It’s difficult to imagine a flamboyantly gay Puerto Rican teenager in Brooklyn deeply entrenched in the heavy-metal scene today, let alone 40 years ago. Even more unbelievable is that same boy going on to shape and reinvent the world’s musical landscape—first as a 19-year-old talent booker at the legendary Ritz nightclub in New York City and then as a 24-year-old A&R exec who signed Metallica and White Zombie, and worked with other iconic artists including Nina Simone, Cyndi Lauper and John Lydon.
A new documentary titled “Who the F**k Is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago,” tells the tender, loving and sometimes self-destructive story of a man who “just loved music” and had the passion to bring it to the world on his terms and lived to talk about it … barely.
I scheduled a call with Michael Alago to glean some insight into his passion for music, the importance of being open and his special relationship with one of my personal-favorite artists, the incomparable Nina Simone.
Scott Conant: One of my favorite things about this documentary was seeing just how comfortable you were being your authentic self, regardless of your surroundings. What was it like being openly gay in the heavy-metal scene?
Michael Alago: I’ve been a person who has never seen a closet in his life. When I dealt with somebody who I may have perceived as homophobic, or young guys in heavy metal bands who I thought may have never met a gay person in their life, all those barriers were broken down because of my openness and my honesty. My whole life really, I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem with people that I’ve been involved with because of my sexuality at all. One just has to always be kind to people and when you are kind there is no room for “Oh man, this guy is gay.” None of that stuff comes up because it’s always about the music. That’s a beautiful thing.
SC: You obviously have quite a passion for music. With all that innate knowledge of what makes a hit, have you ever thought to make your own music?
MA: Oh, that’s so funny. For one minute, probably in 1978, I did sing for a band called Multiple Exposure. We were a cover band that played mostly in New York and Long Island, that was very short-lived. I don’t play any instruments so it was almost like a blessing that I even got an A&R job, but my instincts are really spot on with people. Whether you’re a musician, an author, whatever—I know how to figure people out the moment I meet them.
SC: So, it’s safe to say you prefer being behind the scenes.
MA: I love being behind the scenes. When I was 14 years old, I watched all the music programs on TV, like Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train,” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” And I thought, “Man, I want to work in music.” But when you’re that young, you don’t know what that means. Until one day, I went inside a building that said “Video Club Opening” and Jerry Brandt, the music director at the Ritz, gave me a job.
SC: You’ve undoubtedly seen some incredible performers come and go in your time. If you could resurrect one artist for a performance, who would it be?
MA: Oh boy. I want to cheat on this question. See, my love of music ranges from the Great American Songbook to hard rock and heavy metal. It’s so unfair to say if I could resurrect just one artist. I’d like to resurrect five artists. I would like our wonderful Cliff Burton from Metallica to be alive again. I wish Nina Simone was still with us. There is a singer from the ’50s, Jo Stafford, that I wish was alive because she was an extraordinary vocalist. I wish Chet Baker was still alive, and I’m grateful that I got to see him twice before. I have to cheat on that question, because there are so many people that I love who are not here anymore.
SC: I figured that would be an impossible question for you. I assumed Nina Simone would make the list, as it is very apparent from the film that she left quite an impact on you. I’d love for you to tell me a little bit about your relationship.
MA: I have loved Nina Simone my whole life. My Aunt Jennie played a variety of music in her home, and I would go visit her every Saturday. She listened to everything from Johnny Mathis to Isaac Hayes and Nina Simone. And I was fascinated with Nina’s voice as a young teenager.
Fast forward: You know I started at Elektra in 1983. Nina was always on my mind because I had every record she ever made. She was my favorite singer, and I thought that she was the greatest artist that ever lived. Now, at that point in time, she had not made a record for a very long time. Lots of people said, “Why bother? She’s washed up;” “She’ll never sell a record;” “She’s trouble.” But all of that fascinated me. And I wanted to say a big “F. U.” to everybody, because you know what, as an A&R person, Bob Krasnow at Elektra allowed his people to sink or swim. Thank God, I always swam.
So, at some point, I got in touch with Nina. It wasn’t until a few years later, like maybe six or seven years later, when I felt established as an A&R person and I could take a chance. So, I took a chance. I went to see her all over the world. I went to Sweden, I went to Paris. She played at Irving Plaza—I went to both shows. The last 13 years of her life, we became very, very close. I adored her. There were so many shenanigans that we don’t even have time for.
SC: I’ve got a little time.
MA: As you know, she died April 21, 2003, but the last time I saw her live and in person, face to face, was July of 1999. She was going to do a show that Nick Cave was producing. It was a series of shows called “the Meltdown”—one night could be Suicide, the other night was Nina Simone. The morning of her show in London, I arrived in her hotel. She was getting her hair cornrowed, and she was sick and tired of everybody because it was taking way too long. Of course, I showed up with a dozen white roses and champagne, which she loved. She threw everybody out of the room and she suggested that we take a bubble bath together. And I thought, “Oh my God … OK!” We were like children. She got naked and I said, “Nina, I am not taking my boxer shorts off.” She had a good laugh. We called the concierge and asked for bubble bath. So, we were sitting in this huge bathtub with the white roses and the champagne and we laughed our heads off. And that was the last I saw her.
SC: That’s a pretty incredible final moment to share with someone you loved so much.
MA: There are so many of these stories with her that were over the top. It was always about drama. I egged her on all the time, and we just loved each other. It was really a fabulous 12 or 13 years that we were in contact and were friends. Up until that very last day. The day before she passed was April 20, and I was going to my dad’s grave in Brooklyn. Something said, “Call Nina.”
I called her in Aix-en-Provence. Juanita, the housekeeper, answers the phone. She says, “You know, Michael, Dr. Simone is not well. She recently had a stroke. But I can put her on the phone for a moment.” And I said, “Please.” So, she held the phone up and told Nina it was me, and she said, “Hello, sugar lips. How come you never married me?” I said, “Oh, my darling, I love you. I’m gonna get on the next plane tomorrow morning and somebody has to pick me up in Marseille and drive me to you. But I will be there, and I love you.” Fast forward: The next morning, I wake up, I’ve got the computer on and CNN was there and the headline was “Nina Simone Dead at 70.” That wrecked me for the next few years.
But we have pictures together. We have an album. I can go to YouTube and see performances from the early days, like 1959, her singing “I Loves You, Porgy” to one of her last television appearances, [promoting] “Single Woman” on the Jay Leno Show. To me, she is the greatest artist that ever lived. When I put together this memoir that I am working on, she will be prominently featured because I loved her so much.
SC: A memoir and a movie … you really have had a fabulous life, haven’t you? So, what do you hope people will take away after seeing this documentary?
MA: When people walk away from this film, I want them to pay attention to their lives. I always ask people to be truthful, because when you’re truthful, the world can open up to you, for you, and anything can happen. Oh, and wear a condom.
Check out “Who the F**k Is that Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago” now with XFINITY On Demand.
On X1: Navigate to “Popular Destinations” > LGBTQ Film & TV
On Native: Go to “On Demand” > LGBTQ Film & TV