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Originally published on Monday, April 12, 2004 in The Miami Herald

Veteran music exec blows another chance to do right.


Howling at the Moon: The Out-of-Control Odyssey of a Monstrous Music Mogul in an Age of Excess. Walter Yetnikoff and David Ritz. Broadway Books. 320 pages. Also available as an audio cassette, a CD, a downloadable book, an eBook and a paperback edition with a different title (to purchase, click on the title or format.)

Listening to audio versions of books is an interesting experience, especially if one must endure a long commute along our wonderful and modern highway system. For a time, I was hooked on Ed McBain's 87th Precinct and Matthew Hope novels. Some were performed by veteran actor Len Carriou, who did a creditable job conveying the droll grittiness of the author's language. But the best, the ones that I absolutely could not dislodge from the crevices of my brain even after I'd arrived at my destination, were the stories read by their creators.

Ed McBain (actually a pseudonym for ''serious'' author and screenwriter Evan Hunter) brought so much gravitas and street-toughened credibility to his descriptions and dialogue that years later, as I devoured the hardcover version of his most recent novel, The Fruminous Bandersnatch, I ''heard'' McBain's voice echoing in the canyons of my mind.

So when I was offered a set of compact discs by former CBS and Sony Music CEO Walter Yetnikoff reading an abridged version of his new memoir, I jumped, fearing the printed text might come across as too polished and unrepresentative of its subject. Yetnikoff's collaborator was David Ritz, an accomplished and award-winning author and lyricist (Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing), so I felt justified in expecting a refined iteration of the life of Walter.

Hearing Yetnikoff's gruff, guttural Brooklyn brogue dispelled these concerns -- and then some. In fact, I was struck by the casual vulgarity of his story. Descriptions of people and events that didn't necessarily enhance one's understanding of the music mogul's milieu (such as noting the age at which he'd learned to masturbate) were more repellent than compelling, especially given his long list of business accomplishments. Endless tales of drug abuse and debauchery, gleefully told, belied repeated claims of late recovery, sobriety and spirituality.

I have been around the block a few times and possess a similar background and industry experience (though at a decidedly subordinate level) to Yetnikoff's, but his litany of abuse to himself, his family and others wasn't unenlightening and not even very entertaining.

Despite my revulsion, I remained curious about his business accomplishments: a pioneering and lucrative partnership with Sony in Japan; pressing and distribution deals with smaller labels and producers; managing a diverse roster of recording artists including Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Mick Jagger, Marvin Gaye and Barbra Streisand; and a cast of colorful and ignominious music and show biz characters.

In between celebratory stories of debauchery and excess, too few business insights seeped through the main thread of Yetnikoff's narrative of his drunken, stoned and obnoxious behavior. More's the pity, as the music business he presided over is nearly gone. Yetnikoff, who joined CBS as a corporate attorney recruited by fellow legal eagle and future hit-maker Clive Davis was, in many ways, a bridge from the industry's old hucksterism to its latter corporatism and consolidation
If you have the stomach for it, you might glean a bit of information between the author's recitations of endless trysts and substance abuse. But much of this memoir is also devoted to transparent and childish settling of scores from slights, betrayals, disloyalty and more. I'm sure that Paul Simon, Michael Jackson, David Geffen, Alan Grubman and Tommy Mottola were just devastated. Not!

It's doubtful that Yetnikoff will ever get another chance to delineate his accomplishments, so he's squandered this opportunity, as he's done with so many others. What a waste.

(I also checked the hardcover edition for passages that were abridged from the audio version, but I didn't see very much of substance there, either.)

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