“I’ve heard hundreds of thousands of records,” Seymour Stein says on the phone from Athens, where the seventy-five-year-old co-founder and president of Sire Records and vice-president of Warner Bros. Records is on a working vacation, en route to a music-industry festival in Cannes. His estimate may be too low. Stein signed the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Madonna, and brought to American shores a canon of indie music: the Smiths, the Cure, Depeche Mode, the Beat, Echo and the Bunnymen, Soft Cell. “I just put it out because it’s a great record,” he says.
What makes a great record? “A great song.”
And what makes a great song? “I’ll just tell you,” he says, with a sigh, “that the only answer to the question can be found in a song written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s from ‘South Pacific’ and the name of the song is ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’ But forget the name of the song. The line goes, and I don’t mean to insult you with this, but the line is, ‘Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.’ O.K.?”
So, why write a memoir? “I was asked.”
As was Grace Jones, who wrote a miracle of a memoir, called “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs,” in which she persuasively locates the genesis of her genius inside hurricanes of evangelical Christianity, physical and psychological abuse, and twentieth-century art, while only deepening the mystery of her music. Carrie Brownstein and Viv Albertine both wrote thrilling memorials to under-respected scenes (riot grrrl and post-punk, respectively) that explicate what they were fighting for, and at what cost. In Stein’s new memoir, “Siren Song,” he does little of any of this. What he’s up to, he tells me, is his own kind of evangelism. “I want to see a continuation of the music business, and the point I want to drive home is: start young.”
Born Seymour Steinbigle in 1942, with a hole in his heart, in the center of Jewish Brooklyn, he couldn’t get early R. B. stormers like Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” out of his head. As a teen-ager, he began selling ice cream on Coney Island for record money, telling anyone who’d listen that someday he’d work in the music industry. “The first step in any teen-age ambition is to fake the persona you wish to become; the next is believing it yourself,” he writes.
In 1961, Syd Nathan of King Records offered Seymour a job in A. R.—if he’d change his name. “Look, kid, do yourself a favor and put Steinbigle out of its misery,” Stein recalls him saying. “If you’re serious about the music business, you need a name. We’re all just names.”
“After equipping me with my new persona,” he writes, “Syd sent me out on the road for ten days with James Brown. This wasn’t the first time I’d met a star, but it was probably the first time I got to see what it takes to build a world-class legend . . . My god, I watched poor James Brown try so hard he almost tore himself a birth canal.”
Stein eventually set up his own label, Sire, for which he reissued the essential psych compilation “Nuggets,” almost signed Fleetwood Mac, and did in fact sign the Dutch band Focus, whose 1971 single “Hocus Pocus” was a massive international smash, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it’s a prog rondo involving yodelling, a flautist, an accordion, and the proto-beatboxing Appalachian vocal technique called eefing. In 1975, Stein saw the Ramones rehearse and signed them after they slammed through eighteen songs in twenty minutes. “This was the filthiest sugar and the sugariest filth,” he writes. He first saw Talking Heads when the band opened for the Ramones at CBGB’s, and the chase was on. Two years later, he writes, “I had four high-risk albums in the pipeline: “Talking Heads: 77,” “Rocket to Russia” by the Ramones, “Young Loud and Snotty” by the Dead Boys, and “Blank Generation” by Richard Hell the Voidoids.” Each one is a classic.
London was also teeming with astonishing bands as the post-punk and new-wave scenes dawned, and Sire signed the best of it. Not unrelatedly, the city’s streets and offices teemed with gay men. “In New York’s music business, it was always ‘Did you know he’s Jewish?’ ” he writes, “whereas in London, it was ‘Did you know he’s queer?’ ” Stein, who’d had his share of sexual experiences with men, also had a wife and kids. Linda Stein was, by all accounts, one tough broad: she somehow managed to co-manage the Ramones for years, did much of the glad-handing and socializing that Stein’s career required, and stayed with him in full knowledge of his inclinations—until, he recounts, he fell in love with a closeted man who Linda also got into bed in a bout of what he calls “sex-revenge bullying.” (He and Linda divorced, somehow amicably, and she went on to become a real-estate agent to the stars, portrayed by Sylvia Miles in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” before, tragically, her personal assistant beat her to death in 2007.)
Stein is candid and kind to Linda in his memoir, but is otherwise unhesitant to settle scores, mainly with the former Warner Bros. C.E.O. Mo Ostin. He fills pages with Ostin’s various machinations and industrial subterfuge, bringing to mind the repetitive retaliations that sunk his one-time star Morrissey’s “Autobiography.” Young people might be romanced by the anecdotes about cocaine and the Concorde, but they won’t find clues about what one actually does in the music industry. What was it like, in the early nineteen-nineties, to launch My Bloody Valentine’s troubled masterpiece “Loveless,” or the weirdo-beardo electronic work of Aphex Twin? Stein’s career is so accomplished that some stories inevitably get left out, but the ones he puts in aren’t always illuminative. (“I come here to think and work on my lyrics,” is all he reports Chrissie Hynde, rock’s greatest loudmouth, telling him of the secluded London rooftops she favored.)
The teen-age Stein who faked it to make it grew up to be uncloseted but unforthcoming about his adult romantic life. He’s downright cruel when discussing a night when Dee Dee Ramone propositioned him. “His eyes and body position said it all: Take me whatever way you want. I’m your bitch . . . What bothered me wasn’t that I happened to be his label boss; I just couldn’t stomach how feminine he’d become. I like my men masculine.”
On the phone from Greece, Stein said “Fire away!” when I began talking about his contributions to gay culture. But he dismissed any examination: “Being gay is one of the most normal things about me.” As a child, he writes, “Homosexuality was not something people would suspect, not even us dirty-mouthed Brooklyn brats. Even for me, it was buried so deep, I truly believed that if I ignored it long enough, it might go away, like the hiccups or a door-to-door-salesman . . . My secret probably caused me isolation, but I can’t say that anything specific hurt or that I suffered. It was only when the music began flowing through me that I could feel something medicinal happening.”
Music is medicine. Hospitalized in 1982—the hole in his heart was infected—Stein listened on a Walkman to a Madonna demo from the producer Mark Kamins. “As penicillin dripped into my heart,” he writes, “I’m sure I was going nuts in that little room.” From his bed, he called Kamins, a hairdresser, and a nurse to help him take a shower. That night, at Lenox Hill Hospital, Madonna signed to Sire. “I certainly thought she’d have a long career,” Stein tells me, “and I think she’s still got some mileage to go. I make mistakes all the time in business and in my personal life, but she’s fucking smart.”
I ask Stein which of those hundreds of thousands of songs matter to him most. “Believe it or not, it’s ‘Le Marseillaise.’ If you take ‘God Save the Queen’ ”—and for a moment I’m unsure if he means the royal or Sex Pistols version—“it’s not meant to be inspirational. It’s meant to be devotional. But ‘Le Marseillaise’ is a battle cry.” Under Stein’s watch, Sire released countless battle cries—calls to arms for generations of kids who picked up instruments, or internships, or a pen. But, as “Siren Song” can’t dispute, technology and global capitalism have just about killed the music industry, and youthful fervor for the perfect song won’t save it.