Walter Yetnikoff: On the record

He was the world's ultimate music mogul, the rogue Michael Jackson called daddy - until he went down in a storm of sex and drugs. Now he's telling all in a book that's scaring his friends as much as his enemies. Johnny Davis meets Walter Yetnikoff, the man who went to work on a line of coke
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Walter Yetnikoff wakes up, pours himself a large vodka and chops out a line of cocaine. Then he fields calls from Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and Billy Joel. But the phone won't stop ringing. Can't Cynthia answer the damn thing for once? But his wife is pounding the running machine in the other room. "You're drunk," she tells him. Incensed, he screams Yiddish obscenities at her, tears two posts from their antique four-poster bed and heads out to the office.

Yetnikoff is the most powerful man in the US record industry. As president of CBS Records Group, he's responsible for nurturing the careers of a gamut of superstars from Barbra Streisand to Public Enemy, people he regards more as friends than colleagues. Michael Jackson calls him his Good Daddy, meaning he's so close to Yetnikoff, he thinks of him as the nice father he never had. Yetnikoff's estimated net worth is $12.5m.

The CBS president takes more drugs in his office, pours more vodka. He looks a mess. His loud sports jacket is peppered with sweat and, with his open-necked shirt and castaway beard, there's something of Oliver Reed about him. Still the phone won't stop ringing. But this time, his secretary - who Yetnikoff is having one of many affairs with - says he should take the call. It's his doctor. He has grave news. Yetnikoff's liver is in a terrible state. If he doesn't stop with the drinking and drugs, the doctor says, he'll be dead within three months.

All this - and plenty more besides - happens by page 15 of Howling at the Moon, the most entertaining book on the entertainment industry since Obsession: the Lives and Times of Calvin Klein. Except that book was so salacious, Klein tried everything in his power to prevent it being published. Yetnikoff, on the other hand, is pleased as punch with this one. He should be. He wrote it. Subtitled Confessions of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess, it's an autobiography that's part-catharsis, part-apology, part I-knew-I-was-right. It also contains tales that are going to make plenty of pop people wince.

The opening chapter takes place around 1989, when Yetnikoff's power, ego and insatiable appetite for sex, drugs and rock'n'roll were at their barbarous zenith. "I created a mutual balance of terror between me and my artists," he writes. "I started seeing myself as a star. Like most stars, my sense of self was dangerously inflated... I wanted to get high... drink, drugs, adulation, corporate power, fast women... made it easy."

Clearly, the carousing didn't finish him off. But his ego did. He was sacked by CBS in 1990, following a trail of self-destructive faux pas that even Michael Jackson would consider impressive: a lawsuit over "improperly depressed profits"; badmouthing Bruce Springsteen, a CBS artist, to his face; and suggesting that arch-rival David Geffen - not then out about his bisexuality - should give Yetnikoff's girlfriend lessons in fellatio. He had become a liability. He was given $25m in severance pay and promptly had a breakdown.

Today, Yetnikoff doesn't much look like the bare-chested rascal flexing his muscles in the 1970s Annie Leibowitz's photograph that adorns the US edition of his book. His curly black hair is no longer curly or black and he's put on some weight, though his eyebrows are still full of life. We meet in his offices on the seventh floor of a building between Gap and Baby Gap on Fifth Avenue, New York.

The high times are long gone. Yetnikoff is 71 now, in a drink and drug rehabilitation programme, and co-runs a small record label that specialises in hooking up directors with musicians for film soundtracks. He's just done the new Jim Jarmusch.

His offices are painfully quiet. A receptionist eats noodles at her desk and flicks through a newspaper. Occasionally, a phone rings in the distance. Yetnikoff occupies a room the size of a cupboard. Aside from a pot full of pens, the only thing in his in-tray is a copy of Howling at the Moon. He's got a terrible cough and is in no small hurry - "What else have you got?" he barks, chivvying for the next question after every answer - but he rattles along amusingly enough.

"I loved doing the book," he booms. "Jackie Onassis asked me to do one 14, 15 years ago. I received the contracts when I was detoxing, so it never came to be. I don't know if I would have been so honest back then."

Honest he certainly is. Though he's responsible for many of the book's scandals, he's also taken great delight in landing his colleagues in it. Geffen, one of the biggest cheeses in the entertainment industry today thanks to his DreamWorks partnership with Steven Spielberg, gets a particularly rough ride.

Then there's Paul Simon, who left CBS for Warner Brothers after falling out with Yetnikoff. "I don't like him," Yetnikoff bellows. "I've never liked him. After he left CBS the only success he's had was when he copied some dancers from South Africa [he means the multimillion-selling Graceland album]."

