Fight the power

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

At the end of a two-hour interview, during which he has amiably recounted a story of a life spent traveling the world only to end up becoming the man who cuts the paychecks for Neil Young and Green Day and Eric Clapton, Reprise Records president Howie Klein suddenly becomes very still but very agitated. Klein, who had been reclining in his couch in his Mansion hotel room during a trip to Dallas to see Mudhoney and Filter perform, sits upright when the names Bob Dole and Bill Bennett are mentioned.

For the past several weeks, Klein--the president of one of the most respected and profitable record labels in the country--has heard the harsh words of Senate Majority Leader Dole and Bennett, former Secretary of Education and drug czar under Ronald Reagan. Bennett has referred to shareholders in Time Warner, Reprise Records' parent company, as "morally disabled." In May, Dole accused Time Warner of unleashing "nightmares of depravity" upon the country and "marketing evil" and "putting profit ahead of common decency." All the while, Klein has remained quiet, respecting the company's edict not to comment to the media.

But Klein can't stay silent any longer. He's troubled that Time Warner has done little, if anything, to defend the rights of the very artists Klein has dedicated his life toward protecting and celebrating.

And so Klein becomes the first Warner Music Group employee to speak out against Dole and Bennett and other politicians who would blame music for societal ills.

"We have been unsuccessful in defending ourselves and the principles of free speech for artists," he says. "Time Warner won't fight. I'm not even allowed to speak about it. "But I'm sick of just sitting around, waiting for someone to explain to people what the First Amendment means. It seems shocking to me, just shocking, that these right-wingers will defend the rights of someone like [G. Gordon] Liddy, who tells his radio audience how to kill federal agents, but I can't defend the rights of my artists."

As he speaks, Klein never raises his voice and never shakes his fist. He is calm, but he will say he is also frightened. He was at Warner Bros. Records three years ago when Ice-T came under fire for the song "Cop Killer," and Klein saw how threats of boycotts and pressure from the right killed the rap star's career; he is concerned that it will happen again to some other musician--maybe even dozens.

"I don't want to say that William Bennett is a Nazi," Klein says. "Nazi is a really horrible thing, it's a very specific thing. However, the kind of small-minded bigotry and self-centered viciousness that engendered Nazism in Germany in the '30s is not dissimilar to the William Bennetts of the world today. That's not to say that he's a Nazi. That's just to say that he's coming from a similar place.

"My ancestors were Jewish, and when I think about book burners, I know they start burning books and the next thing they do is start burning Jews. It's a historical thing. So I'm very sensitive to it. You know, the Germans were extremely cultured people. They were the people who had been the progenitors of Goethe, of Wagner, of lots of great literature, a lot of great music--certainly very, very cultured, educated people. And then you look at someone like Bill Bennett, and you look at him and he doesn't look like some Ku Klux Klan redneck. He seems like he's a very cultured man.

"But he's just like them. He is nothing more than a book burner, a fascist. He is a very, very dangerous man and a very, very mistaken man driven by evil and base instincts. And I'm very, very frightened of him. He is truly the worst of America. And Bob Dole is a craven politician who will do anything to get ahead in his own career. He stands for nothing, he means nothing except career advancement."

Klein's words are not the empty rantings of a man who stands to gain from discrediting the right wing. Actually, the former journalist (he founded and edited New Wave magazine in the late '70s) is an unabashed and self-proclaimed "intensely patriotic American" who left the U.S. during the late '60s only to return several years later after he discovered he loved America "as strongly as I had hated it."

Moreover, Klein's remarks come at a time when Warner Music Group--the parent organization to Warner Bros. Records, which boasts such artists as Madonna and R.E.M., and Reprise Records, home to Randy Newman and Depeche Mode and Morrissey--is undergoing dramatic turmoil and suffering an identity crisis. Just two weeks ago, Warner Music U.S. chairman and chief executive officer Doug Morris--notoriously a champion of musicians--was fired by newly appointed Warner Music chairman Michael Fuchs, a man driven by the dollar. Fuchs blamed it on infighting between the two men; industry insiders declared it a case of commerce triumphing over art.

