MUBUTV Insider Podcast Episode Transcript
Ritch Esra: Michael, thank you so much for joining us. I really, really appreciate it.
Michael Alago: Oh, thank you so much. I’m happy to be here.
Ritch Esra: Well, we’re very happy to have you. You know I was telling Eric that, I said, “Michael Alago is only the second person I know, who is an A&R man who’s had a documentary made on him.” John Hammond, I think was the first. I think you’re only the second person — I’m aware of— where they made a documentary on your career in A&R.
Michael Alago: Well, that sounds good to me —
Ritch Esra: Absolutely!
Michael Alago: And it's a great company to be in [Laughter].
Ritch Esra: Oh, absolutely! Yes, yes! The legendary John Hamming. Absolutely!
Michael Alago: Oh my! Abso... Yes, indeed.
Ritch Esra: So Michael, I want to start at the beginning. You know, growing up as a kid, do you remember what point— if ever in your life— that you knew that music was going to be your professional career path.
Michael Alago: Yeah! Growing up, I always tell people I feel like I came out of the womb loving music. As a young boy growing up in Brooklyn. I just always loved music. And how that manifested itself was, I would watch all the shows that were on the networks. Whether it was Dick Clark's ‘American Bandstand’, Don Cornelius ‘Soul Train’. Don Kirshner is a…
Eric Knight: Rock...
Michael Alago: ‘Midnight Special’. Rock in concert on Friday nights. And because it was such a wide variety of artists that performed on these shows, my listening at a very early age was big and wide. You know? So you know, you're perhaps seeing Aretha Franklin singing on Dick Clark. And you hear David Bowie on Midnight Special. I mean, it was just an array of artists. So that helped me to hear lots of different kinds of music. I don't believe I ever had a plan B. Meaning... Yes, I always want to be in music. But what does that mean to a 14 year old, a 12 year old living in Brooklyn. So I watched the shows on TV. “Am I going to be a Soul Train dancer? Am I going to write a record with Dick Clark and those kids?”
I don't know. All I know is that I love music. So, that's the way it was up until I was 19. I was going to School of Visual Arts. I worked in a pharmacy on Astor Place and one day I was walking down East 11th Street— I speak about it in the documentary that's on Netflix right now about me.— And I see a beautiful building on East 11th, and it said something like, “video club opening, resumes wanted.” And I thought, “wow, this sounds interesting.” Now remember, it's 1980. MTV has just started. And so I walk into the building, and if you know anything about The Ritz still or now called Webster Hall, it is a gorgeous art-deco building. So when I walked up the stairs into the main hall, I was taken. Overtaken by how beautiful it was. There was a gentleman on the balcony. And he was like, “kid, we're not open. What can I do for you?” And I looked around and I looked up and I said, “Well, I would like a job.” And he said, “Do you have a resume?”And I said, “no, I don't have a resume. I go to the School of Visual Arts and I work in a pharmacy.” Well, he just kind of thought that was not laughable. But it put a smile on his face. So he called me up to his office. His name was Jerry Brandt, [is Jerry Brandt], and he's still alive. Thank God. And he started talking to me about music. And what did I think I wanted to do? I did not know. But in our conversation, we covered everything from the ‘Great American Songbook’ to what was on the radio today. He liked what I had to say about music. He felt like because I was out every night, I had my ear to the ground. And he said to me, “kid, I'm going to give you a job. You're going to answer my phone. You're going to open my mail, and you're going to get my lunch.” Well, I thought to myself, “Oh my god, I'm in the music business.” I mean, that was a small precursor— What was to happen—In my life. But you know, Jerry Brand, if you don't know this, he started out in the mailroom with David Geffen at the William Morris Agency. Back in the day, Jerry worked with Sam Cooke. He worked with Muhammad Ali. He discovered the voices of East Harlem and Carly Simon. He was extraordinary, Jerry, a real entrepreneur. And in the 60s, he had the electric circus at St. Mark's place. So I didn't know all of this about him when I got there. Eventually, I looked him up. It scared the bejesus out of me. And I just thought, I can't believe I'm working for this man. So, I mean, that's kind of how it all started.
Eric Knight: Wow!
Michael Alago: Yeah! That's what I say all the time.
Eric Knight: [Laughter]
Ritch Esra: It's. I mean, it's interesting, because you've covered a lot of stuff that, you know, we're going to ask you about in terms of why—
Michael Alago: Oh, boy! I knew I was doing that.
Ritch Esra: That’s okay!
Eric Knight: No, no, no. That’s okay!
Ritch Esra: Oh, no, no, because I want to get into the details, because there's so much more to cover in what you've talked about.
Michael Alago: Sure!
Ritch Esra: And we'll fill in all of those spaces as well.
Eric Knight: So Michael, this is Eric, and thank you so much for doing this for us. I mean, I'm really privileged and honored to have you on the show. I'm a really big fan of your career.
Michael Alago: Oh, good.
Eric Knight: Yeah. When did you develop your passion for music? And who were some of the artists that you loved growing up? You know, and growing up? Did you see yourself as an outsider?
Michael Alago: Good question. I grew up in Brooklyn, I was a bit of a loner, I liked being alone. I loved music, like I said, from a very early age. So whether I was listening to 77 WABC, Dan Ingram on the radio, or I was watching all these music programs on TV, I got to hear an extraordinary array of artists. I also at an early age, bought 45 singles, I had a little gray Panasonic record player, and I would sit on my stoop and play 45’s. Those 40 fives were everything from Aretha Franklin's ‘Respect’, ‘Ooh Child’ by the Five Stairsteps. Archie Bell and the Drells, Tightening up, Grand Funk Railroad closer to home. And on 45 it was part one and part two. So I just, at a very early age, developed a love for a variety of types of music.
Ritch Esra: What's interesting is that, you know, you had, as a kid, I mean, the kinds of things you're talking about, you had such a variety of styles that you loved. And we'll get into this later in our conversation, but you expanded even well beyond what you're talking about your early influences, and more importantly, what you were exposed to in love. Whether it was a Aretha or Archie, you know, the pop records at WABC, that you expanded well into a lot of other areas, due to your passion for music, which, you know, to me as a former A&R, executive myself at Arista, it shows why you were able to have such a successful career that you did. Because you really went beyond just what your own personal tastes were as a kid in terms of your influences. And that's, that's interesting—
Michael Alago: Sure.
Ritch Esra: And we'll get into that more, because the thing I want to talk to you about is that you know, you were and we learned this from the the great documentary, ‘Who the fuck is that guy?’ That's the documentary that's out on your life, and it's on Netflix and one of the things —
Michael Alago: Yes! It’s “Who the Fuck is that Guy? the fabulous journey of Michael a Lago —
Ritch Esra: That’s right!
Michael Alago: It’s been renewed again, for a third year, which is usually unheard of —
Eric Knight: Yeah.
Michael Alago: But so many people all over the world have been watching it. And I just think that, that's why they renewed it up till September 2020.
Eric Knight: And for anybody who hasn't watched it yet, you've got to watch it, because it's such a great —
Michael Alago: Oh, it’s wonderful!
Eric Knight: It's a great, great story.
Ritch Esra: And it's a wonderful—
Michael Alago: Thank you so much.
Ritch Esra: Yeah, it really is. It's a great documentary. I've seen it twice already, and really loved it. And the thing is that, you know, you were speaking about a time, which is what I want to ask you about, you were speaking about a time that was very, very creatively vibrant. Not only in music as the documentary on you focuses on, but on a lot of other aspects. And that's what I want to ask you about is that, you know, there was such a great and vibrant scene in the 70s and 80s, in New York City, especially in the East Village. And I was wondering if you could talk about what that scene was like and what your memories of it were.
Michael Alago: Boy, here we go! This could be a long one! Yeah, sure. Sure. I've always been a New Yorker. Well, I grew up in Brooklyn when I was 20, I moved into the city, I lived on East 10th Street between B and C. Now, that was a funky area back then. It was a scary area. You know, Bodegas was selling not only sodapop but they were selling heroin. Though that area was real scary. But the beauty of it was that there was a vibrant art scene coming up. And it reflected in the artists like Richard Hamilton, who went around the city painting these black shadow men everywhere. Fabulous, big shadow men, that if you turned a corner, it would startle you. You know, Jean Michelle Basquiat was coming up, but I knew Jean Michelle Basquiat from my last two years of high school that we went City School together, but we could talk about that later. And you know, of course, there was Keith Haring, and you would see him on the subways, morning noon and night, painting his childlike doodles that he made. And you know, half the times he would get arrested, and once he got out of, you know, jail overnight, he’ll go right back to doodling on the subways again.
