Great interview with Walter Yetnikoff, former head of CBS Records, who has a new tell-all book out about his very wild years in the music biz:
- In the living room of his sleek, two-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Walter Yetnikoff sat enjoying a picturesque sunset, "a real cocaine view," he called it. It was just after 4:30 and Mr. Yetnikoff, the most powerful man in the music industry for much of the 80s, was sober. This would not have been the case 15 years ago.
"I'd come out of a coma around 7 or 8 a.m.," he said, describing his daily routine as president of CBS Records from 1975 to 1990. "By 9 I might have drunk a half a bottle of vodka. Then I would call someone at CBS, maybe the head of the network or accounting, and yell at them. I'd finally drag myself out of bed and get into the office around noon. The steward would immediately bring me a screwdriver." Mr. Yetnikoff was referring to cocktails, not hardware. "I might walk out of my office and say, 'That one's nice, let's make his career,' or I might say, 'Get rid of that one.'"
He is every bit as forthcoming in his new memoir, "Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess" (Broadway Books), which chronicles Mr. Yetnikoff's rise from working-class Brooklyn to the upper echelons of the music industry and to his spectacular downfall. Writing in the tradition of dishy tell-alls like "The Kid Stays in the Picture," by the Hollywood producer Robert Evans, the 70-year-old Mr. Yetnikoff, who said he has been clean since 1989, opens up about his drug-and-booze-fueled days, his overseeing of the careers of megawatt stars like Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen, his newfound spirituality after a much-needed stint in rehab.
Mr. Yetnikoff took over CBS Records in 1975. In the years to come, the music industry would experience explosive growth with the advent of the CD. Under his watch CBS's annual revenue grew from $485 million to well over $2 billion. He engineered the sale of CBS Records to Sony for $2 billion in 1987. At the time, he signed a multiyear contract that was widely reported to have included a $20 million bonus. Drugs and alcohol, however, destroyed all he had built, including his relationships with colleagues and artists like Mr. Jackson and Mr. Springsteen. In 1990, Mr. Yetnikoff wrote, he was "unceremoniously canned" by Sony.
….There is very little that Mr. Yetnikoff won't say. "Walter has no filter," said the music biographer David Ritz, the co-author of "Howling." Though age has slowed down Mr. Yetnikoff considerably and his signature beard, once dark and lush, has turned into a gray 5 o'clock shadow, he seems as brash and outspoken as ever. He is the Jewish uncle who asks his unsuspecting nephew to pull his finger, a veritable Borscht-belt character. Jackie Mason would have little trouble playing him in a made-for-television movie.
….Mr. Yetnikoff grows quiet when talk turns to his troubled childhood, recounted in "Howling." Reared in Brownsville, Brooklyn, then a largely Jewish area, Mr. Yetnikoff said that recalling the abuse by his father was "extremely painful."
"He would kick me in the street when I was 5 years old, and I thought that was normal," Mr. Yetnikoff said, his voice heavy. "It's not normal to bang your kid's head up against the wall, though."
….His mother pushed him to excel in the hopes that her first-born son would be rich enough to help the family escape a life of poverty. "She worshiped money," he said. "Power was more my thing."
Mr. Yetnikoff would eventually attend Columbia Law School, where he won an academic scholarship. He joined CBS Records in 1961 as a junior lawyer, following Clive Davis, a friend and fellow lawyer. By 1975 Mr. Yetnikoff was president of the label.
"That's when all hell broke loose," he said before noting Lord Acton's maxim about the corruptive nature of absolute power. Once a low-key, married father of two, Mr. Yetnikoff said he morphed into a philandering egomaniacal monster who brazenly lived on the edge and flouted authority at every turn.
….The crazier he grew, the more power CBS gave him, Mr. Yetnikoff said. But as his professional stock rose, his personal life disintegrated. His first wife (and true love) died of lung cancer. Mr. Yetnikoff's own vices were ravaging his body. At the urging of his doctor he checked into rehab in 1989, sobered up and discovered spirituality. After a stint at Hazelden he returned to CBS. A clearheaded Mr. Yetnikoff was not good for business.
"I would go into meetings and ask people to hold hands and say the serenity prayer," he said laughing. "It really freaked people out."
….These days Mr. Yetnikoff volunteers at recovery centers around the New York region. "Twelve years ago he started coming out every week or two," said Msgr. Vincent E. Puma, founder of Eva's Kitchen, a homeless shelter in Paterson, N.J. "He never misses. He is very faithful."
When not assisting recovering addicts, Mr. Yetnikoff helps run Commotion Records, a fledgling company that specializes in indie-movie soundtracks. Other projects, he said, are on the horizon.
….Regrets, he has many of them. But Mr. Yetnikoff said he is doing his best to live in the moment. "If you have one foot in yesterday and one foot in tomorrow," he said, "you're going to hurt your crotch." [NY Times]
Astonishing that Yetnikoff functioned better in the music world on alcohol and cocaine than when sober, but at least he lived to tell the tale and became a human being again. I'd say the trade was worth it.