Legendary record A&R man Michael Alago, who helped introduce the world to Metallica and worked with White Zombie, Nina Simone, Cyndi Lauper and John Lydon, talks with Todd McGovern about the release of a new documentary film about his life.
In an industry notorious for slick, fast-talking wheeler-dealers, Michael Alago is quite the exception. Unassuming, genuine and a truly sweet guy, Michael grew up as a Puerto Rican kid in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish enclave of Borough Park. By the age of 16, he was well known in Manhattan’s downtown bars and rock & roll venues. A passionate fan of all kinds of music – but a particular love of metal – Michael got his first break in the business as an assistant to Jerry Brandt, who operated The Ritz. Quickly promoted, Michael booked and promoted shows at the venue, the most notorious being Public Image, Ltd’s performance in May, 1981 that ended in a small riot.
By the age of 22, he had moved on, hired by Bob Krasnow, head of Elektra Records, as an A&R rep. Best known for signing the then unknown band, Metallica to a record deal, Michael went on to work with a wide range of artists, including Nina Simone, White Zombie, Cyndi Lauper and other successful acts.
A new documentary film, Who The F**K Is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago opens tonight, July 26 in New York City. Directed by Drew Stone (with Please Kill Me’s Gillian McCain serving as an Executive Producer), the film follows Michael’s career in the music industry and beyond, including his struggles with addiction and HIV. Currently working as an author and photographer, Michael Alago was interviewed this week by PleaseKillMe.com’s Editor-in-chief, Todd McGovern.
Todd McGovern: What is one main lesson you learned from working with some giants in the music industry – Jerry Brandt, Bob Krasnow, David Geffen?
Michael Alago: I guess I learned to be discerning in all of my signings. To pay attention and be open to all kinds of music, which I was always doing anyway.
TM: You worked – and maintained a friendship with – John Lydon of Sex Pistols and Public Image, Ltd. (PiL) fame. Not many people can claim to have done both of those things. How did you manage that?
MA: I have known Lydon since 1981 and it’s just one of those marvelous connections with another human being. We both are no nonsense with each other. We tell the truth to each other. We met in May of that year when PiL played the Ritz in NYC and a riot ensued (Ed: The band performed behind a projection screen while their records played simultaneously over the PA system). We now can have a chuckle about that after all these years. I signed John to Elektra records in 1985 and made ALBUM with him and all these session players. Elektra dropped him after that because of poor sales. According to the contract, it would have cost more to keep him than let him go and pay out the contract, so he was let go. I was disappointed and so was he, but through thick and thin we have remained friends 36 years now. I cannot recall a bad word between us. It is a friendship I cherish to this day.
TM: You represented an incredibly varied roster of artists and obviously like a wide range of music. Is there a common thread that runs through the bands and artists you’ve worked with?
MA: I think the common thread that runs through the diverse range of artists that I represented was that they were all charismatic and had definite points of view and from those points of view, had some kind of universal appeal.
TM: Can you talk about your first encounter with Metallica and what you thought was so special about them?
MA: The first real encounter, other than handing my business card to Lars in San Francisco in 1983, was when they played to a sold out crowd at Roseland in NYC in August of 1984. There was an electricity in the air that was pure magic. The band was relentless in their approach to the songs and James Hetfield, their frontman, was a wild charming charismatic ringleader on stage that knew how to work a crowd into a frenzy. The crowd loved it and so did I. These were young people who were a very focused bunch and I felt immediately that they were going to be huge. They continue to be quite the phenomena.
TM: You represented a lot of heavy metal musicians and bands. That world is notoriously macho and heterosexual. As a gay man, did you ever have a problem in navigating that world?
MA: I have never seen a closet in my entire life so as a human being, I was always open and loving and knew how to break down any walls of fear that a person might have when we met. I was always a little fresh to all the straight dudes just to break down their defenses. After a few beers, kindness and generosity and laughter were always the way.
TM: What was it like to work with Nina Simone both as an artist and a person?
MA: Nina Simone was the greatest artist ever! When she smiled, all was well with the world. But get on her bad side and the vitriol that would get spilled was frightening. We got along beautifully She knew how much love and respect I had for her and she appreciated that. Whenever we were around each other, it was a love fest. That’s not to say she was not difficult. There were many high drama stories, but much too many to tell here. You will have to read my memoir!