The latest rumblings through the Warner Music Group have raised questions about the stability of the world's largest record label. Morris' firing, which company executives insist has nothing to do with the Dole controversy, and the renewed attacks from the right come only months after Mo Ostin, the legendary head of Warner Bros. Records, and Lenny Waronker, among the most respected men in the music business, left the label after a bitter power struggle with Robert Morgado--who was ousted from his post as chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group on May 3, replaced by Fuchs (who is also the chairman of HBO). And earlier last year, Sire Records president Seymour Stein--who brought Klein to Warner Bros. eight years ago--departed for Elektra Records, taking his label's name and a few artists with him.

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.

"I came back to the United States loving it as strongly as I had hated it--loving it not because I was born there, but loving it because I had gone to other places and seen what they were like and seeing what was good about them and what wasn't good about them," Klein says. "And in the end, I felt like I was choosing America, choosing the United States because I felt that it was the best. And I've always felt that since.

"That was a really important thing for me, to realize that I was an intensely patriotic American. I never personally burned a flag, but I had certainly a spiritual bent of a flag-burner and thought that America was the worst place in the world. And here I was coming back, absolutely positive that America was the best place in the world and not to ever be discouraged by the fact that sometimes there were evil tendencies within America or not to worry if there was some kind of proto-right-wing semi-takeovers of America.

"In my heart, I know that America is a great place, and certainly the place for me. And even if things aren't exactly right, even if you've got the quality of someone like Newt Gingrich in power, it's still a great country and it will right itself in a way that other countries maybe can't."

Klein came back to America and found he had lost his taste for pop music; at the time, in the mid-'70s, bands like Styx and Journey and REO Speedwagon were rising toward popularity, and Klein could find nothing in the music he liked. But a friend named Danny Fields, who managed the MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges, took Klein--against his will--to CBGB's in Manhattan to see the Ramones. The experience turned Klein around once more, and he became enamored of artists like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television, and Patti Smith.

Some friends in Blue Oyster Cult suggested Klein move to San Francisco, and he began writing for Bam and Creem magazines. He also began disc jockeying in a country bar, and soon he was writing for Country Music Magazine with the likes of Nick Tosches and Chet Flippo. Klein still has a picture of himself wearing a cowboy hat, interviewing the Ramones.

"I was sort of championing the outlaw music of the time in country--Willie [Nelson], Waylon [Jennings], Tompall Glaser," Klein says. "And at the same time, it was kind of a very confused thing. To me, it was all outlaw music, whether it was the Ramones, Patti, Richard Hell, or if it was Waylon and Willie. It was all outlaw music, and I like that."

Klein eventually drifted toward the burgeoning new-wave scene and began directing the first "alternative" radio show in America at KSAN-FM in San Francisco. He became involved with bands like the Nuns and Pearl Harbor and the Explosions; eventually, he would release their albums on his own independent label, each selling better than the next.

The first band he signed to an actual contract was Romeo Void; their debut release on Klein's new label, 415 Records, was In a Condition in 1981, followed the next year by the Ric Ocasek-produced Never Say Never EP in 1982. The success of the EP's title song led to a deal between 415 and Columbia Records, which Klein would later regret. Subsequent signings to 415 included Translator ("Everywhere That I'm Not") and Red Rockers.

"I ended up doing a deal with Columbia Records, which is the most corporate of all of the labels," Klein says. "I thought that was funny to go all the way. As long as you were going to do it, might as well do it with the worst of the lot. But after a while, that really got to me.

"I learned a lot of lessons from that because, basically, the corporate culture there was not a culture that nurtured artists nor employees. It was a very insidious situation I got myself in. Every time I put out a record, I felt like I was taking off a year from my life. All the bands I signed, I knew them all. I knew the people who were in the band, I knew their parents, their girlfriends and boyfriends, and they were part of my life. And then, suddenly, we would take this music, which was their soul, and I would be the one feeding it to this unfeeling, uncaring machine that didn't care at all."

