Manic Ex-Mogul Yells All-The Song Remains the Same

Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess, by Walter Yetnikoff, with David Ritz. Broadway Books, 304 pages, $24.95.

Were it not for the shameless, A-list name-dropping in this memoir-Mick! Michael! Barbra! Bruce!-you might never grasp that the author spent 40-plus years working in the music business.

Not that Mick, Michael, Barbra, Bruce et al. really register as musicians. They’re more like large, inflatable helium blimps, bumping behind a one-man float on a flamboyant parade through narcissism, greed and abuse into recovery, humility and redemption. And one has the strangest sense of déjà vu, almost like one’s watched this parade before …. Yes, it was reading The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans, the fallen studio head turned timelessly tanned Hollywood character, and a half-dozen less engaging showbiz memoirs. Here’s the formula: Start with nothing; get it all; bang lots of women; lose everything; discover What Really Matters right before it’s too late (and hey, still bang the occasional woman!).

Walter Yetnikoff, music mogul, might as well have been making widgets, so remarkably unmoved does he seem by matters like melody. (“Your bullshit is your talent,” Michael Jackson tells him, a rare moment of clarity.) Mr. Yetnikoff brags of signing Elvis Costello without ever hearing him perform.

But generic and generally tuneless though his tale may be, Mr. Yetnikoff-or David Ritz, his co-writer-does display the proverbial pitch-perfect ear for dialogue (maybe Mr. Yetnikoff should have been in the movie business, which he only takes up-with ill-fated results-after hitting rock-bottom in the record industry). Though large swaths of his career appear to have been spent in a boozy haze, decades-old conversations are recounted with the crystalline clarity of Memorex. Many of the aforementioned A-listers emerge, amusingly, as whiners: “Michael loves to kvetch.” “Barbra liked to kvetch.” “I’m not getting the label support I need,” Paul Simon (“pretentious,” “self-important,” lacking “loyalty”) pouts to Mr. Yetnikoff. “You still haven’t given Keith enough attention,” Mick complains. Bob Dylan is surly and childish at dinner. (Once we learn a little about our mogul’s character flaws, we’re less surprised when the stars kick up a fuss.)

Not all the famous walk-ons are putzes. Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor prove to be good, sincere guys. Billy Joel was a sport when Mr. Yetnikoff threw a fit about the first stab at an album cover for The Nylon Curtain, which he called The Nylon Shmata. “You want arty-farty, Billy, or you want sales?” Mr. Yetnikoff yelled, a capsule summary of his business philosophy.

But back to the formula-the familiar, Portnoy-esque working-class childhood in Brooklyn, eating potato knishes and drinking cream soda on the boardwalk. Young Yetnikoff’s father beat him. His mother was shrill and materialistic. He was a loner at Columbia Law School, then discovered Greenwich Village and beatniks, joined the peacetime Army, married young, got a job at CBS Records, where he began collecting mentors and sidekicks: the “Pope of Pop,” Clive Davis (“you spread, I’ll tuck,” he tells Clive when the latter advises him to “hip”-ify his shirt collar); CBS boss and father-figure Bill Paley; and lawyer Allen Grubman (Lizzie’s dad). Mr. Yetnikoff confesses that he modeled himself after General Patton. But being a mogul, to judge by this account, has less to do with leadership or masterful battle plans than simple boomer irreverence, chutzpah, cussing. “Fuck Geffen. I welcomed the chance to burn his bitchy ass.” Dan Rather is “Danny Doo Doo.” Everybody’s a dick, or a prick.

Or a chick. Mr. Yetnikoff portrays some of his conquests with grudging, regretful respect (for instance, his first wife, June, who died of cancer)-but it’s usually too little, too late. He cheated on June with another music executive, “hitting her G spot while mastering the complexities of Columbia Records’ worldwide operation.” He formed a pussy posse of sorts with Barbra Streisand’s then-boyfriend, Jon Peters. “We’ll swing, we’ll spling, we’ll bling!” cried the latter, quaintly. One girlfriend was named Boom Boom. Another, whom he appropriately but somewhat flippantly called Ophelia, crashed one of his psychotherapy sessions-the shrink cowered in fear behind his desk. (Much later, when Ophelia came to a bad end, her ex-lover “tried to mourn, but [he] didn’t know how.”)

He does seem to have been touched by the genius of Marvin Gaye (whose career he helped revive in the 1980’s), invoking “Sexual Healing” for the life-with-Boom-Boom chapter and “Trouble Man” for the prelude to his obligatory stint at the Hazelden clinic. How about some other nominations for the book’s soundtrack? Harry Chapin’s folksy “Cat’s in the Cradle,” a tribute to Mr. Yetnikoff’s total neglect of the responsibilities of fatherhood (you barely realize that he had two sons with June). And, for that poignant moment when he’s sitting quietly in the Coca-Cola building, the phone silent, after he’s been fired by Columbia’s top brass (they transferred their affections to Tommy Mottola), John Lennon’s “Nobody Loves You (When You’re Down and Out).”

But actually, this ululating fallen big shot is way more Yoko than John.

Alexandra Jacobs is a senior editor at The Observer.