Anyway, so, it's a very vibrant, interesting scene. All these people were so original, and I was a person who loved music and art and theater. I started going to the theater when I was, I think 15 years old. And I knew about the theater, because I would pick up the ‘Village Voice’. I'm not sure if it came out every Wednesday back then. But it was like once a week. So that had everything in it from art, theater, the porn theaters, and of course, all the nightclubs. And I gravitated to all of that. So that also helped inform me what was going on and where. Did I answer your question?
Ritch Esra: No, no, absolutely! So, I mean, you know, what I'm getting from you is that you really were ensconced in the culture. You not only were interested in art, but you were interested in the scene, in the people, you had some obvious, you know, relationships with people you knew Basquiat, you knew that whole scene, and you also were, you mentioned this last part, which is that you were very, very much informed about what was going on in the clubs. Talk about what was going on in the clubs. I mean, you've spoken about the art scene— But the clubs were a very, very important part because they're essential. I think they were an essential thread to your particular journey in your life professionally. They... I would think informed a lot of what you eventually, you know, focused your life on, which was music, and you were seeing a lot of these bands in clubs. What was that scene like?
Michael Alago: Oh, absolutely!
Ritch Esra: Yeah, talk about that scene, because it was a vibrant one?
Michael Alago: Yes. Well, very early on, my mom made a deal with me that if I did well, in school, I could go out. Well, I think I was escaping from Brooklyn almost every night and going somewhere. That somewhere was Max's Kansas City, CBGB, sometimes Great Gildersleeves but not much. Madison Square Garden. So many different places. Now, what I loved about the scene back then was Hillary Crystal, owner of CBGB’s, was starting to book all of these punk bands that were getting signed. A lot of them by Seymour Stein at Sire Records. Whether it was Richard Hell & The Voidoids, The Ramones… [who else]—
Ritch Esra: Talking Heads
Michael Alago: The Talking Heads, the Dead Boys. Well, I fell in love with the Dead Boys. They were like the bastard sons of the Stooges. I love their crazy antics on stage. And I went to see them every single time they came here from Cleveland, Ohio. At one point, my friend Jody and I decided we were going to start a fan club. So we made a zine with all these cutout punk letters. Now, what did we know at 15 years old how to run a business. It wasn't really a business. We made a zine or two, that was it. But we continue to go see the Dead Boys. So like I said, I… lucky that my mind was always open to different styles of music. And you know, I took in what I loved and as they say, “you'll leave the rest behind.” But like, I was out every night. I really was, I was out every night in the 70s and 80s. What started it all was June 3rd, 1973.
It was the last night of Alice Cooper's billion dollar Babies tour. And my cousin had a boyfriend, Mandy, the Greek from Astoria, and he had two tickets. She didn't want to go. She said, “Take my young cousin.” Well, was I in for a surprise? Alice Cooper, the theatricality. Something a 13 year old has never seen before. I did see him on a Friday night, on... in concert at 11:30 at night, and I thought, “Wow!”. But little did I know that soon after, I'd be seeing him in concert. Well, you know, that changed my life. Alice Cooper, to this day, I could still go to see Alice Cooper and 44 years later, he's doing the same show. It's still fantastic. I love every waking moment of it. So back then, my tastes ranged from the Dead Boys to Roxy Music, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Todd Rundgren— Todd is God— Todd Rundgren. And like I said, I don't know, I was just hearing so many things and loving so many things, and purchasing so much vinyl and 45 singles.
Eric Knight: I think it was a product of the times that you had such a wide breath because that era had so many different types of great music. And there was so much creativity. And I mean, you were literally a part of the movement that was, that was shifting culture musically on a global scale.
Ritch Esra: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, this is interesting to listen to you give it in this chronology, Michael, because all of this background, all of this provides a great subtext for the job, the first job in the music business, which was working at the Ritz with Jerry —
Michael Alago: Yeah.
Ritch Esra: Because—
Michael Alago: And I was his assistant. And as the year went on, the first year went on [I'm sorry to interrupt you]. Um, I started booking the acts there. So I was like the assistant booking director, I was a sponge. I listened to every single thing Jerry had to say to those booking agents on the phone. Whether he was talking to the fabulous late, great Ian Copeland from FBI. Whether he was talking with Rob light at ICM, whoever he was talking to, to book that room, which I don't know, held 1500, 1800 people? I listened so that I could learn how to speak to those agents about dollars and cents and break-even points and what you pay Prince and what you pay Prince you're not going to pay three local bands on a Sunday night. So I learned from listening to Jerry, really, he was and is so fantastic. And I was there for about three years. And then I felt like there was more out there.
Eric Knight: There was.
Michael Alago: Yet. Yet again. I did not know what that more was yet.
Ritch Esra: Okay. Now let's stay with the Ritz for a minute because it was a very seminal time in music, as we've just established. And there was a lot of, not only great music, but there was a whole, as Eric said, there was stuff that was moving the culture and it was on a global level.
You were coming across music from England, coming across music from Australia, coming across music from Germany. I guess my question is, you know, number one, how did you go from being an assistant to being an assistant booker, which is a whole different skill set? And number two, can you talk about some of the acts that you were involved with booking during your time at the Ritz?
Michael Alago: I became an assistant booker, because like I said, I was a sponge and listened to everything Jerry had to say. And at some point, he had blind, more blind faith in me and allowed me to do that job. And he would listen in on what I was talking to the agents about. And like I said, I learned quickly. And every week I get the Village Voice, I get Melody Maker, New Musical Express sounds from the UK, I’d get all publications. So I'd be aware of what was going on locally, nationally, globally. As a, you know, historic story that I have told time and time again, but it yielded greatness in the end. It was May 1981 Bow Wow Wow who was managed by Malcolm McLaren —
Eric Knight: Malcolm McLaren, yeah.
Michael Alago: Coming over to do the Ritz. And at one point, the beginning of that week, Malcolm McLaren called me and said we're not coming. I said, “what do you mean, we're not coming?” Well, you know, Annabella she's under age and her mom won't let her travel overseas. I said, “Oh, really? Well, you know what? I'll buy her mother a ticket. Y'all are just getting here. We have a Friday and Saturday night that are completely sold out. And I've already sent you a 50% deposit.” So he said, “Well, you know, we're not coming.” I said, “Okay. I would like you to wire transfer that money back. And I, I will be looking for it.” And, end of part one of that conversation. I have to start thinking quickly. What do people want to see on that caliber of a Bow Wow Wow who are up and coming. That first album I believe was out on RCA. It's sold out. Well, I don't know how this happened. I really, I don't remember exactly how it happened. But public image limited PIL. Were in Lee's Rosenberg's office at Warner Bros. They were here on a press junket to promote flowers of romance and I saw and went, “Oh my god, this is perfect. As PIL play, people will lose their mind”. Well, they lost their mind, eventually at the show but in a very different way than I thought. Anyway, I called Louise Rosenberg's office. I didn't know John yet, John Lydon. And I gave him a spiel, as only I can give a New York spiel. And in the end, I said, “I'd love y'all to come down to my office, I'll have a car. You'll meet Jerry Brant, Danny fields, who is then our publicist for a bit of time, and myself.” And they kept saying, you know what, we don't have any instruments here. We are just on a press junket. And I said, we have to make something work. So they came to the office, a couple of hours went by, they loved the idea of this 20/30 foot inch white screen that we had on the stage. They thought they were going to be doing some kind of performance art. People, like people, did not want performance side. This was Johnny Rotten, coming back as John Lydon. And they wanted rock and roll. So that week, I think I spoke to a couple of DJs at WLIR.FM, I asked him to give him 25 pairs of tickets. Just talk about the show all week. Well, that Friday night came, the show of course was sold out. The second night was sold out. The band started playing, they’re behind the screen. I mean, artistically, it's like nobody cared about that artistically.
It was a white screen with these beautiful lights. So all you saw were these black figures dancing around. And then when people were getting a little restless, about 15/18 minutes into flowers of romance. Of course, John picked his head out from behind the screen and let everybody know they would never coming out to perform for them. It was basically like a take it or leave it. It didn't go over too well. So about 20 minutes in, the crowd really was restless. And John was taunting them as only he can taunt. So what wound up happening is, chairs started flying off the balcony, beer bottles started flying, and it kind of got dangerous—
Eric Knight: ooh!
