Isn’t it hilarious that people once really believed pop music represented all that was good and groovy and anti-Establishment in the human soul? If the portrait former Los Angeles Times reporter William Knoedelseder paints in Stiffed: A True Story of MCA, The Music Business, and the Mafia is as true as he claims, the music biz is as viciously avaricious as any mob family.
In fact, according to the federal prosecutors chronicled in Stiffed, organized crime seemed to play a big hand in the music division of the entertainment conglomerate MCA Inc. In 1983, under the new regime of MCA Records Group president Irving Azoff (ex-manager of the Eagles and Steely Dan), reputed mobster Salvatore ”Sal the Swindler” Pisello became a major player in the label’s business. Though Pisello had neither office nor salary, MCA kept writing him large checks — and he had the run of the place.
Pisello’s job was selling MCA ”cutouts” — old releases sold at discount to budget outlets. It was quite legal to unload cutouts of Elton John, the Who, Olivia Newton-John, and others without paying the artists a dime. And it was through this window of opportunity, says Knoedelseder, that the creeps crept into MCA.
Azoff has tried to snuff Stiffed. He attacked the publisher via Hollywood superlawyer Pierce O’Donnell, who blasted the book as ”full of lies,” forcing a costly last-minute legal vetting of it. But there isn’t too much difference between the galleys Entertainment Weekly obtained and the finished book: Some potentially controversial passages crossed out in pen or obscured by adhesive mailing labels on the galleys (not a common publishing practice) have been reinstated. In either version there’s no telling precisely what Azoff knew about what Pisello did. Like a Thomas Pynchon novel, Stiffed is packed with tangled conspiracies whose true perpetrators cannot fully be known.
Why might MCA want somebody like Pisello in the first place? No one is saying, but maybe it needed a ruthless deal maker: MCA was in last place among major labels, stuck with so many millions of unsold discs it was dubbed ”the Music Cemetery of America.” Pisello’s associates were said by government investigators to be mobsters who sent people to real cemeteries.
When Pisello stiffed MCA for $150,000 in deals involving break-dance mats and a Latin record label, nobody apparently cared. But when he stiffed businessman and ex-jailbird John LaMonte on a cutout deal, delivering unpopular albums instead of the hits he had promised, LaMonte objected. For balking on a debt ultimately owed to MCA, LaMonte was visited by a group known ! as the ”board of directors,” including Rocco ”the Butcher” Musacchia and Gaetano ”the Galoot” Vastola, who had vowed in a wiretapped conversation to ”put [LaMonte] in a bucket” but merely pulverized his jaw and eye socket instead. LaMonte entered the federal Witness Protection Program, and the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation that Knoedelseder portrays as a pro-MCA kangaroo court. The grand jury ”really didn’t want to find out anything,” Pisello told one reporter.
The book’s hero is Marvin Rudnick, the prosecutor who, with LaMonte’s help, nailed Pisello. The villain is the Justice Department. As Stiffed tells it, in bewildering detail, Rudnick’s superiors kept him from subpoenaing witnesses and directly ordered him not to investigate MCA. Again, Stiffed doesn’t prove that anybody in government violated the law. The author darkly notes that Ronald Reagan’s mentor and former agent, Lew Wasserman — Azoff’s ultimate boss — was chairman of MCA Inc., and he presents suggestive but not at all conclusive evidence that this somehow helped MCA escape the episode largely unscathed.
Knoedelseder’s narrative is brisk but not shapely. It’s a tough yet worthwhile read that manages to keep straight the vast cast of crooked characters and gangbusters. Stiffed is the scariest book I’ve read all year, and the funniest.
The Justice Department fired Rudnick in a two-sentence letter citing no cause. Azoff now runs Giant Records. Pisello did two years in prison for tax evasion. Musacchia, who faked a heart attack on the witness stand (”I’ll take the Fifth…due to my condition”), served six months in jail, then got a job as a consultant on the Marlon Brando Mafia spoof, The Freshman.
Stiffed claims that while nice guys finish last in the music racket, goodfellas can do just fine. A