Howling at the Moon: Confessions of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess

Howling at the Moon: Confessions of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess

by Walter Yetnikoff, David Ritz
Howling at the Moon: Confessions of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess

Howling at the Moon: Confessions of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess

by Walter Yetnikoff, David Ritz



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Show biz memoir at its name-dropping, bridge-burning, profane best: the music industry’s most outspoken, outrageous, and phenomenally successful executive delivers a rollicking memoir of pop music’s heyday.

During the 1970s and '80s the music business was dominated by a few major labels and artists such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Barbra Streisand and James Taylor. They were all under contract to CBS Records, making it the most successful label of the era. And, as the company’s president, Walter Yetnikoff was the ruling monarch. He was also the most flamboyant, volatile and controversial personality to emerge from an industry and era defined by sex, drugs and debauchery. 

Having risen from working-class Brooklyn and the legal department of CBS, Yetnikoff, who freely admitted to being tone deaf, was an unlikely label head. But he had an uncanny knack for fostering talent and intimidating rivals with his appalling behavior—usually fueled by an explosive combination of cocaine and alcohol. His tantrums, appetite for mind-altering substances and sexual exploits were legendary. In Japan to meet the Sony executives who acquired CBS during his tenure, Walter was assigned a minder who confined him to a hotel room. True to form, Walter raided the minibar, got blasted and, seeing no other means of escape, opened a hotel window and vented his rage by literally howling at the moon. 

In Howling at the Moon, Yetnikoff traces his journey as he climbed the corporate mountain, danced on its summit and crashed and burned. We see how Walter became the father-confessor to Michael Jackson as the King of Pop reconstructed his face and agonized over his image while constructing Thriller (and how, after it won seven Grammies, Jackson made the preposterous demand that Walter take producer Quincy Jones’s name off the album); we see Walter, in maniacal pursuit of a contract, chase the Rolling Stones around the world and nearly come to blows with Mick Jagger in the process; we get the tale of how Walter and Marvin Gaye—fresh from the success of “Sexual Healing”—share the same woman, and of how Walter bonds with Bob Dylan because of their mutual Jewishness. At the same time we witness Yetnikoff’s clashes with Barry Diller, David Geffen, Tommy Mottola, Allen Grubman and a host of others. Seemingly, the more Yetnikoff feeds his cravings for power, sex, liquor and cocaine, the more profitable CBS becomes—from $485 million to well over $2 billion—until he finally succumbs, ironically, not to substances, but to a corporate coup. Reflecting on the sinister cycle that left his career in tatters and CBS flush with cash, Yetnikoff emerges with a hunger for redemption and a new reverence for his working-class Brooklyn roots.

Ruthlessly candid, uproariously hilarious and compulsively readable, Howling at the Moon is a blistering You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again of the music industry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767918107
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/02/2004
Sold by: Random House
Format: eBook
Pages: 320
File size: 501 KB

About the Author

Walter Yetnikoff received his law degree from Columbia University in 1956, joined CBS Records Group in 1961 and quickly rose through the ranks. In 1975, he was made president, spearheading the operation for fifteen years and creating the most profitable and prestigious stable of artists in music history. Yetnikoff is credited with developing the careers of superstars such as Michael Jackson, George Michael, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, Living Colour, and Public Enemy. He lives in New York City.

David Ritz is the only four-time winner of the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award. Lyricist of the hit song “Sexual Healing,” he is also the author of the bestselling biography Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, and has coauthored autobiographies of Ray Charles, B. B. King, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Etta James and the Neville Brothers. He lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

The First Lady and the Last Man

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 astounding."

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 . . ."