Understandably, the publishers had to restrain him a little. "They get nervous when I say certain things," he grumbles. "I don't care. My attitude is, 'If you want to sue me, go right ahead. Be my guest. But I haven't really disclosed all the information. If you sue me, I will. Maybe I'm full of shit. Maybe I don't have anything. Try it and find out.'"

The lawyers weren't convinced by that, and made him take stuff out anyway. They told him he was being unnecessarily rude. "Being rude isn't illegal," he says. "I wrote back to them, 'Dear So-and-So, when I knew you in another life, you were very good lawyers... what happened?'"

There is, currently, something of a vogue for whistle-blowing books and memoirs. You'll Never Make Love in This Town Again, an exposé on hookers and Hollywood, started it in 1996. Then Mötley Crüe's The Dirt became a surprise bestseller, while screenwriter Joe Eszterhas's Hollywood Animal is published this month and Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures follows later this year.

Yetnikoff's book does for the 1970s and 1980s music scene what Robert Evans's The Kid Stays in the Picture did for the Paramount Studios of the 1960s and 1970s - portrays a time rife with talent, but also egos, bottomless expense accounts and narcotics.

Yetnikoff is well-placed to tell these high-living tales. Not only was he involved in the most-exciting period of expansion the music industry has ever seen, but he cultivated a stable of superstars the like of which we're unlikely to see again. It's not too fanciful to suggest that, in a climate where Pop Idol has blown away the last vestiges of mystery from the music business, we've started pining for the glamour, decadence and otherworldliness of yesteryear. "It was a different world back then," says Yetnikoff. "Artists were allowed to make mistakes and to mature. You think Bob Dylan would be a hit today? He wouldn't even be released."

Yetnikoff nurtured the stars. He also partied most of them under the table. "I assumed power when hedonism was hitting new highs in our culture," he writes. 'I did it not only because I liked it, but because it was my job..."

Walter Yetnikoff grew up in a two-family house owned by his maternal grandparents in a poor, working-class neighbourhood of New York. In the book, he portrays his father as violent and unfaithful. His home was overrun with grumbling relatives. Only his mother believed in him, telling anyone who would listen that, one day, her Walter would become rich beyond any of their dreams.

He was awkward and shy and attended law school because it seemed the least taxing of a choice of get-ahead careers from the options of medicine, dentistry, accountancy and law. He was also very bright. While most students at his Ivy League college in the mid-1950s wore sweaters and blazers, Yetnikoff was mocked for turning up to class in dungarees.

He married June, his childhood sweetheart and, after a time in the Army, joined CBS in 1961 as a junior lawyer, where he swiftly mastered the complex contractual lessons of the music business. When he was dispatched to collect a $400,000 debt from the violent and crooked Morris Levy (Levy owned record labels and nightclubs, had a lifelong association with the Mafia and, in 1988, would be convicted on two counts of conspiracy to commit extortion), his barefaced chutzpah got Levy to pay up, and marked Yetnikoff out. Not least to Levy, the two became firm buddies.

Under the wing of another friend, Clive Davis - then president of the CBS subsidiary Columbia Records, today the Svengali behind Alicia Keys and Whitney Houston - Yetnikoff quickly climbed the corporation. As the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival sounded the whistle for pop culture to rocket from the traps, Columbia signed million-sellers such as Simon and Garfunkel, Santana and Chicago, and the music business turned into big business. No label was bigger than CBS.

In 1975, Yetnikoff, then 42, became president and proceeded to reinvent himself in the mould of a street hustler. Late in life, though this identity switch was, he was adapting to a changing role - suddenly he was baby-sitting the biggest rock stars in the world. He became menacing, crude and very loud. Much of this was compensation for the fact that, unlike his other great contemporaries, Yetnikoff had no natural affinity for music. The most powerful man in the industry was tone-deaf.

It didn't really matter. His artists loved him - they thought of him as a sparring partner rather than a can't-do bean-counter. The more outrageously he behaved - telling Cyndi Lauper she was a tedious women's libber and she should come back "when your period's finished"; summoning the Beach Boys, four years late with their new album, to his office for what they believed would be a pep talk but, in fact, opened with the words, "Gentlemen, I think I've been fucked" - the more they loved him. He inspired them.

In others, however, he inspired fear. He waged war on rivals Warner Brothers - home of Bugs Bunny - with banners printed up for * CBS's annual convention that that told them where they could stick their bunny. He regularly had people ejected from CBS's headquarters and filled the air with Yiddish epithets.

