The Making of Michael Alago | In episode 39 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits sits down with A&R for Metallica, Nina Simone, and Cyndi Lauper.
Michael Alago has had a hand in the careers of many of the biggest names in music to come out of New York in the 80s. He helped to get Metallica, White Zombie, Nina Simone, and Cyndi Lauper their first deals. Then he had to battle AIDS and addiction. But, Michael Alago has been exceeding expectations since he was an underage kid sneaking into Max’s Kansas City. Now, he is being recognized for his contributions to music history. He joins us on Light Culture Podcast to talk about how he got into the music biz and partied with everyone from Patti Smith to Cindy Lauper, John Lydon and Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys.Read Transcript
Q: So for you, was music more of like a fanboy thing starting out? That you were just enamored by some of these musicians that you encountered, and how did you even hear the Dead Boys for the first time?
A ; I was always curious. I believe I came out of the womb loving music. I watched a lot of television and a lot of those television shows, like Don Kirchner, Midnight Special; Don Cornelius, Soul Train; and Dick Clarke’s American Bandstand, those three shows alone had such a wide variety of people from an Aretha Franklin, to a David Bowie, to a Todd Rundgren, to a Late Night With Alice Cooper that my listening was informed by those wide variety of artists. I was only thirteen, fourteen, fifteen-years-old. So maybe now I’m fifteen, sixteen, and I go visit my dad a lot on Saturdays in the East Village, Astor Place, he worked for IBM. There was a newstand on that corner, right there, on Lafayette.
As we all know, everything was different back then. So I saw this newspaper that friends told me about called, ‘The Village Voice.’ It was a weekly and it had music, art, theater, porn, and politics in it. I was not interested in politics, but I was certainly interested in all the other things going on in that publication. I had heard about CBGB. My friend Leslie took me there, I think in ’75 or ’76. I was fifteen-years-old and we saw Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreaks. And that, I knew, I had to be in that environment. So I checked out all of these up and coming artists at CB’s, and Max’s, and On The Rocks.
How did you get in? Because you were too young on your own to be admitted to a place like Max’s.
The one thing I remember, Hilly Krystal always said to us underage young people was, ‘You’re welcome to come in to CB’s but if I see you with alcohol in your hand, I’m going to throw you out for two weeks.’ So we also never let him see us with alcohol. We’d drink outside, we’d drink in the alleyway and then come back in.
Q: I know you’re very open about being gay, and even back then you were as well – so what was it like to be a young gay boy, as you were at that time, on the scene in New York? CBGB’s and Max’s and all that?
Sometimes I felt like I was the only gay person there, and I think sometimes I was. But I think when you’re that young, all those other young people who discovered those venues weren’t judgmental. We just went to where the music was and we just loved the music. So that early on, there was really, I don’t think, any judgment about your sexuality. But never mind that, of course, I loved all the strapping young men who I saw at these venues. I think one night when Chelsea was here from the UK, I was drunk, their lead singer, Gene October, was drunk, so I just dragged him home with me. These things happened all the time. Even with guys who said they were straight. I’d be like, ‘Honey? Straight what is straight? I have no idea, let’s go.’ So, you know, I had these adventures where people always – especially young men – said yes to me at a very early stage. I guess I was charming.
I encountered other gay leaders in the industry a lot later, like the beginning of the eighties when I went to Danceteria often. Howie Montaug and I would run into each other at four o’clock in the morning at the St. Marks’ Baths. You know, Walter Lure – Oh god, I hope I’m not outing Walter Lure. No, I mean that queen, he has a book out. So he must say that he’s gay. If not, then I’m telling you right now, I think I brought him home once or twice as well.
But, I wasn’t seeking out other gay people, I was just interested in music. And, you know, I always tell people, I don’t think I was ever in the closet. I had no idea what that meant. I was just myself and people either liked me or they didn’t like me, and I didn’t care. I don’t know where that all came from. That bravado. Maybe it was partially being naive, I don’t know, I just didn’t have a care in the world when it came to being homosexual.
Q: in 1980, you were hired to work at The Ritz Nightclub. Which was, in its time, like a real advanced music venue, right? So who were some of the acts that you brought in?
Michael: What was marvelous about the place, was there was a twenty-to-thirty-foot white screen in front of the stage. So we were getting all sorts of new Betas and VHS’ of artists of the day. Now, it’s 1980 and it’s the very beginning of MTV, so every record company wants us to play their video at The Ritz. We start booking people like Prince, the return of Tina Turner for five nights. I booked an infamous show with Public Image Ltd that was a debacle. It was May of ’81.
Q: Were you around with Sid Vicious as well? When he was at, you know, Max’s and sort of at the end of his life?
At the end of his messy career. Yes I was. I met Sid once or twice at CBGB. I was a regular at Max’s at some point and friends with Peter Crowely who booked the room there.And Peter booked Sid for a couple nights, and it was just a mess. It was a mess, unfortunately. You know, this young person who was wild and full of promise just became a dirty alcoholic, a drug addict who was into cutting himself. He was always with Nancy, they were always a mess. I don’t even know how he got through some of those performances because he was always drugged up and filled with liquor. And it’s just a sad story that he lived such a very short life. But that’s the only experience I had with him. Seeing and hearing Sid Vicious.
How did you get into hard rock and heavy metal? Because, it’s a whole other scene. Village Voice, I’m sure they didn’t cover the heavy metal bands.
