BOOKS: Q&A With Joel Selvin, Author Of HERE COMES THE NIGHT: The Dark Soul Of Bert Berns & The Dirty Business Of Rhythm & Blues


BY JONATHAN VALANIA Bert Berns, the greatest songwriter/producer you never heard of, was not long for this world. Born with a congenital heart defect, he was told he would not live to see 21, and though he defied prevailing medical opinion, he was dead before he turned 39. Berns [PICTURED, ABOVE RIGHT didn’t start working in the music business until he was 30, but over the course of the next eight years he wrote and/or produced some of the greatest singles of all time: The Isley Brothers’ “Twist And Shout,” The Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk,” Solomon Burke [PICTURED, ABOVE LEFT]’s “Cry To Me,” The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy,” The McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy,” Janis Joplin’s “Piece Of My Heart,” Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl.” There is, of course, a dark side to all those songs. Morally speaking, his story is complicated, riddled with personal betrayals, cutthroat business deals and mob violence. Which is why you probably never heard of him. He was outlived by the powerful people that he partnered with and then fucked over, and they made a point of erasing his name from the history of pop music in the ‘60s. Former San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin spent 16 years trying to fill in all the blanks that were left behind. The result is Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul Of Bert Berns And The Dirty Business Of Rhythm & Blues, an elegantly-rendered, exhaustively-researched must-read for any serious fan or scholar of the golden age of rock n’ roll music.

PHAWKER: You’ve been a music journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1970. You’ve written several books about music, including Summer of Love: The Inside Story of LSD, Rock & Roll, Free Love and High Times in the Wild West and then you also wrote the Sammy Hagar memoir, Red: My Life in Rock. From the Grateful Dead to Van Hagar — that seems like an almost un-bridgeable span in terms of taste and sensibility.

JOEL SELVIN: You forgot my Ricky Nelson. Yeah, If you’re going to devote your life to pop music journalism you better have a broad perspective.

PHAWKER: I get the Summer Of Love book and I get the Ricky Nelson stuff — I love his old rockabilly sides. But in all honesty, are you a Sammy Hagar fan or was that a job?

JOEL SELVIN: I have known Sammy a long, long time. I met Sammy before he even joined Montrose when he first came to San Francisco. When I left the Chronicle after 36 years in 2009, I thought I would try my hand at the book business. The first most obvious commercial proposition that I saw lying around was talking to my old pal Sammy Hagar into doing his autobiography. Sammy and I have a history. When Van Halen toured, the first Van Halen tour when he was the lead singer he came to San Francisco, he played four nights and I attended the first night and wrote a review saying essentially that this was the ruin of two perfectly decent bands. Sammy got on the stage the next night and announced my home phone number and told everybody to call me and give me hell. So, you know, I mean, Sammy Hagar fan? Did I think that was a good book? Yes, great book. Do I sit around and listen to Sammy Hagar music? No, I’m more of a Ray Charles guy.

PHAWKER: Did you get a lot of phone calls?

JOEL SELVIN: Weeks of phone calls. Weeks and weeks.

PHAWKER: That’s very funny. Before we get into the book I wanted to talk a little bit about journalism, the state of journalism, music journalism, etc. You said you left the Chronicle in ‘09 because you saw the writing on the wall or you were just ready to call it a career?

JOEL SELVIN: I saw the new [newspaper] union contract. That’s the truth. The business is pretty much shot and I saw them cutting out more and more space from arts coverage. I saw the music scene sort of evaporating and I thought pretty soon they’re going to be sending me out to interview people who put pizza ovens in their kitchen.

PHAWKER: You were around for the golden age of rock criticism. Can you talk a little bit about how music journalism and/or music criticism has evolved in that time and where it stands these days. Is it still relevant or necessary? Does is still play a crucial role?

JOEL SELVIN: Yeah, when I started there the phrase ‘music journalism’ would have been laughable. I was working at the Chronicle on part-time basis for two years before they even put a one column mug shot with one of my reviews. They squeezed it between the edge of the paper and the adult movie ads. Over the years as [the Baby Boomer] generation grew and the demographics expanded, the newspapers took greater interest in music coverage in the ’80s. As the music and concert industry grew I started getting better real estate in the paper. I remember going to the opening night of U2’s PopMart tour in Vegas in 1997 and there were people from fifty newspapers around the country covering the concert. It seemed very much like a political race or something. Music journalism is probably more relevant and more widespread than ever before. I mean there’s that term now ‘music journalism.’ The Internet has certainly opened up a tremendous amount of opportunities for expanding information and opinions about this matter. Whether record reviews are important or not, well, I am not sure. One of the things that led me to leave the paper was I really was challenged by trying to figure out exactly what was my role as a pop music reporter at the Chronicle in the post-20th century pop scene. I did not get into this business to review Britney Spears concerts.

PHAWKER: Let’s get into the book. It’s really beautifully written and pretty exhaustedly researched, best I could tell, especially considering that a lot of the key players are no longer breathing. What prompted you to write this book? What was the Eureka Moment?