Michael Alago: So at one point, we just had to shut down the show. And so we did. And I went backstage. I was talking to John, he was... he thought it was a bit of a laugh. There was a kid sitting outside, I think it was Scott of the dressing room. His head got cut open from bottles. So I wrapped his head, and he said, “Can I meet John?” I was like, Sure! So he came into the dressing room, he was happy as a clam, he could have cared less than his whole head was bleeding. And security had to like keep the crowd, you know, in order. And I don't know, an hour later or so the building was being emptied. And Jerry was like, “Well, what are we going to do tomorrow?” And of course, I said “bring him back”. He was not amused with me. I think what happened the next night was some local dance played. And that was it. But it's a show that people ask me about... [what is 1981] 38 years later. But the beauty of that show on a personal level is, I became friends with John Lydon and we've been friends 38 years now. Never have never had a bad word with each other. I signed them to Elektra in 1985. I have dropped them in 86. It was not, it was not cost effective to keep them because the deal we made was so expensive, and the records weren't selling like we thought they were. But what an extraordinary, brilliant guy he is. And I love him very, very much. And so that's in a nutshell, that was one of the infamous shows from the Ritz I booked. Well, there was a day I picked up the phone and I said, “hello, Jerry Brandt's office. May help you?” And the woman on the other end said, hi, this is Yoko Ono. And I would like to speak to Mr. Brandt — Of course, please hold the line. I said, Jerry, Yoko Ono is on the phone. Now. My timing might be a little off. I know John was killed the end of the year in 1980.
Ritch and Eric: Right!
Michael Alago: Being the artist that she is. I'm sure she was grieving big time. But she was also making a video of a song called ‘Walking on Thin Ice’, that they were recording the night that he was killed, actually. And, so, I don't know if It was a month later or six weeks or two months later, she knew about this huge screen, at The Ritz. And it was almost like a gift to New York, this video that she made. Now the video. If people have not seen it, it's widely available on YouTube. Just Google it. And it’d scenes from them at home, at the Dakota, it’d scenes of them in bed, it’d scenes of Shawn when he was very small. And by the middle end of that video, it is a very defiant Yoko Ono walking down the street Times Square getting in and out of a car turning around and freeze frames on this very powerful image. Well, it was extraordinary. People were crying, people freaked out when they saw the video.
And everybody, worldwide was so tender from that horrible moment. Not even in, just in rock and roll history. In the world! You know someone so beautiful, and the humanity that he had was just crushed.
Ritch Esra: Now, from the Ritz. From the Ritz, you... After three years you said you… You then went on to Elektra Records as an A&R executive. And here's my question to you: Was it difficult coming from a more freeform environment of the Ritz into a more high profile corporate environment like Elektra?
Michael Alago: I was going out with someone named Mitchell Krasnow his dad's name was Bob Krasnow. Bob was running one of the A&R people, one of the chief executives at Warner Brothers. Bob was leaving Warner Brothers to go to become the chairman of Elektra. At that point in time. I hate saying this, but Elektra was kind of in the crapper. So I've never had a better word, sorry. And Bob was going to pull the label back together again. A lot of people were saying, you know what, David Geffen is just going to come in, and take over. That didn't happen.
Eric Knight: No…
Michael Alago: Mitchell. Mitchell said, Mike, you know, my dad's gonna take over Elektra. I think my dad should meet you. Great! So I meet Bob Krasnow. We were in the Rolex building that, at 666 Avenue, and I was scared. I had no idea what I was going to talk to this corporate guy about. So I meet Bob, he was very gracious. And I had that same conversation with him that I had with Jerry Brand. We started talking about music. And like, the wide array of music from back in the day to R&B to top 40. You know, I throw in my little bits of heavy metal here and there. And the beauty also of that interview was that on Bob's walls, because Bob knew, I didn't know this yet. But Bob knew how to merge art and commerce successfully and beautifully. So on the wall in his office, he had a Robert Longo painting, walking down the halls of Electra. There was a big, big frame. A big yellow Devo suit that they used to wear. There was like some kind of macro made by Joni Mitchell. I mean, there was a wide array of things in that office, at Elektra. So we talked about art, as well as. Interview is over. A week or two goes by, and he said, I'm going to give you a job. I think I cried when I hung up the phone. I had no idea what that entails. I had no idea what the name, the words, A&R meant. I just knew he was going to give me a job. So of course, I asked around what the heck, A&R meant, [artists and repertoire]. And I thought, well, I have no idea what's going on here. So like Jerry, Bob Krasnow was very, very gracious with me and very patient with me. Again, I would be in his office when I heard him talking to lawyers. Not so much artists, but lawyers, managers, publishers, and I would hear him speaking. I don't know what kind of time frame went by. But after a while, he said, speak to Michael Alago. I was the first person he hired when he got there. Nevermind, the first A&R person that he hired there. But one of the first people he brought in under this new regime. Well, I just, I don't know, I just started doing the job. I got, had an executive assistant. And I remember telling Tony that we have to get every music magazine across the United States. Let's go. Let's look at San Francisco, Los Angeles, Memphis. Nashville, Boston, Austin, Dallas, let's go up.
Let's go up north to Toronto and Montreal, get all those publications; newspapers, specific heavy metal publications, and let's just start looking through them and let's see what sounds interesting. So besides the lawyers and managers and artists who are coming to see me, we went through— it was very cut and paste, you know. There wasn't really an internet, maybe three, that you know, the way we know it today. So, I don't know. That's how I did my job by meeting people. I signed a little group from Red Bank New Jersey called Shrapnel, who I adored. Richie Cordell produced the EP withGlenn Culkin; it was five songs, didn't do much of anything. Good band, one of the things I learned, you can't just sign your friends. So I was digging deep. And the second band that I signed was Metallica. And that kind of changed everything.
Eric Knight: So let me ask you, so what was the music scene like in New York City when you started at Elektra? And the follow up would be, you know, back then, as an A&R executive, what did a typical day look like for you?
Michael Alago: Oh, sure. [What was the music scene like?] Well, I knew that part of most of my focus was going to be on hard rock and heavy metal, my favorites. So that's a lot of the stuff that when Tony and I were looking through publications, we just cut things out. Or if somebody had a good look, we cut the picture out to call those people because they have an independent release out, and see if they want to speak to anybody at a major. So my day was reading publications, making appointments with artists, lawyers, managers, listening to tons of cassettes. Tons cassette! I really, I listened to them, I think until my ears bled, you know. But that was the job! I had to listen to new music that was unsigned, or if they were on an independent label, they were looking for a major you be with. And you know, over those years, I did A&R for 25 years. Over those years, I heard a lot of good stuff. But like I say, “good is not great.” Yeah, if you start signing everything good, you're over your head, you're just you just can't do it. So I was always very specific about the artists that I signed.
Eric Knight: When you got signed on to Elektra, was— did Bob and then tell you that that was going to be your focus was hard rock and heavy metal? Or you just kind of took that upon yourself? or how did —
Michael Alago: I took that upon. I took that upon myself. Bob gave his A&R people room to sink or swim. I was going to swim, in my mind. So, he really lets you go, I mean, he hired you for a reason. You’re either going to be great at your job, or you will not. And I've had incredible instincts for people. People who I felt had star quality, who were charismatic, who had something to say. And those are the people I wanted to work with.
Ritch Esra: You know, Michael. As an A&R executive when you were at Elektra. You know, you also work with— I mean, I know this from working in A&R as well, that you also work with acts that you didn't sign. You work with acts that are on the label.
Can you talk to us about some of the artists that you worked, in an A&R capacity with, at Elektra. Because I know that there's some, there's some real seminal ones in there.
Michael Alago: Right. Well, one day Bob called me into his office once again, and said, I just signed this girl from Boston. She's playing next week up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I know Charles Koppleman is going to go along with his son, Brian, who helped bring this artist to Elektra. And her name is Tracy Chapman. And I mean, talk about a quiet, beautiful presence with those extraordinary songs— That she had in her for a long period of time. And got to work that out beautifully on that first extraordinary record she made with David Kirschenbaum. Yeah. So Bob said you’re an A&R person. And I was like, great, wonderful. I mean, I loved hearing, you know, the unmixed versions of ‘Fast Car’, ‘Talking About a Revolution’, all that stuff. And it was very exciting. She was very shy. I was not. So we got along, I would say we got along. And I was there mostly for mixing and mastering of that record. And, you know, I remember there's a little story that on a Wednesday at our marketing meetings, they were talking about the single being ‘Baby Can I Hold You’. And I thought to myself, “Oh my God, I've been living with this record for a year. And that's not the single.” So I quietly dipped outside of the marketing meeting, I ran down the hall to Bob’s office. I said, “Listen, we got to play cool. Everybody's saying that ‘Baby Can I Hold You’ is the single.” He said, “I'll be right there. Go back to the marketing meeting.” So, [lalala] back to the marketing meeting. Five minutes later, I think Bob walks in. And he said, I hear we're on Tracy Chapman, is that right? [Yes] Okay, so what do you all have you think the single is? and basic, Baby Can I Hold You? He said, it's not the single, the single is, ‘Fast Car’. And he walked out of the marketing meeting. And now once Bob said something like that Kras, knew that was the single. There is no talking about it. There's no arguing. And you know, Bob knew! Bob knew!