I was on the verge of doing just that when a blast of jackhammers shattered the reverie. Jackie wasn't there. Jackie was a dream. The jackhammers were real. Outside my apartment window jackhammers were messing with my head. A skyscraper was going up. My dick was going down. Jackie was disappearing into the fog of my early morning mind when I realized something almost, but not quite, as good as the dream: In real life, I was having lunch with the real-life Jackie O. In three or four hours, we'd be exchanging pleasantries at '21'. In her role as book editor, Jackie was soliciting my autobiography. I was flattered, but my boozy brain was also convinced that it was me she wanted, not simply my tell-all memoirs in which I exposed the antics of everyone from Barbra Streisand to Mick Jagger. And if Jackie wasn't quite ready to embrace me romantically, I would woo and win her. I would charm her, coax her, show her that if she'd be my first lady, I'd be her last man. To do this, though, I needed a drink. Now. Now I really needed the goddamn jackhammers to stop hammering.

I crawled out of bed, stumbled onto my balcony and did what any reasonable man would do--screamed my head off.

"Turn off those machines! Stop the noise!"

No one heard me; no one cared. I lit a Nat Sherman cigarette and poured a stiff drink. I screamed some more. From his terrace, a neighbor in a pinstriped suit looked at me like I was a crazy drunk. I raised my glass and toasted his concern. Vodka in the morning is good. Vodka in the afternoon is even better. Not to mention healthy snacks of coke and grass. Maybe my neighbor didn't approve of a middle-aged businessman like me getting blasted at 8 a.m. Maybe he was on his way to Wall Street, where his world was neatly ordered. Well, my world was wildly disordered. And I liked it, liked it because I thrived in it, ruled it, worked it where it made me rich and so infamous that the queen was coming to call. Because Jackie had changed her name to Onassis, only one question remained--would she change it to Yetnikoff?

"Jackie Weds Walter," the newspaper would read. "Peace at Last Between Gentiles and Jews."

The wedding would take place at the Plaza, the same hotel where I wed Cynthia, my current wife, who was twenty years younger and for years my secret lover. Now that the secret was out, the love was losing steam. Maybe I was afraid I was losing steam. Maybe that's why I cultivated other secret lovers, why Jackie would find me so fascinating and ultimately set me free from my obsession with women. Jackie would settle me down, and I would sex her up, and we would live happily ever after. If only Cynthia would answer the phone. The phone was ringing off the wall.

"I'm on the treadmill!" Cynthia shouted from the exercise room in our two-story penthouse.

"I don't care. Answer the phone."

"Answer it yourself."

It was Nurse Nancy from my doctor's office.

"Dr. Covit needs to see you today."


"He says it's urgent."

"Put him on the phone."

"He's not here."

"Then what's so urgent?"

"He'll tell you."

"I'll call you back."

I started worrying. It'd been a week since my checkup. What did he find? I didn't want to know. I didn't want to hear his speech about how I had to stop drinking and drugging. I lit up another Nat Sherman, hit the vodka a little harder and headed back out to the balcony. I still hadn't shaved or dressed. Mr. Wall Street was gone. But his well-built wife was there, watering the plants. I watched her bend over and considered the convenience of having a secret lover in the same building. That would result in chaos. I liked chaos. But I didn't like answering my own phone, which was ringing again.


She ignored me. The ringing wouldn't stop, so I schlepped back inside and picked up the phone. There was a whirling noise on the other end of the line. Through the cacophony, I couldn't mistake the high-pitched voice of Michael Jackson.

In 1989, Michael Jackson was still the biggest star on the planet. The eighties belonged to him. Thriller had set the world on fire--over 40 million copies sold--and Bad was a blockbuster. I'd known Michael since 1975, when he and his brothers joined our Epic label, and watched his career zoom into orbit. I might have even helped. Anyway, we were close. He called me his Good Daddy because his biological Bad Daddy, whom he feared, was threatening and remote.

"My father never hugged me," Michael told me one afternoon while taking me on a tour of his Neverland ranch.

"You want a hug, Michael? Here's a hug."

I gave him a good hug, praised him inordinately and reassured him continually--yes, you are the greatest. I meant it. Who doubted his fabulous talents?