"The heart of Yetnikoff's persona was his Brooklyn Jewishness," says Fredric Dannen in his book Hit Men - Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business. "An outsized number of label bosses were Jews from Brooklyn, but Walter wore his ethnicity like a gabardine... [though] one of his inconsistencies was that he only dated gentile women. Before his 25-year marriage broke up in the 1980s, he had begun to amass a stable of such girlfriends - his 'shiksa farm'.''

Unable to separate work and play, Yetnikoff even started sleeping with his artists (Sarah Dash, of girl group LaBelle, famous for "Lady Marmalade", though the idea that Dash introduced herself to Yetnikoff with the infamous chorus line "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?", as she does in the book, sniffs of poetic licence). When Yetnikoff's secretary - who couldn't type, but looked nice - complains that she's never seen anyone take off and put on their clothes so many times in one day, he starts having an affair with her.

Again and again, Yetnikoff is at pains to explain what women saw in him: being simply a tremendous lover. "I actually believe I'm very good at that stuff," he smirks. "Most of them were sexually satisfied. I'd like to think all. But women lie sometimes." He thinks about this. "Of course, it's different now. I'm older."

Unsurprisingly, while Yetnikoff's career went into the stratosphere, his home life went to the dogs. Though Howling at the Moon is dedicated to "my sons Michael and Daniel and their mother June", his children are mentioned so infrequently - just twice, in passing - you double-take when they do pop up.

When, after the break-up of his first marriage, June calls to say she is dying of lung cancer, it prompts him to go into a rant about how diseased - full of booze and drugs - his body is. Yetnikoff does not come out of his autobiography looking like a nice guy. And he knows it. "A lot of people got hurt," he says. "I ignored my family to a certain extent. I was inconsiderate. The sex, drugs and rock'n'roll became like the whole thing." Is he closer to his sons today? "Closer than then," he says. "Yes and no. The older one, yes. The younger one, no. He bore more of the brunt of the craziness. I would do that part differently today."

As the 1970s rolled into the 1980s, CBS's market-share, with Yetnikoff's shaky hand on the tiller, increased dramatically. In 1983, profits were up 600 per cent year-on-year. Then Michael Jackson turned in Thriller. It would become the biggest-selling album of all time, netting CBS $60m. Jackson was just 24 then, but his eccentricities were already blooming. In his book, Yetnikoff paints him as a needy coward, driven by a desire to be number one that, he says, "bordered on psychopathic". But anyone looking for real Jackson dirt - and let's face it, who isn't? - won't find it here. Yetnikoff either isn't saying, doesn't know or the lawyers have had it away.

"He was strange then and getting stranger," says Yetnikoff today. "The operations to alter his appearance, the parabolic chamber, the monkey... I was very close to him at one point. I felt bad for him. He said to me, 'You had a childhood. I never had that. I was a star at six.' Today, he's turned into a freakshow. I don't think he's had good guidance. Some of the people he has around aren't to my liking. He's going on trial in Santa Barbara, one of the most conservative areas in the US, and he has Louis Farrakhan as his advisor? Is he trying to guarantee a conviction?"

Does Yetnikoff think Jackson's capable of doing the things he's being accused of?

"I don't know. I really don't know," he says. "There was never anything I was privy to. I was privy to a lot of sexual peccadilloes by big artists, but with him, I don't know and I don't want to. I owe him to a certain extent. He was responsible for a lot of the money I made."

In the end, it was all about the money. In 1987, Yetnikoff was desperate to engineer the sale of CBS to Sony, a deal that would see him personally pocket more than $20m - though that's not mentioned in the book. As his fame and wealth increased, so did the batty behaviour - turning up to a business meeting covered in blood and offering a bishop cocaine are two particular lowlights - and so it was off to a Minnesota rehab clinic to dry out on doctor's orders (he arrived in a $30m CBS-owned jet).

Sober, he discovered God and the gym, but it was too late - by then he'd upset too many people. His oft-bellowed threat that if he ever left the label, his artists would clear off with him, proved misplaced. When the axe fell, there wasn't a single call from Streisand, Jagger, Springsteen or Jackson. "I felt betrayed," he says. "I felt it was the story of Othello." ("Ding dong, the witch is dead," commented David Geffen at the time.)

Still, Billy Joel has been on the phone recently, saying he will help promote the book. "He said, 'You were there for me when I needed you, it would be an honour to help.'''

Does Yetnikoff still feel bitter? "A bit. It's not a blazing, hardcore resentment. Basically they saved my life. As strange as it may seem, I don't think I would have survived in that corporate atmosphere. Plus, I made them a lot of money. Now there isn't a record company in the world that's doing well. Sony is losing a fortune each year. This way, I've won. I'm lucky to be alive. I'm OK. And they're not."

'Howling at the Moon: Confessions of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess' by Walter Yetnikoff and David Ritz is published by Abacus, £12.99