By Jon Wiederhorn
The lobby of the Bowery Hotel was packed with music industry luminaries including Sire Records co-founder Richard Gottehrer and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye to celebrate the presentation of the first inaugural CBGB Icon Award to Sire-co-founder Seymour Stein, historically one of the most gifted label executives when it comes to discovering and signing new talent.
The hotel was filled with portraits of bands he has signed over his astonishing career: the Ramones, the Talking Heads, Dead Boys, Madonna, Depeche Mode, Echo & the Bunnymen, Tegan & Sara, and others.
When Stein and Gottehrer launched Sire in 1966, they started by looking overseas for talent from EMI and soon signed their first act Barclay James Harvest. Subsequent acts included Climax Blues Band, Ten Years After, Renaissance, and Stackridge. But it was at New York City's CBGB, which opened its doors in 1973, where Stein made some of his greatest musical discoveries. That's why Stein was the perfect recipient of the Icon Award, which kicked off the CBGB Music and Film festival October 8. Stein was close friends with CBs founder Hilly Kristal and worked with him over the years to sign bands that frequently played the club, including the Ramones, the Talking Heads -- and against the advice of many, the Dead Boys.
"That was a band that [CGBG owner] Hilly Kristal managed," said Stein said in a series of stories he told after Gottehrer presented him with the award. "They were a great f***ing band. They really were. And it’s sad [that vocalist Stiv Bators was hit by a taxi in France and died in 1990]. But [after I signed them they were playing and] I [went] down to that toilet. I mean, that really was a toilet. And I see up on the wall, 'Seymour Stein, you finally signed a great band, the Dead Boys.' So I get Stiv Bators and said, 'What is this?' And he said, 'I don’t know who wrote that.'"
Stein also spoke about the time he first heard the Talking Heads opening for the Ramones, who, at the time, were co-managed by his ex-wife. Stein actually thought a band called the Shirts were on the bill before the Ramones, because that's what Johnny Ramone told him.
"[The Ramones] were in and out of my apartment. They knew everything that was going on," recalled Stein. "One Sunday I come home and 10 minutes later the phone rings and it's Johnny. He goes, 'Seymour, y'know, we've got some new songs.' And I said, 'Look, it’s a Sunday. Give me one day to clear everything up, and come in any time you want Tuesday. And he said, 'Seymour, we know you’re not doing anything Wednesday night so we booked ourselves into CBGBs.' And I said, 'Great, I’ll see you there. Who’s the opening act?' And he said, 'The Shirts.' So I'm standing there with Lenny Kaye and all of a sudden I hear the opening band go on. [Stein starts to sing] 'When my love stands next to your love.' I couldn't believe what I was hearing."
He knew immediately the band wasn't the Shirts but couldn't place them. They sounded artsy but melodic. The guitars chimed, but were choppy. The vocals were nasal, yet insistent.
"The music actually was like a snake charmer that sucked me in," Stein reflected. "I said, 'Lenny, this isn't the Shirts!’ And he said, 'No, Hilly got them a paying job in Staten Island.' Because Hilly was managing them. 'These are the Talking Heads.' I was riveted. I just stood there for the entire set. Then I rushed over to the stage like I was 17 years old and I started helping [bassist] Tina [Weymouth], who was stronger than me even then. And David [Byrne] says to me, 'Look, we have a loft down at Chrystie Street. Why don’t you come and see us tomorrow?' And that’s how I found and signed the Talking Heads."
Even though Kristal didn't originally favor punk or new wave and named CBGB as an acronym for "country, bluegrass, and blues," the club never booked bands of that ilk. Instead, Kristal became instrumental as an icon of punk rock and a facilitator for the evolution of the New York music scene.
"I have a lot of great, great stories about Hilly and his vodka and Fresca," Stein said. "He was the greatest. He let everybody have a chance. And you never ever knew what you could expect. It was like a surprise every night. I love him for that."
Kristal died in 2007 at age 75 from lung cancer a year after CBGB closed due to a rent dispute.
Madonna was originally scheduled to speak at the Icon award ceremony but was unable to attend. So Stein's daughter Mandy read Madonna’s speech: "In my neck of the world, the word 'icon' gets thrown around quite a bit," she began. "It seems that there is no shortage of icons these days, but what about icon finders? That is a rare breed and a very short list. One name that belongs at the top of this list is Seymour Stein."
Madonna also wrote about her meeting with Stein and what makes him such an amazing label head. "Seymour believed in me when everyone else was closing the door in my face or writing me off as a one-hit wonder. He had faith in me, and our first meeting took place when he was in bed in his underwear, so I think we were off to a very good start. But seriously, he has a brain like an encyclopedia and he can even tell you the color of the label of any [vinyl] 45 that ever existed. He has golden ears, a golden heart, and a beautiful soul that is unique and rare. CBGBs is iconic. Sire Records is iconic. Seymour Stein is not only iconic, but a true legend."
During his own speech, Gottehrer explained how he first met Stein in the elevator of the Brill building and described that while their relationship had its ups and downs, he views Stein as family. He also shared anecdotes about the pair's early days in England when they were at the EMI building in London hunting for bands.
"The offices were on third floor of HMV [record] shop on Oxford Street," Gottehrer said. "I went back to the hotel one night because I had a cold, and in the middle of the night I was woken up and it was Seymour on the phone: 'Richard, help, me. Help me. I was listening to albums for us to acquire and I fell asleep and they locked the door of the record shop. I’m stuck here.' There was a friend we had, John Reid, who eventually became the manager of Elton John. I called him and said, 'Can you help us?' He called the managing director of EMI, Ken East. Fortunately, he was Australian. He was always drunk, so he found some humor in this. He got up, came down,and opened the door; and Seymour was able to escape. The moral of the story is that like everything else that Seymour did, it’s about the music. He fell asleep listening to the damn records, and the album that he found that time was Barclay James Harvest, who became huge in Germany."
Gottehrer added that the HMV incident wasn't the only time Stein mined magic in his sleep. There were occasions when the two label heads checked out bands and Gottehrer had to nudge Stein to wake him up. "I’d say, 'Wake up, wake up,'" said Gottehrer. "But here’s the thing. He'd get done and say, 'They were great. We're gonna sign them.' The truth is, however he heard it -- somewhere, even half asleep, he could find more hits than the whole room."
After the Icon award presentation, many of the attendees flocked to a screening of the movie CBGB, directed by Randall Miller. Attendees included ex Guns N’ Roses and Velvet Revolver bassist Duff McKagan; his daughter Grace and members of her band Pink Slips; Miller; and cast members Richard de Klerk, Joel David Moore, Julian Acosta, and Danielle Shaw.