Tuesday 10 December 2019

Rock and a hard place - music manager Ron Weisner

He hated working with Madonna and thought of Michael Jackson as 'almost like a son'. Straight-talking music manager Ron Weisner pulls no punches with Tanya Sweeney

Ron Weisner with a young Michael Jackson
Ron Weisner with a young Michael Jackson
Ron Weisner with his client Michael Jackson
Ron Weisner with Gladys Knight
Listen Out Loud by Ron Weisner

Tanya Sweeney

Hunter S Thompson put it best when he described the music industry as "a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side".

After several decades in the business, manager Ron Weisner has experienced it all: tears, tantrums, fireworks, egos and the usual trimmings of life in Hollywood's fast lane. It's made for a compelling tell-all memoir, entitled 'Listen Out Loud: Music Managing McCartney, Madonna and Michael Jackson'.

Much as the book's title suggest, his client list down the years reads like a roll call of rock: among the acts he managed are Steve Winwood, Gladys Knight, Paul McCartney, Bananarama and George Michael.

Referring to why he wrote the memoir, Ron explains: "I have grown children who had been around the industry most of their lives, and they kept saying, 'you've seen the true side of the business. You should tell this story'.

"I didn't want the book to be all 'me, me, me'," he adds. "Most books about people in the music industry are about how the guy changed the course of mankind. But instead, I wanted the artists (I've worked with) to get across their point of view."

Weisner, 69, prides himself on his rich, familial and respectful partnerships with artists, which is why his working relationship with Madonna - still "one of the most unpleasant people" he's ever worked with - fell by the wayside fairly quickly.

Weisner met the star in 1982 via a business partner, Freddy DeMann, but the rot set in on the Venice set of her 'Like A Virgin' video.

That she was going to be a superstar was a foregone conclusion, yet Weisner was not about to stick around, even if it did mean a loss of several million dollars.

"It was like, 'do I want to be involved with artists like Gladys Knight, or do I want to feel as though I'm getting an enema on a daily basis?'" he reasons down the phone from his native Los Angeles.

"When you don't get along and it doesn't seem to be working, it's time to move on.

"You know you're walking away from substantial chunks of money, but I knew early on that with Madonna, her whole thing was about making controversy.

"I knew she'd be extremely successful because of it, but it's like a marriage: it can be great, but if it doesn't work, you just don't want to be part of it."

DeMann continued to look after Madonna until 1997, but Weisner was only too happy to watch the Madonna spectacle unfold from a safe distance.

Music managers who have survived the snake-pit have long turned their hand to writing memoirs and recounting their heady adventures.

Some are hedonistic types who enjoyed the ride as much as any rockstar; others are hardmen with a keen eye on the bottom line.

Straight-talking Weisner is probably somewhere in between: a Brooklyn-born music zealot who spent his formative years in thrall to Aretha Franklin and James Brown at Harlem's Apollo venue.

By chance, he happened upon a mailroom job at MGM Records as a teenager, and he was well on his way.

In a career littered with big names, Weisner will most likely be remembered as the man who propelled Michael Jackson to greatness in the early 80s.

Unlike those hard yards with Madonna, Weisner's working relationship with Jackson was much more fulfilling, with the manager going so far as to consider him as "almost like a son to me".

It was also Weisner's idea to create 'mini-movies' for Jackson's singles, effectively making him the first African-American artist to break the MTV barrier and changing the face of pop to boot.

"He was not one of us," Weisner says of Jackson. "He was like an alien. He was the greatest entertainer of our generation and I don't think anyone will top him."

Jackson was a dream client during the peak of his fame in the 1980s; if a little attention-seeking. Weisner accompanied him on trips to Disneyland and was even dragged out of bed by Michael to go watch Liberace perform.

Weisner acted on Jackson's many whims as his manager and even though their working relationship foundered, he maintained a protective eye over the star.

Weisner is directly responsible for orchestrating the duet 'Say Say Say' between Jackson and fellow client Paul McCartney, and it remains one of his proudest career moments to date.

He is wholly adamant that the child abuse allegations that dogged Jackson though his life were unfounded. "Was Michael normal? No. Did he abuse children? Never. My own son was around him from an early age. I trusted him completely."

Referring to the turbulent time before Jackson died in 2009 of an acute prescription pill intoxication, Weisner says: "Michael was having a lot of problems. I think it's criminal what happened to him. In one way, he was at fault, because he allowed stuff to perpetuate in his own life, but no one around him stepped up."