Ritch Esra: Yeah.
Eric Knight: And that's incredible that you had that kind of relationship with him, that you could go in there and tell him something that he would act upon and come back. And—
Michael Alago: Yes, I did. I was so… I felt so lucky that I had Bob here. You know, there were days, my door to my office would be closed. And I'd be listening to cassettes real loud, the door would knock. And you know, he didn't ask to come in. He just opened the door. And I'd be like, Oh, no, what does Bob want? And he said— he would look down at my feet. And he said, “Oh, I like those shoes. Let's go over to Madison Avenue for a shoe shine.” And I mean that, you know, you never knew what Bob was coming to your office for? Was it a shoe shine? Was it to ask how Tracy's moving along? Or would it be knocking on your door and the two heads that popped into your office was Bob's and Andy Warhol with the newest copy of Interview Magazine that he signed for every single employee on that floor. I mean, so Bob did all these things all the time. Bob was extraordinary. I loved Bob so much. But that's not where we were. Yes. So I worked with Tracy on that record. And I also worked on the art direction for the packaging of that record, which, you know, I originally had Robert Mapplethorpe shoot the cover. He was dying of AIDS, and we brought Tracy to his studio. I mean, he couldn't even stand up.
He was sitting in a beautiful chair with a bathrobe on. And I said, Do you want us to come back another day? He said, no! I'm shooting this today. So I left them both for the whole day there. I get back the pictures about a week later. And they're not good. And this is like, you know, a thirty/forty-thousand dollar shoot.
Eric Knight: Oh, my God!
Michael Alago: Yeah, so yeah. Oh, please. So um, in the end, we wound up not using his pictures. People talked about giving him a kill fee. And I had to go to Bob's office again and said, “You know, Robert is dying. Robert is world renowned. There will be bad press on Elektra and Time Warner if we do this.” He said, “just given the money.” I said, [I can't tell. But you know, the president of the company...] “You have to call him right now!” Then he called Hale Milgrim and, you know, we have to pay Robert Mapplethorpe. So at one point, I see a picture and Time magazine of a little boy who's really, really angry. And it was taken by Matt Mahorn. So I, you know, A&R people that are supposed to be delving into radio and putting a nose in everybody else's departments. But I did that, and I didn't care. So anyway, to make a long story longer. Robin Sloan, who was like the VP of video and Creative Services. We talked about this picture I saw. So she was also friends with Matt Mahorn and that Matt Mahorn gave us back that beautiful, quiet photograph of Tracy with her head turned to the left. And that spoke volumes of what that record sounded like.
Ritch Esra: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I remember hearing about Tracy Chapman, when the single came out. Hilburn! Hilburn in the LA Times did made her the cover story of calendar in the LA Times, like Sunday, and I remember reading that piece and just, you know, the power. You know, and Bob wasn't one to be effuse of about things that you know, were bullshit. I mean, he really focused on this woman. And I ran, I remember running out and— because I was at Arista at the time— and I remember it was a Sunday and I made myself like a little note to call my friend at Elektra to get like the little promo because it wasn't commercially available at that time. And I sent a messenger over to Elektra Records to get them, and was just, I mean, when I heard the single I was like, Oh, you know, back in those days, you couldn't just power up a computer and listen, but just I was knocked out. And here's an interesting fact, which you may or may not know about that song. It is the only Top 10 hit in the history of Pop music, ever, to have, I believe it’s four or five verses before the chorus. Ever! There’s no other song in Pop music history that has four/five verses before the hook of the song.
Michael Alago: I did not know that.
Ritch Esra: And it’s true!
Michael Alago: That’s very interesting.
Ritch Esra: Yes.
Michael Alago: And what a beautiful song.
Eric Knight: Oh, my God.
Michael Alago: The power.
Ritch Esra: The power of the story. Yes!
Eric Knight: And I…
Michael Alago: And when you hear that voice!
Ritch Esra: Mmm
Eric Knight: Yeah! And…
Michael Alago: It almost has an androgynous feel to it. And it just pricked up your ears. And you feel, Wow, this is something else.
Eric Knight: But it was a resting. It was abso…
Michael Alago: Oh, totally resting.
Eric Knight: That voice was a resting.
Michael Alago: I think at that point and time too, people were ready for a singer-songwriters—
Ritch Esra: Oh, yeah! They were.
Michael Alago: People wanted to be spoken to. And there you go.
Eric Knight: And my follow up to the meeting that you guys were having at the marketing meeting for the single. What happened in retrospect when you, you know, after you went to Bob, he ran and said ‘Fast Cars’ is the single and then just, the song just took off. Clearly this thing was a multiple Grammy win. Did he ever come back to you and said, that was a great call or…
Michael Alago: Thank God no. No, no.
Eric Knight: Okay.
Michael Alago: Oh, no, no. It was just, that’s what happened and we are well grateful and happy, and um, you know…
Eric Knight: They must have looked at him like a genius. Thinking, “Oh, my God. He was right with ‘Fast Car’” because it was out of the box. Just, huge single. So I was just curious, you know.
Michael Alago: No, no. It didn’t develop like that. You know, there were people in that marketing meeting that thought ‘Fast Car’ should be, but a lot of them thought it was ‘Baby Can I Hold You?’ So, when that was going on I just had to go to Bob and say, “Bob you got to just fix this right this minute” and he did. And you know, everybody was happy in the end. And you know, people know it in what perhaps they didn’t get the first time. And so those people, they were marketing, they were radio, they were publicity people. They weren’t, maybe some of them didn’t have that ear that was so um… not finesse but, the ear that you one needed to be an A&R person.
Ritch Esra: Yeah.
Eric Knight: Yeah.
Michael Alago: Oh, you know, everybody did their job and I was doing my job. And my job was to make sure that the best thing happened for any one of my records that are out there.
Ritch Esra: Tell me Michael, about the criteria that you developed out of that consciousness that you spoke of, where you realized, you know what? I can’t just sing the things that I like, or that my friends, or that are good. I have to go for great. Talk about what that criteria was for you as an executive. In terms of your progress as an A&R executive.
Michael Alago: Sure. A&R and greatness to me, equal someone who was wildly charismatic on the stage, and hopefully off stage as well. And they had; he, she, they (as a band) had something to say. And that something to say, was hopefully words that had global appeal. And, you know the funny thing is that, [Cough] excuse me, that even if people, other A&R people in the community said, “Oh, I’m signing so and so.” Now I would hear so and so’s demo and I would think, “Oh, wow. This is really cool. But, I don’t like this kind of music. I’m not signing it.” And how can I live with myself? Now, there were times that I was wrong about artists, but I didn’t care. If I couldn’t live with what that artist was singing about, I didn’t care. I was just very, very specific. So like I said, I think somebody has to have something to say and hopefully an international/global criteria for signing artists was that they have to be wildly charismatic. They had to know how to connect with the audience, they had to know lyrically that, what they were singing about, the masses would hopefully connect with. And when I would see someone live, and you know what? Specifically Metalica. I saw Metallica and I thought, these young people are so cool, they are relentless on the stage with their playing, and their singer James Hetfield is a ringleader on the stage. He knows how to bring that audience into listening to what he has to say and he drove the young people wild.
Eric Knight: Yeah. And it’s a great segway because I want to stay with that, with you, with Metallica. You know, how did Metallica first get on your radar and what was your ultimate vision for them when you signed them? Now, you know, this is, you know and I’m thinking back now when they were on ‘Megaforce’ at the time. I believe they put out ‘Ride the Lightning’ and ‘Kill em All’ and then there was this segway into that. How did they come on your radar and how did that whole transition happen?
