Music

What Do Madonna, Ice-T, and the Ramones Have in Common?

“Siren Song: My Life in Music” explores Seymour Stein’s wild ride through the record industry

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You can read a lot of record executives’ memoirs and, between the boasting and humblebragging and score settling, the usual courses through which the genre hops, you’ll have a hard time finding much that feels like real passion for music. Making hits, achieving success, counting awards, sure — but music itself, less so. Of course: The music industry hardens people. Even the likes of the late Warner Bros. PR genius Stan Cornyn (2003’s Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group) or Nirvana manager turned Atlantic Records president Danny Goldberg (2009’s Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business), two of the biz’s sharpest observers and most eager fans, couldn’t quite overcome the format’s limitations — both clearly loved music itself, but by each book’s end the spark had dissipated, whether via disappearing into minutiae, à la Cornyn, or blanding out some, à la Goldberg.

This happens as well with Siren Song: My Life in Music, the new memoir of Sire Records founder Seymour Stein, who signed the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Madonna to his label, as well as being a founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee. But it’s equally clear that Stein cares more about music than anything else. That’s a reason the book’s finale retreats to earth — he’s accounting for the costs of that fanaticism: not only a failed marriage to Linda Stein, who became the Ramones’ co-manager with Danny Fields (and was brutally murdered in October 2007 by an assistant who’d been skimming money from her), but also guilt over his admittedly absent fatherhood and the grief he felt at the death of his elder daughter, Samantha. Not to mention Stein’s own frequent hospital visits (heart problems exacerbated by his prodigious cocaine use) and his own lack of foresight to the costs of doing business with Warner Bros. — a great office overlooking Rockefeller Center, but a diminished stake in his own company, which would be folded into Elektra during Warners’ Nineties merger mania before being unfolded back into a freestanding label.

If the downfall of most music-biz books is keeping the suits straight, Stein sidesteps that neatly; his portraits of his colleagues, in and out of Warner Bros., are indelible. His co-writer likely contributed as well: the Irish music journalist Gareth Murphy, author of 2014’s Cowboys and Indies, a lively if occasionally shaky record-biz history, whose broad strokes match well with Stein’s sure-footed historical grasp and crisp phrasing.

Seymour Steinbigle grew up in postwar Brooklyn, a melting pot where, he notes, “Going to university was not what people did or expected of their children.” Like many city kids of the time, he became an ardent fan of R&B — which, even before Elvis, was a “fast-growing craze among white teenagers.” A rabid follower of the charts, teenaged Seymour finagled his way into the Billboard office, copying out charts by hand and eventually finding himself interning for Syd Nathan, the imperious founder of King Records — one of the greatest postwar indies, with equally important rosters of country (Moon Mullican, the Delmore Brothers, Hank Penny) and R&B (Wynonie Harris, the “5” Royales, Little Willie John) before signing James Brown — who insisted the kid lop off half his surname.

Stein also gives it up for David Geffen, whom he calls “the smartest record boss of us all,” singling him out for praise for having paid for the funerals of so many AIDS victims: “For this alone, I will not tolerate a bad word about David Geffen.” He’s a lot meaner, and funnier, about Clive Davis, who joins the table of Stein and his boss, Mo Ostin, one morning for breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Davis claims with a straight face that his label, Arista, won’t release a Barry Manilow best-of because, since he had chosen the singles, “it should really be called Clive Davis’s Greatest Hits.” In response, Stein reports that “a muscular spasm in my left leg kicked Mo under the table”; showing the subsequent bruise, Ostin admonished him, “Look what you just did to me!” after Davis went to take a phone call.

Stein was born April 18, 1942, and grew up “on Dahill Road, just off King’s Highway near a predominantly Syrian corner of Bensonhurst that was otherwise Brooklyn’s Little Italy,” he writes.  His parents had him at comparatively late ages for the era, she 36, he 41; the family was in the grocery business, with one great-uncle a successful olive oil importer. His father was Orthodox, but lenient; they left Seymour to his obsessions: “collecting stamps, bottle caps, and trading cards, anything interesting and flashy.”

