Brooklyn native Michael Alago was one of the good guys in the corporate music industry. As an A&R executive for Elektra Records, he didn’t just sign artists like Metallica, John Lydon and Nina Simone; he befriended them. Prior to that, he’d cut his teeth at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, traveled as a photographer with Wayne County, and booked acts at the Ritz. Like Will Rogers, he seldom met a person he didn’t like. Since leaving the record business, Alago has survived full-blown AIDS, gotten sober and turned to photography. PKM’s Sharon Hannon spoke with Alago.
The 2017 documentary Who the Fuck Is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago (Netflix) introduced people all over the world to Michael Alago, the former A&R executive for Elektra and Geffen Records who signed Metallica, White Zombie and Nina Simone. In his new book, I Am Michael Alago: Breathing Music, Signing Metallica, Beating Death, Alago tells the story a young music fanatic from Brooklyn who channeled his preternatural self-confidence and wide-ranging taste in and knowledge of music into a successful 25-year-career in the music business.
From his teenage years spent riding the subway into Manhattan to see Suicide at Max’s Kansas City and the Dead Boys at CBGB, to traveling to Canada at age 16 as the photographer for Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys, Alago knew he wanted to be in the music business. His first break came at age 19 when he was hired to work as assistant to Jerry Brandt at the Ritz. As the assistant booker in the late ’70s/early ’80s, he brought everyone from PiL and U2, to BB King, Tina Turner, and Prince to the club before a landing a job at age 23 as an A&R executive at Elektra Records. In following decades, he attained some storied highs and harrowing lows before, well, we’ll let him tell it.
In June, we interviewed Alago by phone from his apartment in New York where he’s currently organizing his work for his fourth book of photographs and maintaining his social distance.
PKM: In I Am Michael Alago: Breathing Music, Signing Metallica, Beating Death, you talk about growing up in Brooklyn and loving music from the time you came out of the womb. As a child, what did music mean to you?
Michael Alago: When I heard music when I was 10, 12, 13, 14 years old, it tickled my ears. If I thought something was wonderful, I wanted to know more about that group or that artist. It gave me a wonderful feeling inside. Sometimes, maybe it was AM radio, it made me dance around my room, and then once I got into music, I just devoured it. I was always a sponge; I just took in everything. I don’t know how I knew to be discerning about my likes and dislikes even at 13 or 14 years old.
PKM: You seemed to have very broad tastes even as teenager, not just for AM pop stuff or Motown.
Michael Alago: Yes, there were a lot of things that I wound up liking at an early age. I found everything from Alice Cooper to Aretha Franklin interesting. It’s almost like at that early age I was A&R’ing my own taste. I was grateful that I knew about the radio and grateful that I knew about TV shows like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, Soul Train, Don Kirshner’s Midnight Special because all of those TV shows featured a variety of artists, so my ears never got stuck listening to one style of music. I took that into my adult years. I was very discerning as an A&R executive because I had to finds things that were great. Not good, but great. So I grew up loving lots of different things, and I used that listening in my career.
So being grateful that I’m clean and sober is my greatest achievement.
PKM: I was struck when I was reading your book that you had this incredible self-confidence even when you were a very young man. You said you knew you were gay from a young age and you had “zero fear about what people would say about you.” You also knew you could get backstage after a show to meet people you wanted to meet. You could walk into the Ritz when you were 19 years old and ask for a job. Where did that confidence come from?
Michael Alago: I don’t know where that confidence came from. I just knew growing up if I said I was going to go somewhere, I was going to go somewhere. I guess I was born with that confidence. When I was going out in the early days, I did all of that stuff mostly alone. I didn’t want to be bothered. So I would take the B train from Brooklyn to Union Square, 14th Street, if I was going to Max’s one night and I had this bravado about my attitude and it just got me to wherever I wanted to go. I just didn’t understand the word “no.” If I knew about something and I wanted to hear it and see it, I did it, and I just made stuff happen.
PKM: Failing clearly wasn’t something you could conceive of.
Michael Alago: Once I got all this music in my brain growing up, I knew that I wanted to be in the music business. But what does that mean to a 15-year-old, the music business? I knew nothing about that part of music, and I didn’t play an instrument. I didn’t have a Plan B.
