Who the fuck is Michael Alago?
Director Drew Stone (All Ages and The New York Hardcore Chronicles) sets out to answer that exact question in his new documentary Who the Fuck Is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago. The film details the fascinating life and career of the New York City native who signed Metallica — from his Brooklyn roots and time booking acts at East Village rock club The Ritz to his brilliant A&R work for Elektra and Geffen (where he signed artists as varied as White Zombie and Tracy Chapman), as well as his later years dealing with illness and leaving the record industry. It's a very New York story: one of wild nights, rock stars and legendary moments.
With the documentary due in select theaters July 21st and via video-on-demand July 25th, we caught up with Stone and Alago to chat about the latter's influential life behind the scenes and how he helped change the course of heavy music history.
Lars Ulrich and Alago. Photograph courtesy of Michael Alago.
Drew, how did you first hear of Michael?
DREW STONE As a teenager in the late Seventies/early Eighties, I would go out and, whether I was backstage at a club or at Madison Square Garden, I kept seeing this guy over and over again who was a little bit out of place in such a heavy and hard rock genre. Eventually I heard, "That's the guy that signed Metallica." Later on, our paths crossed when I was managing a band called Subzero who toured Europe with the reunited Misfits in 1996. I went out on that European tour and Michael was out there.
MICHAEL ALAGO And the reason that I was out there was because I just signed them to Geffen Records and they made a record called American Psycho.
STONE So I went out on the tour and I got to know Michael a bit, and eventually back in New York, we would bump into each other every now and then. When I finished the Boston hardcore documentary All Ages, Michael came to the premiere and I was really surprised to see him. When that film was over, I was thinking about what's next and I ran into him backstage at a Cro-Mags show and I walked out of there going, "You know, this guy's got a great story." And we got together after that.
Michael, what was your "aha!" moment where you decided that you wanted to work in music?
ALAGO I'm 14 years old and I live in Brooklyn. I watch Dick Clark's American Bandstand, Don Cornelius' Soul Train and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. I stand up in front of the TV all the time thinking, Wow, there are such wildly diverse artists on all of those shows ... I wanna do that! I don't know what "that" was because I didn't play an instrument, but I wanted to be part of it. Fast forward, I'm 19 years old, I walk in the East Village, I go past a place on 11th Street that was going to be opening as The Ritz. I meet this man named Jerry Brant and he's the music director there. He was like, "Kid, what are you doing here? We're not open. It's daytime." And I'm like, "I want a job." He laughed, and we started talking about all types of music from the Great American Songbook to pop music to hard rock. He thought that was very interesting that I had that kind of diverse taste and he said, "I'm gonna give you a job. You're gonna open my mail. You're gonna answer my phone, and you're gonna get my lunch." And I thought, I've arrived. It was so exciting. My first job was at a nightclub that was about to open. We had everybody there in those early days from Prince to the return of Tina Turner to Black Flag and the Misfits.
John Lydon and Alago. Photograph courtesy of Michael Alago.
The film touches on your bookings over the years at The Ritz, going into particular detail about an infamous performance by John Lydon's post-Sex Pistols band PiL, where a riot broke out. What do you think is the coolest booking that you did during your time there? Would it be that PiL booking?
ALAGO Well, I love PiL and it wasn't supposed to go that way. I guess that was cool into itself, but you know in the three years that I was at The Ritz, every night we had bands. It was extraordinary to see five nights of Tina Turner when you hadn't seen her in years. That was extraordinary. And then in the early days we booked Prince there and that was extraordinary.
STONE What about U2?
ALAGO U2 was a Sunday night, and tickets weren't selling so well. Boy on Island Records hadn't come out yet, so my default was to go to WLIR in Long Island and give the DJs 10 pairs of tickets for giveaway. By the end of the day, with the free tickets, it was a sold-out event. And that was extraordinary to see a band like that right before the first album came out. You can't buy a thing called charisma, and Bono had that onstage. It was this raw, incredible energy and something to witness because they were fabulous from that day obviously forward.
So obviously you're proud of all of these. But what about a near miss? A fish that got away that you tried to sign but did not?
