January 18, 2005
Back on his 40th birthday, Michael Goldberg – one-time defensive tackle for the University of Minnesota, former oil-field worker, successful businessman and die-hard rock ‘n’ roll fan – made his conducting debut. He could well have selected a program that required little more than waving a baton in front of the orchestra, and wouldn’t distract him from the business of running his two aviation companies. But Goldberg chose a different direction. After studying “religiously” for a year with James Judd, music director of the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra, Goldberg led the orchestra through an evening of Wagner, Brahms and Berlioz, not exactly classical music for beginners.”It wasn’t like conducting ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ on July Fourth,” noted Goldberg, who keeps a picture of himself in conductor’s tails on the grand piano of his Aspen home. Having set the bar high, he left the podium as though floating on a cloud. “It was the ultimate stereo,” he added. “I didn’t want it to end. It’s one of those life experiences you could never re-create.”
Now 56, the multifaceted Goldberg is about to dive into a very different sort of music experience.This week, contractors and city officials willing, Goldberg and his business partner, fellow Aspenite David Gitlitz, will open the Belly Up, a music club in the Galena Street space that last housed the Double Diamond. The sounds will be at the other end of the spectrum from those with which Goldberg celebrated his 40th: Among the acts scheduled to play the opening nights of the Belly Up are hip-hop act the Roots (for a private concert) and G. Love & Special Sauce, a Goldberg favorite that plays a mix of folk-blues and hip-hop. It appears the club will be marked by the same intensity and attention to detail he brings to his other interests – photography, politics, rock ‘n’ roll.Asked why he wants to get into the music business – not the nightclub business, he states emphatically, but live music – Goldberg lists numerous reasons. Aspen, which has been without a prominent music club since the Double Diamond closed in fall 2003, needs it. Goldberg himself misses the loud, plugged-in rock, funk and hip-hop shows that require a club. It affords him a way to get further inside an industry he’s passionate about.But watching him spend five minutes of his intensely busy day deciding where a Belly Up performer will park the bus during a show, I’m struck by the possibility that Goldberg is in it for the challenge. He enjoys engaging in thorny problems – be it conducting a Wagner overture, or getting a Democrat elected. Or getting involved in an enormously difficult business in a notoriously tough market.
“It’s something to do. So, why not?” said Goldberg, a burly, thick-necked, fit figure who retains the gruff drawl and plain-spokenness of his native Tulsa. “It’s a challenge, not a headache. There are a lot of moving parts in this.”Goldberg is in the habit of keeping a tight grip on all those moving parts. When his three sons started playing hockey a few years ago, Goldberg wasn’t content to sit and watch or even travel internationally to their games. (When I first called him for this story, he was in a Prague stadium, watching one son compete.) So he learned to play, and now laces up the skates and plays defense for the Euro Trash team in the Aspen Recreation League.Photography, which he started as a serious hobby five years ago, now has him traveling to shoot concerts from Aspen to Austin, where he recently spent three days at the music venue Austin City Limits shooting Ben Harper, Elvis Costello, Los Lonely Boys and more. He has developed his interest in politics to the point where his Aspen home has become a regular stop for prominent Democratic office-seekers.”I like being politically active because I think an individual can make a difference,” said Goldberg, who is aligned with Democrats but preaches greater cooperation between the parties. “If politics is of interest – and I think it should be of interest to everyone in varying degrees – and you’re in a position to expose people to a candidate or a party so they can make their own determination who to support, that’s a form of public service.”
Goldberg has taken that particular role as public servant to the extreme. Though he favors reform of a campaign financing system that forces politicians to spend vast amounts of time collecting donations, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and numerous others have attended fund-raising events at the Goldberg residence.”I don’t like being peripherally involved, or passively involved,” said Goldberg. “When I get involved, it’s to create something.”That Goldberg is deeply involved in many activities – including part ownership of the fabulous, high-end Aspen sushi spot Matsuhisa, and day-to-day operation of two Florida-based aviation companies – is confirmed by the phone beeps, doorbells and assorted buzzers that chime nonstop during a two-hour conversation at his home. Without breaking stride in the conversation, he seemed to know which noises required attention and which could be ignored entirely.”He’s involved in every aspect of this deal, from buying the blenders on up. Every detail,” said his younger brother, Steve, a partner in Matsuhisa and owner of the original Belly Up, in Solana Beach, Calif., on which the new club is partly modeled. “He enjoys learning about all of the aspects of his business projects or whatever endeavor he embarks upon.
“I think he’s a fascinating, amazing guy. He’s been an amazing role model for me.”That intensity of involvement is particularly strong with regard to music. The son of a physician father and a mother who played violin professionally and appeared with the Oklahoma City Symphony at age 12, Goldberg was exposed to classical music at an early age. He loved it but, as a child of the ’60s, he loved rock ‘n’ roll more. In high school, he played drums in what he calls “your typical high school wannabe band that never went anywhere. We played ‘Louie, Louie’ as badly and as frequently as anyone could.”At the University of Minnesota, Goldberg played football and listened to a lot of music. One summer, tired of working as a bouncer, he went back to Tulsa and worked for an acquaintance in the aviation business. True to form, Goldberg learned most every aspect of the business: Flying, teaching flight, selling planes. After graduation, he spent a year coaching football at Minnesota before being summoned back to Oklahoma. In the early ’70s, his boss sent him to open a Miami office. Goldberg built that office into Aerolease, a leading airplane-leasing company, and Express.Net, a cargo airline, both of which he still serves as president. Building the businesses, however, didn’t interfere with his passion for music.”My first apartment in Miami had a bed in the living room with two huge JBL speakers,” he said. “That was more important to me than having a place to sleep.”