Michael Alago: There was a confluence of things happening - literally, all at once. My colleague, Johnny Z called me up on the phone. He has this, he had this label call Megaforce, he had eight records with, first record with Metallica, Anthrax, Raven, Testament , a whole slew of Metal people. But they were truly an independent and they wanted to be hooked up with a Major for incredible distribution. So I met with Jon a couple of times, but I had also, because I was out every night and listening to music every night. My friend Phil Cavano from Monster Magnet and I went to L’amour’s in Brooklyn, must have been hmm… late 82. Even before I was on Elektra and we saw Metallica there. And we really, we just lost our minds. So I knew, and I put that in the back of my head. So I started in, like March of ‘83 in Elektra. I meet with Jon, sometime in ‘83/’84. I listen to these records, they're all fabulous records. But ‘Kill em All’ was the thing that blew me away. I’d never heard anything this powerful or relentless. Of course and I say this all the time to anyone who loves Heavy Metal, we would listening to the staples of, whether it’s the Deep Purple, Ozzy Ozbourne, or Black Sabbath, the Judas Priest, and we were all loving it. But then what happens? These twenty year olds put out a record and it is relentless. It’s a little bit Punk, it’s a little bit British-Metal, it’s a little bit American-traditional Heavy-Metal, mixed with speed. And that just took you to a place that you’ve never got taken to before and I loved it. So, I saw them at The Stone in San Francisco in, I don’t know, ‘83. And I said hello to them. I gave Lars, the drummer, my card. I knew that they were on a contract and I said, “you know what? I love you guys, if you come to New York, please give me a call. I would love to greet you people from Elektra. So I don’t know, it’s a beginning. Couple of months into ‘84 I hear from Lars he said, “you know man, I don’t know if you are still interested in us, Because we never heard from you again.” And I said, “you know guys, I just didn’t want to screw around with anything, because you are at Megaforce but I love the performance that I saw and… What’s up?” They said, “Well, we’re going to be at Roseland with Anthrax and Raven as part of the triple act bill, August of 1984. I said, “I will be there.” They wound up I believe being the middle act. I have Mike Bone head of radio promotion there at Roseland and Bob Krasnow now. And I don't know if they loved the band at all. But they saw that energy, they felt that energy that relentlessness that when Metallica came on stage, they ripped everybody's head off. They set that place, like that saying they rip the roof off the place. And they did. And so when the show was over, I went backstage and I said, Guys, this was like, awesome. Come to my office tomorrow. They came to my office the next day, I ordered Chinese food and beer. I had Bob meet them. And you know, like I said, did Bob understand what that music was about? No.
But ifMichael opposite. That I love it. And we're going to sign you. So you know, I had to have this. I had to backtrack just for 60 seconds. I was doing a demo with one of John, Johnny Z's band Raven, Power Trio from the UK.
Eric Knight: Yes, I love them.
I gave him, I gave him— Me too. I gave him $5,000. I said, “give me back five of the most wonderful songs.” He gave me back The Gat or something like that. So I thought like, you know, John, I have to tell you, Raven are fabulous. But I don't want to sign them. I want to find Metallica. Well, he kind of lost his mind. And I said, You know what, we really have to work this out. Because we can take them to places that you can't take them. Well he was furious. I don't remember how the conversation ended, but not really so good. And I said, Bob, we have to make— I went to Bob again, as always, we have to make this work. I don't remember who his council was back then. But ours was a man namesGary Casson who's fabulous. I love Gary Casson. I was the only A&R person on that whole on that whole floor, that he would let me go into his office whenever I wanted to, and say whatever I want to do and spend as much time as I want to do with him. He was awesome. Anyway. So you know, in the end, what it is, money talks. We had the money to pay for them to get off Megaforce and beyond Elektra, they were in the middle of doing ‘Ride the Lightning’, and for a moment, brief moment, and came out on Megaforce, and then everything got transferred over to Elektra. And you know, like, I don't know what to say the rest is really history. I mean, everybody at that point in time, after that signings, that changed the total landscape of Rock and Roll, Heavy Metal, music in general. Everybody wanted their own Metallica. I mean, but that is a thing. I don't know if it happens once in a lifetime, or that it's that cyclical that it happens every 20 years. But you know, there really is only one Metallica, they are extraordinary. And here we are coming into 2020 that we are still speaking to them about them, sorry, about them. Speaking about them with this love. I speak about them with this reverence and this excitement, because you know what, 35 years later, they are still playing stadiums.
Eric Knight: They're the biggest band. They're the biggest hard rock metal act of all time. I mean, how does that feel for you is that vindication like everything, you know, how does that feel to do that?
Michael Alago: I felt, I really did feel that these guys are going to be huge, because I saw the first two times that I saw them, I saw what they did to the crowd. And the crowd were relentless. They loved them. And I thought, “Man, I love these guys.” And again, the rest is history. I mean, they made... every record they made was different. If you ask the fans, a lot of people wish they could have just made ‘kill em All’, ‘Ride the Lightning’, and ‘Master Puppets’ all over again. You know, some people don't like ‘Load’, they don't like to ‘St. Anger’,
Eric Knight: Definitely don't like the Lulu album.
Michael Alago: Honey. But wait, hold on to that. Because one thing to say about that. And you know, everyone loves ‘And Justice for All’, but I wanted to know where the bass was. You know, we had so many problems with that record. But an extraordinary record. And if they went on to make the same record all the time, they would not be where they are now. And just one brief moment. God bless. Rest in peace, Lou Reed.
That is a Lou Reed record that Metallica happens to be backing. In my mind. In my mind. It’s a Lou Reed Record. That's all we really had to say about that record. But they were parts of that record. I have to tell you, that I really loved.
Eric Knight: Yeah, because it's mixing the two passions that you had. So that just must have come from circle for you to see that.
Michael Alago: Oh, New York underground, mixed with my favorite heavy metal band. Wow. Wow.
Ritch Esra: Yeah. Who would have ever thought.
Eric Knight: Really quickly. Yeah. Really quickly too, Michael, just on a side track to this. Were they at Q Prime at the time already working with Peter and Cliff?
Michael Alago: No, they were not.
Eric Knight: They were not that came after.
Michael Alago: Everything. Also, like I said had started happening at the same time. I don't know if it was that week, that night, two weeks later. Q Prime started managing them.
Eric Knight: Yeah, because it's such a critical thing to put the, to assemble the team around a band. And so I just was curious, because in Q Prime…
Michael Alago: Well you know, Q Prime. Well, they are not A&R people but they have those qualities about them. They know. So you know, they also heard Metallica, I'm not sure if they were at the Roseland gig, or not. So long ago, but you know, like I said, a week or so later, they were managing them, and they're still managing them - 35 years later.
Ritch Esra: Michael, I want to sort of expand the conversation as an A&R executive to talk about some of the other aspects of your job. And specifically, because you were in the Hard Rock independent music scene, and you were encountering a lot of acts. My question is, was there ever any resistance to you as an A&R executive from bands that you were interested in? due to a perception of so-called, selling out? Was that ever something that you encountered? and I ask, because it's something that I hear a lot about today. And that's a lot of, I call it, a different world today than it was then. But it's something that I hear from A&R people a lot that, you know, that is something they have to encounter, the idea of not necessarily selling out, but I'm not interested in being with a major label. I've seen too many years of, you know, whatever, fill in the blank, that I'm not interested in. Did you ever encounter that at the time? Or was everybody who you were interested in willing to talk to you? Did you... What was your… what was the—
Michael Alago: Well, At some point, all artists might be willing. Well, for myself, specifically, I think all artists were willing to talk to me. But after that initial conversation or two, and me explaining what I did, what the history of Elektra was all about, it was up to them whether they wanted to sign with a corporation, and some of them did, some of them didn't. You know, at one point in time, was a short period of time, I was at Elektra. I was a Geffen, and I was at Elektra. I was at Geffen. Don't ask. That's 20 years right there in 10 seconds. But at one point I was at Uni Records. Uni was a label that like Neil Diamond was on in the 60s. Universal was restarting it up again. I think it was David Simone, who was starting up the label. For some reason I don't remember specifically, I have like, terrible brain sometimes. I was in the middle of either not working at Elektra and not working at Geffen. That sounds very interesting. So the first three artists that Uni signed was, Steve Earle, Transvition Vamp, and I brought in a band from New York City called Swans. Now, Swans are so effin heavy, that if you think heavy metal bands play on 10, they play on 12 in concert for two hours. They were fiercely independent. I think I charmed Michael Gira, the lead singer and lyricist of the band, he charmed me and we thought we were going to come out with a record that was going to really sell. We made a record called ‘The Burning World’. Bill Laswell from the group material produced it. Now, the record is quiet and sombre, and majestic. And it was not anything that Swans did previous to that. So it really surprised everyone, but I knew I wanted to make that kind of record with them to see what happened. They even did a cover of Steve Winwood and Traffics ‘Can't Find My Way Home’. so elegant, so majestic, so ethereal, so beautiful. Well, we put out this record, ‘The Burning World’ on Uni and shortly after that, it got great radio airplay on the college charts, but Universal corporation, decided, “we don't want Uni anymore.” So months later, I had to tell Michael Gira that there wasn't going to be a Uni. After that, he decided he never, we stay friends, we're still friends to this day, we decided he was never ever going to speak to a major again. So he decided he was going to start his own label called Young God Records. And that's where all the Swans records come out on now is Yyoung God. And, you know, so that was like, I was trying to do something great with them, nobody at Uni was listening, we made a record that departed from the usual sound, it didn't do much. And everybody was… I mean, everybody, I was disappointed, and Michael and his band were truly disappointed. And that was their lesson for themselves. Never want to be involved with a major or not.
