Visionary. Innovator. Architect. Mentor. During the eighties, Jon “Jonny Z” Zazula helped redefine and breathe new life into American hard rock and heavy metal without playing an instrument or—except for a metal-rap EP—appearing on a record. As the founder of Megaforce Records, he introduced Metallica, Anthrax, Testament, Overkill, and a multitude of other artists to the world. He is responsible for bringing international acts Venom, Raven, and Anvil to perform in the U.S. for the first time. As the head of CraZed Management, he guided the careers of Anthrax and Ministry, among others. And he started it all with his partner and wife, Marsha, in a tiny stall at an East Brunswick, New Jersey flea market.
Now retired and enjoying life with his beloved Marsha in Florida, Jonny may have lost his dark, curly, afro-like hair—“I like being a skinhead,” he jokes—but he has not lost his charisma nor his biting sense of humor. Periodically, he has to confirm timelines with Marsha, otherwise he is full of colorful stories about music from the last 40 years.
“Marsha and I helped create the soundtrack for peoples’ lives,” he says.
Now, after taking a deep breath following a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-worthy career, he has written a memoir. Heavy Tales: The Metal. The Madness. The Music: Lived and told by Jon Zazula and brought to life by Harold Carlos Maldonado is the revealing, compelling story of a Bronx native who survived a rough upbringing; who bonded with the love of his life over jazz records; who left the security [pun intended] of a Wall Street job to open a flea market stall and sell heavy metal records; who promoted heavy metal shows in New York and New Jersey; who gambled with his growing family’s financial future after hearing a demo by a band called Metallica.
The book takes readers deep inside Zazula’s world, giving each of us a birds-eye view of music history. It not only returns those who lived through the eighties to a comfortable, familiar place, but also takes younger readers back to the humble beginnings of their favorite bands.
No stranger to The Aquarian Weekly, Jonny Z recently had a candid, revealing conversation that only could be presented in his own words.
Presales for Heavy Tales were quite strong.
I wanted the book to be the best that I could do. I sweated and toiled over it. My memory is not that great anymore, so I had to get Harold Claros Maldonado to researchand back me up on the timeline; watch every step I took during the writing. That is why the book is just 200 pages. It is just like a bedtime story. It is a fast read.
I find it inspirational that a guy, who experienced such a tough upbringing, went on to become a hard rock and heavy metal icon.
I didn’t know if people would care about all my personal stuff, but if you really want to know me, you are [definitely] going to know me after reading this book.
Having grown up as a passionate eighties metalhead, there were parts of Heavy Tales where I wished you would have gone into more detail. Of course, you could have written thousands of pages.
You always want to leave your audience wanting more. There are so many stories. I just wanted to take a timeline and [write] about the things that were interesting and relevant to me during those years. As you read the book, you’ll [realize] that a lot of things happened [quickly]. When you look at the discography at the back of the book, you’ll see that so many [classic records] were [released around the same time]. It was insane.
Megaforce Records was born out of necessity—to release Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All in 1983. Given the current state of the music industry that could not happen today.
It may still happen in [other genres such as] R&B. I just don’t know. I don’t know who owns all of these [record] labels. Someone, however, is doing it with R&B and hip-hop. With metal, however, everything has been bought and sold by Nuclear Blast and a few other labels.
You fell in love Marsha while listening to jazz. How can that same person possess such a great ear for metal?
I believe I have a great ear for music, which comes in all shapes and sizes. I was in love with [jazz greats like] Roland Kirk, Miles [Davis] and [John] Coltrane. Then I got into folk: Donovan, Judy Collins. Then I got into white R&B and was a fan of The Rascals and Vanilla Fudge. When [Jimi] Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane came along, I gravitated to them. I have always gravitated towards the great bands, many of whom were not necessarily [played] on the radio.
I continue to scream that it was you and not Elektra’s Michael Alago who discovered Metallica.
Of course, it was me. You have to understand that I love Michael and I would never say anything bad about him. We buried the hatchet a long time ago and became good friends. He can say whatever he wants, but he knows [the truth]. I don’t have to say anything.
You finally decided to retire in May of 2018.
I felt that enough was enough. Even though I was doing well [managing] Venom, Inc., who had signed with Nuclear Blast, received a big publishing deal and had twice toured the world, I felt it was time for me to give it a rest. [Venom Inc. frontman] Tony [Dolan] remains a close friend, however, who stays at my home from time to time.
In some ways, Venom/Venom Inc. bookended your career.
