Michael Alago has always taken good notes. Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the wide-eyed gay Puerto Rican perennially carried a copy of The Village Voice. It was his bible, and he used it to navigate around the city as bubbling punk and heavy metal scenes were starting to flourish. In the 1970s, the young visionary spent his nights at clubs, at metal concerts, or hobnobbing with bands like the Damned, Dead Boys, or Cherry Vanilla, and began journaling about his experiences.
Decades of introspection lead Alago to write his new autobiography, I Am Michael Alago: Breathing Music, Signing Metallica, and Beating Death. A 2017 film about his life, Who the Fuck Is That Guy? The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago, is streaming on Netflix. In both projects, Alago documents his unconventional life, his 25-year career as a musical executive — including how he signed bands like Metallica and White Zombie — and his friendships with some of music’s most eccentric personalities: Nina Simone, Lars Ulrich, Cyndi Lauper, Patti Smith, and Rob Zombie.
“I was never a young person who was in the closet. I was always outlandish. I was always outspoken. I never cared if you liked me or not,” he says. “Once I started in the business, at 19, you’re meeting everybody. So there are all types [of personalities]. You’re not being pigeonholed or pointed at. I always thought, You’re either going to like somebody or you’re not going to like somebody. I never cared whether you like me or not because there’s a lot of me to go around, and there’s a lot of people out there to meet and love that I never really had problems with people. Thank God for that.”
In I Am Michael Alago, he also speaks about discovering he was HIV-positive in 1983, an experience that forced him to examine his own mortality and continues to shape his work today.
“HIV must always be talked about because once you forget where you came from, you have no idea where you’re going. Early on, in the 1980s, you know what we had? Fear. It was a death sentence,” says Alago, who was asymptomatic for 10 years, then was diagnosed with AIDS.
Alago, whose doctor chose not to give him AZT, an early HIV treatment that proved to have dangerous long-term outcomes, was working at Elektra Records at the time and received care at home in his living room — with an IV in each arm — until modern antiretrovirals gave him the strength to leave his apartment.
“The good news is if you stop the fucking crystal meth and you stop the shenanigans, your body hopefully will heal,” quips Alago, who’s been sober for 13 years now. “The other good news is we live in a time where there are great medications out there but we must also take care of our mind and our bodies.”
The affable personality’s love for music prompted him to go back to work following treatment. The former artists and repertoire (A&R) executive says he would get “tons and tons of cassettes in my office, and vinyl, and it was all independent releases looking for a major label to pick them up. I heard lots of good stuff, but good ain’t great. We can’t sign ‘good.’”
He continues, “For me, greatness is an artist that tells a great story, that really has something to say perhaps to the world at large. When you see the singer-songwriter or this group live onstage, they have a certain charisma about them. They have what is sometimes called the ‘it’ factor. You can’t make that up in somebody. You either have it or you don’t.”
Alago recognized that “it” factor in James Hetfield, the lead singer of Metallica, who he signed to Elektra Records in 1984 after watching the band play at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City.
“He is a person onstage that is a ringleader. He knows how to whip the crowd into a frenzy. You can’t buy that,” he says of Hetfield. “I loved [Metallica’s] music from the get-go and I was very supportive of them at the label, personally, financially, and I just wanted them to get as big as they could get. And here we are. I signed them 36 years ago, and if we weren’t in a pandemic, they would still be on the road playing stadiums. That’s been the power of Metallica.”
Of course, Alago has also had the privilege of working with some of the most talented women in the industry, including Nina Simone, with whom he recorded her last studio album, A Single Woman. He had been friends with her for years before that having first been introduced by her brother Sam Waymon. “We became fast friends. I thought she was gorgeous. I loved every single thing that she did,” says Alago, who shares a story in his book about the last time he saw Simone, in London in 1993.
“I get there, and she’s getting her hair cornrowed by one of the women and somebody else is pressing her clothing. She sees me, and she throws everybody out of the room. She says, ‘Come back in an hour!’” he remembers. “Well, we carried on like we were kids. She said, ‘Let’s take a bubble bath.’ I thought, Oh, my God, are you serious, girl?! So I had to call concierge and they brought us bubbles. Honey, she just stripped right down! I kept my boxer shorts on, we went in the tub, and were laughing like we were kids, drinking champagne.”
Alago left the music business in 2005 and has since become a successful photographer, having released several books of male erotica: Rough Gods, Brutal Truth, and Beautiful Imperfections, all sought-after volumes that are currently out of print. “I was always fascinated with pictures. I love the stories that pictures tell,” he says, explaining that his fascination with sexually charged homoerotica began at an early age with New York-based magazines like After Dark.
“I would always buy that publication because I’d love to see all the bare-chested actors in there,” Alago quips. He would later use his Polaroid camera to shoot men he’d meet on the streets — hustlers and escorts alike. Then when he left the music business, he decided, “You know what? I’m going to take pictures. To heck with it.”
“I got a digital camera, I had my Polaroid camera, and I had a little plastic camera,” he says. “They say shoot what appeals to you. Well, scarred, tattooed men, muscular men appeal to me. And I had no fear walking up to somebody asking him if I could take their picture because they will either say yes or no. And that’s what I did.” As the pandemic continues to impact not only the music business but all industries, Alago encourages everyone to do one thing: Be kind.
“After everything I’ve been through in my life, first of all, I am so grateful that I wake up every single day,” he says. “If you’re out there, if you’re struggling with any kind of addiction, you know what you do? Ask for help. When anyone asks for help about anything whatsoever, you’re going to get the help you need. So we all have to just pay attention to our minds and bodies and spirits. We have to stay strong. Do your best to always take good care and be kind to one another. That’s what it’s all about, being kind. Being kind is a domino effect. And when you do it, everybody else does it. And that effect can help change the world.”