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The Hammer of Ahmet

In the 1970s, decades before YouTube, the 24-hour news cycle and a floodgate of social media, rock music rarely made the six o’clock TV news. Instead, rock was relegated to once-a-week late night and syndicated shows such as NBC’s The Midnight Special, and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. While Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner helped birth a print media devoted to rock in the mid-1960s, the bands themselves didn’t always reciprocate. During their heyday as Atlantic Records’ biggest act in the mid-to-late 1970s, Led Zeppelin held a near-iron lock on the profiles that music industry journalists wrote about them. Reporters for industry-themed publications such as Rolling Stone and Circus, who longed to be close to the action onboard Led Zeppelin’s Boeing 720 private touring jet, eagerly accepted press orders from the group during their 1977 tour. Those press orders demanded that "objective” journalists obey the band’s rules of engagement:

Rule 1. Never talk to anyone in the band unless they first talk to you.

Rule 1A. Do not make any sort of eye contact with [drummer] John Bonham. This is for your own safety.

Rule 2. Do not talk to [manager] Peter Grant or [road manager] Richard Cole -- for any reason.

Rule 3. Keep your cassette player turned off at all times unless conducting an interview.

Rule 4. Never ask questions about anything other than music.

Rule 5. Most importantly, understand this -- the band will read what is written about them. The band does not like the press nor do they trust them.

Thus, legends of the Zeppelin band members’ assorted dalliances with Satanism, sleeping with under-aged groupies, doing unspeakable things with mudsharks, massive substance abuse, and brutal violence remained just that until 1985, five years after the group’s demise, when rock author Stephen Davis published his best-selling biography, The Hammer of the Gods. However, as with The Godfather, and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, with its ruthless but suave Gordon Gekko character, Davis’ book also made Led Zeppelin role models for loads of aspiring rock musicians, who viewed The Hammer of the Gods as a how-to guide for obtaining the perks of rock and roll superstardom. Soon after The Hammer of the Gods’ publication, rock bands like Guns & Roses would pick up where Led Zeppelin left off, both musically, and in terms of excess and debauchery.

Meet the Record Label Head Who Signed Led Zep

Flash-forward 33 years. Dorothy Carvello’s new book, Anything for a Hit: An A&R Woman's Story of Surviving the Music Industry, is an inside look at the brutal extremes of the recording industry in the 1980s and 1990s, written from the prism of recent leftist feminist memes such as #MeToo and “Toxic Masculinity” (a phrase Carvello uses often in her book) fresh on the author’s mind. Carvello was hired by Atlantic Records’ legendary co-founder Ahmet Ertegun (1923-2006) in 1986 as the label’s first female artist and repertoire (A&R) executive. According to Carvello, she helped launch the recording careers of hard rock bands Skid Row, the short-lived Hericane Alice, and R&B singer Tara Kemp, among other artists. She was also close (at times very close) with the front man of the best-selling Australian rock group INXS, the late Michael Hutchence.

Ahmet Ertegun, who co-founded Atlantic Records in 1947, was the son of Turkey’s first ambassador to the US. Originally devoted to jazz and R&B, Atlantic’s earliest signings included Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, and Ben E. King. By the 1970s, now a division of Warner Brothers, and with plenty of cash resources to sign new acts, Ertegun’s Atlantic Records would feature on its roster some of rock music’s biggest selling groups. These included The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Yes, Bad Company, Genesis, and Phil Collins. (Atlantic’s subsidiary label Atco would carry the solo recordings of The Who’s Pete Townshend.) Ertegun was invariably portrayed in the media as a man of taste and culture. His September 1987 profile in Esquire magazine was accompanied by a photograph of the Atlantic CEO, then 64, wearing an expensive peak-lapel single breasted blue-gray hand-tailored Savile Row suit, a solid navy blue silk knit tie, paisley silk pocket square, and a white French cuffed shirt. Seated in an equally expensive hand-carved antique chair in his opulent Manhattan study and listening room, behind him are paintings by David Hockney and pioneering American modernist Patrick Henry Bruce. “And lest the room should look barren, he’s squeezed in a Johns, a Le Corbusier, and a Picasso,” the Esquire author adds, approvingly.

