Rock and Roll Book Club: Seymour Stein's 'Siren Song'

Seymour Stein's autobiography 'Siren Song.'
Seymour Stein's autobiography 'Siren Song.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

In case you don't recognize Seymour Stein's name, the cover of his book tells you why you should read it: it's "the autobiography of America's greatest living record man." In the prologue, he goes into further detail. "I'm the man who signed the Ramones, Talking Heads, Madonna, the Pretenders, the Dead Boys, the Replacements, Ice-T, Brian Wilson, k.d. lang, Lou Reed, Throwing Muses, and many more."

As Stein acknowledges, he isn't a producer like Quincy Jones or Phil Spector. He can't play an instrument, can't run a mixing board. He's an A&R man: artists and repertoire, a.k.a. talent spotting. His job is, and has always been, to find the best up-and-coming acts and ink them to record deals. Is he the greatest living practitioner of that art? Maybe or maybe not, but there's no question that he's an industry legend.

His passion for the record business manifested itself at an age when many of the artists he'd later signed were picking up their first guitars. A Brooklyn boy, he was obsessed with the charts he'd hear counted down on the radio, and when he realized they originated with a publication called Billboard, he marched down to the magazine's office and begged to just look at the charts. He said he was copying them as a project, and eventually the staff took him under their wing.

That was how Stein (born Seymour Steinbigle) met his mentor: Syd Nathan, who ran King Records out of Cincinnati. Nathan personally convinced young Seymour's parents to let him move to Ohio for a summer internship, and before the kid knew it, he was ensconced in the rough-and-tumble early-60s record biz.

These were the years when the distinction between record labels and organized crime was thin at best (some would say the situation hasn't changed). Stein was physically threatened multiple times, first on behalf of Nathan and then in his own right — for example, when he tore up a contract literally at the point of a gun wielded by the father of one of his artists who didn't feel he was being properly promoted. The singer's name was Steven Tallarico, later to become Steven Tyler.

Does Stein have any regrets over losing the future frontman of Aerosmith? He didn't really have a choice. "Life's too short," observed his business partner Richard Gottehrer, who cofounded Sire Records with Stein: the label name is an anagram of the first two letters of each partner's first name.

Early on, one of Sire's specialties was signing American rights for European artists. If Stein isn't kicking himself over Steven Tyler, he sure is over an early Sire artist who ended up being scooped by another label: Fleetwood Mac, who jumped ship just before hiring Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Then there were Jethro Tull, who Stein was ready to sign but his international partner Mike Vernon balked at. "Seymour," Vernon said, "I don't want any bands with flautists in them."

Sire really hit its stride when Stein, battling jet lag from one of his many cross-Atlantic jaunts, went down to a rehearsal space to see a band called the Ramones. Stein is of the belief that success in music is first and foremost about songcraft, and he says that's what hooked him on the punk pioneers. "Like the Beach Boys driven through a meat mincer," he remembers thinking.

The Ramones introduced Stein to the CBGB scene, where he discovered the band that would ultimately fascinate him more than any other he worked with: Talking Heads. He courted David Byrne and company for a year, and finally — with the Ramones' recommendation a decisive factor — he signed them to Sire.

Stein has worked with so many artists that he barely has time to mention most of them, let alone describe what struck him about their music. He had a long ride with the Talking Heads, though, and gave a lot of thought to their unique alchemy. He watched Byrne almost leave the band, then come back — first because his bandmates talked Eno into starting work on Remain in Light without him, and then motivated in part by the fact that Tom Tom Club's record sold much better than his own Brian Eno collaboration, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

"There was a family spirit behind Talking Heads that, I think, David thrived on rebelling against," reflects Stein.

As for Madonna, Stein discovered her when he was in a hospital bed. He was being treated for a chronic heart condition when DJ Mark Kamins, Madonna's first producer, brought her in to meet Stein. The Sire head recognized her inimitable charisma ("it's absolutely true that even when she was still a complete unknown, she filled up every room and oozed a dazzling aura") and her musical gifts, and signed her to an initial deal that cost $15,000 that he nonetheless had to twist his boss, Warner Bros. head Mo Ostin, to cough up.

It's with respect to Madonna's early career that Stein's heavy emphasis on insider baseball is most revealing. For example, he points out that producer Nile Rodgers cannily asked for a deal that gave him a tiny percentage on the first two million copies of Like a Virgin, then a big cut of everything above that. Rodgers knew what the album would do, and so did Madonna: against the advice of her producer and label head, she insisted that the title track had to be the album's first single, understanding that the branding coup was more important than the easier hit she might have had with "Material Girl."

Much of the rest of the book will be tough going for those who aren't particularly interested in the business side of music. Stein has a lot to say about his label's mistreatment by Warner Bros., and the finer points of licensing take up pages on end. Ostin gets 17 entries in the book's index, the Replacements just three — with the most substantive discussion of that band involving how they'd been influenced by Lou Reed.

More compelling for the casual reader will be Stein's frank discussion of what it's meant to be a gay man in the music industry for over half a century. Being out at first wasn't an option and then wasn't necessary, he writes, but throughout his life he's known who he was. Before marrying his longtime wife Linda, he sat her down and told her. She cried and beat her head, then married him anyway.

"Something profound happened that morning," remembers Stein about that conversation. "Two egotistical misfits realized they held the missing piece of each other's obsession." The two were married for years, raised two children together, and remained close friends until Linda's tragic murder by a swindling assistant in 2007.

(Meanwhile, in one of the book's more colorful anecdotes, Stein's gay lovers and suitors included Dee Dee Ramone — who simply strolled in one day, stripped, and laid down on Stein's bed. The executive, who prefers men with a little more meat on their bones, says he declined to act on the invitation.)

Whether or not Stein is in fact America's greatest living record man, he's probably the only record executive to have a well-known song written about him — and it wasn't even released on his own label. He tried to sign Belle & Sebastian, he says, but at the time Sire's relationship with Warner Bros. was souring and "I felt so bad about the Titanic I'd be luring them onto, I eventually let go when a hot little indie named Matador Records offered them a deal."

He says he likes the song, though. "I love the line 'It's a good day for flying,' because it really was."

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