Growing up, Stein knew he was gay but wasn’t entirely sure what to do about it; he knew, like so many of the people he’d come to know, that “the coolest thing about me was my record collection.” Though Stein is quite comfortable with his sexuality, he retains an unfashionable discreetness about it, with no qualms about having never come out to his parents: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think we become more enlightened by kissing on subways or by talking the life out of our quirks and kinks.” In one of the book’s clear money stories, he’s not merely discomfited by the sexual advances of Dee Dee Ramone — who waltzed into Stein’s apartment after Linda had left and displayed himself, ready to go — but caustic about it: “For a prostitute, Dee Dee obviously hadn’t progressed very far up from public toilets.”

Stein founded Sire in 1966 with producer-writer (and occasional performer, as with the Strangeloves of “I Want Candy” fame) Richard Gottehrer, initially the company’s in-house producer and A&R man. Sire’s early releases were primarily imported British blues-rock; Stein scored his first major hit with Dutch prog-rockers Focus’s “Hocus Pocus,” which went top ten in 1973. Another early British signing, Climax Blues Band, went to number three (thanks in part to some grease, as Stein notes) with “Couldn’t Get It Right” in 1977. That success helped to finance Sire’s signing up many of the mid-Seventies bands playing downtown.

It’s refreshing to read such a clear-eyed account of the CBGB’s era, even one written from a Midtown office. In the fall of 1977, Sire released debuts from Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids along with the third Ramones album, Rocket to Russia, through a new deal Stein had made with Warner Bros. Initially, Sire was looking for distribution; Mo Ostin instead suggested a partnership. For Warner Bros., Stein surmised, getting on the New York punk train was “a way to get hip and to do it pretty damn quickly.” Warned of Ostin’s Machiavellian ways, Stein nevertheless entered into what he’d later term as “about as joint a venture as a whale swallowing a fish” with Warner Bros., reveling for a few years in near-unlimited power to sign whatever he wanted.

Stein’s attitude was simple: Get there first or don’t bother. “I thought bidding wars were pointless,” he writes. “Why waste a pile of money on one act when half as much money could get three up and running?” That philosophy put Sire near the top of independent rock at the turn of the Eighties, as Seymour found gold in artists like Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths, and the Cult. It helped that Stein was nearly alone in going after these prime post-punk and alternative acts: “The weird thing about the early-to-mid-Eighties was how unadventurous nearly all the American majors had remained,” he writes. But Stein certainly noticed when Ostin stole the B-52’s right out from under him, the band’s manager mollifying Stein by insisting the Sire label go on the LP anyway.

As any A&R person would, Stein spends an entire chapter detailing his biggest catch ever — “the record man’s equivalent of Florence Nightingale,” as he describes Madonna, walking into his hospital room shortly after his open-heart surgery. Stein’s initial interest was in her producer, Mark Kamins, a Danceteria DJ he admired: “He already had a sound.” Kamins brought Madonna the evening Stein heard the cassette: “I told her you were sick, but she really wants this,” he explains to Stein, who asks the nurse to “send me in a hairdresser as quickly as you can. … Of course, Madonna took one look at the tube stuck into my skin and squirmed.” Though he was impressed with her forthrightness, Stein writes, “there was no reason to believe I was looking at a female Elvis.” Indeed, Ostin refused to sign off on Madonna, figuring her music, Stein writes, as “a downtown dance experiment … pointless twelve-inch bullshit.” Stein quickly learned better: “Madonna was always the smartest person in the room, even when she wasn’t physically there.”

In Stein’s life, the highest moments invoke the true fellowship music can bring. He doesn’t puff up his signees’ talent, instead highlighting great moments like a fan: Writing about the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang,” he pinpoints its opening line, “I found a picture of you,” as its center: “Isn’t that how bereavement feels?” Stein takes pride in his place on the committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; with honorable candor, he dubs the latter “some kind of mausoleum for our own community.”

One of Siren Song‘s most indelible moments comes when Stein is trying to sign Ice-T to his label. Accompanied by his manager, the L.A. gangsta rap pioneer and actor sits in Stein’s office and asks the old record man straight out why Seymour wants him. Stein’s inspired answer is to play him the Mighty Sparrow’s calypso classic “Jean and Dinah,” about Trinidadian prostitutes left without work in the wake of the island’s U.S. military bases closing. A bawdy social satire, this song sounded absolutely nothing like the records Ice-T had already made or would make for Sire, but was totally on target as an assessment of the kind of public truth-telling role Stein saw in his gangsta rap. “I want to sign with you!” Ice-T exclaimed. Who wouldn’t?

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