On the trail of a cover-up in the record business

June 06, 1993|By Brenda Herrmann | Brenda Herrmann,Chicago Tribune

STIFFED: A TRUE STORY

OF MCA, THE MUSIC

BUSINESS AND THE MAFIA.

William Knoedelseder.

HarperCollins.

480 pages. $23.

From the rather dry subtitle, one would never guess that this first book by former Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Knoedelseder is actually a juicy true-crime tale set in the highfalutin world of the music business.

The idea behind the book arose in a simple, offhand manner. Mr. Knoedelseder, a record collector, often bought records from the discount, or cutout, bins of music stores. After noticing that many albums that could be found for $2 to $3 in the cutout bins also were being sold elsewhere for full price, he began wondering how it was that the same record could be sold in such different price ranges.

Trying to find the answer to that question put him on a path to record retailers, the record companies, the mob and, ultimately, a shocking government cover-up.

Mr. Knoedelseder starts his story in 1983 when Irving Azoff, manager of '70s rock phenomenons the Eagles and Steely Dan, unexpectedly becomes head of MCA Records.

There, Mr. Azoff (nicknamed "the poison dwarf" because of his 5-foot-2-inch stature and surly disposition) fires most of the staff and brings his own men into MCA's New York headquarters.

Curiously enough, one of the new hires is Sal Pisello, a reputed Mafioso. He takes charge of the cutouts business, selling millions of dollars of discounted and overstocked records to eager retailers.

Around the same time, Marvin Rudnick, a prosecutor for the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force, is handed "a simple tax case." The Justice Department wants to take Pisello to court for tax evasion. As Mr. Rudnick works the paper trail, he discovers Pisello inside MCA and making hundreds of thousands of dollars for himself (and not paying taxes on them) in a deal that doesn't even benefit his employer.

As the story develops, Mr. Rudnick moves from following a tax PTC dodger to trying to understand what ties the mob has to MCA and the rest of the music industry. Facts pile up: A cutouts retailer is assaulted by the mob and later taken into protective custody; FBI wiretaps show a distinct connection between Pisello and other mobsters; the media start picking up on the MCA/mob connections; and, all the while, MCA is using lawyers to shush people while pretending that Pisello doesn't even exist.

In addition to telling the main story, Mr. Knoedelseder devotes several chapters to another record industry/mob story that broke in the '80s -- that of independent record promoters using cash and cocaine to buy airplay on radio stations.

As Mr. Rudnick finally starts to close in, however, the Justice Department suddenly removes him from the case. Shortly afterward, it fires him on charges of insubordination.

The grief that Mr. Rudnick goes through because someone doesn't want this case pursued is the highlight of the book.

"Stiffed" is a well-researched and fully documented story -- exciting, interesting and full of colorful characters. But, in the end, it's disappointing because of the real-life fact that some of the story's mysteries are never solved.

Except for the sentencing of Pisello and a few low-level hoods, justice is never really served. MCA never answers the essential question: How did Pisello get inside?

But for anyone who collects records or has an interest in this glamour profession, "Stiffed" is an intriguing look at just how the entertainment industry will operate when it thinks no one is peeking.

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