Fight the power

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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky