Elliot Roberts (1943-2019): Swimming in the Ether

The late manager of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell went deep with his artists.

There are admittedly few genuine kindnesses—and fewer good people executing them—in the length and breadth of the music business. But at the risk of sounding corny, Elliot Roberts was one of the good ones.

Roberts passed at the age of seventy-six last Friday in Los Angeles. His company Lookout Management announced the death, but did not state a cause. However, that’s not how most of us first heard the hard news.

After managing the careers of Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty, Tegan & Sara, Devendra Banhart, Devo, Tracy Chapman, and plenty others at one point or another, it was Roberts’ five-decade association with Neil Young for which he is most famous. And it was Young’s parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow missive on his website where we read, “Elliot was the funniest human being on earth with his uncanny wit and a heart filled with love… He was there for me and protected my music with a fierceness.”

At a time when the music business is as remote and aloof as it’s ever been, thanks to touchscreens and streaming data, Roberts and Neil’s relationship was one based on mutual respect, innovation, protection, and proximity. Humanity. 

If Roberts wasn’t directly on the side of Young’s concert stage, Young wrote, “Often I would call him multiple times in a day, arguing, discussing, planning, and sharing.”

Forever known as the manager who helped build and guide (along with David Geffen) the Southern California singer-songwriter scene of the late 1960s and ’70s, Roberts actually started that rise in New York City, when he caught a Joni Mitchell gig at Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village in 1967. She had the songs, delicate and demonstrative, but no recording deal or management. 

Roberts changed that and also the course of sonic and scenic history, when together they headed to LA for a deal with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise Records, some recording time in Sunset Sound studio, and, ultimately, the release of Song to a Seagull, her debut album. Produced by David Crosby of The Byrds, Roberts soon became his manager, as well. And then Mitchell introduced Roberts to fellow Canadian Neil Young—at the studio recording of Last Time Around, with his then-band, Buffalo Springfield—they soon became engaged in a manager-client relationship.

It is from this meeting that the clusterfuck and somewhat incestuous interrelation of songwriters, singers, and musicians—all under Roberts—was birthed, the new Los Angeles sound. With Geffen, Roberts formed alliances (the first real American supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, then Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young).

Also with Geffen, Roberts founded a like-minded mellow label, Asylum Records, counting many an artist on its earliest release sheets (David Blue, Jackson Browne, the Eagles) who were managed by the Geffen-Roberts team.

Bob Dylan may have had his Albert Grossman, and Bruce Springsteen his Jon Landau. But neither of those once-close relationships yielded a sense of joint artistic interaction. Hell, even Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker, as notorious as their close proximity became, had no aesthetic communion. Within the circles of the Los Angeleno music scene, Elliot Roberts hung out, had long hair, and was at one with his client-friends. 

“He allowed himself to feel the vulnerability of being fully immersed in the moment, yet oddly untethered. It is a profound experience and not easily undertaken. I have seen him do it, and felt him with me, swimming in the ether.” — Stephen Stills 

“Elliot Roberts was probably the kindest, gentlest, and far and away the funniest man I ever worked with in show business,” Stephen Stills said in a statement following Roberts’ passing. “He was also tough as a barbed-wire fence, fiercely loyal and keenly observant. But his greatest gift was his soulful, open heart. No doubt it was the source of his sensitivity and singular understanding of the courageous honesty with which a great artist willingly reveals their soul and transports us. He allowed himself to feel the vulnerability of being fully immersed in the moment, yet oddly untethered. It is a profound experience and not easily undertaken. I have seen him do it, and felt him with me, swimming in the ether.”

If an artist feels his manager swimming in the ether with them, that’s a manager in deep.

My own interactions with Mr. Roberts were brief and to the point, but telling.

When I was with Harp Magazine and met up with Devendra Banhart in 2007 for the occasion of his album Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, it was Roberts who got me a flight in and out of Los Angeles, a car in and out of Topanga Canyon, and a hang at a gorgeous glass house where Banhart and I fraternized. I could never confirm it, but, that glass house could have been Roberts’, as Neil Young’s own house was very near. All the while, he made sure I was cool, and that everything was going as planned. Roberts could have been off doing something exotic or making money—but he was there tending to me. 

RELATED: Shakey Tales: Getting Lost Again on Neil Young’s “Human Highway”

Later, for my 2016 FLOOD feature on Neil Young’s 1982 directorial non-concert film debut, the Lynchian Human Highway, Roberts—a producer on the film—jumped on the phone with me to discuss his friend and their cinematic raison d’être. Not only did he recall our interaction nine years before (another small but pertinent kindness I’ve rarely witnessed in this business), Roberts gave me deep insight into his relationship with Young and their frequent late-night phone calls and artist-business dealings.

“You have to understand Neil,” said Roberts. “He has these conversations, and usually, all of his projects wind up happening in some form… He’s constantly seeking to do something that he’s never done before, and the margin of error is usually the same.”

When asked about his own appearance in Human Highway (as a manager named Whitlow Kingsley)—and why he hadn’t taken on additional film roles after that—Roberts deadpanned, “They made me a huge offer, you see, as I typically only do still work.”

For both his consideration to me and to his longtime musical family, Elliot Roberts will be missed. FL


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