Fight the power

Reprise Records president defends the rights of his artists against the Right and the wrong

From the outside, it all seems to be a mishmash of names and titles that mean little to the average record buyer. But the shakeups at Warner Music Group, and the controversies ricocheting through its halls, could have a profound impact upon what you hear and buy.

Dole's election rhetoric--by his own admission, he had not heard the music or seen the films (Natural Born Killers and True Romance) before he condemned them in May--has the power to kill careers of artists.

When Ice-T's "Cop Killer" became an issue for Time Warner three years ago, causing various police groups to threaten Time Warner executives financially (boycott) and physically (death threats), Ice-T asked off the label and signed with Priority Records. One Warner Bros. source tells the Observer Ice-T wanted to make the move because he "didn't want to put Warner Bros. through" the controversy, especially the death threats. But another source at the company maintains that the rapper jumped only after he was pushed.

At Priority, Ice-T received a better royalty deal, but it didn't amount to much when Priority proved it lacked the promotional and distribution strength of Warner Bros.--meaning you can't make money off albums you don't sell. In effect, the furor killed Ice-T's career quicker than an assault weapon (the kind Dole favors legalizing). Now, he's relegated to guest-starring slots in such failed pseudo-hip Hollywood fodder as Tank Girl and Johnny Mnemonic--an already-dead target for Dole's ammunition.

Klein says that what happened to Ice-T "could happen to the likes of Trent Reznor or Madonna or any other artist."

"People I spoke to at the time said, 'You're associating yourself with a song about killing cops,'" Klein recalls. "But that's not what that song was about. But you've always got these people who are foaming at the mouth who want to go backward, not forward. I refuse to let them ruin what's great about America."

Howie Klein recalls a time when he didn't like pop music. He was a kid growing up in New York, obsessed with getting straight A's in school. His sisters would listen to the Supremes as he tried to study, and he would become more and more agitated the louder the music became. Often, he would storm into their room, snatch the vinyl from the turntable, then go outside and launch the records like Frisbees from the porch.

He did not get turned on to pop music till he went to college and fell in with the student government, which was torn between left-wing and right-wing factions. He became pals with the president of the student body, the first person Klein met with long hair.

"When I was 15, I had left home and had had a little drug run-in, brief yet positive," Klein says. "But when I got to college I didn't have any way of getting it. I didn't know how to get any more. And then I see this guy with long hair and I say, 'Oh, here's a way I can get drugs.' So I went and befriended him. Here he was, meeting his first freshman and he says, 'Why don't you run for freshman class president?' What I'm thinking is, 'Does this mean I get drugs?'"

Not long after arriving at college, the former straight-A student became instantaneously, almost inexplicably, politicized. He began protesting the Vietnam War, started booking bands like the Fuggs and other infamous protopunks for college dances. ("I ended up spending a little time in jail with them," Klein proudly recalls.) He later became chairman of the student activities board and booked the Who, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Cream, the Byrds, and the Doors; Klein would also put on the first Jimi Hendrix concert in America. For the squares, Klein brought in Simon and Garfunkel or Dave Brubeck.

"By the time I was graduating, I was having a real police problem because of the drugs," Klein says. "My whole life was a wreck because of the drugs. The war in Vietnam had affected me so tremendously that I was, like, really hating America, to the point where I felt like, if I buy something and sales tax comes out of that, I was imagining that the sales tax was used to make bombs which kill women and children in Vietnam. So it was so disturbing to me that I thought that I just had to leave the States for all those reasons."

He spent the late '60s and early '70s traveling throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa--from Morocco to France, Turkey to Bulgaria, Afghanistan to India. He was riding on the so-called "Hippie Trail" in his Volkswagen van, swimming in the Black Sea because he was in no hurry and smoking hash because it was there. He would stop using drugs on December 1, 1969, as he stood at the Indian border waiting to be waved across, and he would live in Amsterdam for three years working at a meditation center. Finally, he began to dream in Dutch, and he became convinced he was no longer an American.

As Richard Nixon was committing political suicide with Watergate, Klein began his preparations to come home, convinced the Vietnam War was going to end.

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