HITS talks to Walter “Velvel” Yetnikoff about his new memoir, Howling at the Moon

By Jon O’Hara

Now in his seventies and sober for decades, the Walter Yetnikoff of today scarcely resembles the notorious high-rolling exec who in many ways personified the record business’ wildest years in the ’70s and beyond. From 1975 to 1990, Yetnikoff headed CBS Records, where he did business with artists including Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and, of course, Michael Jackson, and sparred with the likes of David Geffen, Steve Ross and his arch nemesis at CBS, Larry Tisch—all the while presiding over an era of explosive profitability.

Before being forced out at CBS in Sept. 1990, Yetnikoff’s wild ride went on largely unchecked, with close associates (and to hear him tell it, perpetual ass-kissers) Tommy Mottola and Allen Grubman by his side. But along the way, he drank, smoked and snorted his way to a serious liver problem, prompting the first of several stints in rehab. He eventually orchestrated the sale of CBS Records to Sony, but soon even Mottola and Grubman turned on him, and he was fired.

Yetnikoff now speaks of those days with the easy amusement of someone who has seen it all. He spends much of his time doing volunteer work, leading meetings and speaking at New York area rehab centers. He runs a new label, Commotion Records, with a partner, independent music supervisor Tracy McKnight. And he has written a book, Howling at the Moon: The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess, with author David Ritz, who counts the lyrics to Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” among his credits. As centered as Yetnikoff may seem now, his serenity was momentarily cracked by this insipid Q&A with HITS lowlife Jon O’Hara.

The book’s subtitle is “The Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul.” How monstrous were you, really?
There are people who come to me and say, “You helped me out. You did a lot of good.” But I intimidated a lot of people, because I was crazy, I had a position of power and I knew how to use it. And I was much less afraid than other people. That was either fueled by booze and drugs, or the other people were wimps. I also would make up stories. I had Larry Tisch convinced that all CBS artists had key-man clauses, and if I went, they would, too, and he’d blow a $2 billion asset and fuck you, Larry. That wasn’t true, but he didn’t know it. I was crazy, impulsive.

Some of the juicier stories didn’t make the final edit. Allen Grubman holding your urine-sample bottle while you filled it?
We took it out for literary purposes, but I’m telling worse stories than that. My point with Grubman was that nothing is beneath his dignity. Even the story about his dick wasn’t that good. Because he used to kneel in front of my desk and say “Pleeeease,” and once he followed me into the bathroom while I was taking a dump to make a deal. Well, that’s pretty undignified. But I wouldn’t talk to him unless he did those things. The reason we took it out is because it makes me look like a bit of a jerk. As I’ve told others, I have plenty of stories about this guy. I’m not afraid of him and I’m not afraid of [his lawyers].

As you describe it, at your peak, you were pretty high most of the time.
I was drunk or high. Close to all the time. Not all the time, but I never had hangovers, because I never sobered up enough. Not always, but starting in the late ’70s, I was mostly whacked out.

Yet it seems your business sense and ability to sway people remained intact.
Everyone asks me, how did you manage to run this joint so successfully? We were making $450 million in net profits. MCA’s entire entertainment business was making less than that at that time. How? Some of it was just luck. For example, I got into the business when it exploded in the post-Beatles era. I’m not a musician, and I don’t claim to be able to pick a hit. But I had an understanding of the artistic, creative temperament. I was this weird mixture—I was in awe, but I wasn’t afraid. I would tell them off. So there was respect and fear at the same time. But how I managed to do that whacked out of my head, I really don’t know.

Your struggle with recovery is unexpected in the context of the rest of your life.
While there are a lot of bumps in this road, the end is worth it. But I wouldn’t want to go through it again.

Did your recovery work play into writing the book?
It didn’t start out as that. However, the stuff about what happened when Sony let me go and how I felt, stuff about my childhood—I had a very violent father—stuff about my first wife, who I sort of abandoned—that was very difficult for me. And I was going to leave some of it out, particularly the early stuff, but [David] Ritz wouldn’t let me. He said, if you want this to be honest, you have to put it in.

What’s your take on the 1986 independent promotion scandal?
It’s all bullshit. What was the scandal? Tell me the scandal.

When Brian Ross ran that story on NBC News...
Oh, Brian Ross! His evidence was, “Here’s a picture of Fred DiSipio in the parking lot in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.” That was his evidence. That, and, “There are a lot of coke-heads in the record business. Here’s a picture of Walter Yetnikoff.”

Was there no substance to any of the payola allegations?
I don’t think so. You know, I was really pissed, because it was shitty journalism. Afterwards, I used to say to people, “If there is payola or anything else wrong going on, you tell me and I’ll fix it.” I was squeaky clean. I never saw payola. I’d be the last guy to see it, because they’re not going to let me see it. You know how many times I’ve met Joe Isgro in my life? Maybe three times. I knew him enough to say hello to him.

You once invested in a racehorse with Morris Levy. Was dealing with him as spooky as it seems?
I liked Morris—he was a man of the streets. Whatever he did or didn’t do, I’m not commenting on. And he was not someone you really wanted to start with, but he had his own peculiar way of doing things. And it was funny, in a way.

What do you think of some of the current moves going on in the music business? Bronfman buying Warner Music, Clive Davis consolidating BMG...
I have a little more respect for Clive than the rest. He’s been through a lot of stuff, and he has emerged genuinely on top. And he’s very hands-on. But the people doing these things, Andy Lack—whose name may be descriptive of his abilities—Ralph Schmidt Von Holtz, you know, come on. Bronfman—look what Bronfman did. He bought MCA for $5 billion and change, and then bought PolyGram for $10 billion and change. He paid twice as much for a record company? When they were talking about Vivendi and getting rid of all that stuff, they valued the record company at $4 billion. You trust this guy?

Will there be a movie of the book?
I’m beginning to think there will be. I was skeptical at first, but people are comparing it to the Robert Evans movie, The Kid Stays in the Picture. God knows what they’ll make me look like. Who’s going to be me? I can’t play me younger. Robert Mitchum would be a good candidate, but he’s kind of difficult to get to. [Laughs] A lot of the current crop of movie actors don’t seem to have the strength that I think I have.

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