Eric Carmen’s Musical Legacy
In the music business, everybody wants to be as big as the Beatles. But for one teenaged musician stranded in late ’60s Ohio—the goal was even loftier—to be the Beatles. A new book on the life of “Go All The Way” and “All By Myself” hitmaker Eric Carmen recounts the story of a dream that could never be.
Far from a gushing fan’s self-published affair—a new book on the life and career of singer-songwriter Eric Carmen delivers the goods.
Eric Carmen: Marathon Man is an unapologetic and often gritty profile of a pop prodigy forced to deal with the emotional pitfalls, betrayals, bad deals, slick creeps, touring horrors, and yes—occasional joys—inherent with a career in popular music.
Yet the book—co-written by “Got Milk” advertising pro Bernie Hogya and rock historian Ken Sharp—is more than one artist’s story about the ups-and-downs of “making it” in the music business. It is a powerful indictment on the tempting-yet-insidious nature—and ultimate betrayal—of the American Dream.
Written in a lively manner, and superbly packaged, the 400-page treatise spans Carmen’s nearly five decades in music. Packed with quotes from key people who were there, including new interviews with Carmen—the lavishly illustrated book recounts how an American baby boomer with an early penchant for classical music—was changed radically when the British music invasion swept through his sleepy Ohio burg in the early ’60s.
So much so, that Carmen was propelled to create the ultimate American Beatles band—a notion that found him dragging kicking and screaming a plethora of local musicians into his grand obsession. Finally settling on the best of the lot from the confines of the Cleveland rock scene, his group, Raspberries, was signed to Capitol Records (the Beatles’ U.S. label) at the dawn of the ’70s.
Through sheer youthful exuberance, and Carmen’s aggressive leadership and attention to musical detail, Raspberries dished up a trio of hits in their first year of existence. “Go All The Way,” an enduring Top Five smash, was followed up quickly with “I Wanna Be With You” and “Let’s Pretend,” and two albums of exquisite pop. But unfortunately for them, Raspberries’ ebullient music only found favor with two completely disparate groups: teenage girls and the elite rock critics of the day—and pretty much no one else. Even more unfortunate for Carmen, yearning for an earthy Lennon-type to balance his ethereal McCartneyesque leanings, it was a role none of his Raspberries partnerships would came close to filling.
Just such complications were to dog Carmen’s musical projects from the Raspberries days on: throughout his solo years, which yielded his most well-known hit “All By Myself”, to his ’80s movie period (Footloose’s “Almost Paradise” and Dirty Dancing’s “Hungry Eyes”), to his more recent stints as a member of ’60s-style oldies touring acts.
Hogya and Sharp write with an authority only rabid fans like themselves could—they know their stuff—but the pair never allow their idol worship to merely paint a rose-colored picture of the Carmen story. For starters, we’re privy to watch a painfully shy, classically-trained teenaged geek blossom into an egoistical and temperamental leader of the late ’60s Cleveland rock scene—lording his musicality over those who signed on for his ambitious dream, and unceremoniously dumping those who didn’t.
We’re there with Carmen in his car, as he confides to his best friend his desire to conquer the world working the Fab Four template. We see Carmen et al living out the Beatles’ Hamburg and Cavern Club experiences—this time on the Midwest bar circuit—developing a loyal fan base, and enticing music bigwigs to fly out to watch the group’s note-perfect covers of Beatles, Stones, Who, and Small Faces songs, and their own fledgling original material.
We feel the heady rush as Raspberries sign to a major record label—only to watch the naïve band unable to leverage early chart hits and critical acclaim to consistent and widespread success—saddled as they were by execs who didn’t seem to know what the hell to do with them—and who simply relegated the group over to the teenybop industry: a death knell given the dominance of hard rock bands of the time such as Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull.
We’re there on tour in Europe, as the provincial Raspberries witness a gangland murder after a performance—Hogya and Sharp let you have the fear as Carmen watches helplessly his bandmate cradle the dying victim on a dank Hamburg floor soaked in blood.
Carmen’s dream starts to go bad early: the book takes us to the point where, even after a triumphant appearance at Carnegie Hall—the hits abruptly stop for Raspberries—and Carmen’s group turns on him, sometimes violently. There are several fascinating pages devoted to a dingy club’s parking-lot fight, as the diminutive Carmen is literally dragged by the hair and thrown into walls by his tough-guy lead guitar player who screams at him: “you ruined my life!”
The authors don’t turn a dim light to the next wave of Carmen’s solo career either—we view it in all its glaring ugliness. We learn how music mogul Clive Davis promises Carmen the moon—but after “All By Myself” goes major—incessantly rides Carmen to become more like label-mate Barry Manilow, a vapid ballads hack, while Carmen nearly destroys himself emotionally creating his masterpiece (1977’s Boats Against The Current)—which goes way over-budget and is a monumental flop.
