My all-time favorite music business story involves a conversation between Walter Yetnikoff and David Geffen. It is a story that is both hysterically funny and, in its own way, appalling. I had considered it to be apocryphal but there it is, confirmed not once but twice, in HOWLING AT THE MOON, Walter Yetnikoff's autobiography.
Yetnikoff joined CBS Records Group as legal counsel in 1961 when its primary label imprints were Columbia and Epic. If you rummage through your record collection you undoubtedly have discs bearing Columbia's red label (Johnny Mathis, Mitch Miller, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Dylan, Dylan, Dylan) and Epic's yellow one (The Dave Clark Five, The Yardbirds). He was by 1975 President of the CBS Record Group, having transformed it into one of the most successful record labels in music history. The deal Yetnikoff brokered between CBS Records and a Japanese company named Sony continues to influence the music industry for good and for ill to this very day. It also, in part, contributed to Yetnikoff's downfall. HOWLING AT THE MOON is the story of Yetnikoff's meteoric rise and fall, and personal resurrection. It doesn't matter if you have never cared a whit about how records are made or rarely get to the shelves of your favorite retailer --- this book is an absolute joy to read on every conceivable level.
Yetnikoff brought about the success of CBS Records with a combination of brilliance and belligerence, uniting vision and business sense with a single-minded, obsessive pursuit of success. HOWLING AT THE MOON traces Yetnikoff's life, from his humble beginnings --- his family was what would now be called "working poor" --- to his ultimate, dazzling success. During the course of his first legal employment at a traditional law firm, he met a Harvard Law School graduate named Clive Davis, who chafed at the limitations that the firm imposed on him. Davis soon moved to Columbia Records and recruited Yetnikoff shortly thereafter. Yetnikoff found himself to be in his element at Columbia. Though it took him a while to find his sea legs, he soon became self-assured. An anecdotal meeting between Morris Levy (the real-life model for record mogul Herman "Hesh" Rabkin on The Sopranos) and Yetnikoff, wherein he diplomatically attempts to collect a debt on Columbia's behalf, demonstrates Yetnikoff's ability to engage in repartee, a talent that he honed to devastating, razor-like sharpness.
Yetnikoff's success and excess rose in direct proportion. It is ironic that as his addictions increased --- and he could count coup on virtually every addiction known --- so too did Columbia's fortunes. HOWLING AT THE MOON is loaded with stories involving people you know of. Michael Jackson's descent into weirdness is chronicled here; while recent allegations regarding Jackson are not spoken of, Yetnikoff chronicles Jackson's metamorphosis from a good looking kid to a bizarre freak with a mixture of gentle abhorrence and genuine sympathy. James Taylor comes off surprisingly well, while Paul Simon, unsurprisingly, is presented as a self-absorbed prig. A story concerning a dinner encounter with Bob Dylan is hilarious, as Yetnikoff unerringly punctures Dylan's self-evident hypocrisy with some good-natured ribbing. While Yetnikoff's life is more or less presented in chronological order (the initial chapter begins the tale in media res, while the second chapter actually begins, as they say, at the beginning) you can pick up the book at any point and be instantly mesmerized and entertained.
It is accordingly fascinating, when consideration is given to the forgoing, that the most compelling portion of this book deals with Yetnikoff's fall from grace at Columbia, followed by his true and total embracing of recovery; through recovery, Yetnikoff found redemption. It is all the more stirring for being entirely unexpected, as we witness The Beast, The Wildman, transformed. And that is why HOWLING AT THE MOON is ultimately, more than anything else, an inspirational story. The conclusion brought tears to my eyes. Don't tell anyone, though.
HOWLING AT THE MOON is one for the "must read" list. Yetnikoff's story is incredible and cautionary. No matter who you are or what you do, you can come away from this tale entertained throughout, appalled in spots but ultimately inspired. Highest possible recommendation.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 2, 2004