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King baby - The Walter Yetnikoff interview - Music Mogul mouths off

2006-03-29 10:59

- By Damien Cave

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.

Next page | "I said in the book that I was tone-deaf. I shouldn't have used those words."

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."

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