Wednesday, June 25, 2014

TMFW 42 - The Billionaire Who Started His Career With Mail Theft and Forgery

David Geffen is a bazillionaire.  Like, a baZILLionaire.  He founded three record labels - which released records from (and often discovered and first signed) The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Jackson Browne, Elton John, Peter Gabriel, Guns N' Roses, Aerosmith, Counting Crows, Weezer, (TMFW all-time-favorite) Teenage Fanclub, Blink-182, and countless others - and is the "G" in DreamWorks SKG.    
Geffen has made a number of gaudy purchases: he owns two multi-hundred-million-dollar yachts (1, 2), set a record when he bought a $54M penthouse in New York, and is an avid collector of postwar American art, including a Jackson Pollock painting that he sold for $140 million (at the time, the most expensive art sale ever; Geffen still holds positions 2 and 3 on that list).  To be fair, Geffen has of late been a generous philanthropist, too: he's given $300,000,000 to the School of Medicine at UCLA and he pledged several years ago that all future earnings will be given to charity.
All of the above - all of the artists that Geffen discovered and promoted, all of the films that DreamWorks SKG released, all of the crazy art and boat purchases - might never have happened if it weren't for some criminal behavior on Geffen's part at the start of his career. 
As recounted in this New York Times article, and by Geffen himself in an interview (starting at 5:57 of the video), when Geffen applied for his first agency job at William Morris in New York City, he lied on his application and said that he had graduated from UCLA.  When he found out that a coworker had been fired for lying about his own credentials and that the agency was verifying education, Geffen understood that he too would be fired if the agency learned from UCLA that he had never graduated from - or for that matter, even attended - the university.  As a result, Geffen (who worked in the mailroom) arrived early each day for several months looking for an envelope from UCLA.  He eventually encountered one, "steamed" it open, and found a note from the university confirming that he was not ever enrolled there.  Geffen altered the letter to instead make it a confirmation of his degree, and routed the letter to its original recipient.   
In other words, Geffen committed mail theft and then forgery to keep a job that he lied to get in the first place.  And now, after 40+ years of incredible success, the story is told as a charming tale of moxie and ambition.  The moral, as always: become rich and everything is alright.  
(Note - not all (but many!) of the linked songs in the first paragraph were released on a Geffen label.  I just chose a favorite tune from each artist as the link.)
BONUS FACT:  In 1972, the five original members of The Byrds were contemplating a reunion and a new record.  All of the previous studio records that The Byrds made had been released on Columbia Records, and the band leader Roger McGuinn was still signed there.  But the remaining four members of the Byrds were signed with Geffen's Asylum label.  So there was some ambiguity about who would have the right to release the new album - the label that had both McGuinn and "The Byrds" as a band, or the label that had the rest of the musicians that made up the group.  In a recorded telephone conversation with Clive Davis, who was then the head of Columbia Records, Geffen offered to "flip a coin" for the right to release the record, with the winner getting the rights to the U.S. and Canada and the loser taking the rest of the world.  Davis declined, but ultimately Geffen won anyway.  "Byrds" was released in 1973 - worldwide - on Asylum Records.   
BONUS FACT 2: In 2012, Geffen was the subject of an in-depth (and very puffy) documentary that ran as part of PBS' "American Masters" series, which is the source of today's True Music Fact and the Bonus Fact above.  You can watch the documentary here on YouTube, or on PBS's app on Apple TV or Roku.  It's worth the time.
BONUS FACT 3:  This is only barely related, but here's a fun (and excellently-edited) video of Elton John playing "Your Song" across 30+ years
BONUS FACT 3.5:  "Your Song" was produced by Gus Dudgeon, the star of TMFW 33.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE that PBS Doc, even if it is a bit of a puff piece. My mind can't even imagine how a boat is worth $300 million.