ALAGO I listened to demos and I met with lawyers, managers and artists every day Monday through Friday for 24 years. At one point I wanted to sign the Cro-Mags. I would go see the Cro-Mags every and anywhere that I could. But you know, I felt it unfair to sign them, even though Elektra Records is really a cool label, but it was a major label that was part of Time Warner. It would have been unfair because I would have been the only one championing them. There was nothing else like that on Elektra, so it was something that I told the guys in the end, "I love you. I will verbally support you, but it's just not gonna be the right match." At that point in the early Eighties they needed to be on whatever independent label they wound up on, which I think was Profile.
At some point I was going to see Slayer a lot, but I had just signed Metallica. A funny story is I was also going to see Megadeth, which, you know, we never spoke about because of Metallica. And one day I brought in Killing Is My Business... and Business Is Good! to Bob Krasnow, our chairman. He thought that was the greatest title of a record he ever heard, nevermind that he couldn't care less about heavy metal. "These people have a sense of humor — when are they coming to the office?" I said, "Well, this is a little tricky because Dave [Mustaine] was in Metallica. He has his own band." I went to see the guys a bunch of times and at one point Mustaine said to me, "You know, Michael, we really have a rapport here but it would be unfair because I don't wanna live under Metallica's shadow." And that's kind of what would have happened. So everything works out for a reason. They wound up on Capitol and the next record that they made was my most favorite record, Peace Sells… But Who's Buying?
Slayer, I don't remember how that one got away, but I wound up just being so busy with the records I was making that you just can't have everything in your life.
Cliff Burton. Photograph courtesy of Michael Alago.
Obviously, signing Metallica to Elektra was a big deal, and James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Jason Newsted all appear in this film and are extremely supportive. Do you have any funny stories about Cliff Burton that you want to share from those days?
ALAGO Well, Cliff Burton was a sweetheart. Extraordinary musician. Lovely person. The day after they played Roseland, the summer of 1984, I barreled into their dressing room and bolted the door. They were like, Oh, this is what an A&R person looks like at a major label? I was hugging them and kissing them and they were like, "OK, ok." Anyway they came to the office the very next day at 75 Rockefeller Plaza, where Elektra was, and they came into the conference room and I was kidding with Cliff about his elephant bell bottoms — you know, those wide bell bottoms.
Yeah, they were really big in old photos.
ALAGO [Laughs] Oh my god, because they were almost out of fashion but perfect on him. I would tease him about that. That day he wanted to know what cassettes he could have and I said, "Do you want the Doors?" "Yes." "MC5?" "Yes." "Iggy?" "Yes." He said, "But I know that you have this label Nonesuch and they do all this esoteric music," and basically it was a lot of field recordings. The crickets were chirping, the wind was blowing, but that's what Cliff wanted. He also asked me for Simon & Garfunkel and I said, "They're on CBS, but I will gladly get it for you." Cliff and I drank a lot of beer together, laughed a lot and talked about the Misfits. When I signed them in 1984 to when he passed in September of '86, Metallica were working, in the studio or on the road, so unfortunately I didn't have too many encounters with him. But the ones that I did were very, very precious because he was just an incredible spirit.
Nina Simone was infamous for being difficult, but you two had quite a bond.
ALAGO Well, since you brought her up ... She was very difficult. She was very troubled. Any medications that she took were with a bottle of wine, and you know that the outcome after that is never what is intended. But she was the most extraordinary artist in the whole world. We were friends the last 12 years of her life. I made one album with her called A Single Woman, with a 50-piece orchestra. We modeled it after Frank Sinatra's A Man Alone and Billie Holiday's Lady in Satin. She always said, "No." I always said, "Try it out." And in the end we always met in the middle. She was extraordinary. No one could sing a Bob Dylan song or George Harrison song or Beatles song like her. You would think, Man, did she write these songs? Because she knew how to get to the heart of the matter of a song.
Alago and Nina Simone. Photograph courtesy of Michael Alago.
When was the last time you saw her?
