Wednesday, September 28, 2016

# 58 Paul Butterfield's Darker Days Part 1

All careers, even the really important ones, have a similar trajectory. If we look closely, careers are actually made up of distinct stages, each one beginning and ending with an event that triggers a transition to the next stage.

These stages begin with: the big break from obscurity, often a tough climb to the peak (unless you win a televised talent show), then the plateau, with its almost nirvana like feelings of fulfillment, and finally an inevitable decline back into obscurity. When you see the steady caravans of former pop stars touring the summer festival circuit, it seems the trick is to stave off the decline by dragging out the plateau.

Paul Butterfield's career easily fits into this model with an unfortunate exception. When he arrives

at his career plateau, he seems determined to accelerate his time there, and instead, make an abrupt exit back into obscurity. If it were possible to create a silhouette of Paul Butterfield during the mid seventies, it is of a man standing at the precipice, and blindly searching for the quickest way down. The obvious viewer reaction would be,  How sad!, followed by the question, Why!?

We can attempt to trace his self-destructive behavior back to the beginning of his life, but that is too ambitious a goal for a piece of this length, so let's start at his career peak, at the Woodstock Music and Art Festival, 1969.  Shortly after this event he begins his career plateau, when he forms Better Days. So, what are the events that act as triggers propelling  him downward? Many people seem point their finger at a number of different events from his relationship with his manager Albert Grossman, or the harsh business realities of the times, to the incestuous social environment in Woodstock, or possibly his sudden loss of identity as a musician, but as with so many complex problems, the answers are never simple. It is probably best to assume a all of these dynamics contribute to his choice of personal and career destruction.

By 1971, Butterfield knows only one manager, Albert Grossman. His relationship with the
businessman is both professional and personal, so it is complex. As Geoff Muldaur remembers, Paul and Albert were close in a very measured and secretive way. So, outside the fact they are let's have a closer look at this relationship dynamic. There are some obvious similarities such as they are both natives of Chicago, very ambitious, talented, and by 1970, both at the peak of their respective vocations, so let's look at the less blatant dynamics of their relationship.

A brief summary of Grossman's career by the 70s is probably useful here. He rises from a small folk
club owner to the most successful artist managers in history American pop music. Many of the biggest names in popular music of the sixties and seventies owe something to Albert Grossman's talents as a business negotiator. During his early career, he successfully helps to develop, and market a new genre of American music; one which is an amalgam of blues and folk, a hip, rural, anti-pop star thing that would succeed on its own terms. He finds these qualities within many artists i.e.: Bob Dylan, the Band, Peter, Paul and Mary, Janis Joplin, and Paul Butterfield. There is a long period where his influence can create, maintain, and/or destroy careers, but it's an often unnoticed authority that seems most interesting here. He is powerful enough that he changes our vocabulary when communicating about music and artists. Albert Grossman is the first manager who through his own promotion, elevates the profile of folksingers to the status of  artists, and their performances from shows to concerts, words we still use today.

In about 1961, he begins to move his business interests in New York City to the little upstate town of Woodstock. Shortly after, he persuades his biggest earner, Bob Dylan, to follow him. Convincing
Dylan is quite a coup as the star's willingness to follow his manager signals a rallying call to all the other artists in the Grossman stable. Once in Woodstock, Grossman very shrewdly, purchases and builds housing which will act as installations for his expanding collection of artists.  He (Grossman) wanted to bring  it all to Woodstock and create that whole musical community that he was god of.  He wanted his management success to translate into record success, and he wanted it to be an extension of the world he was in of Dylan and Butterfield Interestingly Butterfield is one of the last of Grossman's sixties artists to make the move to Woodstock. He and his wife Kathy are finishing three years of living on the road, with only cheap hotels, and an Econoline van to call home, so the pastoral atmosphere of the little town must seem like an oasis.