Clearly, Esquire wished that its primarily male readers understood that this is “a man of wealth and taste,” as Ertegun’s alter-ego Mick Jagger would say. The workaday reality, Carvello writes in her new book, revealed someone very different:

Classic Ahmet was the guy who played with himself under his desk while dictating letters to his secretary. Classic Ahmet was the guy whose nightly routine included four lines of cocaine. Classic Ahmet was the guy who couldn’t be bothered to remember people’s names—he called Jann Wenner, cofounder and publisher of Rolling Stone, “That Faggot,” not to be confused with Paul Cooper, general manager of Atlantic’s West Coast office, who was “That Fucking Faggot in L.A.”

* * * * * * *

[Late in his life, Ertegun appeared] worse for wear, blind in one eye and hobbling on two fake hips, yet he’s still the very picture of posh cosmopolitan life. He wears custom pajamas from Savile Row, velvet slippers, and a silk robe with an ascot. His apartment is littered with the works of masters like it’s the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He leans on his cane and hobbles past his Picasso, past his Degas, past his Pollock, and past his Hockney, to greet me. “Show me your pussy,” he says. “For old time’s sake.” He’s never seen my pussy. That’s just more Classic Ahmet.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, Carvello writes. In between his bouts of lechery, according to Carvello, Ertegun treated her brutally:

[Shortly after being signed to Atlantic] Skid Row had a gig at the Cat Club in the East Village to stay limber while waiting for their album release and subsequent tour. I took Ahmet to see them as a victory lap….After a few songs, I realized something was wrong with the band. [Lead singer] Sebastian [Bach] could barely squawk out the notes, the guitars jangled out of tune, and the audience went limp. Ahmet grabbed my hand and squeezed until it hurt. Then he squeezed harder, his temper winding tighter and tighter like a guitar string about to snap. The band couldn’t get it together, and Ahmet squeezed harder still, cocaine and booze fueling his rage. I was scared. He clenched my hand like a vise. Just before I thought my bones would break, Ahmet decided he’d seen enough. He lifted my arm and slammed it on the table. “This,” he growled, “is what you made me spend my fucking money on?” I was stunned. Never in my life had I experienced anything like it.

* * * * * * *

The next day bruises covered my swollen arm, so I went to the doctor. He took X-rays and found a hairline fracture in my forearm. He asked how it happened. “My boss did it,” I said. “He didn’t mean it.” The doctor, recognizing those infamous words—“He didn’t mean it”—tried to help me. He explained that I had experienced abuse and told me my options. I laughed it off. Abuse? Me? No, this was just part of my job.

I really believed it was OK. It was my fault. It was the band’s fault. It was anyone’s fault but Ahmet’s. I enabled his behavior, just like everyone else around him. That’s how the legend of Ahmet Ertegun continued. He could fracture his A&R executive’s arm and walk away without consequences.

There’s no doubt Ertegun and many of the other men who led the music industry during this period treated Carvello and other female executives and staffers brutally. And Carvello, as seen in the above quoted passage, accepts that she enabled Ertegun by not following her doctor’s suggestion. However, there is a curious omission in her book: there’s no discussion regarding her industry’s own role in both spurring these executives on, and planting the notion of “toxic masculinity” firmly in the minds of their young customers. 

“Toxic Masculinity?” You’re Soaking In It

In his best-selling 1987 book, The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom wrote:

Rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied. It artificially induces the exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavors—victory in a just war, consummated love, artistic creation, religious devotion and discovery of the truth. Without effort, without talent, without virtue, without exercise of the faculties, anyone and everyone is accorded the equal right to the enjoyment of their fruits, In my experience, students who have had a serious fling with drugs—and gotten over it—find it difficult to have enthusiasms or great expectations. It is as though the color has been drained out of their lives and they see everything in black and white. The pleasure they experienced in the beginning was so intense that they no longer look for it at the end, or as the end. They may function perfectly well, but dryly, routinely. Their energy has been sapped, and they do not expect their life's activity to produce anything but a living, whereas liberal education is supposed to encourage the belief that the good life is the pleasant life and that the best life is the most pleasant life. 1 suspect that the rock addiction, particularly in the absence of strong counterattractions, has an effect similar to that of drugs. The students will get over this music, or at least the exclusive passion for it. But they will do so in the same way Freud says that men accept the reality principle—as something harsh, grim and essentially unattractive, a mere necessity. These students will assiduously study economics or the professions and the Michael Jackson costume will slip off to reveal a Brooks Brothers suit beneath. They will want to get ahead and live comfortably. But this life is as empty and false as the one they left behind. The choice is not between quick fixes and dull calculation. This is what liberal education is meant to show them. But as long as they have the Walkman on, they cannot hear what the great tradition has to say. And, after its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find they are deaf.

20 years before Bloom’s book, the British poet Philip Larkin famously quipped:

"Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(which was rather late for me) --

Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban

And the Beatles' first LP" 

And while the Beatles have long posed as “the rock group you could take home to meet Mom,” to borrow Andrew Ferguson’s memorable line, the reality during Beatlemania was quite different, as John Lennon told Jann Wenner in 1971:

[LENNON:] The Beatles tours were like the Fellini film “Satyricon.” We had that image. Man, our tours were like something else, if you could get on our tours, you were in. They were “Satyricon,” all right.

WENNER: Would you go to a town... a hotel...

LENNON:

Wherever we went, there was always a whole scene going, we had our four separate bedrooms. We tried to keep them out of our room. Derek’s and Neil’s rooms were always full of junk and whores and who-the-fuck-knows-what, and policemen with it. “Satyricon!” We had to do something. What do you do when the pill doesn’t wear off and it’s time to go? I used to be up all night with Derek, whether there was anybody there or not, I could never sleep, such a heavy scene it was. They didn’t call them groupies then, they called it something else and if we couldn’t get groupies, we would have whores and everything, whatever was going.

Ever since the salad days of The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, hard rock, heavy metal and later rap music have been selling “toxic masculinity” in their lyrics, album covers, rock videos, onstage posing, and groupies for decades. While the movie industry could at least claim it was producing fiction, most rock music was sold as a Dionysian glamour that could be obtained by the most successful groups: private planes like Led Zeppelin’s “Starship," where unlimited amounts of booze, drugs, and willing groupies could be consumed at will, and with little or no thought to the consequences.

By the early 1980s, these images took on a whole new life via MTV, which projected them “24 hours day, in stereo” as their first motto went. “Demand your MTV” -- and live out, vicariously or otherwise, the fantasies of the rock gods and the men who financially backed them.

When Carvello joined Atlantic Records in the mid-1980s, it seems naïve that she appeared so shocked that the man who signed both Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to multimillion-dollar contracts wanted to act like he was Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on the Starship, or Mick Jagger. Like Alfred Hitchcock, a balding, overweight middle-aged film director who lived vicariously through his matinee idol stars Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Sean Connery, as Carvello writes, Ertegun saw Mick Jagger as his young, virile alter-ego:

Ahmet had signed the Rolling Stones to Atlantic in 1971. At the time, every label wanted the band, but Ahmet wanted them more: he was enamored with Mick Jagger; he wanted to be Mick Jagger; I think he even wanted to fuck Mick Jagger. Mick seemed to take priority over everyone in Ahmet’s life, even [his wife] Mica. Ahmet would carry on about Mick to the point where I thought he was in love with him. Ahmet was also an alcoholic, a drug abuser, and a sexual maniac. As it turned out, this worked in his favor with the Stones.

Apparently for Carvello, it was fine to sell the fantasies played out in innumerable rock and R&B songs to tens of millions of impressionable teenagers who bought the product she helped promote, but shocking to find them being played out daily in the ozone level of Atlantic’s management. In 1972, Jimmy Page, a devotee of Satanist Aleister Crowley, told an interviewer, “Crowley didn't have a very high opinion of women and I don't think he was wrong.” Why would she be shocked that the man who signed off on Zeppelin’s decadent lifestyle told her during a 2006 visit to his Manhattan townhouse:

After listening to him complain that he hadn’t gotten what he wanted out of life, I just turned the question back on him. I asked him why I had never found true love, why my career always seemed to stall, why men passed me over at nearly every job. His answer: “What did you expect? You’re a woman.”