Predictably, Weisner is not a man to pull punches in print, and he reserves much of his vitriol for Jackson's father, Joe: "He solely has his own agenda, and it's reflected on the rest of the (Jackson) brothers. They're nice guys, but no-one wants to deal with them, and once Michael was gone their whole world came to a halt."

While Weisner managed Jackson at the top of his career, he endured weekly confrontations with the Jackson patriarch.

"We were riding high with 'Thriller', on a roll, and I know Joe persuaded Michael to let go of us," he recalls. "Joe came in with his new partner Don King (the boxing promoter) and said they'd do this big concert tour. I went crazy and it got ugly. It came to a head and I got the call the following day. Unfortunately, Michael didn't have the balls to stand up to his father."

Though their working relationship was long over, Weisner was becoming increasingly alarmed at news of Jackson's prescription-drug dependency and even attempted to stage a kidnapping in 2009.

"Friends and family had tried interventions, and I got pissed off one day and said: 'Forget about interventions, we have to snatch him and take him to rehab against his will to get him cleaned up'. Basically, everything was set in motion (to do that) and it didn't happen. Some family members were too concerned that it would come out. Unfortunately, it wound up a different case scenario and (Jackson) paid the ultimate price."

Weisner saw the singer two nights before his death at a rehearsal for the comeback tour that never was: "Chills ran though me," he recalls. "If you look at footage of people released from a POW camp, he looked like that. When I left that night I felt I'd never see him again. When I got the call, I said, 'I'm sad, but this call doesn't surprise me'."

Joe aside, it must have been a slightly surreal time; helming the career of the most famous man in the world at the apex of his fame.

Weisner recalls how he would watch the tabloid soap opera unfold around Jackson. "There were so many stories about through the years and much of it was so absurd," he recalls.

"For years I would read things in magazines and I'm thinking, 'what is this s***?' Especially when you were there and you know exactly what transpired."

Amid the dizzying carousel of the pop-rock industry, Weisner always kept a clear and rational head, with an eye trained on the long game.

"As a manager you have to deal with the real world while being in the (showbiz) world," he explains.

"I had a lot of friends who were the hard-partying guys, and I'd see them a year or two into it and they'd look like they'd been mugged. But we'd be touring around to different cities, and I was the one who had to get up early and take care of business. Sure, you play and you party - but you don't play to extremes."

But that was then, and this is now. The industry has of course shape-shifted beyond recognition. Weisner still has a hand in the game - producing live events and megabucks televised specials - though he remains largely unimpressed with the current slew of superstar contenders.

"These days there are a lot of flavour-of-the-month artists," he says. "If you stop and think, there haven't been many unique, talented performers. I don't see people like Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber as the next big thing.

"Record companies used to invest in talent, but now the labels are run by lawyers and accountants who know nothing about the creative side of music and base their decisions on numbers."

Of today's current crop of stars, he does rate Adele and Beyonce: "Beyonce is probably the most professional, creative and honorable person working out there today," he enthuses. "It's never about ego (with her), it's about achieving perfection."

Bono, too, comes in for praise. Although he and Weisner have never worked directly together, the U2 frontman has been involved in some of his live events down the years. "You just have certain people who have a gift," he says. "But really, you can count on two fingers the greats who are timeless."

Weisner's career has come full-circle by now; he is working on a jazz project with Jackson's one-time producer Quincy Jones, as well as putting together a gospel event, which he hopes to stage in Israel next spring.

He regularly returns to the venue that was his "second home" as a teenager and produces the Apollo Theatre's spring gala with a roll-call of big soul/jazz names.

"The trick is to stay away from the a**holes," he surmises. "I'm sure I'll get around to retiring one day - I'll get up and say, 'enough' - probably once I've lost my sense of humour about it all.

"But for now, there are certain people I want to work with, but there are some people I won't work with. Life is too short.

"If I do a TV show, for example, and people ask can you check the availability of Aretha (Franklin) or Mariah Carey... let's just say I make sure they're not available. There's too much drama there."

Shooting from hip has evidently served Weisner well in five decades in the business and in committing it all to print, he has provided the rest of us with a rollicking record of the cruel money trench, too.

"I have no problem expressing myself," he says, as if to state the obvious. "No-one can ever say about me: 'What's that guy really thinking?' Being upfront can sometimes come back to haunt you, but hey, that's life."

Listen Out Loud: Music Managing McCartney, Madonna and Michael Jackson is available now

Irish Independent

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