Nothing – not having a family, not becoming a major fund-raiser for Democratic candidates, not aging – has interfered with Goldberg’s expansive love of music. So like every local fan, Goldberg, who moved to Aspen in the late ’80s, was saddened by the shuttering of the Double Diamond and what it meant for Aspen’s music scene. But unlike most every other music lover, Goldberg had the finances and the energy to patch the hole in Aspen’s cultural fabric. Even before the Double D closed, Goldberg had been in talks to preserve the space as a music club, and as soon as the closure occurred, Goldberg began thinking about his own venture.”I used to go there a lot,” said Goldberg, who counts performances by Warren Zevon, G. Love & Special Sauce, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Jimmy Buffett – an eclectic lot – among his favorites at the Double Diamond. “There was a hole and it didn’t look like anybody else was going to do it.”A key to Goldberg’s plan was his brother Steve. Steve Goldberg had 30 years of experience in the restaurant business in Minnesota and California, and, for two years, he has owned the Belly Up, a San Diego-area music club with a storied three-decade history. (Another brother, Bill, is the professional wrestler who goes by the single name, Goldberg.) If not for Steve, Michael Goldberg says, he wouldn’t be opening Aspen’s Belly Up. Steve is offering his contacts in the touring industry and club business; The Belly Up’s sound designer, Ralph Pitt, has been in town to consult on the sound system for the new club. Steve has also given his older brother a sense of the fun that can be had behind the scenes of a rock club.”I go to my brother’s place and walk backstage with him and see how it makes him smile,” said Goldberg. “This music thing – I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t fun.”
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Goldberg also says he wouldn’t step into the business of a music club if he thought it would be a sinkhole for his money. He’s realistic about the commercial prospects, calling the Belly Up “theoretically profit-making.” And he adds that, if he didn’t understand the challenges of a live-music venue in a seasonal ski town, “I have enough friends in the music business reminding me of it.”Steve, who knows both the live-music business and his brother, believes his brother will hit his goals, both commercially and artistically. “I wouldn’t have told him to proceed unless I was 100 percent confident he would succeed,” he said. “He’s very bright, very driven.”Goldberg figures his best chance to succeed is to make the Belly Up accessible to as big a pool of potential concertgoers as possible. So the club is designed with enough flexibility to accommodate rock concerts, cabaret-style events and stand-up comedy. (The Belly Up is slated as the primary stand-up venue for February’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.) He doesn’t want the Belly Up to cater solely to the young jam-band, reggae and funk fans that made up the bulk of the Double D’s clientele. It’s similar to the approach he took at Matsuhisa; his biggest mark on the restaurant was the addition of the Matsuhisa lounge, a lower-priced alternative to the dining room.”The first challenge is to keep it diverse enough to appeal to a wide range of ages and audiences,” he said. “As much time as I spent at the Double Diamond, I rarely saw my contemporaries.”
A significant asset that Goldberg brings to the ideal of accessibility is his personal taste in music, which runs the gamut. He remains loyal to the music he grew up on: He traveled to Denver recently to hear (and photograph) Simon & Garfunkel. Asked to choose one favorite artist, he names Paul McCartney. He is a regular attendee at the Aspen Festival Orchestra’s Sunday afternoon concerts, and says his all-time favorite concert experience was a 2000 performance of Mahler’s Second conducted by David Zinman. But he is hip to hip-hop acts like Wyclef Jean and the Roots, adores Iowa singer-songwriter Greg Brown and, thanks to his sons, is familiar with underground rap groups like Hieroglyphics and Atmosphere.”I remember my dad saying to me, ‘What is this rock ‘n’ roll about?'” said Goldberg. “And it was neat to see him come around to acts like the Beatles.”And now, I think about rap and hip-hop and how so many of my generation speak of that genre with disdain. And though lyrically it can be grotesque, it’s the beat poetry of our times. If you listen to it that way, it’s pretty interesting music.”In a scene from “The Aviator,” the recent biopic of Howard Hughes, the aviation giant has spared no expense in assembling a team to break the air-speed record. But with a fleet of 20 test pilots standing by, it is Hughes himself who jumps into the cockpit. “Why let someone else have all the fun?” says Hughes, before hitting a record 339 miles per hour.
Michael Goldberg has some uncanny resemblance, in achievements and character traits, to Hughes, who mixed his success in the airline industry with a passion for the arts and show business. Both are driven to oversee most every detail, from bolts to buses, of every venture. And neither is content to let one success be an endpoint; there is always another plateau.”Being in the aviation industry, and then a restaurant and a music nightclub, and picking up hockey – that’s what you’re supposed to do,” said Goldberg. “Not expanding by learning new things, however old you are – that would be pretty boring. It’s about learning and doing something different. Seeing if you can create something and have fun with it.”Goldberg has hired an experienced booking agent, Steve Weiss, who has worked for 20 years with Steve Goldberg. Still, Goldberg plans to be thoroughly involved in booking the artists for the Belly Up. What would be the point of owning a club and not picking the acts that appear there? Why, at the age of 56, not throw yourself, body and soul, into another startup venture? And why stand in the audience when you can wander around backstage, or even conduct from the podium?”There’s nothing like hearing live music,” said Goldberg. “So why not hear it live in your own place?”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org