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Wednesday, July 2, 2003

The right appeal

Posted By on Wed, Jul 2, 2003 at 12:00 AM

When gossip-to-the-stars Dominick Dunne finally ascends to that great Sardi's in the sky, Danny Goldberg should take his place at the earthly table and start dishing. Goldberg, music critic turned publicist turned record company exec and currently chairman and CEO of Artemis Records, shares most of the strengths and weaknesses of Vanity Fair's most eminent starfucker: He's been on both sides of the fence — journalism and entertainment, observer and participant — he seemingly knows everybody, he's a shameless name-dropper, and he has a knack for placing himself at the heroic center of the action. But most importantly, Goldberg writes with a chatty, you-are-there style that makes his first book, Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit, relentlessly readable.

It's a weird but compelling mix of airbrushed memoir, mild gossip column, and righteous political manifesto. While its author's ego is oversized, his heart is in the right place, and once you get past the navel-gazing "Danny Goldberg: The Early Years" of the first 60 pages or so, the book is tough to put down. It's like junk food for thought.

Goldberg's central point, which isn't particularly original but gets reinforced here with one damning example after another, is that the American Left — more specifically the Democratic Party — has completely lost its way because of the misbegotten leadership of elitist liberal snobs, who squabble with each other and can no longer connect with the party's once-key youth constituency.

Beyond making a lot of people a ton of money and working closely with name-brand bands from Led Zeppelin to Nirvana to Bruce Springsteen, Goldberg's main claim to fame is as Tipper Gore's nemesis during years of battle over the labeling of music products, so it's not surprising that Al and Tipper don't come off well here. But one of the things that makes the book so appealing is that Goldberg names names as much as he drops them. The book is full of good guys and bad guys, hypocrites and true believers, politicians and statesmen. Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson and John McCain come off the best; Joe Lieberman, devastatingly portrayed as a fussy, self-righteous, close-minded prig, by far the worst.

Though Goldberg continually — and rightfully — bull's-eyes the hypocrisy and hyperbole of politicians, he usually lets performers slide. When Russell Simmons pretentiously declares, during a conversation with Hillary Clinton, that "DMX is a profound poet — his lyrics will someday be taught like Shakespeare," Goldberg lets it pass without comment. It's this blind spot that is the book's biggest weakness: Like many in the biz, he confuses performers for artists but expects every politician to be a statesman. Still, Goldberg's greatest success is his ability to lead by example: He argues that progressive politics should more enthusiastically embrace popular culture and has turned out a book that is both edifying and extremely entertaining. If the DNC doesn't pay closer attention to what he's got to say, they're fools. But Dispatches From the Culture Wars, shows them mostly to be fools already.

Tom Siebert writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to


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