ALAGO The last time I saw her was in London, July of 1999. I brought a dozen white roses and a bottle of champagne to her room. She was getting her hair cornrowed, and it was taking hours. She got sick and tired of everyone and she said, "Get out." Then she turned to me and said, "Would you like to take a bubble bath?" And I said, "Together?" And she says, "Yes, Michael. Why not?" I said, "Um, OK, why not, but I'm keeping on my boxer shorts." [Laughs] So we were acting like teenagers. We filled up the bubble bath, got the champagne glasses and we just hung out. And that's the last time I saw her. But what a high to end on.
In 2003, I was going to my dad's grave and something [inside me] said, "Call Nina." It was Saturday, April 20th. I called and said, "Hi," and she said, "Oh, sugar lips, how come you never married me?" I said, "Oh, honey, I don't know but I love you so much and I will be there tomorrow." She was in the south of France and I said I would travel directly to her. She said, "Well, that would be nice." And that was it. The next morning it was on CNN, "Nina Simone dead at 70." It was one of the worst days of my life. I adored her. I loved her so much. Even when she was difficult, I didn't care because I just thought the world of her.
You know, I don't think I ever had problems with artists. I think a lot of the artists that I worked with were always very focused and very clear about what they wanted to say and I think that's why I responded to people that I signed. In 25 years I maybe signed two things a year because there's a lot of good stuff out there, but good ain't great. Elektra and Geffen were major labels but acted like a boutique label. We were very specific about our signings — I was, anyway. Rob Zombie, Nina Simone, Metallica, did I say John Lydon? John Lydon, one of my near and dear friends of 36 years, never had a bad word with him.
Alago and Kurt Hammett. Photograph courtesy of Michael Alago.
The world is in a little bit better place now in terms of how gay people are treated, but I would imagine it was probably really tough for you in the Eighties being in a hypermasculine culture like punk and metal. Did you ever encounter any issues with homophobia?
ALAGO So I'm a person who has never seen a closet in their life. [Laughs] I was always out. People knew that. I made no bones about it. If I saw a handsome guy, I'd walk right up to him. I didn't care if they were straight or gay. You know, really, I have never ever had a problem with being gay in regards to dealing with Flotsam [and Jetsam], Metallica, Metal Church, Dokken, George Lynch, any of these people. Because someone in another interview said to me the other day, "Well, how did your sexuality come into play with some of these artists? Did you like them beyond the call of signings?" And I was a little mortified for one second about the question, but then I thought my sexuality had nothing to do with the music ...
I'm not talking about these bands necessarily. I'm talking about you're backstage, you're hanging out with Metallica, maybe there's a bunch of wannabe tough guys there who would be like, "Who's this dude?"
ALAGO Oh! Well, I took care of all those people. I'd be drinking and I would disarm them with a hug and a handshake and I think after that people are just going like, "Oh, OK, everything's OK, yeah yeah." You know, it's always about disarming people. I pretty much never had problems with people in my whole life hardly, unless I was really drunk. [Laughs]
Those things happened few and far between. I do vaguely remember a night being in one of the dressing rooms at The Ritz. I wanted to sign the Red Hot Chili Peppers, pre-EMI. So I'm in the dressing room, their friends are in the dressing room, the Cro-Mags are in the dressing room, and everybody had almost this tough-guy sensibility. I don't remember anyone else being gay in that room, but like I say, you disarm people with charm. And I'm a charming guy. [Laughs] It's almost like, how could anybody not respond to that? Unless you're a real asshole. And thank god I don't come across them too often. Even back in the day.
Drew, let's be fair. There are a lot of A&R guys who have great stories. What do you think makes Michael so unique?
STONE Well, I think there are a lot of elements, one of which is that it's a New York story. I'm a New York guy and I gravitate to that. But it's also the circumstances and things in his life that he had to overcome to really kind of get to where he is. I think the common theme here, and Phil Anselmo mentions it in the film, is it doesn't matter what your sexual preference is. It doesn't matter if you have drug issues or if you were touched as a kid or whatever. Music is the great equalizer and what brings people together. And that's really, you know, what it's about in a big way. Michael comes from a challenging background and later with his drug issues and health issues, he managed to get past all that. So it was a great story — one of perseverance and a love for music. It's very unique that a gay man in hard rock and heavy metal really changed the face of modern music. I mean, by signing Metallica, it basically opened the door for everybody else. They were the first. They changed pop music.