“The nuttier I became, the more money we made; the more money we made, the more they paid me; the more they paid me, the crazier I got”
When it comes to interviews, most musicians don’t have a lot to say for themselves. There are exceptions, but they are exceptions for a reason. These are the musicians who have been through the mill, musicians who have genuinely fascinating …
When it comes to interviews, most musicians don’t have a lot to say for themselves. There are exceptions, but they are exceptions for a reason. These are the musicians who have been through the mill, musicians who have genuinely fascinating points to make, musicians who actually enjoy answering questions which have nothing to do with what their producer or engineer did in the studio.
When faced with a tape recorder, however, most musicians, even those with fantastic albums to talk about, let the cliches roll. New bands are the worst offenders. They have absolutely nothing of interest to say because, in most cases, they have done absolutely nothing of interest. They’ve made a CD. Anyone can make a CD. Hell, I could make a CD. Actually, hang on, apparently I’ve made a few CDs.
The real stories are the ones behind the music, which is why the most interesting interviewees are the tone-deaf, sneaky, conniving, slippery people who pull the strings. Give me an hour’s face-to-face with Malcolm McLaren or Walter Yetnikoff any day over the boys in any band. Both chaps may have egos the size of the Grand Canyon and a tendency to be grouchy and unpredictable, but both always have great stories to tell when they get warmed up.
Back in 2004, Yetnikoff was in Dublin plugging his amazing book “Howing At The Moon” and I interviewed him for the paper. Full interview follows for those who’ve asked about it.
It was when Walter Yetnikoff arrived in London that he realised his reign as king of the world was over. As head of CBS Records Yetnikoff had got used to his arrival prompting much hustle and bustle, with lackeys and yes-men competing to meet his every whim.
But Yetnikoff had been removed from his post a few months earlier, and as he walked through the airport doors it began to sink in that he was no longer the boss. There was nobody to meet him, no Daimler waiting to whisk him to urgent meetings, no drugs to sniff, no booze to drink, no Mick Jagger or Billy Joel to laugh at his jokes.
“It was all gone,” he remembers with a shake of his head. “There was nobody there.” Yetnikoff admits that, for the first time in a very long time, he felt a little vulnerable. But as anyone who reads Howling At The Moon will quickly find out, it didn’t last long. Subtitled Confessions Of A Music Mogul In An Age Of Excess, Yetnikoff’s autobiography may well be the most entertaining book ever written about the music industry. It’s certainly the most outrageous.
As head of CBS Records during the 1970s and 1980s, Yetnikoff worked, fought and partied with Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand and dozens more. Then the most powerful man in the music business, he had an appetite for alcohol, cocaine, extramarital flings, tantrums, rows, vendettas, sulking and general bad-boy carry-on that should have spelled disaster for his career. The more he misbehaved, however, the more the company profited. (Ironically, his demise began after he eventually cleaned up his act.)
From indulging the “Happy Japs” and placating the “Unhappy Jews” to quaffing vodka for breakfast and calculating French tax implications with Mick Jagger over dinner, Yetnikoff lived a life that had everything. You may think that sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are just for the artists, but Yetnikoff was the measure of any of his stars when it came to excess.
It’s a hell of a tale – and one that the 70-year-old, sitting in a Dublin hotel suite and grumbling good-naturedly about wanting a sandwich, is happy to tell. Yetnikoff has no problems spilling the business beans, and he is just as candid with personal details, particularly about how he wrecked his first marriage.
“David Ritz [his co-writer] encouraged the honesty, especially about the personal stuff, my childhood, the violence of my angry father, my first wife, June, stuff I didn’t want to deal with,” he says. “I didn’t want to keep it in the book, but he insisted. He said: ‘If you are trying for honesty you have to put in some of the stuff which created the monster that followed.’ ”
From an unmusical and unhappy home in Brooklyn, Yetnikoff was on the straight road as a lawyer until his firm sent him to CBS Records to do a file search. “It was Christmas time,” he recalls, “and all of a sudden the lights went down, a whole bunch of girls came in, there was booze flowing all over the place, people were disappearing off into odd places and I thought, you know, I like this, this is a lot better than my law firm.” That was 1961, and his climb up the CBS corporate ladder had begun.