However, what the Butterfield's don't foresee is the move to Woodstock is also a willingness to put down roots in the emperor's empire.  It will prove to be both a personal, and professional mistake. Once in Woodstock, he is at the mercy of every selfish whim of empire builder. Grossman is first and foremost a calculating businessman, but he is also a foodie, a connoisseur of art, and a collector of unique and talented musicians. As former Butterfield drummer Philip Wilson's girlfriend Lynne Nasco remembers. Grossman was the Mr. Big of Woodstock, an enigmatic  chieftain pulling the strings that matter. He ran the show and we got a ticket to go.

However, by the late sixties his business plan is showing some significant flaws. His commission from his artists is 20%, which is 10% more than the industry standard, and he also expects a piece of publishing income.  After some legal consultation, his star earner, Bob Dylan, becomes unhappy with the arrangement, and initiates legal action against Grossman for lost royalties. Then in 1970, Dylan's potential replacement, Janis Joplin, dies suddenly of an unintended drug overdose. These two events trigger a loss of interest in his artist management business, and everyone suffers.

As Grossman grieves the loss of Dylan and Joplin, he withdraws his attention from his business in New York City, and Butterfield is one of the first to feel the brunt of this neglect. Frustrated, he also becomes more emotionally detached from his artists, and choosing instead to devote his energies to building his empire in Bearsville. There he becomes  preoccupied with designing his restaurant (The Bear), recording studio (Bearsville), his organic garden, and a variety of local projects. As Jonathan Taplin remembers, Grossman was really pulling back from the music business at this point. Bennett Glotzer did most of the booking and all the management stuff Taplin says. I don't think Albert was paying that much attention. Besides, carpenters and chefs were easier to manage than musicians. It is during this period that Butterfield learns the ugly fate of his iconic band the Butterfield Blues Band is being laid off from Elektra records. The cold reality is that the band's bills are not being paid, so the accountants consider them a business liability, and end their contract is not renewed. As you can imagine, the news is devastating for Butterfield. Everything he achieves professionally and personally in the sixties is a result of his band, and now it is all gone because of Grossman's neglect.

What makes the devastating news even more difficult to comprehend is that in spite of the fact the
Butterfield Blues Band
is the most successful blues band in history, they are being discontinued. It is true that they have no significant hit singles, but they do have a devoted fan base, plenty of work, and moderately successful album sales.  Butterfield isn't the only who is confused by the news. As Jim Rooney remembers,  ...they were making good money....., Bills weren't getting paid,... Bennett was down in New York running the office, and Albert was just not paying attention. The band went away in a flash, and Paul never recovered. A more experienced artist with a developed business acumen might be more adaptable to such a cold reality, but Butterfield is not a businessman, he is an artist. This event acts as a pin that perforates the bubble he lives in from 1965 onward, leaving him confused, angry, and emotionally drained. It is quite possible that this will be a the first in a series of events that push Butterfield toward feeling trapped with no chance of escape.

Butterfield is similar to most successful people though, he can be resilient in the face of adversity, he
does make an attempt to confront his business manager. The two argue on the second floor of the Bear restaurant, part of which Nick Gravenites witness',  but in the end, Grossman to forces him into retreat. Butterfield is feeling betrayed, angry, and unfortunately he represses those feelings, finding his solace in alcohol. His faith in Grossman, and the music industry is bruised, but like so many of us who are betrayed by a boss, he needs to lick his wounds and return to work.

Jim Rooney remembers some of these events
Paul never called Albert on that whole debacle of the band going down....And they had been making good money. Grossman seems to feel guilty, but he is too calculating an opponent to acknowledge his missteps. He knows, as do so many other people like Lynne Nasco that somebody like him (Butterfield) might not have made it without Albert. He also knows that in Butterfield's case he will not be losing another artist in his stable. Michael Friedman noteshe knew that Butterfield was his ward for the rest of his life.... Grossman's solution to the problem is simple, he will keep Butterfield busy by putting him back to work. This will keep the revenue flowing for both of them, but their relationship will never be the same.  
Stay tuned for part two...... #59


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