The first thing I released was the Venom Immortals of Metal Volume One [picture disc single]. I only put out 1,000 copies because I wanted to create a big buzz. Actually, I only wanted to sell 500 copies, but the company sent 1,000, which was okay because they sold out. Then I released [Metallica’s] Kill ‘Em All. After that was Raven’s All For One.
Until reading Heavy Tales, I was unaware that Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian and original bassist Dan Lilker would travel from Whitestone, Queens to stalk you at the flea market.
They were too much for words [laughs]. They were there all the time. My stall and then the store [Rock and Roll Heaven] became entertainment central, where everyone came to hang out. [The members of] Anthrax were always there. They once followed me to an International House of Pancakes when I took my family out for breakfast! When they dropped off the Ross The Boss-produced Soldiers of Metal demo, that finally sold me on them.
Why didn’t Ross The Boss produce Anthrax’s 1984 debut, Fistful of Metal?
Sadly, he wasn’t available to produce the record. He was our first choice, but he was touring at the time with Manowar. We were fortunate to get involved with [The Rod’s drummer] Carl Canedy, who ironically played drums on Manowar’s first demo. He really brought the band together in the studio.
Radio personality Eddie Trunk was the first DJ to play Metallica on the radio?
Yes, on the East Coast. DJ Ron Quintana of KUSF (University of San Francisco radio) was also way ahead of everyone else and he may have been playing the band’s No Life ‘Til Leather demo. I never give Ron enough credit. He was also instrumental [in promoting Metallica].
You were directly involved with the artists and you were also a fly on the wall, witnessing music history including Manowar’s blood contract signings and Metallica and Anthrax’s lineup changes.
I was involved with the bands and I knew what they were doing. I was hardly a fly on the wall. I believed that these were grown men; not children. And they needed to make their own decisions. I was not a dictator; I was a manager.
Before Megaforce and CraZed Management were born, you promoted shows and was the first to bring both Raven and Venom over from England and Anvil from Canada.
I am totally insane. I was on a mission to break this new type of metal in America. I felt like [famed promoter] Bill Graham and I felt like [Beatles manager] Brian Epstein. It was a wonderful feeling and I didn’t want to lose it. I was heavily involved in promoting concerts. We did the Halloween Headbanger’s Ball at the Saint George in Staten Island. [Mike and George] Parente, who ran L’Amour’s [in Brooklyn] were doing shows at The Paramount [also in Staten Island]. So, we teamed up to bring Venom over from the U.K.
Didn’t Venom blow a hole in the stage with their pyrotechnics?
Venom came over with a crew of nine people. I don’t know how they did it. They all stayed at our house. Everyone at the venue was growing impatient because it took over an hour for Venom to set [up] their dynamite. They had arrived with a pyro board that was made by the IRA [Irish Republican Army]. They smuggled it in on a plane. When they set it off at a Saturday matinee performance, they ended up blowing a hole in the floor. [Luckily,] half of it were duds. Then they shot off the smoke pots. It was funny. I was sitting backstage and watched the first two rows become black-faced from the soot.
The following show, which I ignorantly booked on a Superbowl Sunday, I decided to sit up in the balcony. There was a plate that held their flash pots together that blew up and headed straight for the balcony. It could have taken someone’s head right off! This was during the days of bombs and real stuff. There were no controlled flames, this was heavy duty stuff.
Another revelation you detail in Heavy Tales was when you were conned into believing you were booking Accept’s first U.S. show.
I had to make a shirt that read, “Don’t ask me about Accept.” This guy came to stay at my house. He showed me pictures of [former Accept vocalist] Udo [Dirkschneider] and he had their merchandise. I eventually found out that this guy wasn’t their manager. He was just a fan.
What was it about Metallica that made you gamble everything to release their first album?
I felt Metallica had the goods [to be big]. I gave them everything. [Drummer] Lars [Ulrich] understood that I wasn’t fucking around. I sent money to people I had never met, and they showed up on my front lawn with a little Chevy and a U-Haul truck.
You were an eyewitness to music history.
I was in the studio approving albums; listening to every song; and listening to rehearsals before bands went into the studio. I helped put [music] videos together and, sometimes, I helped with production. Sometimes at shows, I would help with lighting; I would listen to make sure the bands sounded good at the soundboards—and, if they didn’t, I would freak out.
I love the photographs in Heavy Tales, from your personal archive as well as from famed photographers such as Mark Weiss and Frank White. Many depict a family atmosphere.
