How does a gay Puerto Rican kid from a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn end up booking legendary shows at the Ritz and signing Metallica? That’s the question tackled in Drew Stone’s “Who the Fuck Is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago,” a 2017 documentary that’s streaming on Netflix right now. Alago, now an author and photographer, left the music business in 2004, but he’s just published a book about his life and work, “I Am Michael Alago: Breathing Music. Signing Metallica. Beating Death.”
He joins actor and Arkansas native Ashlie Atkinson (“BlacKkKlansman,” “Mr. Robot”), music journalist Laina Dawes and “Little Punk People” host Elliott Fullam on the lineup of hosts for this year’s Mutants of the Monster festival. Tune in to the Arkansas Times’ YouTube page Aug. 28-30 for performances from the likes of The Body, Redbait, Reserving Dirtnaps, Dorthia Cottrell (of Windhand), Suplecs, -16-, Hull and more. There are no tickets/paywalls for the event. Instead, set aside some funds to support the performing bands, and for Intransitive’s Brayla Stone microgrants and El Zocalo Immigrant Resource Center, two organizations for which Mutants of the Monster 2020 is raising funds and awareness. I spoke to Alago from his landline in New York City ahead of the festival.
Wow, you have a landline! That’s amazing.
I’m gonna give you the short story. So two years ago, my 94-year-old mother died. She would always say, “Michael, you’re never home!” And I’d say, “Ma, don’t you remember I taped my cell phone number to the side of your table where your phone is?”
“I’m not callin’ any number I don’t know!”
And I’d say, “Ma, if you’d call the cell number, you’d always get me.” And she’d say, “Michael Anthony, do you want me to call you or not?” So I figure, am I gonna argue with a 94-year-old woman? No. That’s why I kept my number all this time. And even though she passed away, it’s like, I don’t know, I just can’t give it up.
The first thing I wonder is whether perhaps listening to that train go by in your railroad apartment prepared you for a lifetime of listening to very loud music.
[Laughs] I never thought about it like that! I just always knew at a very young age that I loved a wide variety of music, but I never thought of the correlation between the heavy metal and the elevated train. But you know, I slept through all of that. I had a little narrow bedroom so I could lean over on my bed and turn the volume up on the TV, because I didn’t want to miss anything.
People are very quick to point out, and maybe they’re right, that the hard rock community has a homophobe problem, and that they’re surprised when this gay Puerto Rican kid is running the heavy metal bands of a particular era — Metallica, for example. But you just blazed right past that with your personality. You made it seem easy, and I wonder if, for you, it was actually that easy to just be yourself.
Yes, it was that easy. For some reason, I had this bravado where I didn’t care what you thought about me. You were either going to like me or not, and I have always been a people person, a friendly person, and outgoing person. … The sexuality part I never thought was important. It was just, this is who I am.
There’s one point in the documentary where you’re talking about White Zombie and you’re talking about how you didn’t even hear songs, but there was this energy. You left the music industry in 2004, and I wonder to what degree you keep up with new music coming out. What sort of music excites you now?
I’ve always liked all types of music, from Nina Simone to Metallica. I still love heavy music. Two years ago, a little band out of South Florida named Ether Coven came into my world, and I loved how heavy and brutal and majestic their music was. They have a new record out called “Everything Is Temporary Except Suffering.” I’ve been listening to Billie Holiday again. I love this band called GosT, from Texas. I love Ministry. There’s a New York band called Black Anvil, I love both of their albums on Relapse. Venom Inc. is a heavy band that I love. The latest Swans album! So my love for heavy music didn’t change at all when I left the music business. What happened was I started listening to music as a fan again. I always approached music from a fan point of view, even when I had my “A&R ears” on, but I had to be more discerning about what I was going to bring into my life as a professional. And I heard a lot of good things over the years, but good ain’t great. I knew I could only work with great people.
Right. There’s a point in this film where Johnny Rotten says that you are one of very few people who he’s never heard lie about anything. And that struck me as something very unusual to say about an A&R executive at a record company, who are not necessarily known for being upfront with people. How did you tell a band that they were good, but not great?
I just always told the truth. If somebody was good but not great, and they wanted me to sign them, I’d say, “This is just my opinion. If you’re dedicated to your craft, and you want to do this for your life, good luck. It’s only gonna take one person to say yes to you. Unfortunately, I’m not that person.” I never wanted to wreck anybody’s dream, but you gotta be honest with people. And they’re gonna do what they want to do in the end, anyway!
I love that. It’s a form of respect, being able to say no in that way.
Do you remember the first T-shirt you ever owned with a band’s name on the front?
That’s so funny! No, but I did find a very early photograph of me sitting at my mom’s kitchen table in Brooklyn, and somebody must have taken the picture with a really bad camera, because it’s fuzzy, and I have these hot pants on — these really short shorts — and a maroon David Bowie T-shirt on. So it was maybe 1973 or 1974?
One thing I love is that you — before Facebook and social media — were keeping journals, even from a very early age, doing what a lot of people do now on social media. Do you worry that the way we’re communicating now has taken away some of the magic, like the kind you experienced in New York in the ’80s, or is it just in a different form?
It’s in a different form. A&R people don’t go out every night like I used to; they can find a video on YouTube. But for me, A&R was seeing someone live, to see what they looked like on stage, to see if they had any charisma about them, to talk to them, to see if their material has universal appeal. Marketing records before the internet, before all this insane social media, it was almost a cut-and-paste affair. Bands would go out with flyers, and if you were a metal band, you would usually have a cassette that you’d share with everybody else by word of mouth, and records took a lot longer to promote. These days, everything is so immediate, and I think that’s partially great, because you get to hear things quicker. But still, with platforms like Spotify, the artists are the last ones getting paid. I don’t necessarily like that people don’t buy records anymore, but I like that there’s been a small resurgence in vinyl.
… I don’t know how I knew to keep journals at a very young age. But I had these composition books, and there was nothing poetic about them. It wasn’t about creative writing. I just started making lists. “Took the B train from Brooklyn to Union Square to go to Max’s Kansas City. This weekend I’m going to see Dead Boys and The Damned for three nights at CBGB’s.” And I made those lists for many, many years, until it did turn into some form of creative writing, and had some poetry to it.
Do you go out still?
Well, yes, prior to the quarantine! I go to art galleries, I go to museums, and I get very excited about music, but I’m very black and white about my likes and dislikes. I either gotta love the music and feel it, or I just don’t care. Only recently, I’ve started to go out and shoot portraits, and of course, I’m physically distanced from the person, and I’ve been making some really cool portraits in black and white for a series called “Art in the Time of Coronavirus.”