Michael Alago, the Gay Record Exec Who Signed Metallica, Is Cooler Than All of Us
What a life Michael Alago has led.
As a gay Puerto Rican teen growing up in New York City of the ’70s, he hobnobbed with the bands that birthed American punk rock — from Blondie and The Ramones to influential thrashers Suicide. Every night of the week, an underaged Alago hopped from mainstays of the scene like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City to Lismar Lounge and Brooklyn’s L’Amour.
His love of music and a gig booking talent for East Village rock club The Ritz in the early ’80s led to a career in A&R for Elektra Records and later Geffen, making him one of the industry’s only openly gay record execs. He signed bands including Metallica and White Zombie — some of the loudest names in rock, Alago’s specialty — to their first big recording contracts.
And while Michael Alago hasn’t left the industry behind completely (“I stay in the business project-to-project,” he tells us) these days he’s more comfortable behind a camera. More than a decade ago, he reinvented himself as a photographer of beefy, hyper-masculine men, releasing a trio of successful coffee table books.
Luckily for us, all of Michael Alago’s accomplishments — as well as the trials and tribulations of his 58 years on Earth — have been captured in a documentary currently rocking Netflix. Who the F**k is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago, directed by Drew Stone and produced by Michael Alex, is one of the best docs you’ll treat yourself to this year. After watching, there will be no doubt in your mind: This guy is cooler than all of us. We never even stood a chance.
It’s unfair to pigeonhole Who the F**k is That Guy? as a documentary seeking to rehash Alago’s music industry accomplishments, because it’s much more than that. And that’s exactly what Alago wanted from the outset. As he tells us during a recent phone conversation, the road to the doc’s release began nearly four years ago, and figuring out what type of film it would be was of initial importance.
“Over three years ago [director Drew Stone] called me on the telephone,” says Alago. “He said he wanted to talk to me about making a documentary, because he thought my life was interesting. So we had a meeting, and I don’t know, he kind of just said all the right things. He’s passionate about music the same way I am.”
And while having a film made about yourself is no doubt the ultimate exercise in flattery, as Alago says, it’s also a bit nerve-wracking.
“He said, ‘Well, do you want to just talk about everything?’ and I said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do a documentary about my life, it can’t just be about music because we’re leaving so many other things out.’ So I thought, you know what, we’re just going to tell the entire truth. And I think everyone has come away from the film with a lot of different things, because I talk about HIV, about addiction and recovery and my love of music and my 24 years as a music executive. Everyone gets a little something different from it after they watch.”
And in addition to touching on all those personal aspects of Alago’s journey, the film offers up some serious eye candy for music fans. Everyone from Cyndi Lauper (Alago A&R’d two of her albums, in 2009 and 2010) to Rob Zombie to every member of Metallica sits down in front of the camera. Even John Lydon — the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten himself — sits down and gushes over his great friend, who, yeah, happens to be a gay man. (As Alago tells me, “He ain’t so rotten after all.”)
“Everybody in the film is someone I had some professional association with,” Alago says. “When I asked if they would show up, they all just said yes. It felt like a blessing. Drew asked them all the right questions, and they were very loving. It was extraordinary and very heartfelt that everyone just said yes.”
While it shouldn’t be discounted that Michael Alago is a member of our ever-expanding queer community, he insists that his sexuality didn’t mean much during his days as a music executive. And a closet — “those are for clothes,” he says.
“I had no idea what a closet was in regards to my sexuality,” Alago tells us. “I didn’t really know a lot of gay record executives in the early ’80s. I knew a few, they were a few of my friends, but no bigwigs, no heads of companies. And that was OK. But people always ask me, ‘Were you ever in the closet?’ I don’t ever remember being in the closet. I’ve always been open.”
Even with these tatted-up, sometimes scary-looking guys of heavy metal? Yeah, even with them.
“When people have to come to my office, and in advance their friends go, ‘Well, you know Alago is gay,’ it’s like I just disarm them with kindness and my knowledge of the music,” he says. “The sexuality part doesn’t even come into play, because that’s not what it’s about anyway when I meet all these people.”
But let’s not diminish the fact that back in the ’80s and ’90s, Michael Alago was most likely the first — if not the only — gay man these heavy metal singers, guitarists and drummers ever called ‘friend.’ That was something that made for more than one touching moment, he says. “I saw that artists from that community, whenever their guard came down or we were drinking and stuff, people are affectionate.”
He tells me one story in particular that stands out as a poignant moment.
“I remember when I was very ill in 1995 — I had full-blown AIDS — and Rob and all of White Zombie were always very caring and loving, and they always sent me cards and called me on the telephone and came to visit,” he says. “And all of that had nothing to do with music. It just had to do with being human and being kind.”
And that’s yet another of the documentary’s achievements: It breaks through that tough outer shell of these hard-living rocker guys, exposing them to be the kind, caring guys they likely always have been in private.
Through the many years that a teenage Michael Alago hopped around the New York City rock club scene, he always had a camera on him, as indicated by the many photos of himself alongside the greats of ’70s and ’80s rock. So it wasn’t completely out of left field that Alago would eventually transition from the music industry into photography.
“I basically left the business in around 2004 with my last record company job,” he says. “I thought to myself, what are you going to do next? I’ve always loved photographs. Back in the day when I was shooting some rock ‘n’ roll stuff, I had a plastic Kodak 110 camera that I slipped into my pocket, and whenever I was at Max’s or CB’s I would snap photographs. Then I got a Polaroid camera, because that was instant. I have no patience, and I love the idea of the instant image. Then I got a Minolta 35mm camera. I loved all those formats for different reasons. I thought in 2004, you know what? I’m gonna take pictures.”
Most presumed that Alago’s photography would focus on the world of rock music that he knew so well, but those people would be wrong.
“Everyone thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to take pictures of rock bands.’ And I thought, no, I am not. I’m going to take pictures of what I like. I love men who are big and tattooed and sometimes scarred, and my pictures were never going to be glossy, because I don’t understand glossy, and glossy can turn into homogenized. I wanted everything to be raw and real and in-your-face so that if the subject did their job in front of my camera and I did my job, you got a completely sexy picture that is not glossy, just real.”
To date, Michael Alago has released three books: Rough Gods (self-published in 2008), Brutal Truth (2011) and Beautiful Imperfections (2013). Alago’s photographs are also featured prominently on the Rough Gods Facebook page, where he posts a lot of his work as it’s created, including photos from last month’s trip to San Francisco for the Folsom Street Fair.
These days he’s hard at work on a book of erotic Polaroids that is hoping to see a 2018 release.
“It’s not an everyday thing with me anymore,” Alago says of his work within the music industry today, but — as you’d expect with a man whose life has been so intertwined with the art form — you should never say never.
“I’m hoping when people see the film that hopefully I’ll find some young fantastic band who wants me to produce them,” Alago says. “That would be incredible.”
Having worked with the likes of Metallica, P.I.L. and Nina Simone (his favorite artist of all time), Alago’s musical tastes span the gamut, and always will. These days his nights on the town rotate between jazz performances at Lincoln Center (he’s currently fawning over vocalist Kurt Elling) and black metal bands (the week after we spoke he was slated to catch Venom Inc. from the UK).
“My ears have always been open to everything,” he says. “Music will always and forever be a part of my life, whether it’s the great American song book or heavy metal.”
And just as music is a predominant part of his life, Alago is himself a huge part of music.
Who the F**k is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago is currently on Netflix.
All photos courtesy of Michael Alago