Eric Knight: I want to ask, Michael, and obviously, you know, we’re living in a different world. Now as Ritch point, Ritch pointed out, but back, you know, so much of the hard rock scene and experience has a reputation of being macho, testosterone driven, and homophobic. And I’m wondering you, as a gay man. But even back then, I mean, obviously, that was a much different time back then. What was this your experience?
Michael Alago: Ayayay! I don't even know where to begin with this. Sure. I'm sure there are a lot of homophobic young people out there who met me and just didn't know what to make of me. Because it's like, wait, that guy's gay and he loves heavy metal? I see him at all the metal shows. Well, you know why? It's also like, when I met with an artist who might have looked at me looking at me a little different. You know, all I ever wanted to do with any artist was talk about music. Had nothing to do with my sexuality.
I think that might have been people out there, and fans out there, and executives out there who are like, I don't even know what to say about that. I don't think my sexuality ever interfered with anything I did out in the world. Because I was bold. I was never in the closet. I was, you know, I could point my finger into somebody's fucking leather jacket and say, “Don't mess with me. Just don't mess with me.” And by the end of the night, if they had that extra beer, he'd be hugging me, I'd be hugging him. And life is good. That's the only way I can explain it. But no, my sexuality, honest to God never was an issue in my career.
Ritch Esra: You know, you said something very interesting in the documentary about this, which I want to ask you about. You said, you know, “I may have encountered homophobic people who you said, were almost forced as an A&R executive to come see me and deal with me.” And I'm sure that the experience of dealing with me for the reason that you just articulated Michael, which was that we just talked about music, and obviously, the depth of your knowledge and experience was, you know, monumental to them. And that you said, one of the things that I'm very proud of is that these people may have never encountered a gay man before a gay person, and that I may have changed their perception.
Michael Alago: Their perception. Of course, of what gay is, listen, we're all human beings out there trying on a day to day basis to do and be the best person that we can be. Now, most of the time, our sexuality, unless we're talking about somebody who wants to be romantically involved with, it never comes up, there's no reason that it should come up. Because like I said, I worked at a label. And even when I put some of these young kids, you know, they walk into my office, you know, real tough guys. I would just sit there and look at them, like, really, you know, and we would have a conversation and the conversation, like I said, it was just always about music. And I hope that when people meet me, or have met me back in the day, they just think, you know, that guy's really cool. So like, What the f, you know, it's like, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter.
Ritch Esra: Michael, what inspired your move to Los Angeles to work at Geffen? And I guess before you before you answer that, did you ever have any experience in LA? Or did you know the LA scene? Or did you know, like the city at all? Because everything we talked about has been New York base. So that I just wanted to… so it's a double question.
Michael Alago: I never moved to Los Angeles. I never lived in Los Angeles. So we could either, I could either go on answering that I never lived in Los Angeles. Or you could ask me a new question. When I was hired both times at Geffen Records. I lived in New York, I was part of this satellite office. In the end, I felt like oh, being in a satellite office at Geffen, really didn't work. But I didn't drive. I didn't swim. I didn't do any of that stuff that may be required to live in Los Angeles. No, I just, I'm a New Yorker. I want to take the subway. I want to take taxis. I want to walk everywhere. Yes. So both times I appreciated being at Geffen because, like Elektra they were a boutique label that were distributed through major and they also had great taste in music. Whether that was John Lennon, Cher, Whitesnake, Sonic Youth, Beck, White Zombie. It was really like a label that was like, wow, they had the coolest, the same thing with Elektra. We had Anita Baker, we had Motley Crue, we had Metallica, we had The Cure.
I mean, it was an array of greatness at both labels. But in the end, it just didn't work for me because I was in the New York office. All the A&R people were getting priority, because they were in David's face. They were in Ed Rosenblatt, the president's face, and I was little old me in the satellite office. Now, I learned a lot of things there. I got to sign White Zombie. I got to sign K Roberts. And it just, it wasn't for me. So at one point, I called Bob, and I... can I come back? And he said, Of course you can come back. And then when I came back, Bob was only there for another two years. And then someone else took over. So I called in Rosenblatt again, he helped me out. The person that I had ever dealt with in my whole life. And I said, Can I come back? And he said, of course, you can come back. So I would say, only for a few years. And so if that's like 22 years, right there, Elektra-Geffen, Elektra, Geffen and Uni somewhere in the middle. In the end, I wound up, in the end of my 24 years I guess I was 24 or 25, but around 24 years I worked for Chris Blackwell's label Palm Pictures. He had sold Island he started this new company that was half independent film, and half record company. And they kind of didn't understand me there either. And so I was there for um… I don’t know, three years. And in 2004/2005, I saw also again, the landscape of music, everything was changing. People were file sharing, and downloading and basically stealing music. And I thought to myself, this isn’t what I signed up for back in the day. And I just stopped doing A&R. And then just then I just started working on projects independently. Like twice I got to work with Cyndi Lauper, which was pure magic, I adore her, and then just kind of helped independent artists, because I was now an independent person, just working from home.
Eric Knight: Yeah. Let me ask you, Michael, how did the culture at Geffen compare with Elektra? I mean, you had two opposing labels, but had a great array of talent. How did that culture, you know.
Michael Alago: Are you asking me, like, what my experience was?
Eric Knight: Yeah, like, how did the culture at Geffen and just basically compare with your experience on Elektra.
Michael Alago: Sure. You know, all... and we'll name, they remain nameless. But all the A&R people at Geffen had huge egos. Oh, man, huge egos. And a lot of times the A&R people were pitted against each other.
Eric Knight: Interesting.
Michael Alago: Yeah. But I, anyway, that's really how it was. And myself, being like I said, on the East Coast, with the minimum of staff. If I needed to get in David face, or Ed Rosenblatt’s face, I would have to just fly out there. And you know, plead my case and in the end, I just didn't fit in there. So I left twice, you know. Experience, great people, I just didn't feel like I fit in.
Eric Knight: Yeah, one of our other guests that we had on the show recently was John Kolodner. Did you get to work with John at all, in any capacity?
Michael Alago: Not really. What a character, fabulous A&R person. No, come on. He is a fabulous A&R person. Now, everybody, like I said. I didn't say. At Geffen the A&R people, they worked in their offices, the doors were closed, and they just did their thing. There was no sharing. There was no helping each other out. Everyone just did, I think, what they wanted to do, and I don't know, that was that. I don't know if I can answer that any better than that.
Ritch Esra: No, no, not at all, that was great. Listen, in the in the wonderful documentary made about you that we've mentioned before, ‘Who The Fuck Is That Guy? ‘You spoke about the unique reasons that you wanted to sign White Zombie. And it didn't have to do with great songs at the time. Can you talk about what that was that made them special to you, to really go to bat for them?
Michael Alago: Oh, yeah. [Laughter]
Ritch Esra: Because your instincts as an A&R executive were right.
Michael Alago: Oh, well. Here we go. My friend Daniel Rey, songwriter, producer worked a lot with the Ramones, worked on ‘Pet Cemetery’, worked with Iggy. Was in Chris Goss band - The Masters of Reality. Another New Yorker. Oh, wait, wait. Red Bank, New Jersey. He was out there as like myself out every night. He was trying to get Circus of Power, Raging Slab and White Zombie signed. He wound up getting both those bands Raging Slab and Circus Power signed to RCA. No one was interested in White Zombie. They had made records for Caroline. They were noisy records. And Daniel said to me, “I think you're gonna love this band”. Sure. Dan, a friend of mine for many, many years. Let's go. So we go to a little box, hole in the wall under the restaurant Endosheen, right off Astor Place on Lafayette Street. And like I say, in the movie in the corner in the back in the dark. There was this band on a stage that was maybe you know, I don't even know, not even a foot high. And it was noise. And they were sweating. And they would dreadlocks. And I thought, oh my god, these people is so interesting. And I stay for the whole show. And like Rob, Zombie says in the documentary, I really did hear a riff. I didn't hear a song. God knows what they were playing. I have no idea. But that noise spoke to me. That's all I can only say that noise spoke to me. It's like when you hear something, you go, wow. That's something? Well, yes, of course, as an A&R person, everything is based on the songs. But for some reason, I didn't care. I just thought I think I have to have these people in my life. So when it was over, I spoke to Rob. He was very charming, very sweet. I mean, sweating like a banshee pig, I don't know. There was Rob and we started talking, we connected. He said to me, I love my band, we're going to be big. And I'm also going to make films. He said with such confidence that I thought, “I love this person. I freaking love this person.” So I said, You know, I worked for Geffen and I want to sign you. And I said but you know what let's do. Let's, let's take a little precaution here. Let's do a demo. So there was an artist that did electronic music named Jim Thirlwell. Australian lived in Brooklyn for a couple of years. Jim... Jim made records under the name Fetus. You've got Fetus on your breath, Fetus under glass. And I thought, Oh, this guy is just as eccentric, as Rob's music is. So again, we did a five song demo. I just found the DAT - Again the DAT the other day. And it was good. It was good. But Jim had an ego.
