Over the years, Seymour Stein’s cellphone has contained the numbers of musical icons ranging from Madonna and Joey Ramone to Morrissey and Chrissie Hynde. As the piston behind the spunky American record label Sire, Stein spent years in clubs, on planes, in law offices and backstage parties discovering, talking up, sharing lines of cocaine, negotiating and promoting not only some of the biggest but some of the most influential musical acts to emerge in the latter quarter of the 20th century.
A gay Jew from a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood, the 75-year-old Stein represents a dying breed: the flashy, often Jewish, music mogul obsessed with music more than money. His journey from humble beginnings as a statistics-obsessed volunteer in the charts department of Billboard magazine to boardrooms of Warner Brothers, which bought out Sire and made him a rich man, includes characters that Quentin Tarantino might have trouble dreaming up.
They’re all chronicled, to varying degrees of satisfaction, in Siren Song: My Life in Music, Stein’s autobiography written with music journalist Gareth Murphy. There’s been little attempt to mold Stein’s idiosyncratic storytelling into conventional prose, which is both one of the book’s charms and its drawbacks. It’s like sitting in the living room with your once-famous uncle who’s getting on in years as he reminisces – with irreverent, uncensored candor – of the days when he was the kingpin. Sometimes you just want to fast-forward a little.
The early sections of the book describing Stein’s sentimental musings about his Jewish upbringing, his apprehension about coming out to his observant father and the characters from Brooklyn are from the same stuff as the rich fiction of Mordecai Richler and Philip Roth, and create a wistful sense of loss for a bygone era.
But as he writes in a slightly rocky transitional sentence about his 1955 bar mitzvah and the still-bubbling under the radar new phenomenon of rock ’n’ roll, “My voice was changing, and so was America’s.” Stein’s total surrender to the wonders of music and the record business is a perfect classroom example of the American dream coming true through determination, some good choices and a lot of luck.
While the book’s subhead – “The autobiography of America’s greatest living record man” – might be a little overblown, it’s safe to assume that popular music in the late 1970s through 1990s would have taken a lot longer to percolate without Stein’s instincts and workaholic drive. The book devotes generous sections to Stein’s warts-and-all relationships with The Ramones, Talking Heads, The Smiths and Madonna, to name a few.
“I believe in every artist or band I ever signed,” he told The Jerusalem Post
in a phone interview recently to discuss the book. “No one bats 1,000. I certainly have succeeded better than most.”
He sometimes writes with a fan’s excitement, which ultimately he was. Describing the first time he heard Talking Heads as he was standing outside New York punk haven CBGB to see The Ramones in 1975: “I was outside chatting to Lenny Kaye [Patti Smith Band] when all of a sudden I heard a warm-up band playing a strangely hypnotic air that I later found out was called ‘Love Goes to Building in a Fire.’ It was like nothing else I’d ever heard and my heart started pounding with excitement.”
Israel-centric readers will be interested to read the mention Stein’s signing of Ofra Haza, whom he calls “the Israeli pop diva of Yemenite origin, who became known as the Madonna of the Middle East.”
“Ecstatic joy is the only way to express my feelings, the first time I heard Ofra Haza’s vocals, and live, she was even better,” Stein told the Post. “She most definitely would have gone on to be a superstar of great proportions,” if not for her untimely death, he added.
Stein also drops in unexpected Yiddishkeit, describing his journey to Uman to visit the tomb of Rebbe Nahman with the son-in-law of his old Talmud Torah teacher, and explaining why “Kol Nidre” and “Hatikva” are both classic pop melodies.
Stein name-drops with the best of them. While describing life in his swanky mid-1970s Manhattan apartment, he’s unabashedly able, within a single paragraph, to include Iggy Pop rolling a joint, Andy Warhol snorting cocaine, Elton John and John Lennon sharing a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie before their historic appearance together at Madison Square Garden, and Lennon presenting Elton with a sex-enhancement toy.
Apparently, Stein was notorious in the day for being as wild – or wilder – in his personal appetites than most of the artists he signed, and he doesn’t shy away from delving into his bad habits in a matter-of-fact manner.
He doesn’t seem so adept at introspection and self-awareness, but then turns around and surprises you with astute insight like describing his deliberation when the “villain” of the book, Warner Brothers Records head Mo Austin offered him a deal to bring the independent Sire under the Warner umbrella.
“Did I have a choice? I probably did. Then again, I was 35 years old, right at that midlife showdown where the past, present and future are looking at each other like the final scene in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.”
The story gets bogged down at times in minutiae but also offers a hard look at the often obnoxious, power-hungry and backstabbing executives behind some of music industry’s biggest labels. Stein’s story has its share of strife, including health issues, a tumultuous marriage to New York cultural icon Linda Stein that produced two children despite his sexual orientation, and his ex-wife’s murder many years later.
The knocks seem to have sobered the bon vivant and likely prompted him to write his story down. But his irrepressible personality and spirit seem intact as he recounts his glory days, which are entertainingly recaptured in a manner that only a character like Seymour Stein could manage.
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