Then fast forward to 1980. I was going to the School of Visual Arts and working at a pharmacy part time in the East Village. I was walking down East 11th Street and I saw a beautiful building. It used to be called Casa Galicia — it was a Spanish dance hall, and it was about to open as a nightclub called the Ritz. I saw a little white 8 x 10 piece of paper on the door and it said, “Video club opening.” I thought, That sounds interesting. I just walked in and I looked around, and I was astounded because it was a very beautiful art deco building.
There was a man in the balcony, and he said, “Kid, we’re not open. What do you want?” I told him I wanted a job. He asked me if I had a resume and I said “No, I go to the School of Visual Arts and I work part time at a pharmacy.” He found some humor in that, I don’t know why, and he called me up to his office. His name was Jerry Brandt. I didn’t realize he was this entrepreneur from the ’60s. He started the Electric Circus on St. Marks Place, he managed Carly Simon, brought the Rolling Stones to the U.S. He also worked with Sam Cooke and Muhammad Ali. I knew none of this when I walked in. He just started asking me questions about music and he said, “You know what, kid, I like you. I’m going to give you a job. You’re going to open my mail. You’re going to go get my lunch, and you’re going to answer my phone.” I was thrilled. I must have said to myself, “Oh my god, I guess I am in the music business.”
I was at the Ritz from 1980 to 1983. It was an extraordinary time. There wasn’t a video club like this ever. It was the advent of MTV, so there was so much going on in New York City and I got to be in the center of all that.
PKM: How did you end up at Elektra Records?
Michael Alago: I was going out with a guy named Mitchell Krasnow and he said, “I know you want to do more stuff. My dad Bob is going to re-up Elektra.” Prior to that, Elektra Records existed and it had fallen into the crapper and Bob was going to resurrect it. So Mitchell got me an interview with his dad. Jerry Brandt said, “I don’t want to lose you, but if you want to move on, I know Bob Krasnow.” So Krasnow is now hearing about me from an old colleague and his son. I had an interview with Bob — it was an interview about music. Two weeks later he called me and said, “I’m giving you a job in the A&R department.” And I said, “Thank you.” Then I had to call friends I knew in the business and ask, “What does A&R mean?
PKM: You were 23 when you were hired to work at Elektra. Since you were new to the business, how did you figure out what to do?
Michael Alago: A&R, artists and repertoire, is the most important part of the record company. If you don’t have great artists, then you don’t have great records and you’re out the door. Period. So I was a sponge — Bob Krasnow allowed me to sit in on his phone calls when he spoke to managers, lawyers, publishers, and sometimes artists. At some point within that year, I had my own office and I was getting lots of cassettes and vinyl from independent artists looking to be on a major label. I did lots of listening. And after about a year or so, Bob started saying, speak to Michael about everything. So it was really on-the-job training.
Two weeks later he called me and said, “I’m giving you a job in the A&R department.” And I said, “Thank you.” Then I had to call friends I knew in the business and ask, “What does A&R mean?
PKM: Your first major signing was Metallica in 1984. When you first heard Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, which was on the Megaforce label, you said it had a major impact on you. What was it about them that was so special that you said, “We’ve got to get these guys?”
Michael Alago: I am a major lover of all kinds of music, so my ears were trained to love a lot of different kinds of music. When I heard Metallica I heard young people doing something that no one else was doing. They were mixing speed, punk rock, traditional heavy metal, British heavy metal, hard rock, and they put it together like a stew. And that’s what Metallica sounded like. I hadn’t heard anything like that in the hard rock or heavy metal genre. It was exciting. It was fast. And no one else was doing what they were doing.
PKM: Do you think Metallica could have had the same career if they had signed to another major label?
Michael Alago: Absolutely. Metallica were these four young people who were very charming. They knew what they were doing, they were very focused. During that period of time they were creating quite the buzz in the underground heavy metal scene. There was no stopping them. But I was there. I got the label to sign them. They liked me. I was the same age, maybe a year or two older. They were 21; I was 23 or 24. I think they liked that I didn’t come off like a corporate executive and that I understood the music. So as the deal was getting made, we became friends. I think that they enjoyed that they were getting signed to a major [label] and I was their A&R person.
When I heard Metallica I heard young people doing something that no one else was doing. They were mixing speed, punk rock, traditional heavy metal, British heavy metal, hard rock, and they put it together like a stew
PKM: You had a good relationship with them?