Rob Zombie had an ego. And it was just wasn't going to work. But I was grateful that Jim gave me that demo that really flushed out what the material was all about. And it was because really of Daniel Ray and Jim Thirlwell, and Rob's confidence that I signed them. We make the first album, ‘Devil Music Vol 1’, Les Sex O Sisto Devil music Vol1. And I think it's going to be the biggest record on the planet next to like my Metallica signing. So I do a whole to do with the Geffen marketing, publicity, radio people. And they're like, interesting. I don't know if a lot of people loved them at Geffen, but we made a video. We had a single, it was starting to get played late night on MTV. And one day it just stalled at 180,000 units. Boy, was I not happy and neither was anyone else at Geffen. It's like okay, Alago, what are we doing now with this band? Well, I didn't have to do anything. Because out of the blue, there was a little show called Beavis and Butt-Head. And Beavis and Butt-Head decided that White Zombie was their new favorite band. So they played the single morning, noon and night. And really, that catapulted that album to a million units. Those two little bratty rotten, Mike Judge characters who were like out of them mine helped make that record a success. And then once and then once everybody got the record, understood the record, saw these people, also four band members who were charismatic and crazy on stage, and the kids loved them. And you know, they are Rob made, we made a second White Zombie record. Rob's ego got in the way again, or maybe not in the way but Rob had an ego. And he just wanted to do his own stuff after that. So it made many solo albums. And he became a film director. And that's what he does. And you know, I knew that from the first day that Rob was going to do something.
Eric Knight: And that's incredible that he had the vision even back then that he told you, I'm gonna do this music and I'm gonna be a film director. I mean, that's unbelievable.
Ritch Esra: Yeah. And he was.
Eric Knight:Yeah. He did it.
Eric Knight: Um, you also spoke in that documentary about your excessive drinking and drug use? Yeah. What was the final straw that got you to completely stop?
Michael Alago: Oh, this is a good one. I drank and drugged a lot. I thought it was okay. I thought it was okay because I never missed work. I may have had my door closed to my office till three in the afternoon until the fog lifted. But I was there. I don't know how I got through making records. But I did.
Ritch Esra: It's called being in your 20s.
Michael Alago: Oh, Right.
Ritch Esra: No, seriously, Michael, because I did the same thing.
Michael Alago: How about maybe even be your late 20s maybe 30s.
Ritch Esra: 30s. yeah, exactly.
Michael Alago: Yeah, of course. Of course you can’t do it.
Ritch Esra: Yeah, of course. You can't. Yeah, you can't do it at any other station of life. That's what you don't get. That's what I learned. You don't get in later life. You can do it in your 20s. But that's about it.
Michael Alago: Well, at some point, let me think. What was the straw? Okay. I've been drinking and drugging a lot, lying about it to everyone. I go see Metallica. And I am lit. But I also have to just tell you this. I love taking pictures. So back then I was carrying a Polaroid camera with me. And so I go see Metallica. I missed the entire show. I’m passed out on the tour bus. Now I had been going on the road with them for a while. They were not happy with me. And they took pictures of me passed out. And someone sent them to Bob the next day. Oh, yes. And of course. Oh, boy. So Bob threw them on the table in his office and said, what's this? I said, Bob laughing and carrying on. But you know, part of the backstory is they told him they were sick and tired of my behavior on the road. So Bob said to me, you're full of shit. So there's two things here. You could go to rehab tomorrow. Or you could pack your office up and get out, and leave the building today. And I'm like, “Oh, Bob, you don't understand. He said, Michael, you're fired. I just went to my office. I slammed the door. His executive assistant Ruth came in and said, Michael, Bob does not want to fire you. I said, “but Ruth, and she says, oh, wait a minute, you're going to fight with me now? I said, “No, I'm not. He said go to rehab. 30 days, go. You're not going to get fired Michael, go. So I went to Hazelden. And I was there for about 30, 28, 32 days in Minneapolis. I came back to Elektra. I started my Nina Simone record. But you know, if we can just change the subject a little bit, because I'd like my interviews to be a bit more well rounded than just the music. So anyway, it is all about the music. The people know me from the music, but I got sober, and I wasn't appreciative of getting sober. I thought I'm going to show them I don't have to drink. But you know, I didn't do anything suggested for me. I didn't go to the men's group they suggested me to go to. I didn't go to any A A meetings. So what did I have in my head? I had the same BS. I didn't learn anything. I didn't know anything more than my crazy brain. So I stayed sober for eight years, I was what they call a dry drunk. At 40 years old, I went out and drank and drugged and wound up in crack dens and I wound up in St. Vincent's Hospital a lot. And that was the worst seven, I got arrested because I pissed on a cop leg. I was a madman for seven years. And at 47 years old I was taking my HIV meds with vodka. My liver was hurting. And it’s what they called the grace of God, or white light experience, I just thought, I can't do this anymore. So it's Sunday, October 21, 2007. I don't know how I knew to walk to a 12 step meeting, I went to a 12 step meeting. And I never left. I'm 12 years clean and sober. I go to meetings five days a week, I help other people who are struggling. And all of that has helped me to grow in every single way.
Ritch Esra: Michael, that's that's a very, very inspiring story. Because, you know, what's so interesting is that, you know, a lot of us don't get it the first time. I mean, you know, I stopped doing drugs in a certain period. And never, I stopped, is six years before I stopped, I did it the first time, and exactly the same thing. And then I went back to doing it, and you know, ended up in an emergency room thinking I was having a heart attack. That was my, that was my thing, too. You know, you cannot do
Eric Knight: You come to Jesus' moment.
Ritch Esra: Come to Jesus’ moment of like, you know what, this is serious. I wasn't having a heart attack, but I thought I was and that was it. You know, 1988 and I never touched the drugs again. And you know,
Michael Alago: Well congratulations. Wonderful.
Ritch Esra: Yeah. No, and congratulations to you, too. Because, you know, that's the key. And and what you said that was really key about it was the fact that you know, which is very typical, I get that totally where you come out of the rehab, and it's like, you know what, Fuck this. I'm not going to do what they recommend. I'm not going to go to meetings. I'm above this. I've got this under control.
Michael Alago: Oh that with me?
Ritch Esra: Yeah. And then you end up where you end up, which is, you know, what you were, what you talked about?
Michael Alago: Oh, yeah, like I was the worst from 40 to 47. The worst period of my life. Jail, St. Vincent's numerous times of the nurses who knew my last name, getting on airplanes, don't remember getting on airplanes, and winding up to the worst places in the United States. I'm really lucky to be alive because of having HIV and I had a terrible compromised immune system. You know, now, having 12 years clean and sober. Taking my medicine like I'm supposed to, they can't even detect the virus in my body, right now.
Ritch Esra: Which is fantastic. Exactly.
Eric Knight: It’s amazing.
Michael Alago: Zero. Zero. And like, that doesn't help happen with a lot of people. And I got sick just real quick. I got really sick in the early 90s when there was no medicine yet. Well, I had a doctor's Barbara Starrett, she was on the forefront. She was in the laboratories of making things happen. Paying attention to what could potentially work for these men and women. It was like I liken it these days. And I say this in my book that's coming out. It was like very Dallas Buyers Club.
We were just trying to get anything in our hands that we think could help us not die. And you know, I was very lucky because she was an extraordinary doctor. At one point, I had full blown AIDS. I was on my sofa for like a year. But I hung on. I had vitamin drips. I had these weird pills from Mexico. I don't even know what the heck these pills were. And Barbara basically saved my life. She saved my life. She saved my life. And like I said, Don't drink, don't drug. I have a new life. In my new life I showed up for my late mom for the last 12 years. She died two years ago at 94. Before that, being clean and sober helped me have a renewed relationship with my sister Cheryl, which I never had before. It's a miracle. It's a beauty. I adore my sister. And it's extraordinary, because I'm a person who shows up for everything these days. And I'm here to help you, and you, and you, if you need help, if you want to help with anything. So I have no idea where we're going with the end of this. But you know, it's a funny thing because I don't know how much longer or shorter you want to talk. But I have a book coming out in March.
