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Fall 2002
Volume 39, No. 1
Issue Home

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www.pomona.edu

PCMOnline Editor: Sarah Dolinar

 

Inside the Music

Exploding
Stan Cornyn ’55, with Paul Scanlon
HarperCollins, 2002 • 512 pages • $39.95

I started this book, I’ll confess, with the reservations I usually hold for memoirs written “with” a (smaller type) co-author. But it quickly becomes clear that this is a different kind of collaborative work—a blend of memoir and insider’s history that moves seamlessly between first person and third, between that which was lived and absorbed first hand and that which must have resulted from lengthy and skillful reportorial research and interviews.

What makes it fun is a combination of things. First, there’s Cornyn’s unmistakable voice. Like the off-the-wall ads for which he and Warner Brothers Records were famous in the company’s heyday, it’s an odd mix of idealism and tough, wisecracking iconoclasm. Then there’s the unusual point of view—memoir expanded into full-blown history. And the people—a lively cast of characters presented with all their genius and all their flaws on display, plus backstage glimpses of most of your favorite rock stars when they were just wannabes. And finally, there’s the subject matter—nothing less than the day-to-day machinations behind the making of much of today’s American pop culture.

Through it all, however, it’s a story about music—about how it was made and promoted, about people who learned to divorce their own likes and dislikes from their sense of what would sell. As Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertigun explains it to Cornyn at one point in the book, “You have to develop a second ear. The first one is your private taste, which is what moves you personally. The second ear is one that, when you listen to a piece of music and you personally think it’s terrible but it’s a hit commercially—the second ear has to say, ‘This is great!’ The second ear, if it’s good, is in tune with the taste of the public.”

The turning point in the book may be when Cornyn is driving home from an all-day meeting concerning sales and restructuring and realizes that no one, in eight to 10 hours of discussion, had said a word about the music. Later on, he notes, people would look back at the antics of Cornyn’s own vaunted “creative services” section and wonder aloud how they got the license within the corporate world to spend money so recklessly and intuitively on wild notions and creative schemes. In a way, the book is an epitaph for that unfettered energy and enthusiasm for music that once made WBR special, before the money managers painted over all its psychodelic colors with corporate gray.

As an addendum to the book, Cornyn has also started a website (www.exploding.biz) designed to allow his fellow music industry veterans to contribute stories of their own. Among the offerings on the site are a WBR alumni directory and the texts of many of Cornyn’s great, edgy WBR ads from the ’60s—from “Joni Mitchell takes forever” to “How we lost $35,509.50 on ‘The Album of the Year’ (Dammit).”

—Mark Wood