for a major trapeze show. These attractions take place every fifteen minutes, but the gambling continues at a furious pace, unaware of what is taking place overhead.

The rest of the three floors contain a number of attractions, combining aspects of the circus, the sideshow, the carnival, television, and all of it done in a highly glossy Disneyland reality. Little restaurants, bars, acts, games, all based on the idea of gambling and spending quarters, nickels, dimes, half-dollars and even dollar bills. (One slot machine takes only dollar bills. Incredible.)

As you walk in ($1.25 cash admission) you begin this giant wandering trek through the three floors, encountering items of sheer amazement.

Everything in Las Vegas is highly overdone in the most garish pastels and Day-Glo; it is all bright, designed for the most superficial kind of comfort —— comfort for the material ego, not the soul —— and it is highly uncomfortable. There is not a mellow moment to be found in all of Las Vegas. If it isn't the color, it is the metallic chatter of ice cubes in glasses; if it isn't that, it is the clothes. A thorough survey may prove it impossible to buy a plain white, or decently tasteful shirt in all of Las Vegas.

It is totally synthetic. We wandered about the floors and the gaming pits for three hours, totally disbelieving, with eyes hanging right out of our heads. On the top floor is a round steel cabinet labeled "peek show!" For a quarter you could peek, and peek we did through the binocular-shaped lenses on which a quarter opened the steel slots. The sight was a perfumed young lady of the Playboy center-spread genre doing a topless dance.

There were dozens of attractions like this or on this ideological level, including one curtained booth where those game enough (and over 21) could throw a baseball at a small target in front of a net, behind which two unclothed women were seductively laying on couches, coaxing those in attendance to the tune of a brashly muted Duane Eddy-ish soundtrack. If you hit the ball (which we saw someone do) the ladies toppled out of their couches, sans silk scarves, and did a lunging dance for the small closed-in audience while the volume of the music tripled.

As we wandered about the gambling floor (and no one who is gambling pays any attention to the trapeze act over their heads, the games and entertainment so effectively keeping from the tables anyone who isn't into serious gambling) a cop removed me to a back room for having neither an ID nor a good hair-cut.

I was taken to a security room through a doorway at the bottom level; a moment through the door, the cemented construction of the building lay revealed. Despite all the plastic decor on inside the building run amuck, no one had even bothered to paint the pipes or tile the ceiling once into the back-room area.

And there, I and Jac Holzman were thrown out the back door of the Circus Circus Casino, the ultimate indignity of Las Vegas.

The conference continued on Saturday evening, main event of the weekend, the awards banquet, at which the annual Bill Gavin Awards are presented to various members and companies in the record and radio fields. They are distinctions —— because the judging is unimpeachably fair —— that carry some weight.

The food was charred steak or something of that general flavor, preceded by salad cocktail,, far too heavy on the mayonnaise. The entire personnel of the conference was there, representing the diversity that comprises this very complex industry.

I am familiar with only two aspects of the record industry, and only one small area of radio, FM rock and roll. On the record side the men I am acquainted with, to speak to, were the decision-makers on the one hand and the music business dopers on the other. (There were quite a few dopers, a very sizable minority, at the conference, including a number of speakers and at least one of the board members.)

The nominations were read in Academy Awards style with a Laugh-In style, L.A. disc jockey named Garry Owens doing an incredibly hammy and funny real-life imitation of the Academy Awards presentations. I don't know anything about the awards for most of the winners (Promotion Man of the Year, various cities; Easy Listening Station of the Year, etc.), except primarily for Jerry Wexler (who had not attended) who was Record Executive of the Year for the third straight year. His company, Atlantic Records, was chosen Record Company of the Year, as well.

There were no awards given in any creative field (except that four of the 36 awards were given to A&R men) and not a single category for FM rock and roll. Despite a panel on the subject, it went ignored.

Later that night I was introduced to Davy Jones of the Monkees (two of the others were also there). At first he made no sign of recognition, indeed not knowing. But I insisted on a confrontation, on putting this very good-looking young man though changes, and asked the person who introduced us (Bob Krasnow) to mention that I was the editor of Rolling Stone, and Krasnow did. And so did this richly groomed young man react. He told me that Rolling Stone was "too one-sided toward the underground." Perhaps a fair remark, but one made in a most congenial spirit. And I came away with a liking for him.

But it was too perfect for Las Vegas. In fact, Las Vegas was too perfect for the entire thing. Not once during the conference (leaving early Sunday morning, though it had at least another day to go) did I hear any rock and roll. It certainly had its own drama, the drama of the record industry, the drama of Las Vegas, the drama of what the clear indications of the conference were, but not once was it connected to some rock and roll music.

In essence it comes down to the sales statistics that Irwin Steinberg, executive vice president of Mercury Records, presented to the gathering on its first day: 45 r.p.m. singles account for only 20% of the total dollar volume in sales. The remaining 80% is LP's, which Top 40 radio does not ordinarily play. It is the kind of music FM rock and roll stations play.

AM radio play, while certainly still relevant to record sales, is no longer the dominant factor, and in fact has less and less influence daily in the single largest creative and sales area of the contemporary record industry —— rock and roll. At one time radio play had a stranglehold grip on rock and roll; it still exercises great influence, but it is no longer absolute, and the evidence of this conference is that radio will be even less important next year.

I don't think there will ever be a Bill Gavin Conference in Las Vegas that has as much meaning to the record industry as this one. If you put two and two together from the speeches of Joe Smith and Irwin Steinberg, it becomes clear that the radio industry is increasingly irrelevant, both in creative and financial respects. The convulsion of rock and roll, long apparent to the audience and apparent to the active and hip companies two years ago, has finally hit the radio industry and the rest of the record companies, and it is breaking them apart. The Top 40 panel, at which they discussed the perplexing problem of what cuts to play off an LP (and not one person on the entire panel suggested listening to the LP as a method) was a spectacle of blind men wandering about deaf in a desert.

And that's where Las Vegas is at.