Ritch Esra: I wanna ask you about that you have a book coming out. So tell us about it. Tell us about it.
Michael Alago: So you know, just I have to say in my new life. The reason this documentary happened, is because Chris Jones, the director, paid attention to me over the years, saw what I was doing, and saw that I was sober. Listen, if I was still falling on the ground, vomiting everywhere, acting like a complete ass. Do you think he would have made a film about me? No. He saw who I was four years ago when I had eight years under my belt of sobriety. And he said, I'm going to make a film about you. And because I never had bad relationships with artists, whether it's John Lydon, Cyndi Lauper, Phil from Pantera, Metallica, Rob Zombie, Shawn from White Zombie. Now, I don't know how this happened. I never had a bad word with these people. I never, we had to either drop them or I had to say, you know, we're not going in the studio. Now. You need another two songs, whatever it was, I managed to maintain a certain integrity with these artists. So Drew made this movie, which has been incredible. People from all over the world when it got on Netflix two years ago call me all the time. Whether that's, Dude, you signed Metallica, to you know what, Michael, I'm struggling. I have HIV. If you have any advice for me, what should I do? And you know, one day I got 1200 emails. And I got up seven o'clock in the morning, I had three cups of tea. And I sat there. And a lot of the people who said, “Dude, you signed Metallica”, I sent them a letter with a picture of me and James. And most of those people got the same email. But then you can't tell somebody who's pouring their heart out to you because they're ill and saying thanks for watching the film. So I had to write back to these people and say, you know, I'm sorry that you're struggling, I struggled to. But if you are at the point in time, where you need to take medication, take medication, you can't drink and drug. Do what the doctors tell you to do. And because we live in a world now, where everything is, you know, it's you can live with HIV. Do that, be strong, be brave. So anyway, that's why I feel like that movie came about. Publishing companies started talking to me because they saw that movie. And again, I was blessed with being able to tell more stories about my crazy, wonderful life. So I have a book coming out March 1, 2020. It's called, “I am Michael Alago: Breathing music, signing Metallica, Beating Death.” That's the subtitle. And it's really a really good book. And, you know, I didn't intend it to come out, like short stories.
But for some reason, it came out like short stories. So if you read about Brooklyn, I think you know what you're going to get. If you read about never fall in love with a hooker, you know what you're going to get, you know, if you read about Blanche, my mother, because I talk about her lots in these last few years, you know, you're going to read something cool and funny about Blanche. And the very last chapter in my book is called gratitude. Because that's what I live in these days. I live in gratitude and show up for life. Because now anything, and everything is possible. You know. You know, it's funny, I just want to tell you, I was gonna ask if we could start this talk with this quote that... the reason it came up today is because this book fell out of my bookshelf, by Dale Carnegie, who wrote “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
Eric Knight: Yeah. Favorite book.
Michael Alago: Oh, please, me too. So it's opened two a quote, that I decided I was going to use on social media today. But maybe even in closing, it makes for some just more positivity. And the quote is, “today is life. The only life you're sure of. Make the most of today. get interested in something. Shake yourself awake. Develop a hobby. Let the winds of enthusiasm sweep through you. Live today with gusto.” It’s incredible.
Ritch Esra: Wow, that is incredible.
Michael Alago: We want to live every day.
Ritch Esra: Yeah, we can open the piece.
Eric Knight: Yeah, we opened the piece of that. Yeah.
Ritch Esra: Absolutely.
Eric Knight: And it's a beautiful segue because you're almost like reading our minds here. Because you know, you're referencing this book, which I, which I love personally, myself. And I wanted to ask you, Michael, throughout your career as an A&R executive, have there been any books or films or art that have really resonated with you professionally speaking that you could recommend to our audience?
Michael Alago: Oh, gosh. Oh, my lord.
Eric Knight: You already did one. So
Michael Alago: Well, let's see.
Eric Knight: That of course, besides your amazing book coming out, and the Netflix special, which we're gonna obviously be, you know, putting it all in the show notes. So.
Michael Alago: For many years, I was a fan of Pasolini. He wrote a great little book called Roman Poems. I'm a huge fan of Patti Smith, her 1975 album horses changed my life. So I buy every single Patti Smith book when I can find, ever, all the time. There is an Irish poet who just died about three, four years ago, named John O'Donoghue. Oh my gosh, beautiful work. I even open up my book, my memoir with one of his poems, and you'll read about it when you get the book. Right now, I'm reading a book on bees, and why it bought bees are important, written by Rudolf Steiner, Austrian philosopher who wrote about the importance of bees in 1925. And it's still relevant today. Um, I don't know, there's just so I think when people follow me on Instagram, and Facebook, and I'm not trying to be vague or evasive or anything, I always speak about music and art and theater and books. So I'm hoping that at least some part all of your audience will know something about me. And they'll go to those places to hear what I've been doing, what I've been up to, what art shows I'm going to what authors I'm reading at the moment. So I think that kind of, tell you a little something.
Eric Knight: Yeah. And we’ll definitely list all of that in the show notes for everybody to check out. Michael, What advice can you offer for the artists and bands who are pursuing a career as an A&R executive?
Michael Alago: Oh, boy! Well, it’s a very different world out there. Things are not marketed the same as they used to be. But forget about that for a moment. If you are an artist, if you are a singer-songwriter that feels that the only thing you need and want to do with your life is music, then you have to just do it. I can almost cry thinking about this, because I love musicians, I love artists, I love people. Now, not everyone is going to make it to that Metallica level. But, if you’re any good at your job and you’re out there and you’re playing live, and you play every night as if your life depended on it, something will happen. Something. I don't know what that something is, but something good will happen. And part of that something good is you’re someone who wants to be on an independent label, a major label and you are playing like your life depends on it every night, you know what? That one or two or three or four A&R people could be in your audience. And like anything in life, it only takes one person to say yes to you. So,play like your life depended on it, be great at what you do, and hopefully you’ll have some kind of succes. And that's what I wish for everybody. Just some kind of succes. And I think that’s it at the moment.
Ritch Esra: Michael, I want to ask you the same question in reverse. I want to ask you because of your career and what we talked about. What advice would you have for anyone who’s listening, who really is interested in pursuing a career as an A&R executive? Not as an artist but they really want to pursue a career doing that. What advice would you have for them?
Michael Alago: Yeah. Um, let me think about that, because, I don’t know, I found it, like a little tough for me to answer because it is a different world out there, but keep in mind that you don’t have an A&R department, you don’t have a record company. Because everything stands from the greatness of the records coming at the A&R department.
You know, I don’t know, if you’re a young person and you want to be an A&R executive, and if you know people that, record company, maybe you would play them some of your favorite local artists. Maybe there’s someone that you encounter that you have an interview with and you let him or her know why you feel you’ll make a great A&R person. Other than that, you know, I really don’t know what else to say. I mean, it’s odd because a lot of people don’t say to me I want to be an A&R person, they mostly, “I’m a musician this is what I want to do.” But that’s something that captivates you. Well, I hope you’re listening to a lot of different kinds of music, and if you happen to be in touch with a business affairs person, an A&R person, a head of a record company let them know that that’s what your goal is and play the music that you’re interested in and see what happens from there. Because you never know.
Ritch Esra: Yeah. You do never know and I guess too, it was interesting. I think it was Freud or Jung who said, “self can’t never reveal self to self.” And what’s interesting and why I bring it up to you right now it’s because you were saying, you know, that question may be a though one and I immediately wanted to interrupted you and say, “but Michael, your whole fucking life is the illustrations of being a great A&R person. Your passion for music, your interest in art, your interest in theater, your interest in culture, your diving into…”
Michael Alago: So, maybe I gave you the right answer and I just didn’t know it.
Ritch Esra: Yeah. You didn’t know it. Exactly, it’s like, “self can’t reveal self to self.” So I mean, you. No, yeah. It’s so true. It’s so true. Michael, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to this. It means so much to me. And Eric and I are very, very grateful to you.
Eric Knight: Yeah. Thank you so much.
Ritch Esra: Thank you!
Michael Alago: Oh, thank you so much. I’m always happy and grateful to put myself out there on the line, so I can talk about music and art, and theater, and addiction, and recovery, and health, and thriving in life. So thank you very much for asking.
Ritch Esra: Thank you!
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