Cocaine. Payola. Groupies. Cooked books. Meat Loaf.
Walter Yetnikoff, president of CBS Records from 1975-90, saw it all in his glory days. If there was a party going down, he was there, a supermodel or backup singer on each arm, booze and Bolivian marching powder in his bloodstream. If there was a deal to be made, an enemy to thwart, an opportunity to discover the Next Big Thing, Yetnikoff was on it. In a time of legendary art and legendary excess, Yetnikoff was king.
And, as he writes in the aptly titled “Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess,” “The more I got, the more I wanted.”
A savaged septum, a lacerated liver, a dollar-draining divorce, and 15 years later, Yetnikoff had exhausted his appetites and practically everyone else’s, too. He was wacky, he writes, but he kept up with the musicians he signed, and they loved him for it. He was tough and intimidating. But, he insists, he was honest, and he earned a fortune for his bosses.
Even so, Yetnikoff got the ax. The author of many plots was himself undone by a palace coup that brought Tommy Mottola to power, engineered by the “Happy Japs,” as Yetnikoff calls Sony/CBS heads Akio Morita and Norio Ohga.
Indeed. Yetnikoff’s book may superficially be about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, but at heart it’s a Machiavellian study in power brokering. The sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll bits get old after a while, but the evil-politics stuff is endlessly entertaining -- as is Yetnikoff’s glee when his enemies get their comeuppance.
If there is a dominant character in this book -- apart, that is, from the howling uber-alpha Yetnikoff -- it is Michael Jackson, whose one-time moneymaking power lured Sony to acquire CBS Records in 1987. The Japanese, Yetnikoff writes, were happy to give him his way, always -- as long as Jackson was raking it in. And in those days, as Yetnikoff happily writes, “Michael Jackson was still the biggest star on the planet.”
It wasn’t through lack of guile, either. Jackson, Yetnikoff writes, was desperate to shed his singing siblings and make it big on his own. He had Yetnikoff make it so. Jackson was bitterly unhappy that Quincy Jones earned a Grammy for producing his smash album “Thriller.” “All he did was help out,” Jackson complained. Yetnikoff dealt with it. The plot thickens.
Yetnikoff earned this close-confidant role by signing the Jackson Five for CBS in the mid-1970s, when the group’s 15 minutes were about up. After he watched Jackson sing “Ben,” he almost passed on the chance. “In my new role as president, wouldn’t I be a schmuck to authorize a multimillion-dollar deal to a guy pouring his heart out to a dead rat?” he writes.
He authorized, and Jackson’s star rose, catapulting Yetnikoff to stratospheric heights and making all concerned a whole bunch of money. Then it fell, and Jackson’s behavior took strange turns, and the rumors started, and Yetnikoff, though he had many other stars in his stable, crashed and burned, and the world kept on spinning -- though without our narrator at its center and with no law of cause and effect at work save that of self-destruction.
“Howling” is full of moral lessons that the discerning reader will see coming from a long way off. It’s a great car wreck of a book, full of mayhem and destruction. And it’s a lot of fun.