Some of you may not know who Michael Alago is, but you’ve heard the results of his talents on record. Michael Alago signed and produced some of the world’s top artists including bands and performers like Metallica, White Zombie, Cyndi Lauper, Johnny Rotten and Nina Simone, to name an illustrious few. Michael Alago is a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and remains in the Big Apple to this very day. And while Brooklyn is where Michael got his start, he’s been all over the world in his journey for musical excellence.
From age 12 to 18, Alago lived in the railroad style Brooklyn apartment with his family, and this is where he began to put it all together. As soon as Michael could ride the train, he would be out and about, learning about life and music and putting his future life into the order as many of us know it now.
Alago grew up as a gay Puerto Rican teen and went through the paces of being a bit different albeit accepted in an industry that typically didn’t understand that lifestyle. It was beautiful to see that throughout his new film, Michael and many of his close friends discuss his sexuality openly, and as expected, there is no hint of homophobia or bias anywhere. Sexuality aside, Alago spent most of his free time at New York City mainstays such as Max’s Kansas City, Great Gildersleeves and CBGB’s, and could frequently be seen in the company of people such as Cherry Vanilla (she is featured in the film), Johnny Thunders, Johnny Lydon (also featured in the movie), Blondie, and so many more. Alago split his leisure time between straight and gay clubs, building relationships in rooms such as The World, Crisco Disco and Save the Robots, St. Mark’s Bar and Grill and The Lismar Lounge, as well as many other well-known hotspots.
Alago was a wild child and fearless. In a town filled with creativity, Alago flourished. And this is the story of that foray into the world of music. His new biopic is called Who The Fuck Is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago, and features highlights and details of Alago’s illustrious life and career. Directed by Drew Stone (Stone’s works include music videos, commercials, documentary films and television. He played an active role in the early stages of the Boston hardcore punk scene. He was the co-founder and lead singer of The Mighty C.O.’s of Boston, Massachusetts, and The High & The Mighty of New York City. He is also known for his career as the front man for New York City’s Antidote since 1984), Who The Fuck Is That Guy? tells the tale of a young street tough who plied his love for music into an actual career as a producer and A&R man for several major labels and artists and the baggage of life that goes with that.
Alago was driven by a love for great music, any great music, and the artists that wrote that music loved him back in droves. But part of that lifestyle includes both passion and excess and the latter would bring Alago crashing into the twin reapers of substance abuse and AIDS, but Alago survived them both, eventually reinventing himself as an art photographer and continuing to be healthy, sober, and as passionate as ever. I’ll discuss that later.
Told by Alago and the artists whose careers he helped build, and illustrated with an exquisite collection of personal photographs, Who The Fuck Is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey Of Michael Alago shows the tender, loving, self-destructive, and insane story of a man who loved new music so much he had to bring it to the world and managed to survive and talk about it. Listening to his great friends talk about him, you immediately understand the love they have for the man. Personal stories by stars such as Johnny (Rotten) Lydon, Rob Zombie, Cheetah Chrome, Cyndi Lauper and members of Metallica, as well as actors like Eric Bogosian, are both fascinating and intense. You could never accuse Michael Alago of doing anything (good or bad) half-assed.
Alago tells the story about living the all-night life. There was a show somewhere all night long, and Michael went to most of them. He also talks about his life as a gay man and the clubs, and goings on that happened in New York City in the early ’80s. This timeframe was pre-AIDS and free love was the course of the period. But I really wanted to talk about how Michael got his start.
Michael’s first true music job was running the fan club for the Dead Boys. After that, he went and got himself a job at The Ritz in Manhattan, and he worked his way up to being Jerry Brandt’s (owner of The Ritz) assistant before eventually becoming contract negotiator and booking agent. Alago tells hairy tales of shows gone wrong and the aftermath of glory-filled times at the club. He went on to book many major shows at The Ritz before Brandt introduced him to someone over at Electra Records, who picked Michael for their A&R development team. Alago attacked the job with a passion, finding, signing and developing new talent by the bushel. It’s funny, but one of his first signings at Elektra was a New Jersey band called Shrapnel. That band included Dave Wyndorf and Phil Cavano who later formed Monster Magnet.
This is also the period when Alago discovered and signed Metallica. The band was bursting onto the scene with their original sound, and there was no stopping them. The band played Roseland with Anthrax and Raven, and Metallica blew everyone away. The electricity in the air was unbelievably high. None of these groups were on the radio. It was all word of mouth, and that was the beginning for Alago’s affiliation with Metallica. The heartfelt testimony from Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, and James Hetfield is touching and honest. You can tell that their relationship was significant to the band and Michael as well. Their friendship which continues to this very day.
After a storied career at Elektra, Michael moved on to Geffen Records around 1990 where he signed White Zombie almost as soon as he got there. Alago loved the band’s charisma and knew they would work for the label. He loved the energy and the noisy and glorious chaos that they created. The film also points out the fact that Michael stood out from other A&R people of the times. Due to his wide-open personality and genuine passion, Alago won over bands and individuals in an almost exclusively straight industry with a charm that remains with him today.
Alago also went on to produce jazz legend Nina Simone back in 1993. Based on several Rod McKuen tunes, as well as Oscar Hammerstein and others, A Single Woman was a proverbial hit, and Alago and Simone became close friends before she ultimately passed in 2003. This is one of my favorite personal Alago feats. Here’s a guy who made his bones signing hard rock/heavy metal bands and he winds up bringing back the career of a jazz singer. Nina Simone was a great 1950s singer, and Alago was the primary push behind her 1990s resurgence. A Single Woman did quite well for Elektra and helped put the world’s eye back on Simone.
As mentioned earlier, Alago also touches on his fight with addiction in the film. Years of drug and alcohol abuse took its toll and it eventually (and luckily) ended up with him in sobriety. It was also around this time that Alago was showing the effects of being HIV-positive. And while he was one of the lucky ones who received treatment and bounced back from the brink, he took his health and sobriety seriously and has remained vigilant to this day.
Listening to his friends talk about him as an icon and a friend is a heartwarming experience throughout the film. He has an incredible life story, and he is a well-loved figure within the music community. Drew Stone’s continuity expertise is spotless, and everything in the film runs in an extremely efficient and organic manner. It’s a real rags to riches story with a happy ending to boot. The film was produced by Rugged Entertainment and is distributed by XLrator Media. The film is also slated for release on Netflix sometime between late July and September of this year.
Alago continues to stay involved with music and art, releasing books of photography and poetry as well as getting involved with new bands, and he has no signs of slowing down. Eric Bogosian sums it up best at the end of the film when describing Alago’s photo book. He says, “It’s such an unapologetic point of view. He just says, ‘This is the way I think, fuck you. And do you have a problem with this? Isn’t this great? Look at this fucking guy; he’s got a dick that’s ten feet long and how amazing is that?’” That is an attitude that I would apply to much of Alago’s life and career, and it’s a perfect way to sum this up.
The first viewing of the film in June sold out in a matter of days, and the next showing will take place in his hometown of Brooklyn on July 19 at the Nitehawk Cinema. And if you can’t get into that show, you can get another chance to see the film on July 31 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets will be available at the cinema website: nitehawkcinema.com/williamsburg.