Jon Landau In The Hall of Fame: Just a Prisoner of Rock and Roll

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Like many Bruce Springsteen fans, I’ve always pondered what I would say if I ever ran into him. As scenario planning goes and to be prepared,  I’ve mapped it out in my mind several times and it always comes back to something like this. 

“There’s this great book It’s Too Late To Stop Now,” I offer up in my imaginary mind. “Have you read it?” Springsteen strikes a vacant look but I can tell he knows it’s author Jon Landau, the great rock critic before he became his co-producer and longtime manager. Just when the stilted non-response means the conversation is about to come to a screeching halt, I pose a question I’ve been grappling with for over four decades. 

“But here’s the thing I’ve never understood,” I say. “Why was he so hard on The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers but over the moon on It’s Only Rock and Roll?”

This year, Jon Landau was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, receiving the Ahmet Ertegun Award, a non-musician award he received in recognition for his work in originating rock criticism and a career in record production and management. The award, named after the Atlantic Records music executive whose r & b records Landau so loved,  prompted me to revisit a question that still persists. I returned to Its Too Late To Stop Now, a collection of his Rolling Stone reviews and essays, subtitled A Rock and Roll Journal

“As I listened to Sticky Fingers for the first time, I thought that ‘Brown Sugar’ was good but not that good,” Landau writes about the opening track. Landau doesn’t like the pairing of acoustic and electric guitars and it all goes downhill from there. “‘Sway’ never reaches a goal because it doesn’t seem to have one.” Of “Wild Horses”: “A good song with lots of good things that doesn’t quite come off….Jagger’s vocal is clearly audible for the first time and I don’t care for it.” And then comes the most cutting comment saved for “Dead Flowers”: “Despite its intention to parody, the mere thought of the Stones doing straight country is simply appalling. And they do it so poorly, especially the lead guitar.”

In the October 19, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone, Landau has the lead review entitled “It’s Only Rock and Roll But I Love It, Love It.” One only needs to contrast Landau’s forensic analysis of Sticky Fingers, arguably one of the Stones greatest albums, with the unbridled adulation he extolls over a period piece, made during what are regarded as the years of decline of the world’s greatest rock and roll band.

“On the album’s first three songs the band renews its claim to greatness,” he pens glowingly. “Instead of coming off like cynics they sound like they’re still vulnerable, afraid, capable of being hurt and able to respond with aggressive energy. They’ve returned with a vengeance to the wildness of their early records and the fact that they are more self-conscious than ever about it doesn’t detract from the album’s impact.”

At the outset of his journal, Landau had lamented the end of the Sixties. “The truth of the matter is that the names of the Sixties have become anomalies. No one looks to them for direction, They were once more than musicians,” he said of Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and the Beatles. “They were Gods. They are Gods no more.”  

Landau was in his early twenties but he sounded like he already had lived a long life. He’d dabbled in production with the MC5 and had modest success with Livingston Taylor. The future was uncertain but the will to find new music was like a call to arms, hence his admonition “It’s too late to stop now.” 

The  book precedes perhaps the most pivotal night of his life in 1974 when he went to the Harvard Square Theater and saw an emerging artist by the name of Bruce Springsteen. Landau then wrote the famous words heard around the world. 

I saw my rock ‘n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”

As he emerged first as co-producer and then manager, a partnership that has lasted forty-five years,  Landau’s measured calm and pragmatism counterbalanced Springsteen’s obsessive perfectionism. When Springsteen heard the test pressing of Born To Run and threw it into a pool threatening  to start all over after a year’s work, Landau gave him probably the best advice someone could give.

“From where I sit I think we’re done with this record,” he counseled in so many words. “Whatever you have we’ll put toward the next record.”

Within less than 12 months we had Born To Run and then Jackson Browne’s magnificent landmark album The Pretender, produced solely by Landau. 

Landau knew a hit record when he heard one. Springsteen wrote “Hungry Heart” after seeing the Ramones at the Fast Lane in Asbury Park and tried  to give it to them, Landau said not that one.  He later challenged Springsteen upon hearing Born In The USA and said he didn’t have a signature song to sum up how he felt at that moment. Springsteen responded by writing “Dancing in the Dark” which became his biggest record. 

I once felt that Landau tried to shape Springsteen’s image too closely.  The passage of time has largely obscured that as Landau has helped Springsteen create a steadfast vision and the artist has opened up with age.  Back in the day, it would have been hard to fathom the 24-hour radio station E Street Radio with all of its outtakes, live tracks and odds and ends that are the soundtrack for the convergence of the greater Springsteen community. Where Landau once sued bootleggers for illegally releasing radio broadcasts, now we can buy box sets and downloads at the flip of a click. Springsteen is immersed in a multitude of projects that ensure his relevance and legacy.

I once had the occasion to be in Landau’s then mid-Manhattan office. The non-descript entrance had few hints of its main client. But my eye was drawn to something I instantly recognized. It was a seat from the original Yankee Stadium before it was refurbished in the mid-Seventies. It was positioned in the walkway like a museum piece. 

I didn’t have my copy of It’s Too Late To Stop Now with me to be signed that day. I’ve often thought of trying to send it in the mail with a self-addressed envelope like Pete Townshend has done with fans over the years. But I’m afraid my prized possession, which I got for $1 in a cut-out bin at the now defunct department store Caldor, might get lost in the mail. 

Landau, a renowned art collector with a disposition toward classic European art, equates the deep emotional resonance of art and rock and roll. The day he was inducted he shared his joy on E Street Radio and  reflected: “With my art friends it drives them crazy when I say as great as Michelangelo was, when you hear the perfect record, for example Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Heatwave,’ for me it’s the same experience and emotional depth.”

In Thom Zimny’s film Letter To You which chronicles the recording of Springsteen’s new album, Landau walked in like he was one of the guys coming to fraternize at the home studio that felt like a makeshift lodge. He might have snuck in unannounced, just another graying older guy like Springsteen’s cousin Frank. And then we hear the voice of Steve Van Zandt. 

“Johnny Boy Landau,” exclaims Little Steven, the guitarist and lifelong Springsteen compatriot who once went by Miami Steve. He says it with a hint of the same moxie he exhibited during the recording of Born To Run when he famously told the Brecker Brothers how to  play the horn arrangement he made up on the spot for the intro of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”

Landau once sat in the producer’s chair at the engineer’s table but has given up his duties for a newer generation. If he was now more like an observer a few seats back, his presence still loomed large. The E Street Band was cranking out several tunes a day, playing them as they learned them and working “Beatles-like hours” to quote Van Zandt and make an album in five days. 

As Zimny scanned the room during the playback of “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” the underlying unspoken question became clear, “What is Jon thinking?” When the playback was finished, the critic turned producer turned manager weighed in with a quiet pronouncement. 

“It has a magnificence to it,” he said with a quiet air of authority and stamp of approval, later admitting he was choking up. It was born out of six decades and a labor of love for rock and roll. The endorsement seemingly validated the project at hand. 

Perhaps he was subconsciously thinking back to his essay on Sticky Fingers where after his technical treatise, Landau waxed passionately about the spontaneity he so longed for. Whether the songs were actually done in one take wasn’t the point. The principle was what mattered.  

Now sitting back hearing what was in front of him, it was more than just a good song. It must have felt like the satisfaction of a lifetime’s work done well.

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