Michael: So I only lived seven blocks away from L’Amour in Brooklyn under New Utrecht Avenue. So I would walk there and crawl back. L’Amour was a rock club in Brooklyn that catered to hard rock and heavy metal. That was it. So you got to see in the early days, Metallica, Wasp, The Plasmadics, I think maybe even Merciful Fate might have played there.
You know, I can’t really tell you when I first started listening heavy metal. Although in the early days, I had the first Black Sabbath record. My first concert was Alice Cooper, June Third, 1973. I was thirteen-years-old. So it just felt inevitable that my tastes were going to get darker and louder. But I never thought, like, is this hip or not? I just always wanted to be where music was.
And what did your old friends say when you told them that you were, you know, into this kind of music, and you wanted to work with these bands. Did they support you, or did they think you were crazy, or what?
You know, I always was a person who went out alone. So I made friends just along the way, because I was always outgoing and friendly and stuff. So, no, I don’t think anybody ever wondered why Alago was going to see The Dead Boys and The Damned, and the next thing you know he’s at L’Amour in Brooklyn listening to Wasp. For me it was just a natural, gradual progression. I was always just open to all kinds of music.
Exactly. And I guess that’s a big point that comes out as well in your documentary, but when you talk to a variety of these different musicians that you wouldn’t, you know, you see them looking a certain way, heavy metal dudes. But when you actually get to know them, you realize that there’s much more to them. They have a much broader interest, in terms of their music and what they love. That music is the bottom line to everything.
And your reaction to the music is visceral often, right?
All the time. If I didn’t feel something from the music, whether it’s The Dead Boys or Nina Simone, I didn’t want to be bothered. And if any other A&R people were talking about a certain band that they all thought, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be huge!’ If I heard it and didn’t like it, I didn’t give a shit about the band. I always conducted myself from a fans point of view. And it was always just very personal for me. That if I had to live with this band, or singer-songwriter, I better love the music. I better know how to discuss, to Tracy Chapman, the song that she was about to record. I better know how to talk to John Lydon. And that list goes on. You know, with Nina Simone, we always talked about the Great American Songbook and I just had this knowledge of all these different types of music from listening and learning over the years.
You were also, like, there at sort of a moment – especially with the heavy metal – where this whole thing about selling out. You know, would their fans stay with them if they moved into a major label? And you were working for major labels at that point.
Like Metallica, I believe, was one of those bands, right? So what was your process in terms of getting them to, you know, believe in you and trust you in order to go ahead and make these decisions?
Michael: I talk about Metallica because signing them helped change the face of rock and roll. And put me, as a professional, on the map. Remember, they were twenty-one, twenty-two-years-old. I’m twenty-four-years-old, I look like them. I don’t look corporate at all. I’d always come to work in a Ramone’s T-shirt and jeans. And they liked that I knew about the same kind of music that they were playing.
And they knew a bit about the history of Elekttra. You know, when they came to my office for the first time they wanted records from The Doors, and The MC-5, and The Stooges. We became friends, but they were so good at their job that they never wanted anyone in the studio with them. So I would get cassette tapes from Lars, the drummer, who I spoke to mostly at the beginning of their career. And I would just hear parts of songs that were arrangements, which were fabulous even in those primitive stages of the material. a few times – I was allowed into the studio, but I had to let them know if we were funding this very expensive record, I got to know what the hell’s going on here. But they were young people who were very focused. They always knew what they wanted to do. So at some point I just let them do their thing, and their thing always wound up being extraordinary. Made my life a lot easier too.
Q: Yes.And then you also got AIDS. So, you know, there were some very difficult times for you. You said you’re sober now, so obviously at one time you weren’t. How does coming out that and surviving, what impact has that had on your subsequent life?
Well, you know what? Thank God, I didn’t die. That’s the first thing. If I did, and all people knew about me was sex, drugs, and rock and roll it would have been a cliche. So I was out every night as an A&R person. I had a corporate card, so I paid for my drinks, your drinks, everybody’s drinks. And drinking, and drugs, were fun until it wasn’t fun anymore. And it turned on me. When I was thirty-two I went to rehab in Minneapolis for a thirty day program. I came out and went back to work at Elektra.
The only reason I went is because I didn’t want to get fired from my job, but I was unhappy. I was what they called a dry drunk. I didn’t go to any meetings, so I didn’t learn anything. I just had this crazy brain. I just was arrogant and I just didn’t drink for eight years. And then fast-forward, I’m forty-years-old. I already know that I have HIV. So now we’re forty, I was out at a concert one night and somebody asked me if I wanted a beer. I said, yes. And the next seven years were gruesome, they were grueling. I had HIV. I was taking my meds with vodka and beer. I was – I found myself in crack dens in New Orleans, I don’t know how I got there, because in the morning I was in New York. Very sad.
Well thank God for a happy ending. So at forty-seven-years-old when I felt like, I’m a freaking zombie. I had known about Twelve Step Meetings. I took a shower and I knew there was a meeting in the West Village. And I took myself to a meeting. Even in that first meeting, as much as I was hurting. As much as I was fearful and had shame, for even walking through the doors of a Twelve Step Meeting, I did it. And it spoke to me.
So now, like I said, here we are in 2020. I’m coming up on thirteen years clean and sober, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m a responsible man who shows up for life. I show up for you. I show up for this interview. I show up for friends and family. And what a blessing that is that people know they can rely on me.