Singer-songwriter and guest columnist Tal Bachman reflects on the death of Neil Young's longtime manager, Elliot Roberts.
I was a 22 year old nobody when I first met Elliot Roberts.
I don't believe the already-iconic music manager even knew I was related to his most famous client's boyhood chum. (My dad, Randy Bachman from The Guess Who and BTO, grew up with Elliot's client Neil Young in Winnipeg, Manitoba). I was just some guy playing with a band he was interested in.
But even though I was a nobody, Elliot was a true mensch toward me – cool, funny, composed, respectful, and friendly, just as he was to everyone else. He even invited me and my young bandmates to his star-studded Independence Day barbecue a few weeks later at his Malibu beach house. Chatting with celebs I'd only ever seen on movie screens or performing in arenas, it was hard to believe I was there.
In the ensuing years, I had the privilege of hanging out with Elliot several more times. He was always the same. Authentic and enduring "menschosity" is rare enough in the music business, let alone in an artist manager. What is even rarer in that world is true menschosity mixed with spectacular shrewdness and negotiating acumen; the emotional capacity to deal with eccentric, or outrightly dysfunctional, musicians; fierce devotion to your artist's interests even as record companies are trying quietly to slip you a kickback to get you to back off in a negotiation; relentlessly hilarious wit; the ability to spot artistic and commercial potential during even the earliest, crudest development stages of an artist; genuine love of music; an ethical commitment to honesty in all business dealings (no shysterism); and even the ability to maintain close personal friendships with former business partners and clients.
These are just some of the traits which made Elliot Roberts a true rarity in the grotesque dystopia that is the music industry. As both a friend, manager, and some-time record company executive himself, Roberts spent half a century fighting for the artists he loved – and winning. The beneficiaries over the years included everyone from Bob Dylan, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne, to Crosby, Stills & Nash, Tom Petty, The Cars, Devo, Tracy Chapman, and of course, Neil Young, who Elliot managed for fifty years up until his passing from cardiac arrest, last Friday, June 21, at 76.
Elliot was born in the Bronx in 1943, to recently-arrived Jewish immigrants (a Mr. and Mrs. Rabinowitz) fleeing Nazi persecution. Twenty odd years later, he had dropped out of two colleges and given up on an acting career, winding up with the not-exactly-illustrious job of sorting mail in the basement of the William Morris Talent Agency in New York City.
You wouldn't normally think of "mail boy" as the most promising platform for a career, but so it proved in Elliot's case. It was while working as a mail sorter in 1967 that Elliot met another young, ambitious William Morris employee named David Geffen. With fellow music-lover David, Elliot began meeting artists and executives alike, including a young aboriginal folksinger by the name of Buffy Saint Marie.
It was Buffy who one day told Elliot about a great new female singer-songwriter out of Canada named Joni Mitchell. When the unknown and unsigned Ms. Mitchell showed up to play at a cafe in New York a short time later, Ambitious Mailboy Rabinowitz showed up and proposed – against all sense and reason – that he become the young singer's manager. For whatever reason, Joni agreed, and a short time later, Elliot had managed to secure his first artist a recording contract with Reprise Records. Joni then introduced Elliot to a young Canadian singer-songwriter named Neil Young, and after that...he was officially in the bigs. Elliot packed his bags, permanently relocated to the West Coast, anglicized his surname along the way, and became an icon.
My most enduring memory of Elliott is the night I spent standing next to him watching Neil play with Crazy Horse at an old, dingy, packed tavern in Half Moon Bay, California. This was in spring 1996. My dad and I had been recording with Neil at his nearby ranch; Neil decided Crazy Horse needed a practice gig for their upcoming tour, so off we all went.
Elliot and I shared a lot of jokes that night as Neil's black Les Paul squealed, skronked, feedbacked, and wrong-noted its way through a 45 minute jam version of "Hurricane".
The rendition was so technically bad, it went right round again and spilled into awesome. I left admiring Neil more than ever that night; I'd never heard anyone make wrong notes sound as glorious as he did. I also left admiring Elliot more than ever. His client was, shall we say, an eccentric chap. Yet Elliot had somehow helped him build a lucrative career. (I understand, from private sources, that Elliot had also shrewdly invested Neil's money from the beginning, so that they never needed any favours from record companies; financially, they were more than comfortable quite independently from music, and this in turn gave Neil the artistic freedom he's enjoyed throughout his career).
I'll never forget the laughs I shared that night with Elliot, nor the enduring friendliness and kindness he always showed me, nor the example he laid down for every other would-be music manager out there. Neil recently wrote that he was "heartbroken" over the loss. From the times I spent with Elliot, I can understand why. An industry titan, and all-around mensch, has fallen.
Tal shared his takes and tales aboard the inaugural Mark Steyn Cruise last year, and will be returning for this year's Alaskan voyage. You never know who you're going to meet on the Mark Steyn Cruise. Our third iteration will be setting sail on the Mediterranean next year. It's sure to sell out, so best to book your cabin now. For online revelry, consider taking out a membership in the Mark Steyn Club. Lots of benefits for those who join; amongst them are commenting privileges. Club members, let us know what you think about this essay in the comments below.