JOEL SELVIN: Well, I have been fascinated by Berns since I first ran across his name in a book called The Sound of the City by Charlie Gillett back in 1969/1970. He mentioned Berns and a select group of his records and I immediately recognized some common ingredient that is spoken in his work and then somebody told me about his [congenital] heart problem. When he was 14 years old he was told he wouldn’t live to be 21. He didn’t start in the record business until he was 30. There were clear signs of his pathology that I sensed in these records. It got more pronounced toward the end of his career when the symptoms were more dramatic and he knew that his time was coming to a close. He became much more focused on writing songs about his heart. For instance, one of his last hit records was formed around line that he had and he was just trying to get somebody to write the song with him. He asked Van Morrison, but Van didn’t want to do it. The line was ‘Take it, take another little piece of my heart.’

PHAWKER: Bert Berns wrote “Twist and Shout” which is a pretty miraculous thing in and of itself but what’s shocking in the book is that Phil Spector, who was the King Midas of Pop at the time, was assigned to produce it and he blew it, he basically managed to kill the golden goose. It’s kind of like screwing up “Stairway to Heaven” or something like that. Can you speak to that? Why do you think that Spector just did not get what to do with it or was it a matter of too many cooks spoiling the stew?

JOEL SELVIN: Well, a little bit of speculation here, the scene is as you described, Phil Spector, nineteen years old, producing one of his first sessions in New York. I think that Spector, who’s a bit of a cocky, arrogant young guy who is pushing his way into the New York music scene wanted to imprint his personality on this piece of material and dominate the proceedings. It was after that session that Berns decided he would have to manage the destinies of the songs he was writing, that he would have to learn how to record and produce records. It wasn’t too long after that he cut it with the Isley Brothers and produced one of the most iconic songs of the rock n’ roll era.

PHAWKER: Right, and concurrent with is that this is about the time that the record producer was evolving from the guy who presses the RECORD button to the sort of modern day conception of record producers as the deus ex machina of the recording session. Can you speak to that, a little bit about the evolution of the role in the last 40 years of just what a record producer is and does and how he’s viewed by the industry?

JOEL SELVIN: Well of course the expanding role of the record producer in the early ’60s mirrored the rise of the record industry. He puts a considerable musical imprint on the records that he works with. As studio technology evolved, he became a star.

PHAWKER: I’m calling from Philadelphia, which is of course is the hometown of Solomon Burke and I actually had the opportunity, the pleasure I should say, to interview Solomon at length when “Don’t Give Up On Me” came out about ten years ago. Berns produced what was arguably Solomon’s greatest single, one of the greatest singles of all time to my mind, “Cry to Me.” But it was hardly love at first sight. Could you, for the readers of this interview who have not read your book yet, can you talk a little bit about the first time they met and speak a little bit about their collaborations together.

JOEL SELVIN: Well, Solomon Burke was an amazing personality. His birth was foretold. He was a bishop of a ministry and a boy wonder preacher and he was delivering sermons in front of his congregation since he was seven years old. He didn’t suffer fools gladly or really find himself intimidated by other men in this world. Berns was a funky guy who wore a corny toupee, and tight britches and didn’t tuck his shirt in and he didn’t act like a lot of the white cats Solomon Burke was used to dealing with — the suit-and-tie type of guys with ten dollar hair cuts. The first time Solomon Burke met Bert Berns, his reaction was ‘Who is this Paddy motherfucker?’ But they went on to have a very productive relationship, largely because Berns let Solomon Burke be Solomon Burke.

PHAWKER: There’s a lot of really nice writing in the book. I love your description of Bert Berns that goes ‘He reeked of Pall Mall, cheap cologne and hit records.’ Can you talk a little bit about some of the influences on your writing as either a music writer or prose stylist?

JOEL SELVIN: Well, as a newspaper guy, I always read the sports section although I am not a sports fan at all because a lot of the best writing in newspapers takes place in the sports section. They deal with winners and losers, heroes and villains, daily drama that has a final score. I learned an awful lot from that. I have a terrible taste in literature and I read an awful lot of cheap murder mysteries. So, if you find a little Elmore Leonard in the Berns book its not an accident.

PHAWKER: Yeah, yeah. I can see that. Eleanor Leonard is probably one of the greatest writers of all time. That’s a very insightful remark about the sports section. I think you’re dead on.

JOEL SELVIN: Well, there weren’t other pop music writers when I was starting out to borrow or steal from. They were just really rare. I had to look elsewhere to find my role models. The history of pop culture criticism doesn’t go back very far. It starts in the ’20s with a guy named Gilbert Seldes who took silent movies and jazz and musicals seriously. There’s some writings in the 30‘s by people like Charles Edward Smith and Otis Ferguson and a few others and then Ralph Gleason starts writing in 1939 and he came to the Chronicle in 1950, the first daily newspaper, jazz critic in the country.

PHAWKER: Can you talk a little bit about Bert Berns’ involvement in the mob, his mob connections?

