Few record-company heads have written autobiographies, and fewer still have penned ones as candid as ”Howling at the Moon,” a memoir by former CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff, the blustery rogue who ran its labels from 1975 to 1990. Still a savvy marketer, Yetnikoff knows what readers want from such an account – backstage lore – and he and cowriter David Ritz deliver plenty of goods. In breezy, conversational prose, Yetnikoff recounts huddling with a coked-out, paranoid Marvin Gaye; listening to ”Nebraska” as Bruce Springsteen paced nervously outside Yetnikoff’s office; being forced during a meal with Mick Jagger to quickly compute royalties to woo the business-savvy Stone; witnessing Paul McCartney flirting with secretaries; and having run-ins with Barbra Streisand and Paul Simon, whom he deems ”pretentious and self-important.”
None of Yetnikoff’s artists loom larger, though, than Michael Jackson, whose blend of naivete, ego, and ruthless business acumen is enhanced by the former exec’s tales. With oy vey! exasperation, Yetnikoff details Jackson’s obsession with his album sales, his increasing concern over Jackson’s plastic surgery, and his first sighting of a ”cute young boy” backstage at a Jackson concert. While in bed with one of his many extracurricular women, Yetnikoff recalls Jackson phoning to ask if the label head could prevent Quincy Jones from receiving a Grammy for ”Thriller” since Jackson felt he had produced the album himself.
Though Yetnikoff doesn’t offer much psychological insight into these artists – one of the book’s flaws – he isn’t afraid to tackle his own psyche. When not dishing on artists and execs (he brands Tommy Mottola, his second-in-command and eventual successor, a first-class butt kisser), Yetnikoff freely cops to his own increasingly unhinged, reckless behavior. As his company grows more profitable, Yetnikoff seems to knock boots with everyone in sight (from his secretary to a member of LaBelle) and inhale and imbibe any drink or drug placed before him, which leads to rehab and his eventual firing. He’s a semilovable ogre, Tony Soprano with Jewish roots and record-pressing plants. Yetnikoff’s rise and fall is, he writes, an outgrowth of an abusive father who fostered insecurities and antiauthority leanings. But his story is also a metaphor for his industry: Both were headed for a crash, and both haven’t been the same since the heady ’70s and ’80s. The carousing Howling doesn’t leave one sympathetic toward Yetnikoff so much as wistful for the long-gone scamps who seem to have no place in the newly restrained biz. As a former colleague tells Yetnikoff at the end, ”The business is boring without you.”