Michael Alago: A great relationship from the get go. I understood the music and I brought that knowledge into our weekly marketing meetings at Elektra. Of course, as cool as Elektra was back then, it didn’t mean that everyone was going to like that style of music. But I remember in the marketing meeting that our chairman, Bob Krasnow, said it was mandatory that everyone see Metallica. Mandatory. And that was no-nonsense Bob. Bob once said, not particularly about Metallica but about artists that had radio potential, “If you can’t get it on the radio, don’t come to work tomorrow.” Then he’d walk right out of the marketing meeting. Everybody would look at each other and say, “Uh-oh.”
PKM: You became Elektra’s heavy metal guy. Why do you think you, a gay guy of Puerto Rican heritage, were so accepted in the predominantly white heterosexual male heavy metal scene?
Michael Alago: I never thought about it like that. I loved music and the heaviness of the music moved me. I loved all the young men going to the concerts. Believe it or not, and I say it all the time, I never had problems with people. I hope this doesn’t sound egotistical, but I was a very likeable person, I’m a very friendly person. When it came to the music, I was a very knowledgeable person. So some people took to me the way I took to them. Some more than others. I can’t explain it, it’s just that’s how it was.
PKM: Over the years while you worked for Elektra, then Geffen, and a couple of other labels, you signed a number of artists, including White Zombie. Is there anyone you really wanted to sign but just couldn’t get the deal done?
Michael Alago: You know, a lot of people ask me that same question. I never know how to answer. I don’t think that way. I just signed artists that I wanted to have on the label because I believed in them and I thought they were great. In retrospect, if you ask me who I wish I had signed, I wish I signed Slayer. I think they’re one of the more unique bands out there, the same way Metallica were unique. I was always a big fan, and I went to all of their concerts in the tri-state area. If I was traveling and they were in the same city, I’d go to their shows.
But when people ask me that question, I just get stuck. If I didn’t get to sign you, it just went out of my brain. I didn’t think about stuff like that. I was always about moving forward. I signed the special people that I signed and that’s that.
PKM: Let’s talk a little about Nina Simone. You tell the moving tale in your book about your early love for her music and how you got to know her, work with her, and become her friend. What did she mean to you?
Michael Alago: She was an artist and was very special to begin with. She was wildly charismatic, and I loved that she could sing any type of music from Jacques Brel to George Harrison or Bob Dylan, and she knew how to get into the heart of the matter, of the song, and make it her own. So you were like, ‘wow, did this woman write this song?’
I was just always touched by everything she ever recorded. When you hear a Nina Simone song in the very beginning, because of how unique her voice was, you knew who you were listening to. I was a fan for the longest time since I first heard her In Concert record at my Aunt Jenny’s house. And she was so beautiful and so cool, and she turned me on to things like Isaac Hayes’ Shaft and Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly. I was just so attracted to her voice, her tempo and the timing of her phrasing. I just kind of knew this woman is special. It carried over through my youth as I started buying vinyl and would check to see there was a new Nina Simone record. I went to see her in ’83 at Irving Plaza. I didn’t get to sign her until ’91, but I flew with her all over the world, and we became friends. She loved that I loved her so much. She was sometimes a nightmare and sometimes we just had the best time together.
Like I asked somebody, ‘if you were on a desert island, what five records would you bring?’ I think I would only bring Nina Simone records with me. I just think that she was truly a one-of-a-kind, extraordinary artist. I feel nothing but love and gratitude that I could make that final recording of her, A Single Woman, and that for the last 15 years of her life we spoke on the phone, we became great friends, and I spoke to her on the phone the day before she passed.
PKM: A Single Woman is the last album she recorded?
Michael Alago: Yes, that’s her last recording. I was the executive producer and oversaw all of the material we were going to record. That album came out in 1993, and ten years later, in 2003, she passed away.
Like I asked somebody, ‘if you were on a desert island, what five records would you bring?’ I think I would only bring Nina Simone records with me.
PKM: Did that record turn out the way you wanted?
Michael Alago: The album was very, very beautiful. It’s a record about love and loneliness and loss, and that’s the record we wanted to make. Did it sell as well as I wanted it to? No, because at that time she turned into a bit of a nightmare again. I think the only two things she said yes to [to promote the album] were The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and an interview with a writer named James Gavin who loved the album and did a wonderful extended piece on Nina for the New York Times. After that, the old Nina came out again and she refused to do press for me again. But for me on a personal level, I was just grateful that I got to work with one of my idols.
