N. Y. Times book review–“Howling at the Moon”

A Dizzying Ride on the Turntable

Published: March 5, 2004

G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times
Walter Yetnikoff, the author of “Howling at the Moon.”

Late in Walter Yetnikoff’s memoir, when his career at CBS Records is on the rocks, and Barbra, Bruce and Mick have stopped speaking to him, he cites a former associate’s remark: “The business is boring without you.” Now, with slingshot in hand, Mr. Yetnikoff settles old scores while providing a book-length occasion to contemplate what those words mean. If there are other contenders for this year’s Robert Evans Award for Self-Promoting Show Business Reminiscence, they may as well desist: Mr. Yetnikoff has it in the bag. As he makes clear in “Howling at the Moon,” he brought a when-in-Rome attitude toward keeping up with the musical talent when he was president of CBS Records. “Not only was it cool to party with them, hell, it was practically obligatory,” he says, before going on to provide countless name-dropping incidents to prove his point. Like the following exchange with Marvin Gaye.

Mr. Yetnikoff: “Don’t you realize that pot can lead to coke?”

Gaye: “I have some of that too.”

Mr. Yetnikoff: “Great. Bring it out.”

Books in this “and then I drank . . .” genre pose an inevitable question: If the author was as ceaselessly pie-eyed, stoned or skirt chasing as he claims to have been, how much does he really remember? Mr. Yetnikoff’s way of dealing with this is to rely on the services of David Ritz, a prolific ghostwriter with the lyrics to Gaye’s hit “Sexual Healing” also to his credit.

Together Mr. Yetnikoff and Mr. Ritz devise a kind of sitcom snappiness that turns Mr. Yetnikoff into the Henny Youngman of CBS. This is an approach that definitely has its points. For instance, Mr. Yetnikoff claims to have had a dream of being with Paul Gauguin in Tahiti and wowing the local women by dropping the names of Billy Joel and Neil Diamond. “Gauguin grew jealous of all the attention I was getting,” the book recounts. ” `Keep painting, Paul,’ I said, `and I’ll give you my leftovers.’ ”

The book begins by presenting Mr. Yetnikoff at the height of his corporate powers and as a man uninterruptedly in touch with his inner child. He claims to have been fawned over at lunch by Jacqueline Onassis and serviced by a girlfriend called Boom Boom. His book is filled with big-shot quips about Mick Jagger (“He’s under contract. He can wait.”) and Michael Jackson. (“Your peacocks hate me. They’re jealous.”) His office is apparently Substance Abuse Central for CBS headquarters. He has a secretary who claimed never to have seen anyone take his clothes off and put them back on so many times in one day.

Then comes the wake-up call, right on cue. Here is Mr. Yetnikoff’s doctor, warning him to quit his evil ways before it’s too late. Now “Howling at the Moon” flashes back to a Brooklyn boyhood: “For high Yiddish drama, you couldn’t beat the Yetnikoffs.” Since both authors are savvy enough to know that readers are more interested in rock stars than in Mr. Yetnikoff’s grandfather, who kept his fly open and spit on the floor, this section is mercifully brief.

Soon Mr. Yetnikoff has been to law school and landed a job in the record business courtesy of a classmate, Clive Davis, another future mogul. It is not this book’s style to let Mr. Davis or anyone else get by uninsulted. But beyond the ad hominem swipes, “Howling at the Moon” also devotes itself to the special business etiquette that ruled the record business, or at least Mr. Yetnikoff’s end of it. Something he learned early on: “If you hired a hooker for a company party, you buried the charge among the flowers and wine.”

The cover of “Howling at the Moon” features Annie Leibovitz’s vintage photograph of a bare-chested, robust and clearly maniacal Mr. Yetnikoff, flanked by images of the biggest stars in his particular galaxy. One of them was Mr. Jackson; anyone needing further evidence of his unusual nature will notice that he supposedly regarded Mr. Yetnikoff as the nice, kindly father he wished he’d had.

But Mr. Yetnikoff has his own problems with paternal authority, and he uses them to explain his own obnoxious, sometimes diabolically funny behavior in business situations. Surely he was the only CBS employee who insisted on addressing William S. Paley, the company’s distinguished founder, as “Daddy,” and suggesting that Paley adopt him.

“Howling at the Moon” describes some of the vicious in-fighting that led him to taunt Laurence Tisch and David Geffen, among many others, and eventually brought Mr. Yetnikoff to the brink (Time’s headline on his career implosion in 1990: “A Music King’s Shattering Fall.”) However frivolous he is about recycling old party-boy stories, he is more serious about depicting the power struggles, back-stabbing airplane envy and creative accounting that defined the business as he knew it.

“What overall philosophy drives the companies?” he says he was asked by a lawyer. His answer: “Pay the artist as little as you can. Tie the artist up for as long as you can. Recoup as often as you can.”

Nowadays Mr. Yetnikoff is a sober septuagenarian on a motorcycle, with a tendency to get bossy when he goes to 12-step meetings. “It took me a lifetime to learn to listen,” he says, with about as much contrition as he can muster. But this is a book about his wicked, wicked ways, not a story that hinges on penance.

When he refers to himself as “Yetnikoff, that brilliant and fun-loving fox,” he hardly seems to regret the excesses of his ancient history. Now those excesses have earned their niche in the Robert Evans Hall of Fame.

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