Reading Fred Wilhelms' poisonous goodbye to Ahmet Ertegun, it came to me. There is something more here than a Nashville royalties lawyer putting in the boot.
Wilhelms has a nice story about him and Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) and Ahmet and how he, Wilhelms, had a good laugh with Sam Moore about how Ahmet had bought his fancy shoes by ripping off Sam and how Ahmet didn't get it. I got it, though: Wilhelms is just so DOWN with those black folks. The story was lame, though, because the Erteguns were wealthy before Ahmet ever got into the music business, so he didn't have to rip off Sam Moore to get those shoes. On the other hand, you might wonder what kind of shoes Wilhelms could buy with the money he makes defending Artists Who Have Been Unjustly Denied Their Royalties. Not that, having cut himself some nice turf in the unjustly-denied-royalties biz, he would ever be anywhere but on the side of the angels. The absolute worst thing Google can find out about him is that he's got Bob Dylan on his wish list at Amazon, which I suppose most aging yuppies do. (He's also got Solomon Burke, who spoke of Ahmet with generous affection on my radio last night.)
Wilhelms is the champion of guys who signed deals because they loved music -- part of the reason they were so good at it -- and were thrilled to be paid for what they loved to do. Ahmet Ertegun signed some of these people precisely because back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, he offered pretty damn good deals by the standards of the time. He picked top artists who were unrecognized, like Ruth Brown, Joe Turner and Ray Charles, and made them into stars. When I say, made them into stars, I don't mean he sat at the top of some tower in some corner office and called up his ad agency. He sang backup on some numbers. He wrote some songs. He put his heart and soul into it, a large heart, and a large soul.
Later, these artists came to regret their deals, for good reason: they were older, they were poor, they had fallen off the musical map after Elvis or the Beatles, and now they needed medical care, housing, hell, they needed care, period. So this Wilhelm guy, this angel, came to their aid, with that most American of sacred vessels, the lawsuit. He sued all kinds of record companies to get these people the royalties, the benefits, the Things They Deserved. And everyone applauded this man.
Well, what's wrong with that? It's probably true that the record companies, and Ahmet too, gave not too many cents more than they legally had to, and got lawyers of their own, and didn't make it easy for these poor, once great artists to get their royalties, and have a comfortable few years as they marched towards death. Why? Because that's how you run a record company. Why? Because that's how you run a company, period. It's not a charitable organization. It's not a morally good organization. It's a moneymaking organization, competing with other moneymaking organizations, and it's no-more-mister-nice-guy because otherwise, you don't survive.
There was a guy, long ago, who understood this. His name was Karl Marx. He didn't think companies or businessmen were evil. He thought that the system forced them to act as they do. It was the system that was bad not its components, not its institutions, not the individuals enmeshed in those institutions. That's what Fred Wilhelms' conveniently posthumous smear -- no particulars, no evidence, but what the fuck, Ahmet isn't about to tell his side of the story -- brought home to me.
We ought to listen to Karl Marx. We don't. We expect universities and schools and workplaces to Do The Right Thing with affirmative action. We expect record companies to Do the Right Thing with royalty payments to Deserving Artists. We expect Big Oil not to pollute, Big Auto to make energy efficient cars, the Big Arms Companies not to make weapons of destruction.
Marx would have called this petty-bourgeois nonsense, and he'd have been right. The problem with the former R&B stars is that they don't have decent housing and decent medical care. Why on earth would you go to the record companies for that? Why would you line the pockets of some incredibly down-with-black-people lawyer? Why would you expect universities or private corporations to solve the problems of screwed black people, abandoned even by middle class blacks? Why would you expect auto companies -- is this some kind of joke? -- to go green?
It's the same lesson for all these great causes, it's the same answer to all this moralistic crap. America has learned to blame institutions and individuals when it ought to be blaming the system. It's the job of the state and the society to see that everyone, whether or not they had a hit record in 1953, has the best medical care our resources can provide -- not the best that money can buy, because you-pay-or-you-drop-dead health care is an abomination on a par with slavery. It's the job of the state and the society -- not the universities -- to see that everyone has all the education they want, without paying a dime. It's the job of the state and the society to see that we have green cars -- and if you have car companies whose job it is to make money, well, they're not going to make those cars. The myopic, Protestant, moralizing mean-spiritedness that dumps on Ahmet Ertegun is the very same outlook that keeps us looking to change society's parts when we should be trying to change the whole. That may put royalties lawyers on the map, but it doesn't achieve the high ideals under which they hide their personal ambitions. Yes, Wilhelms' lawyering may help a few artists a bit. That's no reason for him to get snotty about the man who brought them success.
Michael Neumann teaches philosophy at a Canadian university. He has written two books on politics, What's Left? and The Case Against Israel (CounterPunch Books, 2005). Sometimes he also writes on pop music. He can be reached at: