King baby

Walter Yetnikoff talks about running CBS Records in the '70s, Michael Jackson's strange habits -- and Janet Jackson's breasts.

Published April 1, 2004 8:18PM (EST)

Walter Yetnikoff holds up a photocopied picture from rock 'n' roll's cocaine '80s. Quincy Jones, having just produced Michael Jackson's "Thriller," laughs in the background; stars and media moguls fill out the frame as a bearded Yetnikoff stands center stage beside a tall, leggy blonde with feathered hair.

"That's Boom Boom," he says, referring to his old girlfriend. "She actually wasn't that pretty."

Yetnikoff, now 70, isn't that pretty either, but at least he's alive after some hard-drinking, hard-drugging years at the top. Velvel, as his grandmother called him, moved from a hardscrabble Brooklyn youth to Columbia Law School, then to CBS Records, where he became president in 1975. Over the next 15 years, CBS's revenues swelled from $485 million to a whopping $2 billion. Yetnikoff oversaw the biggest growth spurt in record-industry history at the biggest label in the world -- he merged CBS Records into Sony in 1987 -- and became notorious in the process. His partying and cruelty became almost as well known as his profitability.

Today he's a changed man. The beard, which he used to dye, is gone. The open-chested shirt has been exchanged for a crewneck pastel sweater, and the life of highs, glitz and glamour are nowhere to be seen. Yetnikoff now lives simply and soberly in an Upper East Side high-rise apartment; his living room lacks a single wall decoration. Papers rather than CDs cover most surfaces.

It's a transformation of extreme proportions, which receives an epic (and Epic) telling in Yetknikoff's new autobiography, "Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess." Written with David Ritz, the book traces in dishy detail Yetnikoff's tear through women and the record industry.

The era's biggest music stars all make guest appearances: Mick Jagger matches wits with Yetnikoff over his contract; Michael Jackson produces "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad" while trying to make Yetnikoff the loving father he never had. Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel and Marvin Gaye -- all CBS artists -- have their hilarious, sad, fascinating run-ins with Yetnikoff, and along with moguls like Larry Tisch ("the little dwarf," in Yetnikoff parlance), they complete the ensemble cast of a story that's been compared to Robert Evans' Hollywood melodrama, "The Kid Stays in the Picture."

Today, Yetnikoff seems to have mixed feelings about his past. He's clearly humbled: "I used to believe that with this mighty right arm and this great brain, I was going to run the universe," he says. "Instead I ran myself through the jaws of death and into the mouth of insanity." But in a lengthy interview with Salon, Yetnikoff also revealed that he's still a fighter, a raconteur who now wields his power through words. Boom Boom may be gone, but the old Yetnikoff has emerged in a new version.

You dealt with a lot of artists in your time, but there's none more curious than Michael Jackson. What do you make of Jackson these days?

I don't know the answer to what's going on right now. I don't know what the facts are. But he used to refer to me as Big Pop. He was like a baby, a very talented baby, and part of that is that he would get me to do stuff that he didn't want to do. So he made me get him out of a deal with Geffen to use one of Michael's songs for "Days of Thunder." And a tour with his brother Jermaine.

But I think he faces other problems. One is that he's not the No. 1 artist in the world anymore. There are people who have managed to deal with the fact that their careers went down a tiny bit. Barbra Streisand has done real well with it; she seems to be a happy lady. Springsteen: His career, recordwise, is down significantly. I don't think "The Rising" was a big record. It's not a very good record either, but the tour is still sensational, so he's managed to deal with what MTV recently called rock and wrinkles. Bowie, he's on tour and he's quite good.

But Michael, I don't think, can deal with this. People who have to be No. 1 don't really feel that way. I used to get calls from Michael in the middle of the night. "Walter, the record is not No. 1" -- and this was "Thriller" -- what are we going to do?" I said, "We're going to go to sleep and deal with it tomorrow."

Then of course it went down after that. You had "Bad." You had "Dangerous." Those two did OK, then you're slipping significantly with "History" and "Invincible." And anyone that names their record "Invincible" doesn't feel invincible.

In "Howling at the Moon" you talk about your ability to speed-read contracts and your skills as a businessman. You also say that you weren't really a music man. Do you think you could have been successful in another business?

I said in the book that I was tone-deaf. I shouldn't have used those words. What I meant is that I hear like other people hear. I don't hear like a musician hears. But the people who buy records and make hits and listen to the radio hear like I hear. So sometimes over-hearing is not necessarily good. An example I always use is when I went to Springsteen once and said, "Let me mix this record, please." He said, "No, no, the snare drum is out; it's not doing well." I said, "Nobody cares, actually. People hear your voice. Show me the voice button and I'll bring it up."

That's what I meant. But there have been a couple of times when I heard things right. There was a time when Billy Joel had "Piano Man," then a record that didn't do so well called "Turnstiles." He was out of favor for a while and then he was doing a record called "The Stranger." I saw him on the road. I was not even looking at him; I was looking at the audience, which I had a habit of doing -- that's my A&R staff. And there was magic going on, and his wife-manager was there, so I said, Jeez, this is great, keep him on the road. She said, "I can't, I have no money." I said, "What do you need? Why don't you ask?"

She said, "I did. They turned me down." I said, "Ask again tomorrow. You'll get it." And of course, "The Stranger" was a big giant record that sent Billy off on his career. So there were times when I loved what I heard. In a different context, when I heard "Off the Wall," I said, ah, something is going on here. And when Springsteen did "Nebraska." He was very nervous, but I thought it was a great record; I thought the songs were interesting. I thought it was an example of an artist maturing into something else. Some people might have turned that down and said, "I want a rock 'n' roll record. Bring back the E Street Band."

So what happened was that the skills I did have were particularly apropos for the time. I got into the business end in 1969. That's when the business exploded, and there I was. I was also good at the legal business side of things, and I had an affinity for the artistic temperament. Not being a musician, I had this weird kind of thing involving creative people: I was both in awe of that process, because I couldn't do it, and I think I understood what made them tick. It was an ego/vulnerability. People criticize performers -- "Oh, what an ego." On the other hand, if you really look at it, when you have a performer onstage saying "Love my music," what he's really saying is "Love me." Well, what happens when you don't? You have to have a pretty big ego to put up with that, but on the flipside of that is a certain amount of vulnerability -- which I think most performing artists have, and cover up with a bit of ego. I understood that.

And yet, it all came crashing down, as you admit. Which artists do you still keep in touch with? Is there anyone you'd like to reconnect with?

I talk to Billy Joel all the time. I probably should call people like Springsteen because I don't think it was his fault that our relationship fell apart. It did, but I was carrying on and saying terrible things. I always admired him. And I don't think it was him. I think it was Landau [Springsteen's longtime manager and producer, Jon Landau]. But I ought to call him.

You say in the book that you refused to take Springsteen's calls because he was doing a concert for Amnesty International, which you saw at the time as anti-Israel. What's your take on today's state of Middle East politics?

There was a time when I had a solution for everything. I don't anymore. But I have a very emotional relationship to Israel. I used to be very friendly with the people at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. I've spoken to them, and they think this Iraq thing was good. You've eliminated one of the implacable enemies of the state and you've intimidated another one called Syria. They're scared shitless. And you've probably also gotten Saudi Arabia to stop funneling money around, because they're scared, so in that sense, it was probably good for the Israelis. Whether it was good for the world, this is beyond me. It certainly didn't work as Bush planned.

Have you seen "The Passion"?

I haven't seen it, but my feeling is that the American Jewish community should just leave it alone. It's Mel Gibson. He has a right to his own opinion. The whole [FCC] thing is getting a little scary. You now have CBS, which was the Tiffany of networks -- it really was, because I was there at the time -- and now look what you have: You have what appears to be "60 Minutes" paying Michael Jackson another million dollars to come on a show he's going to control. Does that sound like "60 Minutes"? Like Edward R. Murrow? There was really a very highbrow approach to the news, sometimes too much; they thought they were the kings of the cock house.

Now, you have Janet Jackson who shows one of her tits and there's this great big fuss about it destroying her career. It's too much. Big deal. She doesn't even have big tits! I'm concerned as a citizen. I don't know any other place where that happens, and some of this is a little scary.

Can you give me an example of someone you've tried to reconcile with since you've become sober?

I went to Clive Davis and apologized for some of the things that happened way back, not recently. And I went to a lot of family people -- not to too many artists, because I think I did OK with artists. It was personal stuff more than business stuff.

Well, there was at least one artist who you clearly didn't get along with -- Paul Simon.

Yeah, I don't like him.

But if only as a businessman, don't you regret losing him? He did some great work after he left CBS -- he sold a lot of records.

No, he didn't. You're wrong. The first record was something that had a song called "Allergies" on it. That went pfft. Then he did "Graceland," and I maintain that it was more the South Africans than him. Then he did one with the Brazilians. Then he did something called "The Capeman" that may have lost all the other money that he earned. Then he did this wonderful movie called "One Trick Pony." You think he's made money on all that?

He's just so self-important. He has a Napoleonic complex. He thinks he is the roving troubadour of the world. And do you think his activities with Art Garfunkel were very loyal? No way.

Your history of loyalty isn't exactly stellar, either. In your book, you make it clear that your times of craziness with drugs and corporate power are over. But what about women?

I have a girlfriend asleep in the other room.

So has anything changed?

I haven't quite figured it out. I know what the driving force was all those years, and it wasn't sex. I mean, that was OK. It was more a search for love. For example, people say, "You slept with 40 million women." It's not true. "You were with hookers." Also not true -- well, maybe twice in my whole life.

But I think I was on a search for -- I hate to talk this way, with this psychodrama -- the unconditional love I didn't get because my mother wanted me to be successful. "We love you if you do; we won't if you don't." So that explains the empty feeling. I think there was also a perfectionist kind of thing. I had to get a 100 on my test. Well, what's getting a 100 with a woman? Making her come, maybe 25 times. I think that was behind it all. And also the whole licentiousness of the time -- sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The world was my enabler.

So yeah, it's changed. I am now thinking along a different path -- where's real love? I know that's corny, but it's true.

Hilary Rosen, who went on to head the Recording Industry Association of America, once told a story about entering a meeting where the first thing you said was "Nice tits..."

I still do that. That hasn't changed. Does she have nice tits? I don't remember. I guess they can't be that great if I don't remember them. But that doesn't have anything to do with her tits. It was my own King Baby routine. Part of that outrageousness is a call for attention. It's my own childishness.

Do you think today's record industry is run with more maturity?

I think it's run very badly. I think you have executives who are holding on to their positions at all costs because they're overpaid. Not everyone is in that bag. But look at Tommy Scumola [Mottola]. He was let go. They wouldn't give him a label. That's understandable. I'm told they didn't give him a severance. I don't know that for a fact, but if true, something's wrong. The Japanese don't do that; like American WASPs, they like for things to look right. If they didn't pay him a severance there's something weird, really weird.

But that's not even what I'm talking about; I'm talking about people like Donny Ienner [head of Columbia Records, a Sony label]. They get giant bonuses and they're not letting go so quick. And do you see any new music that's really very different? There's very little. Why?

Well, some would argue that it's a hangover from your era -- when major labels like CBS grew fat on old artists and the move to CDs while forgetting to develop exciting new acts...

So how did all these little artists get big -- like Billy Joel and Bruce? They didn't start out as superstars.

I know what people say, but that's not the truth. The truth is that there were plenty of artists who were developed. Living Color, the Beastie Boys -- there are plenty of artists that were developed, despite what these pundits talk about. But now you don't see that because there's too much money at stake for both the executives and the corporations. Therefore you look through the rearview mirror and you do what you did yesterday. You can't be criticized for doing what you did yesterday. They don't want to take a chance. And radio is not so different. Neither is MTV. So you have copies of copies of copies. You get what you expected.

The great artists have always been different. The real good artists always had something that would make them stand out. Do you think Bob Dylan would get a record contract today? Probably not. It's greed really. And all the record companies are saying, "It's the fault of the Internet. I wish it would go away." Sales are down, what, 8 percent. Not 100 percent.

I don't want to blame the artist but, in part, it's their fault too. How many records do you have with 10 great songs on it? You don't have many. It's two or three produced by fancy producers and the rest is filler. I am not talking about every artist, but a lot of them. I don't condone illegal downloading. I'm a lawyer. But when you have an album and you want a kid to pay $10, $12, and you have two songs that they'll want to listen to, you're encouraging them to download the two songs.

In the rare occasion when something new comes up that people want, they'll buy it. Norah Jones is a good example; it's something different, something out of whack. I'm not even a fan of Norah Jones but the point is still the point -- people will buy it, downloading or not. But everyone is in this wimpy mode. No one wants to take a chance anymore. You get what you expect, relatively boring music, and then they blame the consumers!

But when you were in charge, you did the same kind of thing. You fought Sony when it started selling double-cassette decks and when the industry wanted to move to CDs.

I threatened them, actually, saying, I'm not releasing CDs, fuck you, I'm not releasing them. We all kvetched. We said, Oh my god, they're going to get rid of tape. We'll have to get rid of our tape factories and what are people going to do with their tape machines until they buy CDs? Nevertheless, the industry embraced CDs and it saved everyone's ass for a few years. So maybe the industry ought to intelligently embrace the Internet. There is a way to use it. I think you can harness the Internet. If the record companies were serious -- but they're in denial. They've turned it over to Apple.

Your book also has a few examples of ways that labels rip off artists, most notably by paying royalties on 85 percent of sales and claiming that the other 15 percent was damaged. What role did you have in perpetuating these kinds of accounting tricks?

It's been going on forever. I tried to ameliorate some of them actually; all of them, no. I was not paying particular attention. I was aware of it, more than most. But this is not what a chief executive focuses on. You don't think Ahmet Ertegun or David Geffen was looking at contracts. That's not really what we were doing. But I was aware of them, and some of them I tried to change -- like foreign royalties were being paid on all kinds of bases, which were really not called for by the contract. So I said let's get off the way we're doing things and get a little more kosher.

But it started a while ago ... and there's still some stuff floating around. There are a lot of artists who want to audit. And they're coming to me to be their consigliere. There's a guy named Steve Popovich -- Sony is going to hate this, they're going to have a conniption. What do I care? He's a friend of mine and he had a thing called Cleveland International, which had a participating interest in Meat Loaf. A long time ago, Steve came to me when I was still working there, and wanted an audit. It was one record, "Bat out of Hell." But the statute of limitations had run out. I said "Forget it, you're a friend. Go ahead, audit. Whatever we owe you, we owe you."

Sony refused to let him do it. He came to me and I wrote him a letter saying I agreed to do this and I have the authority. Then I get a letter from Sony's law firm, and I said, Don't ever do that again because you're really looking for trouble. I'll go public with stuff that you're really not going to like it.

I never heard from them. They engaged in litigation and Steve's like the coal miner's daughter -- his father was actually a coal miner; he does not have enormous resources. And he said, "What am I going to do here, they're beating me up." He's a little guy; they're a big company. I said, "They're going to settle on the courthouse steps; they're not going to trial for that." So they did. He signed a confidentiality agreement -- they're very nervous about things over there -- but he got paid over $5 million in settlement! I didn't hear it from him; I heard it from someone else, but I know it to be true. That's for him alone, forget Meat Loaf. So what do they owe the industry?

Your book is, of course, full of crazy stories, but many of them made me want more information. For instance, there was barely a paragraph about Studio 54. What did you leave out?

There were a lot of drugs. I was good friends with Steve Rubell and it was an interesting cultural phenomenon. I'm not sure what it did for the music business; it was more disco than anything else. But it was a place to be. What they first did was get a bunch of cute bartenders with cute little behinds and had them tend bar. That attracted the gay crowd and the gay crowd -- it's hip, it's in, they're the tastemakers often -- and that attracted the social climbers.

One of the weirdest things that happened is, I had a girlfriend that year named Boom Boom. We went to Acapulco. There's an enclave there that goes from the town to the Las Brisas hotel and it's owned by a Mexican. Boom Boom and her husband -- who has passed away -- used to go down there and they would receive their drugs. And when the Mexican came to Los Angeles, he would get his.

Now she got divorced and the Mexican's not talking to her. So we're at the New Year's Eve party there -- she came as a cat, and I came as the cat-keeper with a velvet rope around her neck -- and she says, that's the guy over there who wouldn't talk to me.

I, of course, went up to him and said, "What kind of fucking asshole are you? You were so friendly, now you won't talk?" And he says, "Hey Señor, is this worth it? Look." And I looked and saw a couple of guys with guns. "OK," I said, "you're right."

Well then I ran into him -- he was wearing a white tuxedo -- in Studio 54. "You remember me?" I said. He said yes. "And there's nobody with a gun over your shoulder, right?" He said no, so I hit him as hard as I could in the stomach. He fell down. Studio 54 was my turf.

What about celebrity lawyer Allen Grubman who got his start with you. You failed to mention in your book that he's the father of Lizzie Grubman. What was your reaction when you heard that she backed her SUV into a crowd in the Hamptons and became a tabloid mainstay?

Like father, like daughter. There's something very strange about that case. How come the cops didn't take a Breathalyzer test? Isn't that weird?

But Grubman, to me, is a whole different story. There were two stories taken out of the book, for literary reasons. The writer, Ritz -- who is a very nice guy, very different from me, he's very calm -- and he said, It doesn't look good. The stories make you look like a schmuck.

What were they?

One of them was completely innocuous. He was representing me in a deal with Steve Ross, which almost happened, and I had to pee in a bottle because I was taking medical tests. I had to pee in the bottle at all times. It was late at night and we ducked into a hallway on Park Avenue, and I said, "I'm going to pee in the bottle, you hold the bottle." And I spritzed him a little. And he says, "You're spritzing a lawyer!" I said, "A lawyer like you I can spritz." It's like a joke!

The other one is not true, but it wouldn't have to be true because the point of the story was true. I said that I made him take his dick out to continue a meeting and this little gray thing came out. I made it up, but it was to make a point -- that nothing is beneath his dignity. Nothing. He used to come into my office -- and this is true, he cops to that -- and kneel in front of my desk and say, "Puhleeze, puhleeze." He once followed me into the bathroom when I was taking a shit to make a deal. That's pretty undignified, even for a lawyer.

His business is getting very bad now; he must be getting very nervous. Billy Joel sued him, you remember ... But that's not the story. His first wife Yvette had M.S. He knew that when he married her. And it started to deteriorate -- this is the mother of his children.

This was more than 15 years ago. It was starting to deteriorate, and the night he left her, he was staying at the Regency, the Tisch hotel. And I bought him a bunch of bagels. I went over to see him. He was waiting for a hooker -- to show you how good my memory is -- named Corolo. How you spell it, I don't know.

But I said, "Allen, I'm surprised you left. You didn't have to. You can do whatever you want." I know a hooker he patronized for years and years and she lived on Gramercy Park near my girlfriend at the time, who was not a hooker. This was a saint of the fields, but they'd walk the dogs together. So whatever Allen told her, she told this girl and the girl told me, so anyway, I'm a fount of information.

So I said, "Allen, I'm surprised you left. You can do whatever you want." And he said, "She didn't keep her part of the deal." I said, "What was her part of the deal?" [He says] "She was supposed to look good on my arm, and she doesn't look good on my arm anymore."

I said, "You know Allen, I don't side with women generally. But you know, that's over the top even for me."

That's what we're talking about. That's the antecedent to Lizzie. And it's only one story of many.

But again, with Mottola and Grubman, you made these guys.

Yes, I did. But I was drunk and I plead mental defectiveness. But they were different. Neither is stupid. [Tommy] Mottola, in my view, is more pathological. But he played me. He became my brother. He's very good at male bonding. Grubman is not good at male bonding. But Tommy was very good at male bonding, and he was very successful at it. And he was very persuasive. He persuaded Mariah Carey to marry him.

I imagine you haven't seen Mottola recently.

He seems pretty chubby.

But what would you say to him?

Nothing. I wouldn't talk to him. There's no need. What am I going to say? I know what he's going to do. He's going to come running over. He'll try to kiss me -- and I don't want to have to go to the doctor right after that. He's going to say, "Oh, Walter, it's so nice to see you, I'm glad you're doing so well, congratulations on your book." That's what he's going to do. There's a level of bullshit that I don't have to listen to.

What's life like for you today? How often are you still going to addiction meetings?

Four or five times a week. And I'm active in service. On Thursdays, I do meetings at the Bowery Transitional Center on Avenue D and Fourth Street. It's not a program thing. There's not recovery there; it's just a shelter. And I do the thing out in New Jersey with the priest, Monsignor Puma, who might have been a bishop, but he's crazy. And he's one of the most altruistic people in the world. We're the odd couple; I grew up as an Orthodox Jew and he's a Catholic priest. But he's been very, very helpful to me.

I also sponsor a couple of people and I'm on the board of Caron, an addiction treatment facility in Pennsylvania that just opened up an office in New York -- a whole building designed for the needs of young people, because it's hard for kids to get sober.

Do you still feel angry at your dad, who used to abuse you?

There's still a bit of resentment about what a schmuck he was. There's still a lot of legacy from that. Like, I have a chapter in the book called "Sparring With Daddy" -- and Mommy too. Well, a lot of that aggression probably comes from the fact that there was a schmuck I was powerless against. Now there are a lot of schmucks who I'm not quite powerless against and I probably want to get even. There's probably some psychodrama like that because I still have an aggressive kind of thing. I almost punched a guy out at Heathrow airport, which is not a smart idea. I wanted to kill this guy. I got into a fight in a plane coming back from Texas because there was a woman with a baby screaming on the plane, and I told her off. The stewardess came over and said, "That's inappropriate behavior." I said, "You know, you're nothing but a waitress. Go away."

So it doesn't ever disappear, but it goes down.

When you come home today from a tough meeting, or a fight at the airport, what kind of music do you listen to?

I'm listening to a lot of things. People give me things. I'm putting out a bunch of soundtracks, so I'm listening to cool jazz. When new artists come, I listen to that. I listen to goofy stations, like Fordham has a station. It's a great station because they have interesting programming. It's not exactly Mariah Carey.

Are there any bands that you'd try to sign if you were in the business today?

Is Pearl Jam free? Aren't they out of their contract? Maybe I should go talk to them. And David Bowie I saw at Madison Square Garden, and he looks good and sounds good. He's got a better facelift than Paul McCartney, and I just admire him. I think he's great.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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