With the Machiavellian Davis at the helm, Carmen is doomed never to be among his elite and similarly-talented peers Billy Joel and Elton John—who go on to achieve superstar status with pop and rock songs, as well as ballads.
Davis doesn’t stop there either, according to Hogya and Sharp. With disco at its height in the late ’70s—Carmen is backed into churning out an album of candy-coated dance fare (1978’s Change of Heart)—while at the same time writing lyrics that reveal an artist going deep into disillusionment and depression: “the games that I’ve played, were not worth what I paid, in a town full of desperate fools.”
Canceling tours on a dime, and fed up with music business entirely in the ’80s, Carmen goes through a five-year period of languishment, eking out a couple of hits for movie soundtracks, but only to find himself once again dragged into a torturous tour (“More Dirty Dancing”)—which nearly finishes him off physically.
And after that, we are left with an anguished Carmen dropping off the map for fifteen years—years spent in contentious litigation, as he seriously considers ditching music altogether, perhaps to become, ironically, an entertainment attorney. He is only rescued by a frenetic Japanese fan base catching on to him years late—but he’s still only able to muster sporadic releases—mostly singles, such as the safe-but-effective “Make Me Lose Control.”
The book never lets up in its surprising honesty—you have to give Carmen (who cooperated on the book) enormous credit for not playing safe with the sometimes shocking comments he reveals here. For instance, Carmen speaks openly about his disenchantment with how his music was recorded. On Raspberries producer Jimmy Ienner: “[the albums] sounded like they’re coming over a crappy AM radio,” On Elton John’s producer, Gus Dudgeon, who worked on Boats: “horrible…depressing…a nightmare.” A project with hitmaker Bob Gaudio was “a catastrophe.” Amazing stuff—especially in this politically-correct environment—and hats off to Hogya and Sharp for not delivering a love letter.
On the flip-side, the book also brings us in during the rare joyous moments of Carmen’s career, especially when he’s living out his Beatle dream. There’s John Lennon in 1974, shaking a dumbstruck Carmen’s hand, and raving over his song “Overnight Sensation.” We’re there when Carmen is watching a TV special featuring Beatles producer George Martin discussing timeless music—when suddenly Martin launches into the opening chords of “All By Myself.” And there’s the charming story of a fatherly Ringo giving Eric a pep-talk backstage before the 2000 All-Starr Band tour—encouraging the fretting perfectionist to loosen up a bit and “just have a bit of fun with it.”
If the book does gush over Carmen and his music—it’s primarily Hogya and Sharp allowing others to do it for them. Quotes abound from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Paul Stanley and Courtney Love about how much Carmen’s music meant to them, and how it still resonates with groups on the scene today like Fountains of Wayne.
Still, writing a comprehensive biography about their idol does appear to give Hogya and Sharp pause in revealing too much about their subject. For instance, they don’t delve deeply into what makes Carmen tick—especially in the formative pre-teen years. What drove Carmen so incessantly to become a star in the first place? Certainly, the Beatles’ impact is there—yet it would have been satisfying to learn the psychological reasoning there—but the Carmen family dynamic is glossed over.
Further, while we do get dollops of truth behind Carmen’s tumultuous studio days and his business problems—Hogya and Sharp don’t venture behind-the-scenes on their hero’s touring life. What were Carmen and his band mates up to after hours—drugs, booze, sex? At one point, Carmen’s A&R man in the ’80s speculates on possible drug use—but the opportunity to go deeper is ignored.
The book is grandiose in scope and achievement—not unlike Carmen’s music itself. Technically, it’s one of the best-ever self-published books—Hogya is a professional artist and ad-man—and it shows. The quality of the paper and the cover, the typeface, the pictures, it’s all there—Simon and Schuster couldn’t (and wouldn’t) have done better. It’s testament to Hogya and Sharp’s endearing love of the man that the pair spent two years laboring over the book’s details.
In the end, and most touchingly, you come away feeling—that although he appears to be leading a happily-ever-after, family-oriented lifestyle in upscale Ohio—living comfortably off his substantial royalties—Eric Carmen somehow remains deeply haunted, scarred and even despondent over the treacherous experiences he endured by living out his dream—a dream that perhaps was never truly obtainable in the first place.
Larry Lange is author of the personal-growth book “The Beatles Way: Fab Wisdom For Everyday Life” (Beyond Words), which was published in twelve languages. He is a writer and editor for CNET, the world’s leading technology publisher, and has written for Newsday, Forbes, Circus, EQ and Mix. Lange is also a former staff songwriter for Sony Music.