MCA CHAIRMAN LEW WASSERMAN allegedly called it “the worst publicity the company has had in 50 years.” And it’s about to get a second life.
The publicity of Wasserman’s nightmare concerned a period from roughly 1984 to 1988, specifically the media attention surrounding a failed cut-out records deal, reputed organized crime figures and a fascinating web of lies, betrayal and typically screwball record-industry accounting practices.
All of it is detailed in Bill Knoedelseder’s “Stiffed: A True Story of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia.” The HarperCollins book is set to hit stores early next month–that is, if efforts by former MCA Music topper Irving Azoff to head off publication don’t bear fruit.
Knoedelseder, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, spent the middle ’80s tracking a story that bound up MCA in a media feeding frenzy concerning its ties to reputed organized crime figure Sal Pisello. He was the broker on a soured deal involving cut-outs (records deleted from regular industry catalogs, often noted with a corner of the jacket cut out) that soon expanded to include a government investigation of independent radio promotion and eventually reached into the highest corridors of power in both the entertainment industry and Washington, D.C.
“Stiffed” tracks a load of cut-outs from MCA’s warehouse to Pennsylvania dealer John LaMonte, who winds up in a complicated deal involving the late Roulette Records president Morris Levy and a host of reputed organized crime figures including Gaetano “Corky” Vastola, Frederico “Fritzy” Giovanelli and Pisello.
Essentially, the plot involves who swindled whom. LaMonte contends that the shipment of records he received was “creamed” of its choice titles, leaving him with junk that he would be unable to sell. Levy and the reputed crime figures wind up squabbling with him and themselves, with everyone accusing each other at various points of stealing the choice titles.
LAMONTE WOUND UP in the federal witness protection program after having his jaw broken; Vastola and Pisello land in jail; and Levy, sentenced to a long prison term for conspiracy to commit extortion, died of cancer while appealing his sentence.
The book also ties the story into the government’s concurrent investigation into payola practices (involving charges that radio programmers were paid to play certain songs). That, combined with the cutout tale, put the record industry under a microscope during the mid-’80s.
While most of the book’s information has been out before, Knoedelseder contends that the overview is “a human drama set in the record business.”
The book’s hero is former U.S. attorney Marvin Rudnick, whose investigation, some contend, was short-circuited by MCA’s political clout. He was later dismissed by the Justice Dept. for alleged insubordination and failure to follow orders.
Those likely not to like being “Stiffed”: “The people at MCA and late of MCA, ” says Knoedelseder, who agrees with the assessment that the book’s biggest strength is its in-depth examination of record company accounting practices, often as complex as a VCR hookup manual. “Stiffed” makes this traditionally dry subject highly readable.
AZOFF COMES IN FOR A PARTICULAR FLOGGING. The book takes a skeptical stance on Azoff and MCA’s repeated statements that he knew nothing about Pisello’s activities inside his company. The book also suggests that Azoff and MCA instigated the government investigation into independent record promotion, hoping to divert attention from the cut-out deal.
Pierce O’Donnell, Azoff’s attorney and spokesman, said yesterday that he has sent a letter demanding that HarperCollins stop dissemination of the book’s galleys to the media so that his client has a chance to give a detailed rebuttal to certain points.
O’Donnell, co-author of the best-selling “Fatal Subtraction” and Art Buchwald’s attorney in his suit against Paramount, said the book is “filled with lies and half-truths.”
“Irving was never charged with any crime, was never the target of any grand jury investigation, contrary to the book,” O’Donnell said. “We are reserving all options, including a lawsuit. Irving will not take this lying down. He will respond and deal with this appropriately.”
Rudnick, contacted yesterday at his Pasadena law office, says he hasn’t read the book and has no immediate plans to do so. “I lived it. It was a very painful part of my life and I don’t want to relive that right now.”
An MCA spokesman said the company has no comment. But you can be sure that the last word on the affair has not been written.