Megaforce was a marvelous family. The Megaforce company was like working in Never Neverland. “I’ll Never Grow Up” was our theme song. Everyone worked together to make it all happen.
In one photo, famed radio personality Eddie Trunk is dressed in a striped shirt and white pants.
I used to make Eddie dress up because I always dressed like a bum. Marsha and Eddie always looked nice.
When Megaforce released King’s X’s 1988 debut, Out of the Silent Planet, some critics declared them America’s U2. Why didn’t the Texas trio achieve that degree of popularity?
They created music for a caviar taste in a Pabst Blue Ribbon world. I loved everything they did, and they are still one of my favorite bands. But they did not write commercially accessible songs. I was able to get them to number one on MTV with the music video for “Over My Head.” I did everything within my power to make that work. We got them to top 10 on rock radio, but people were just not reacting to them or buying the album. People just did not have those progressive ears yet; they did not understand them. I even got them on a worldwide tour with AC/DC, but that went over like a lead balloon. They should have been on tour with U2, but I had no connections in that world, and no one was going to do it for me.
By the time Anthrax had moved to Island Records you had become their manager. Your relationship with the band seemed different from the traditional band-manager relationship. You seemed more like an uncle or father-figure.
That was almost how it was. I was just a guy. I had a lot of respect for them and they had a lot of respect for me. And we survived together for more than 11 years.
You guided them through a lot of turmoil—lineup changes, etc.
Yes, but what band does not experience turmoil?
It was just a few weeks after seeing you and Anthrax together at a Ritz Gary Moore concert that singer Joey Belladonna was replaced. From outward appearances, you would have never known there was trouble brewing.
Well, it was none of your business. [laughs]
Anthrax’s first split with Belladonna was before the advent of social media, which has become a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a great tool for letting readers know about your book. On the other hand, it has victimized the music industry.
Yes, it has. But look at what some bands are earning by touring; look at the resurgence of metal. It’s because of [apps like] Spotify playing their music. People hear a specific song list and then they want to learn about the old bands. Tickets now cost hundreds of dollars. My tickets were $5; $20 at the most.
I was in the audience at Judas Priest’s Madison Square Garden performance where the audience destroyed the seats. It caused a paradigm shift in ticket prices because of insurance.
I witnessed that several times; a couple of times at my own cost. I’ve seen things destroyed and it costs people a lot of money. And [promoters] better have insurance or you are finished.
One of the many revelations in the book: Vio-Lence caused Megaforce’s split with Atlantic Records.
It wasn’t Vio-Lence that caused us to leave Atlantic Records. They wanted us to stay and renew our contract. I was just an egomaniac. I had some problems with Vio-Lence, but it had little to do with the band; it had a lot to do with how I was getting censored. I do not listen to people when they censor me. Overkill’s Fuck You EP. The Stormtroopers of Death’s Speak English or Die. Let the PMRC [Parent’s Music Resource Committee] turn it up and I’ll turn it up too. At the end, Atlantic offered me a good deal, and then I got offered a great deal from Epic Records to be a big shot in their A&R department and make a fortune. I would have had to leave my company behind, however, taking just a few people along to be my staff. At the time, I employed 22 people and I wasn’t about to fire any of them. That is the type of family relationship we had.
And then you signed a deal with Polygram Records.
I thought the grass would be greener on the other side. [The relationship] was great in the beginning, but I was no longer putting out metal albums and people got upset with me. The music I put out with Polygram was fantastic. Nudeswirl were ahead of their time with a sound similar to Jane’s Addiction, who came later. We signed Warren Haynes and look where he is now [in popularity] thanks to Gov’t Mule. And let’s not forget The Disco Biscuits. I signed them as soon as I heard them, and I frequently listen to them to this day.
With CraZed Management you not only advised Anthrax, but also bands like Ministry.
CraZed Management had Anthrax, S.O.D., M.O.D., and Ace Frehley. We advised and cradled everyone we worked with. We took Ministry from selling 200,000 records to selling 2 million records.
What will be the legacy of Jon and Marsha Zazula, Megaforce Records, and CraZed Management?
I hope people just say that Jon and Marsha were loved. And I like being called “The Godfather of Thrash.” It makes me excited.
That is selling yourself too short.
In the real scheme of things, does it really matter? I do like that people appreciate us. It has been a while since I’ve been active, and it is amazing that the story lives on.
Heavy Tales: The Metal. The Music. The Madness. As lived by Jon Zazula (Crazed Management LLC)is available now wherever books are sold. For more info, please visit: jonzazula.com