How The Left Became The New Moral Majority

Despite its events occurring in the 1980s and ‘90s, Carvello’s book reads like an extended episode of cable TV’s Mad Men. That 2007-2015 series depicted the American corporate world dominated by alcohol-fueled sexism and misogyny until, as the show implies, the enlightened PC cleanup of the boomer generation made such lasciviousness magically disappear. Two years after Med Men went off the air, the #MeToo scandal would engulf much of Hollywood, revealing the series as a massive eight-year case of projection. PJM’s own Richard Fernandez of The Belmont Club observed that the Weinstein and Hollywood scandals were the torpedoes the left fired into the water to sink President Donald Trump that keep circling back on them.

Back in the 1980s, conservative organizations such as the Moral Majority, and the center-left Parents Music Resource Center, founded by Al Gore’s then-wife Tipper Gore, attacked the music industry, arguably at the peak of its power and influence over consumers. The 1981 jeremiad Are the Kids All Right? The Rock Generation and Its Hidden Death Wish (titled to cash-in on the then-recent deaths of 11 audience members before a rock concert by The Who in Cincinnati) and Allan Bloom’s bestselling 1987 title The Closing of the American Mind, with its own chapter on rock music, would similarly emerge to challenge the music industry. Reading between the lines of industry executive Dorothy Carvello’s new book can be found the successor to these earlier warnings.  And despite her best efforts, her new book might be the most conservative look at the Weimar-esque industry in decades.

We didn’t know it at the time, but Hugh Hefner’s death on September 27, 2017, was the prologue to “Pervnado,” when the Harvey Weinstein scandal engulfed seemingly all of Hollywood. In the immediate wake of Hef’s passing, Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review explored “Hugh Hefner, Gangsta Rap & The Emerging Moral Majority.” As Dougherty wrote, “Moral concerns pop up one decade in right-wing clothes, and, in the next, change into another outfit":

If you look for it, you see signs everywhere. A recent, and largely well-done, HBO documentary on the parallel careers of music producer Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre was noticeably squeamish about the details of the early 1990s “gangsta rap” scene. Conservative moral figures such as Bill Bennet and Tipper Gore were trotted out and given a perfunctory whipping for their role in trying to suppress the free expression of artists. But the subjects of the documentary showed little hints of remorse, embarrassment, or shame at their treatment of women, their friends, and the law itself. In the one truly plaintive moment, Jimmy Iovine recalls that, amid the violence between East and West Coast rappers and after Snoop Dogg’s arrest in connection with a murder, he stopped to ask himself, “Am I standing up for free speech, or was I funding Hamas?”

Of course, none of the violence or misogyny troubled the gangsta rappers enough to give back all the money they made and dedicate their lives to moral improvement and uplift. Slowly, however, the elite of our culture seem to be drifting toward a new, far-more jaundiced and suspicious view of popular culture from the 1960s to the 1990s. When I grew up in the ’80s and early ’90s, it was considered enlightened and forward-thinking for parents to allow kids to see some pretty rough stuff on TV or at the movies… It’s not hard to imagine that in the near future the new cultural and economic elite will allow themselves to conclude that people such as Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre grew rich while demoralizing and degrading the middle and working classes of the nation. It won’t necessarily be a great tent revival that did it — just a newly empowered class of people reasoning from the behavior they observe in themselves and their peers.

In the 1980s, the powerful synergy of the recording, television and film industries, and the publications that served as their PR departments such as Rolling Stone prevented earlier attacks from gaining much traction. But in 2018, with the sexual revolution having entered into its late period French Revolution phase, it will be fascinating to watch how seriously the #MeToo movement takes on the excesses of the recording industry and the product it releases to consumers. As another leftwing revolutionary asked before launching his own purge on bourgeois society, what is to be done?