My role as Michael's corporate caretaker, though, was not without complexities. At the end of 1987, I'd arranged the sale of CBS Records to Sony, a deal that bloated my already overbloated ego and consolidated--or so I thought--my power. Part of that consolidation rested in my relationship with our big moneymakers, Michael chief among them. I assured Sony--and Michael--that the transition would yield fatter profits for everyone. That meant the key players--the big brass in Tokyo and the artists in America--were more dependent on me. My maneuvers put me in the middle of the action: an indispensable monarch, the King of Records comforting the King of Pop.

I both relished and resented the role. I liked being the guy who gave the orders, but on days like this, with Jackie O and jackhammers on my mind, the last thing I wanted was Michael kvetching. Michael loves to kvetch.

"Walter," he said. "I'm in a helicopter flying over Long Island."

"You with the monkey?"

"Bubbles is back in California. This is important, Walter. David Geffen just called. He's producing the soundtrack for Tom Cruise's new movie, Days of Thunder. He wants to use one of my songs. And I don't want him to. But I told him yes."

"Why did you say yes when you wanted to say no?"

"Well, you know Geffen . . ."

"Too well. I once proposed marriage to him."

"You what?"

"I'm kidding, Michael, I'm kidding."

"Anyway, I couldn't tell him no, but I want you to. I don't want my music in that movie. My music's getting spread too thin."

"Fine, Michael, I'll tell him no."

"But I don't want him to know that I'm saying no. I don't want him mad at me. I'm saying yes. You're saying no."

"So he should get furious with me?"

"You like it when people get furious at you."

Michael wasn't entirely wrong. Besides, the King of Pop was right even when he was wrong. In this case, Geffen had been working behind my back to get Michael's ear. Once a friend, soon to be a nemesis, Geffen spent all his waking hours manipulating the fortunes of famous artists. Fuck Geffen. I welcomed the chance to burn his bitchy ass.

"Anything else, Michael?" I asked, my head throbbing.

"When are you coming back to Neverland?"

"When you get rid of the zoo. Your peacocks hate me. They're jealous."

Suddenly the chopper got louder and Michael's voice got thinner. He started talking about copyrights--he wanted to buy Jobete Music from Berry Gordy--but his words were breaking up. Good. I didn't want a prolonged discussion about Michael's publishing empire. I wanted another drink. But before I could get to the vodka, Michael was back on the line. He was off and running--ranting about being not only the biggest artist in the world, but the biggest mogul. It wasn't that he didn't say it in a nice way--Michael's a nice guy--but with Michael there's nothing but business. And bigness. Every new venture has to be bigger than Disneyland.

Well, what's wrong with that? Isn't that the dream of every record exec--an artist obsessed with sales? Yes, as long as his obsessions don't overshadow my own.

"Michael," I said, "why don't you buy one of those nice little Eastern European countries? Why don't you find Bubbles a wife? Why don't we talk a little later?"

"You'll talk to Geffen?"

"I'll talk to Geffen."

"And you'll make the soundtrack problem go away . . ."

"Like magic."

Goodbye, Michael; hello, milk. Milk was my code word for coke. When I called home, I'd ask Cynthia, "Do we need milk?"

I needed a little milk, not a lot, just a friendly snort to blow away the morning blues. Clear out the cobwebs. Ease the jackhammers. Focus my attention on Jackie. But the phone, the goddamn phone wouldn't stop ringing.

"Answer it, Cynthia!"

But Cynthia, still pounding the treadmill, wasn't budging, even when my screams grew more insistent. Frustrated, I went to the exercise room and banged on the glass door. She ignored me. I banged and banged until she finally looked up. She saw the fury in my eyes and, rather than express sympathy, she mouthed the words "You're drunk."

That's when I flew into a fury and tore two posts off our antique four-poster bed. I smashed them against the wall, scaring the shit out of Cynthia. Then I picked out a nice suit, got dressed and went to the office. After all, this was the day that Jackie O, whether she knew it or not, was falling in love.