A fun little story was when we were in London and Nina was part of a festival called the Meltdown series. That afternoon, I visited her in her hotel while she was getting her hair braided. At some point she threw everyone out room and suggested a bubble bath, haha. I got the bubbles from the concierge and the next you know, we are in the tub drinking the champagne I brought for her. I put the 2 dozen white roses I’d also brought in a vase and we laughed and carried on. I kept my boxer shorts on…
That July of 1999 was the last time I saw Nina. We stayed in touch via our New York Aix En Provence and telephoned each other until the day before her death on April 21, 2003. One of the saddest days of my life until my mom passed recently in 2017.
TM: Will you describe working with Cyndi Lauper on her recent blues album?
MA: Memphis Blues was an absolute delight to work on with Cyndi. When she came up with the concept, we sat both sat in her kitchen on our computers eating Chinese food, researching the great artists, or we were sitting on her living room floor going through box sets of blues recordings, both on vinyl and CD.
I think our friend Josh Deutsch suggested Scott Bomar produce the record. He proved to be the right man for the job. He got all the great cats who played with Isaac Hayes and Al Green as the main band and even got Ann Peebles to sing on the record. We also snatched up Charlie Musselwhite and Allen Toussaint and the very fabulous Jonny Lang to perform. I think Cyndi and I got to Memphis a day or two before recording. We could take the trolley to the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was killed. It’s now part of the complex of the civil rights museum. We immediately met Jacqueline Smith. Jacqueline was a tenant at the hotel back in the day. To this day, she sits across from the motel to this day in protest, believing that the facility should be used for helping the poor and needy, rather than a celebration of Dr. King’s death. She also believes that this traditionally black neighborhood has been gentrified to the point that it has driven away all the blacks and poor people. All this to say, please look her up as her story is fascinating. It’s one of the many fascinating stories and people Cyndi and I met while in Memphis.
Upon its release in 2010, the record received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues album and was Number One on the Billboard blues charts for 16 weeks. I adore Cyndi. She is a super talented individual who has always been clear and focused in her in her career. I would work with her again anytime she asked.
TM: The film addresses some difficult subjects – such as your problems with addiction as well as a diagnosis of being HIV+. How hard was it to revisit these chapters of your life in such a public way?
MA: It was very hard to revisit addiction and HIV but the good part about it all is that I’ve been sober 10 years now, which is a blessing, and my HIV status is at zero without a trace of the virus in my system. I take my meds in the morning and at night and I go about my day just like everyone else. Thanks for asking.
TM: Do you see your story as a cautionary tale?
MA: Yes, I believe my story is a cautionary tale of how when you are successful in the entertainment business and you drink and drug and don’t really pay attention to your life, there can be severe consequences. It happened to me, but the beauty of it all is that at some point 10 years ago, I was sick and tired of my life and needed a change. That change for me was getting to a 12 step meeting. That changed my life and gave me a new life that is filled with love and art and music and great people. These days, I show up for my life and yours, and that means I am responsible and can be helpful to another human being.
TM: Why did you quit the music industry after 25 years?
MA: I was in the business from 1980 to around 2004-05. It was a truly adventurous time when an A&R person like myself could take chances signing artists and developing them to their full potential. That doesn’t happen anymore. There is a lot of fear in the business nowadays. Everyone is on social media, trying to find artists, looking at what their numbers are on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook. For me, that’s cold and indifferent and says nothing. You need to get down and dirty, go out and explore, and see performers live so you can make sound decisions about whether they got the right stuff or not.
Jeez..I think I had too much caffeine today, haha.
TM: Since you left the music business, you’ve had a book of photography published as well as a book of poetry. What do you want the next chapter of your life to be?
MA: My health is always the priority, navigating all the little things and big things that can happen when you have a compromised immune system. All that is to say I am also looking to find and develop new bands. I am working on a book of poems and stories tentatively titled Encounter. As for my photography, I am currently working with a designer to release a book of my erotic Polaroids in 2018.
TM: How did you like being the subject of a documentary and watching various versions of it?
MA: I loved being the subject of a documentary. The ego takes over and I just had fun with it. Watching various versions of it over the course of 4 years got a bit tedious, but Director Drew Stone did his very best work and here we are. As a matter of fact, the film has just been released on Amazon and iTunes.
TM: I hear you love to travel. Where to next?
MA: I have no plans at the moment but perhaps Provincetown this summer and if I have some money in my pocket, back to London and Paris.