Artists loved Yetnikoff. He may not have been able to tell a snare drum from a bass drum – “I said in the book that I’m tone deaf, but what I meant was I don’t hear things as a professional musician; I hear them as a member of the public” – but he knew how to stroke egos. “It was like I took a psychology masterclass in talent or celebrity.”
Jackson referred to him as “Good Daddy”, Streisand relied on him to tell her how great she was and Springsteen was always anxious to get Yetnikoff’s approval for his work. “I understood that being a performing artist made you extremely vulnerable. You’re out there, you’re baring your breast, figuratively, and you’re saying: ‘Love my music, love me.’ They knew I’d step out for them. I didn’t mind throwing my weight around. I was ballsy, I would take the lead, I would break tradition.”
Yet Yetnikoff’s ruthlessness was not confined to music-industry rivals such as Steve Ross of Warner or David Geffen. He fell out spectacularly with Paul Simon when the singer decided to sign to another label; other acts also felt the lash of his mood swings. “It was a balance of terror. I would say to an act: ‘You know, I have 200 artists like you, so if I get in to a fight and I lose it’s embarrassing for me, but it’s not going to have a major economic impact, because I have 199 other acts. But if you lose it’s over and out, and I’ll make sure it’s over and out.’ ”
On a diet of drink, drugs and sheer hedonism, Yetnikoff created massive profits for CBS Records. “I don’t know how they didn’t know what was going on,” he says of his behaviour. “I’d walk in to serious corporate meetings out of it, make a presentation, have no idea what I was talking about – and they would applaud. I’d say to myself either I was doing a very good job or these guys are a bunch of schmucks.” Perhaps they recognised that a crazy Walter was a profitable Walter. “The nuttier I became the more money we made; the more money we made the more they paid me; the more they paid me the crazier I got.”
It wasn’t just his bosses who encouraged him. “The world became my enabler. Everybody around me was a sycophant to an extent – ‘Ah, Walter, you’re great’ – even I didn’t believe it. If I walked into a bar someone would have drugs for me. . . . It wasn’t necessary. I think it was Henry Kissinger who said that power was an aphrodisiac, and a lot of girls were like, ‘Wow, Walter Yetnikoff, you must have a two-foot-long dick,’ which, of course, I don’t have. It all started to feed off itself. I felt invulnerable. Personally, I was vulnerable because I was getting sick, but in the corporate world I was the king.”
It couldn’t last. After overseeing the deal that saw CBS Records sold to Sony for $2 billion – the transaction that began the takeover of entertainment companies by conglomerates – Yetnikoff went into rehab. When he went back to work, clean and sober, he found his one-time friends and allies conspiring against him.
Even when Sony fired him, even when artists didn’t call (“to hell with them; their loss”), even when he no longer had an entourage (“I don’t think I missed them”), Yetnikoff’s ego still found it hard to accept that it was all over. “It took a long time to come to the realisation that I am just another human being. It’s no place I ever wanted to be, getting old and getting sick and getting tired.”
These days Yetnikoff seems happier with his lot, and it’s obvious that the huge amount of attention the book is receiving is very much to his liking. He wonders aloud if the book is a little too cutting but then says in the next breath that he’s held back some of the business stuff because it was “so virulent as to really hurt people”. (Given his belittlement of some executives, the mind boggles at what Yetnikoff might have held back.)
But there’s still a part of the Yetnikoff ego that would like to be back in charge, despite the mess that his former company and the other big labels now find themselves in. “People say to me, ‘If you were here this wouldn’t be happening to the industry,’ and there’s a part of me, arrogance or whatever, that says that’s true. Could I make a difference? Maybe. Do I want to? Day to day, no.
“I like my life. I get up, I work out, I go to a meeting, I torture people, I write a book, I go to a movie, I work with the Caron rehab foundation in New York and raise money for them. I’m OK, it’s not a bad life. Sure, I don’t have control of the levers of power, but I don’t need that any more.”
© 2004 The Irish Times