My office on the eleventh floor of Black Rock, CBS corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan, had a small adjoining room with a black leather couch. The couch was my playpen, scene of a long and happy series of sexual exploits over the years. It wasn't enough to confine my fun to hotel rooms or girlfriends' apartments. The office was my domain, where instant gratification was mine for the asking. I asked for a screwdriver. My secretary, Eileen, asked whether I wanted to talk to Cynthia.


"Well, she says she's changing the locks and sending over your clothes in a trunk."


"She says, 'Don't come back.' "

"Even better."

My response was to call my girlfriend, the same girlfriend I'd picked up the night of my bachelor party two years ago--the party preceding my fancy wedding to Cynthia with People magazine covering and a slew of stars attending. My girlfriend would understand. My girlfriend wasn't home, but David Geffen was. He was calling from Malibu. Just what I needed.

"Walter," he said, "I spoke with Michael this morning . . ."

"You've spoken with everyone this morning," I told him. "You get up at five in the morning and start calling the world. I must be your fiftieth call. I thought I was important, but I didn't even make your top ten . . ."

"Don't start in with me, Walter."

The screwdriver arrived. Thank God.

"Michael said I could use a song on the Days of Thunder soundtrack," Geffen continued.

"Forget about it."

"What do you mean, forget about it?"

"It's not going to happen."

"What are you talking about? Michael himself agreed. Your artist gave me his word."

"He doesn't know what he's doing. Besides, you bully him. You bully everyone."

"Who's the bully here?"

"This conversation is useless, David. You're not getting the song."

"That's Michael's call--and he's already made it."

"You're wrong. I'm making it. And I'll make it stick. Find some other song. And if you want to be useful, teach my girlfriend to give better blow jobs."

I hung up and looked over my littered desk--memos, calls-to-return slips, copies of the soon-to-be-released Rolling Stones CD, Steel Wheels, reminders that Jagger was looking for me. Jagger could wait.

Mick required far less hand-holding than Michael. Signing the Stones, though, had required a full frontal assault worthy of General Patton, one of my heroes. The final battle exploded at the Ritz Hotel in Paris back in '83. After months of relentless pursuit, I had them. All they had to do was sign when suddenly at 3 a.m. Mick goes mental and calls me a "stupid motherfuckin' record executive." I lose it. I reach for his throat. I have a vision of punching out all ninety-eight pounds of him. I stop myself, envisioning tomorrow's headline--"Yetnikoff Kills Jagger." Jagger relents, signs and from then on it's wine and roses. It was Mick--wily and witty Mick--who later that year plotted with my girlfriend, the one called Boom Boom, to throw me a surprise fiftieth birthday bash where Henny Youngman emceed and Jon Peters, Barbra Streisand's boyfriend and my pussy-chasing buddy, made his famous claim as the man who brought the fine art of cunnilingus to California.

The knock on my door broke my Stones reverie. Tommy Mottola, former Hall and Oates manager whom I had anointed my second-in-command, was standing there, practically in tears. Tommy's a street guy--I'm partial to street guys--good with music but bad with business. When it came to delicate corporate matters, he turned to mush. These days his involvement with his new signing, nineteen-year-old Mariah Carey, wasn't exactly helping his marriage. Tommy was obsessed with Mariah.

"This isn't about Mariah," he was quick to say. "It's about the Jews."

"What about the Jews?"

"The Jews are unhappy."

"Which Jews? And what are they unhappy about?"

"The Simon Wiesenthal Center is calling about Public Enemy."

Public Enemy, the controversial rap group, was one of our big sellers.

"This guy in Public Enemy named Professor Griff is making anti-Semitic remarks," explained Tommy.

"What'd he say?"

"Something about Jews being responsible for a lot of the wickedness in the world."

My first instinct was to can Public Enemy and throw Griff in the East River. But that wouldn't work. Their It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a brilliant work, sold millions, and their new one, Welcome to the Terrordome, was poised to sell even more. I had a responsibility to CBS shareholders. I was a responsible guy. But this was Tommy's problem.

"You handle it," I told him.

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