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It was never about the music

Howling at the Moon The Out-of-Control Odyssey of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess Walter Yetnikoff, with David Ritz Broadway Books: 306 pp., $24.95

March 28, 2004|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is the Times' pop music critic.

ONCE the head of the country's biggest record company, Walter Yetnikoff could easily have charmed us by opening his memoir with special musical moments -- say the thrill of hearing a new Bruce Springsteen song or watching Michael Jackson moonwalk for the first time on a stadium stage.

But Yetnikoff was never really about the music.

For much of his 15-year reign as president of the CBS Records Group, he was consumed by the pursuit of money, power and respect -- sometimes driven to reckless extremes by cocaine and alcohol abuse.

Even though Yetnikoff has gone through a spiritual transformation since being fired in 1990, the audacity of the book's opening paragraphs shows just how far he'll still go to get our attention.

"After her third orgasm, Jackie O looked at me with a mixture of gratitude and awe. 'Jack was a powerful lover,' she said. 'Ari was a passionate man. But you, Walter Yetnikoff, you're nothing short of astonishing.' I smiled a knowing smile. I knew I was good, but I'd never before satisfied a woman of such standing. After all, for those who came of age during Camelot, Jackie was our queen.

" 'Be my king,' she said. 'Love me like this for the rest of my life. Take me, Walter. Take me again ... ' " For those who know this volatile man, it's easy to picture him erupting with laughter as he looks back over those lines. Sure, the Jackie O story is all a dream, he tells us in the book, but Yetnikoff's ego is for real.

By the end of the first chapter of "Howling at the Moon: The Out-of-Control Odyssey of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess," he's mocking artists (telling how a wimpy Michael Jackson would beg him to play the bad cop so that he could play innocent Michael in front of his family and other showbiz heavies) and bragging about how he used a room at CBS headquarters in New York as his sexual playpen.

Yetnikoff races through his personal history (he grew up in working-class Brooklyn, received his law degree from Columbia University) so that he can concentrate on his years at CBS Records, whose annual revenue grew from less than $500 million to more than $2 billion during his 1975-90 tenure. Yetnikoff also played a key role in the 1987 sale of the record company to Sony.

His years at CBS coincided with the golden age of the record business -- at least in terms of money spent and money made, and Yetnikoff was the ultimate wheeler-dealer. All the while he partied, at home, on the road -- and not just in hotel rooms but (in one especially bold moment) in a hotel hallway.

His story, written with veteran author David Ritz (co-author of autobiographies by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and others), is told with such relish that it reads like a novel, and it might have been more absorbing if it were treated as fiction. As personal reflection, however, the book is less engaging because it's hard to feel any compassion for Yetnikoff. Even now, he seems to have little remorse for his frequently boorish behavior. He delights in describing how he bullied and verbally abused subordinates and industry rivals.

"The great paradox that sat in the center of my life was that the more I misbehaved, the more the company profited," he writes. "The insane profitability of my professional life allowed me to lead a personal life, equally insane, free of restraint."

Yet he seethed inside because rivals at other labels were being far better paid. Time and again, he tried to parlay his success at CBS into more lucrative contracts elsewhere, but failed. His greatest blow, however, wasn't in being fired by Sony, it was the heartbreak of being unable to find investors to back him in a new company.

Because he burned so many bridges in the industry, Yetnikoff walked away from Sony with little of the affection and respect afforded such other industry chiefs as Warner Bros.' Mo Ostin or his predecessor at CBS, Clive Davis, both of whom found backing for new ventures. He ended up spending millions of his own money in a failed venture. He is still in the music business, but as a very minor player producing soundtrack CDs and counseling beginning artists.

For all the name-dropping in "Howling at the Moon," the book feels drab and cliched. Yetnikoff may have given us a more human and compelling story had he spent more time outlining his struggle for redemption, including volunteer work at recovery centers in the New York-New Jersey area.

Yetnikoff might also have created real fireworks in the industry -- and become a genuine hero among musicians -- if he had devoted more than a few, teasing paragraphs to detailing the ways he claims record companies routinely cheat artists out of royalties.

By focusing so unapologetically on the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll of his flawed glory days, Yetnikoff has written the book he thinks people want to read. In that way, he's still a record executive chasing another hit. *

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