JOEL SELVIN: The first thing you have to understand is the moral universe in which Berns operated. I mean, mob men were just everywhere in the independent R&B scene in New York at that time. The record business itself at that point was really just a click above a numbers racket. Berns knew he had talent and only had a short time to live so he had to take some short cuts. He came to rub shoulders with those guys, and would take them into their lives as friends and business associates. When he found himself battling for the control of the partnership with the Atlantic guys the mobsters intervened and not only took the Atlantic right out of the partnership, but threw them out of the recording studio they shared. Plus they extracted a fair amount of cash. After that, Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler, who had been responsible for Berns’ career and was his best friend and all that, never spoke to him ever again.

PHAWKER: When you asked Jerry Wexler about Burt Berns he said, “I don’t know where he’s buried but if I did I would piss on his grave.” But the first year he worked for Atlantic Records as a producer he had something like 25 hit records. And he was a total beginner in the studio. One of the things in the book that was news to me was that you brought in Jimmy Page to play guitar on Them’s “Here Comes The Night” and “Baby Please Don’t Go.” Did you speak with Jimmy Page for the book? I don’t recall him being quoted in there.

JOEL SELVIN: No, Page was unavailable I reached out to him a bunch of times. I am not really sure what his problem was. I think he’s just generally unavailable. I don’t think he has any problems with Berns. He stayed in Berns’ spare bedroom when he first came to America. Burns introduced him to Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun on his first trip to New York and of course they signed Led Zeppelin some time later. So, you know they used it as a gateway in Page’s life. They first met when Page was nineteen in 1963 and Berns was the first American producer to work in recording studios in England. When he came back in ’64 to record Them he used Page again. He was all over the Them records and all the subsequent productions he did in England.

PHAWKER: And you list him as playing on “You Really Got Me,” but I’ve always heard that that was in dispute…

JOEL SELVIN: No, I think he’s on “You Really Got Me” I think what’s in dispute is whether or not he played on The Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” and apparently he did not play on “I Can’t Explain” track but he played on the session.

PHAWKER: There’s a funny story in the book about a record release party for Van Morrison’s Blowin’ Your Mind, which was produced by Berns, on a boat where one of Berns’ mob thug associates named Carmine doesn’t like the looks and effeminate manner of Tiny Tim and throws him overboard.

JOEL SELVIN: You know Carmine was a large guy about 6’6, 250. He’s not afraid to act out and, you know, broke a guitar over Van Morrison’s head. He used steel bars wrapped up in newspaper to bust up some guy’s office that he didn’t think was paying his clients fairly. Yeah, I think he took one with the Tiny Tim’s and said ‘It’s overboard for you, buddy.’

PHAWKER: Van Morrison’s relationship with Berns is very complicated. There is a 1973 collection of tracks that Van recorded with Berns called T.B. Sheets that is, to my ears, second only to Astral Weeks as far as Greatest Van Morrison album of all time. I know Van is very ambivalent about those recordings. Can you talk about that music that they made together?

JOEL SELVIN: The session for Blowin’ Your Mind took three days and was recorded in New York. Van was coming out of Ireland, he had nothing going on, living with his parents, sitting there making tapes every day, doing a lot of drinking. Berns found him and brought him to New York matched him with great session players. The music was difficult for Van, they were very intimate songs and he didn’t really feel comfortable playing in that kind of concert hall atmosphere and he had difficulty expressing himself but the record sessions went pretty well. I love that you’ve singled out T.B. Sheets that’s certainly like the outlier piece in the Burke Berns canon — if there’s any underground rock that Berns ever had a hand in that was it. That track was played extensively in San Francisco on KMPX when that station became the first underground rock radio station in 1967. It is interesting to me that Berns saw enough in that to let that song go on for more than nine minutes. Whereas “Brown Eyed Girl,” which he also produced, was very obviously cut from the hit record cloth and it’s clearly the sort of record that Berns was very capable of understanding.

PHAWKER: So, last question. What’s the takeaway here? Before your book most people did not know who Bert Berns was, not because he didn’t produce a lot of great music and hit records, but because there was a concerted effort on the part of many powerful people that he fell out with before his death to basically erase his name out of pop history.

JOEL SELVIN: Absolutely, take a look at the liner notes that Neil Diamond wrote for the re-issue of his Bang Records debut and notice that he thanks everybody that he could think of but doesn’t mention Bert Berns. Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler worked very hard to erase Berns from the Atlantic Records history. So, there’s a revision of history at work here. Also, Berns has been dead a long time — since 1967. That was a long time ago now. Even finding people who actually knew him is getting to be difficult. He has retreated into this history. I was very fortunate when I started this book in 1998 and was able to conduct interviews with so many of the key figures, most of whom are now gone. Rescuing Berns from the dustbin of history could not have been done effectively too much later. The point of the book isn’t so much that Berns was a big contributor to popular music — although he clearly was — but because he was such a part of that scene, that golden age. Telling his story was really just an opportunity to explore that time in the evolution of popular music.