Just as Klein was preparing to pack his bags and head for Thailand in 1987, his friend Seymour Stein called and offered him a job at Sire Records; together, Klein and Stein worked with such artists as Madonna, Depeche Mode, Lou Reed, and Morrissey. A year later, Klein was named a vice president at Warner Bros., in addition to his duties at Sire, and he became fast friends with men like Mo Ostin, the chairman of Warner Music, and president Lenny Waronker (who had discovered the likes of Randy Newman). Klein describes them both as "truly, truly great men."

They taught Klein to respect the artist, to treat musicians with dignity and support their every decision. Such tenants were what brought a band like R.E.M. to Warner Bros.--and what almost caused them to leave when Ostin was forced out and Waronker followed behind him last year.

"I was very, very upset when they left," Klein says. "I mean, I worshipped them. So I was very, very upset by it." When asked if he considered leaving behind them, he says, "Absolutely--very, very seriously."

But when new Warner Music chairman Danny Goldberg offered Klein the job of head of Reprise Records, the label Frank Sinatra started in the '60s, Klein decided after much consideration to stay. He says he was "awed" by the talent on the label-- including Paul Westerberg, Belly, Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, Enya, Wilco, Rickie Lee Jones, the Cult, and the Chairman of the Board himself--but that "I wanted to stay with the artists that I worked with and the people that I worked with more than anything."

"I do remember the first time Neil Young called me, my secretary yelled in, 'Howie, it's Neil Young,'" he recalls. "I said, 'Oh, sure, sure.' Like Neil Young's going to call me. So I picked up the phone and said, 'Hello.' And he said, 'Hi, it's me, Neil.' And I thought it was our local promotion guy from Boston. So Neil's talking to me and I'm thinking he's just making fun of me and it's really Andrew. And I'm responding as if it was Andrew. It's so embarrassing. I couldn't imagine Neil calling me. It was too much to imagine."

Klein is regarded by his employees, from publicists to artists, as one of the best bosses anyone could have. He wields tremendous power at Warner Music and often acts as a one-man publicity-A&R-promotions department, bringing talent to the label and then ensuring its happiness once signed. His trip to Dallas to hear Mudhoney and Filter at Trees two weeks ago highlights his commitment to his artists. Klein withstood two nights inside the packed, sweltering club--and was actually whacked on the nose by a banister that had fallen from a railing above him, which left a red mark on his nose--to lend support to two bands that are not among Reprise's elite.

He will often let a band pick its own singles, sometimes against his better judgment (as in the case of Belly); he will not order an artist to resequence an album if he thinks it's unsellable. Klein, who speaks about music with the passion of a fan and the conviction of a friend, is committed to the antiquated notion of "total artistic control," for better or worse.

"I have a responsibility now, which I take very, very seriously to the shareholders of Time Warner," Klein says. "These are the people I work for. They invest their money and they expect a return, and I feel it's my job to help them get that return. But there's a short-term way to do it and a long-term way to do it.

"I believe the people who invest in Time Warner who paid approximately $40 a share are in it for the long run. And if they aren't, they shouldn't be. They're not in it for quick turnover. Our job is to build artists, to provide them with a safe home, to nurture them, in every way enable them to let their art come out. And that means not going for the quick, easy buck...

"For example, I think [the new Neil Young-Pearl Jam album] Mirror Ball is going to sell a lot of records. That's my judgment, but we'll see. But second of all, I know that when I listen to songs on that record, tears come to my eyes. I know that I'm spiritually uplifted from listening to this record, that there are songs on this record that make me think--that bring me inside to make me think, that bring me outside and make me think. I feel that Neil has achieved an amazing, amazing record, that what Neil has done is a valuable thing to our culture. And I have a job now, which is to disseminate that to as many people as I can. It's like a crusade.

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