Nina Simone – Title track from the album A Single Woman, recording session, 1993:
PKM: You mention the constant drama in her life. Why do you think she had so much drama surrounding her?
Michael Alago: I think it was a lot of things. Starting off as a young black artist, having to go through the back door. You can perform here but you can’t eat here, you can’t sleep here, and that’s a whites-only water fountain, all of those things. Then you fast forward, and she felt like parts of the civil rights movement were falling apart. She was bipolar and that was not recognized until years later. So when you have unrecognized medical issues, and you like your wine, and you like your liquor, that affects the brain. So I think over time, that all manifested itself in, how do I say it, bitterness and some hatred. She was always a person who was very provocative and never cared what she said.
Going in to signing Nina Simone, I knew all about how problematic she could potentially be. I did not care at all. I was thrilled. I never let the bad side get to me with her. I ignored it. We liked each other so much that we sometimes had more laughter in our relationship than anything else. We just both knew how to deal with each other. It was very special. Very unique. Over those 15 years or so, we really did become great friends.
PKM: In your book and the documentary, it’s clear that you’ve had a wide range of friends and you’ve maintained these friendships over many years both in and out of the music business.
Michael Alago: People will say to me, “How are you maintaining a relationship with Cyndi Lauper or John Lydon?” Professionally, I was always good to them, I gave sound advice and that carried over to “Do you want to go to a movie tonight” or “Do you want to go to a concert?” Being the people-lover that I am, the professional relationships carried over into personal relationships. I cherish the relationships with the people I know. So the people I love do love me, and we’ve maintained those relationships because they are important.
So I can’t take pictures of people right now … I’ll take a picture of a flower. My friends ask me, “Michael, when are we going to see you again?” I say to them, in an almost comical way, “You know that band Ministry that I love? They’re going to come to New York in April of 2121. I’ll see you at the Ministry show.”
PKM: John Lydon is in the documentary and from what he says you two have had a long friendship. Other than the time you booked PiL for that infamous show at the Ritz [ed.- read the book], did you ever work with him professionally?
Michael Alago: When I started working at Elektra, I was still in touch with John. In 1985, his contract with Virgin Records in the USA was ending and he was available to sign. Bob Krasnow was intrigued with the idea of having PiL on the label and, through a number of dinners I had with John and Bob, he was signed. John went into the recording studio with producer Bill Laswell and an all-star cast of session musicians to make the record that was to be called Album. After that album was released, there was some success with the single “Rise,” but record sales were lackluster. I thought it was absolutely brilliant to have John on the label, but when you work for a major label corporation they are only concerned with sales and the bottom line. His record deal was expensive and the “suits” in corporate thought it best to release him from his contract. Definite bummer. John, being a realist, was pissed at first but then took it in stride. When he wants to have a laugh about the whole situation, he blames me and rags on me about my devotion to Metallica over PiL. You know, through all of this we still have never had a bad word with each other. When it was time to make my documentary you see how loving he is, and then I was asked to be in his documentary, as well. I see him all over the world when he tours, and we still know how to have a great laugh with each other. Great mates we are.
PKM: One thing about your book that I loved was the detail — you talk about going to visit Robert Mapplethorpe or Patti Smith and you describe the flowers that you brought them. How did you remember that?
Michael Alago: I studied Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, and I remember that everything really had to be perfect. So whenever I brought him tulips or white Casablanca lilies I just knew they’d have to be pristine, in my hopes that he would shoot those flowers that I brought him.
PKM: You also wrote about your love for photography. In the early days, did you carry a camera with you everywhere you went?
Michael Alago: I always liked photography; I loved the stories that pictures told. I always wanted to look at people’s family photo albums and wanted to see what people looked like, what they were doing. If I was going out a lot, I would go down to the candy store or the pharmacy and get a Kodak camera, a 110, and stick it in my pocket. It wasn’t all the time, but there were certain times where I thought, Well I’m going to Max’s tonight to see Suicide, I may need to get a picture. And of course I did. I just fell in love with photography at an early age. I was going to concerts a lot, so I shot a lot of concert photography. I always carried a Polaroid camera with me because I liked the instant gratification that a Polaroid image gave you.
John, being a realist, was pissed at first but then took it in stride. When he wants to have a laugh about the whole situation, he blames me and rags on me about my devotion to Metallica over PiL. You know, through all of this we still have never had a bad word with each other.
