Howling At The Moon, by Walter Yetnikoff

Howling At The Moon, Walter Yetnikoff – I pulled this off the shelf at the library because I thought it was about the Ramones, but then I saw that it was the autobiography of Walter Yetnikoff (!!!!!), one of the seriously huge music executives of the 1980s. Okay – pay attention.

The book is okay, and not as good as the biography of David Geffen, but it has its moments. Most of it is confession about drug abuse, with plenty of hinting at raunchy casting couch sessions. He gets into the business, he meets Clive Davis, he skips over the period of 1962 to 1967 when rock was born (or, at least, it was then commercialized). The first act of significance that he mentions is Janis Joplin. He glosses over significant periods, such as Janis’ death (he mainly only stops to note that she sold more in death than in life). He screams, he yells, he’s a boor, he cares about people, his sarcasm and sense or irony is intact. He also has a magnificent roster of the top-selling icons of all time on his rolodex: James Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Meatloaf, the Rolling Stones (eventually), Paul Simon (ooops… falling out), Bob Dylan, Boston (!!!), Men At Work, Billy Joel, Cindy Lauper, Paul McCartney (not really… almost…) and Marvin Gaye. Oh yeah, and also this guy called Bruce Springsteen. And another solo artist, some kid… Michael Jackson. Ever heard of him. Imagine that – having the hottest acts of the 1980s, minus Madonna, under your wing. Wow!

No single record changed the business – and my life – as powerfully as Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Springsteen’s Born In The USA, Joel’s An Innocent Man, Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, Men At WOrk’ Business As Usual, Boston’s Boston – all huge career-defining records. But as a sales phenomenon, Thriller eclipsed them all. At one point the damn thing was selling a million copies a week. I’d never seen such figures. Michael had once again reinvented himself, only this time as the third prong of pop’s Holy Trilogy – now it was Elvis, the Beatles and Michael Jackson.

Not many people can write about what that sort of thing feels like, but Velvel is one of them.

But besides skipping over huge areas, the book is very funny, and talks about drugs in an especially frank manner.

The sexual side of our relationship was especially steamy. That’s because it was based on a menage a trios – Boom Boom, me and cocaine. How does an egomaniac become more maniacal? Give him coke. How does self-absorption, self-obsession, self-aggrandizement take on deeper dimensions? Try coke. I tried it, liked it and made it part of my acting-out operation.

Yetnikoff’s funniest story is about Bob Dylan, and it’s one for the record books:

Sitting next to Bob and his mother, I was astonished by their dialogue. The mysterious poet suddenly turned into little Bobby Zimmerman.
You’re not eating, Bobby,” said Mom as his girlfriend, Carol, was cutting up his food as though he were an infant.
“Please, Ma. You’re embarrassing me.”
“I saw you ate nothing for lunch. You’re skin and bones.”
“I’m eating, Ma, I’m eating”
“And have you thanked Mr Yenikoff for this lovely dinner?”
“Thank you, Walter.”
“You’re mumbling, Bobby. I don’t think Mr Yetnikoff heard you”
“He heard me, “Dylan said sarcastically.
“Bobby, be nice.”
“Does your son always give you this much trouble?” I asked.
“Bobby? God forbid. Bobby gives me such naches. He’s a good boy, a regular mensch. He calls, he writes, he listens to his mother. Every mother should have such a son.”
“Stop, Ma,” said Bob. “You’re embarrassing me.”
“You should be embarrassed,” I said to Dylan. “You’re a fraud.”
He looked at me quizzically. I explained, “Aren’t you the guy who wore, ‘Come mothers and fathers throughout the land / And don’t criticize what you can’t understand / Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command… the times they are a-changin’…’? So why are you whining to your mother?”
“I wrote that a long time ago. Is it okay with you if I love my mother?”
“That’s wonderful. I understand you’ve done the definitive version of ‘My Yiddische Momma.’”
He smiled.

The book ends with his downfall – kicked out of Sony, a failed Miles Davis biopic under his belt, a failed Velvel Records project, he goes back to counseling drunks and addicts in Patterson in New Jersey. Full circle. Great story.

His final words are parting shots at the industry:

When I get back home, the phone’s ringing. It’s a big-shot Washington, DC, lawyer considering suing the major labels for defrauding artists. He wants to sign me up as a consigliere for his case. This gets me excited.
“You know more about questionable accounting principles than anyone,” he says.
“I know that artists are greedy and the labels are less than straightforward. If you ask me who’s wose, I’ll have to think about it.”
“What overall philospophy drives the companies?”
“Pay the artist as little as you can. Tie up the artist for as long as you can. Recoup as often as you can.”
“What are the most egregious ways that the companies can cheat?”
“I’m not sure ‘cheat’ is the right word. But I am sure, at least in my day, that royalties were never paid on 100 percent sales. You paid on 85 percent and called the other 15 percent breakage – even bought the breakage applied to shellac records from the forties and fifties. What’s more, you pay artists half royalties on their overseas sales. You say that’s due to the cost of setting up your subsidiaries. Even when those costs have diminished, though, you keep paying the lower rate. On foreign sales, the company benefits from a tax credit not eh artists’ royalties. The royalties have nothing to do witht he company, but the company pays less taxes. Meanwhile, the artist doesn’t even know it’s happening. you charge at least half of the video costs to the artists. You charge the artist the coast of packaging. That could be 10 percent t- or one dollar on the wholesale ten-dollar price of a CD – when actual packaging costs might be a quarter. It goes on a nd on. Or at least it did in the music world of the seventies and eighties.”
“And the artists’ lawyers never objected?”
“In the age of excess, the artists’ lawyers were as greedy as the artists and the labels. The artists’ lawyers were going for huge advances for their clients and themselves. They didn’t give a shit about the small print. It a was all about the big bucks.”
“So it was corrupt.”
“Morally maybe. But legally it was written out in documents no one bothered to read.”
“But what about the big point – isn’t it true that ten when the company goes int he black with a CD, even when massive sales wipe out costs, even then the artist’s statement can still show red – or a lot less black than it should?”
“There are ways to pump up those costs on paper so that royalties are delayed or even permanently denied.”
“And you’re willing to testify to those ways in a court of law?”
“I’m not willing to do anything but get off the pone with you and try to regain my goddamn peace of mind.”
“Can i call you again?”
“Let me call you.”

Earlier on he explained that the record labels gave half royalties on CDs, citing the cost of producing the CDs themselves, long after the cost of producing CDs dropped. I’m not sure what ever became of that conversation… but it sure is interesting that it’s in the book. Ah… he’s a lawyer… he probably knows what he can say and can’t say.

Great book!

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