Walter‘Heshie’ saved Walter from sex, drugs & rock ’n’ Roll
Jewish Telegraph, March 2004
WALTER Yetnikoff admits that he’s only alive by the ‘‘grace of Heshie’’.
Throughout the 1980s, Yetnikoff ruled the music business as the head of CBS Records. But his success had a price — he was an alcoholic, drug-taking womaniser.
He chronicles his rise and fall in Howling At The Moon: Confessions of a Music Mogul in an Age of Excess (Abacus, £12.99), a brutal honest and entertaining account of a man ready to self-destruct.
‘‘The genesis of the project was in 1988 when I met Jackie Kennedy,’’ Walter says. He describes the incident in great sexual detail in the opening chapter of his book. But the deal fell through because he was going through detox.
‘‘A few years ago I ran into the writer David Ritz and he was keen to write the book with me, but my girlfriend at the time told him I wasn’t sober enough.
‘‘I thought the time to do it was now. I re-ran into Ritz and we got an offer from Random House. It’s not a kiss and tell book, it’s more about hope and redemption.
‘‘I approached it using the ethics of my Jewish grandmother — and maybe make a few bucks out of it.’’
He adds: ‘‘I used to threaten people that if they didn’t behave, I’d put them in the book.’’
Yetnikoff was born in Brooklyn in 1933 to Max and Bella. He began his career as a junior lawyer at CBS in 1961 — and his rise to power was rapid.
As head of CBS, Walter was in charge of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand. But on the downside he became heavily dependent on drugs and drink, while his marriage to wife June was soon in trouble as Walter found it hard to say no to other women.
‘‘It wasn’t the money, drugs, drink, music or sex, it was all about the power,’’ he said. ‘‘The ultimate goal was a power drive. Money was part of the culture but it wasn’t the motivation. But power is just an illusion; none of us has real power.
‘‘I came around to my grandmother’s way of thinking. On her death bed, she said, ‘I have lived a spiritual life and lived by rules. I’m going to the arms of my father in heaven’. And then she died.
‘‘I miss the excitement of the business, not the power.’’
Walter was given a sudden wake up call when he was told he had three months to live. His wild lifestyle had badly damaged his liver.
‘‘I sat there as Dr Covit explained liver function and dysfunction and why mine was pickled. Of course I knew why. My brain had known for a long time. But my brain had buried that information because the rest of me wanted booze and blow (drugs),’’ Walter writes in Howling At The Moon.
‘‘I’d thought of giving up blow, but not booze. Booze was the soul and substance of who I was. It gave me courage. It was the only way I could cope. I never considered living without it. Until now. Now my doctor had gotten my attention with one small word: death.’’
He told me: ‘‘I knew I was getting sick and I couldn’t keep it up, but I didn’t think about that. I realised though that I had to join the human race.
‘‘I didn’t hear the voice of God, but I heard voices telling me not to do it, but I ignored them until I was forced to pay attention.’’
When the subject of film director Don Simpson — who died on the toilet — comes up, Walter admitted: ‘‘I passed out many times whilst on the toilet and wouldn’t be found until the next day.
‘‘I believe that I am only here by the grace of God. Well, I’m alive today by the grace of something other than myself. I’m lucky to have been able to change my karma and do something for other people. I’ve been given a gift.’’
Throughout the book, Yetnikoff refers to God as Heshie. He writes: ‘‘I started calling God Heshie. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe because Heshie is a familiar Jewish name that I could easily say.
‘‘When a rabbi pointed out to me that perhaps I wanted to say Hashem, I wondered whether my unconscious was playing games with me. Either way I was trying to connect.’’
Yetnikoff may sound like he lived a selfish life dominated by his vices, but he was a major supporter of Soviet Jewish refusniks. He recounts in Howling At The Moon of a visit to a Jewish family in Moscow in 1987 during a trip there for a Billy Joel concert.
‘‘I was asked to visit a refusnik family by the American Committee for Soviet Jewry,’’ he told me. ‘‘We couldn’t really do much for them but it was to let them know they hadn’t been forgotten.’’
Despite the shocking stories of suffering he heard, the experience did not curtail Walter’s wild ways.
Yatnikoff was also a supporter of the United Jewish Appeal and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.
Things almost turned nasty with the Wiesenthal Centre in 1989 when Professor Griff of rap group Public Enemy told the Washington Times that Jews were responsible for the ‘‘majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe’’.
He recalls in his book how his second-in-command Tommy Mottola broke the news to him, saying: ‘‘The Jews are unhappy.’’
Walter writes: ‘‘My first instinct was to can Public Enemy and throw Griff in the East River. But that wouldn’t work. Their It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, a brilliant work, sold millions and their new one, Welcome To The Terrordome, was poised to sell even more.
‘‘I had a responsibility to CBS shareholders. I was a responsible guy. But this was Tommy’s problem.’’
Walter told me: ‘‘I wrote a memo about censorship at the time, saying that I believed in free speech but that he couldn’t get away with saying things like that.’’
When I asked if he treated his Jewish stars differently, Walter joked: ‘‘I treated everyone equally badly. ’’
Yetnikoff believes that he wouldn’t have made it in the music business today. He said: ‘‘It’s too corporate for me now. I’m like a child and want to be noticed. Music has become very boring.
‘‘No one tries anything new and the record companies don’t have the vaguest idea how to deal with the internet.
‘‘They are afraid to take chances. A lot of talent is being left by the wayside.’’
While there has been talk of turning Howling at the Moon into a film, no one has approached Walter with an offer. He said: ‘‘I’d like a young Robert Mitchum or Gary Cooper to play me.
‘‘The current crop of young actors are very wimpy. I don’t want Tom Schmooze.’’
Since leaving CBS, Walter has been counselling fellow addicts and recently joined the New York board of the Caron Foundation, an addiction treatment facility.