Then fast forward a little and I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to start taking pictures and I’m going to start taking pictures of what I love’. I wanted to take photographs of men who were scarred and tattooed and burly. I thought that’s what I like, and I did that really, really well. Now I carry an iPhone in my pocket and there’s an application called hipstamatic – I shot my entire third book on the iPhone with hipstamatic. I recently put all my cameras and gear away and all I do is take pictures with the iPhone.
PKM: After you left the music business in 2004 you focused on your photography and eventually released several books of male erotica. What are you working on these days?
Michael Alago: Whenever I go out, I always shoot portraits of people. A lot of the new material I’ve been working on are backstage photographs of musicians. With my love for Robert Mapplethorpe, whenever I create a flower photograph, it’s an homage to Robert. So my work is either men or musicians or flowers, and that’s why I’ve been walking around with this very specific black and white hipstamatic faux film. I don’t have a publisher yet for this next black and white book that I want to put out, so right now I’m going through my folders and organizing all the work that I would like to see in my next book.
With my love for Robert Mapplethorpe, whenever I create a flower photograph, it’s an homage to Robert.
PKM: We’re living through a particularly difficult time right now. New York City was the epicenter of the new coronavirus this spring and back in the ’80s it was one of the epicenters of HIV/AIDS epidemic. Do you see any similarities between these two periods?
Michael Alago: Oh, very much so … both viruses came on very quickly and in the early days people were very afraid of getting the virus. In 2020 New York City, people have been afraid but I’ve found people have been almost lax, not really paying attention to our health care professionals and thinking, like a lot of people thought back in the day, ‘Oh, I can’t get this. It’s someone else’s disease.’ Back then people thought, ‘oh, it’s for gays only’. But it wasn’t just gay people — it was heterosexuals, it was I-V drug users — but it mostly started out in a big way in the gay community.
Right now, unfortunately, we’re six months into this pandemic and people are getting a little too relaxed about wearing their masks. Very quickly we’re seeing numbers in about 21 states spike because of large gatherings, clusters of people who are not paying attention because they think, ‘Oh it can’t happen to me.’ It makes me very angry. People are just being very lazy about it and saying, “I don’t have to wear that mask.” You do! I don’t care if you don’t like it. You’re protecting yourself and you’re protecting me. Until our health care professionals let us know that there’s a vaccine or a cure, I’m going to wear my mask. Sometimes it doesn’t feel comfortable, but it’s about protection. Like in the early days of HIV-AIDS, we didn’t know how quickly it could get spread.
Sometimes I could care less if I ever go outside again. I’m reading a lot of newspaper articles; I’m trying to get through a book or two; and I’m promoting my current book that’s out. I’m doing lots of interviews. I’m a person that’s always busy — I don’t know how to not be busy. So I can’t take pictures of people right now … I’ll take a picture of a flower. My friends ask me, “Michael, when are we going to see you again?” I say to them, in an almost comical way, “You know that band Ministry that I love? They’re going to come to New York in April of 2121. I’ll see you at the Ministry show.”
I do keep my physical distance because I have a compromised immune system and because half of the people are not wearing masks at all. It can affect everyone young and old, so I’m just going to do what I’m told to do. I didn’t survive full-blown AIDS in the ’90s to have this coronavirus take me out. I’m tough. So pay attention. Wash your hands. Wear a mask.
PKM: What do you consider your greatest success personally and professionally to date?
Michael Alago: My professional success is that I knew enough to sign a group like Metallica that put them on the map and that put my professional life on the map for the 25 years that I chose to work as an A&R executive.
I didn’t survive full-blown AIDS in the ’90s to have this coronavirus take me out. I’m tough. So pay attention. Wash your hands. Wear a mask.
My personal achievement is that 12 years ago I got clean and sober and that meant a new life. That meant showing up. That meant being responsible again. The most important part about getting sober was that I got to see my mom a lot in the last 12 years of her life. Prior to that I was a no-show, I lied about everything and it was always about drink and drugs. In the last 12 years of her life I would take the Amtrak, a 5-hour train ride, to Vermont to see my mom and sister. What a blessing that was because if I had still been drinking and drugging when she passed, I would have never forgiven myself. So I was there with my sister in the hospital the moment my mom passed. So being grateful that I’m clean and sober is my greatest achievement.