Howie Klein: modern music man

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday March 16, 2021
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Howie Klein (left_ with the band U2
Howie Klein (left_ with the band U2

Depending on how long you've lived in San Francisco, and by extension, how long you've been reading the Bay Area Reporter, the name Howie Klein may be familiar to you. Klein, who wrote about music for the BAR 40 or so years ago, was a radio DJ who co-founded the legendary 415 Records label. 415 was home to important San Francisco bands including Romeo Void, Wire Train, Translator, The Nuns, Pop-O-Pies, and Pearl Harbor and the Explosions, to name a few.

In Los Angeles, Klein went on to work for major label conglomerate Warner Brothers/Reprise/Sire where he supervised artists including Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Depeche Mode, The Pretenders, The Smiths, Talking Heads, Green Day and others.

I had the privilege of speaking with Klein, who is openly gay, about record label Liberation Hall's series of reissues of albums by 415 Records acts including the Readymades, the Uptones and SVT, as well as his work as a progressive political activist.

Gregg Shapiro: You and Chris Knab named your San Francisco-based indie record label 415 Records. 415 is both the police code for disturbing the peace, as well as the San Francisco area code. Was that coincidental or intentional?

Howie Klein: We had both in mind when we named the label. We thought it was cute and we liked it. We didn't think it was deep, we just thought it was cute.

I lived in Boston in the early 1980s while attending Emerson College as a writing major. If I remember correctly, Romeo Void, a band on 415 Records, even came to Boston to record its Never Say Never EP at Ric Ocasek's Synchro Sound Studio.

It was even more wonderful than that. They came to Boston because we were selling significant numbers of records there. That was because of all the airplay, basically because of [WBCN DJ] Oedipus, who loved Romeo Void.

I loved Oedipus! He was the best DJ ever!

Yes, Oedipus was wonderful. He was very supportive of the 415 stuff including the Romeo Void music before "Never Say Never." In any case, they came there to play a show and Ric Ocasek was at the show and he was blown away. He went up to the band and said, "I have my own studio. If you have any songs, I'd be happy to record them with you." There was nothing planned ahead. The band had a song that they hadn't recorded yet, which was "Never Say Never," and they went into the studio with Ric and recorded it. It changed their lives, changed my life, changed Chris' life, all our lives.

Being that you had a background in radio, how significant was it that you, as the head of a label, had that kind of attention being paid to your artists on the radio?

It makes all the difference in the world. For one thing, it's no longer true, but at that time, in the late 1970s and early '80s, radio was basically almost the only way to get a band known outside of the immediate circle of its hometown where it could play live all the time.

The reason that Romeo Void broke out of a few cities around the country —Boston being one of them— was because there were cool radio stations. The college stations, BCN and FNX, suddenly turned Romeo Void into something real that then sold and was on charts. Then people from other record labels would see that; bigger labels that were then interested in working with the band.

Howie Klein (right) with the band Green Day  

Currently, record label Liberation Hall is reissuing titles by 415 Records artists. What does it mean to you to be able to have bands that you championed back then being rediscovered or discovered for the first time by listeners?
Oh, I love it. I'm so happy about it. There's not any real business between Liberation Hall and 415. It's not really a money situation. In order for me to license the music to them, I just asked them to donate some money to Bernie Sanders' campaign. That's the only money involved. If they suddenly start selling millions of records, which I don't expect and no one else does either, then all the bands would start making some money and I'd even make a little bit of money.

But that isn't what this is about. This is about exactly what you said: pride in the music and getting that music out to people. Remember, when 415 was putting out records, there were no CDs. A lot of this music has never been available on a CD before. I'm saying this at a time when people don't even know what a CD is anymore. What I'm saying is that the music was never before available digitally.

Following your experience with 415 Records, you were at Sire, Warner Brothers, and Reprise. In addition to your work there with both cutting edge and classic rock bands, you also brought Joni Mitchell and Neil Young back to the fold at Reprise. Would you consider that to be among your most significant acts while in the Warner family or is there something else that has more importance to you?
That's like asking a parent which of their children is more important to them. I worship people like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. On top of that, I also personally love Joni Mitchell. I love Neil, too. It's just that I was personally closer to Joni just because more than anything else she lived here [laughs] in LA. I was able to grab a meal with her every now and then.

Howie Klein (center) with the band Rude Girl  

But I love both of those people. When I was in college, many years before I worked at a record company, I booked both of them to play at my school. That's how far I go back with both of those artists. On the other hand, where I'm standing right now in my house, I'm looking at a painting that was done by Dave Gahan.

From Depeche Mode.
That's right. Dave had some problems, and he was in a rehab center for a while. The doctor who was taking care of him in rehab encouraged him to exorcise his demons by doing a painting. He did the painting and literally the minute he got out [laughs] he had the limo take him to my house and handed me the painting, which I am looking at as we speak right now.

It would be hard for me to say that any one artist is more important to me than any other artist. I knew all the artists I worked with and, on one level or another, had a meaningful and important relationship with them and with their music, especially. Whether they were on 415, by the way, or they were on Sire or Warner Brothers or Reprise, they were all really important to me.

In addition to your lengthy career in music, you are renowned for your political activism, particularly progressive causes. How much of that do you ascribe to your connection to the punk rock scene and how much of it can be attributed to having lived in San Francisco and being gay, or are they all connected?
I could spend an hour talking with you about a very close old friend of mine named Harvey Milk but let's not go down that road.

Howie Klein with Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators at the Mabuhay Gardens.  

There is something important about the question that you asked me. What it has to do with is the connectivity between the kind of music that I like and what music does to people, and the political feelings that I have.

Let's go back to when I was in college. The kind of artists that I was I was playing on the radio and that I was booking to play at my school were all cutting edge artists. In those days, that was a hippie time.

The very first band I ever booked was a band from New York called The Fugs. I was like I was a freshman class president at the time and I booked them to play the freshman class dance. At that dance, which was packed, you couldn't move, it was in a small lobby. Bob O'Connor, the captain of the basketball team, who was the opposite of me in every way, came up to me. You could see the vein on his neck was pulsing, his very white face was very red. He looked like he wanted to tear my head off. He started screaming in my face that his girlfriend was so offended by this smut that I brought to the school and she couldn't get out of this place because there was no room to get out; it was too crowded.

At that moment I realized if music can do this, get someone so emotional like this, this is something I have to look into further [laughs]. It wasn't the decisive factor, but it was one of the things that helped me decide to be in the music industry. I could spend hours talking about the connection between cutting edge music and progressive politics, and there always has been.

Howie Klein in Istanbul  

If you haven't done so yet, have you thought about writing a memoir?
Funny you should mention that. Of course, I've thought about writing a memoir. I do write a blog and I sometimes write about my stories in the blog. I lived overseas for almost seven years. Spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, India, Nepal. I lived in Amsterdam for four years. There's been a lot to my life. My Harvey Milk part would be a chapter in and of itself.

My favorite writer in the world is Dostoevsky, and I felt like I wasn't entitled to write an autobiography until I had written a book as good as The Brothers Karamazov, which was never going to happen.

The reason your question is interesting now is that an author recently approached me and asked me if she could write my biography. I'm spending a lot of time now thinking about it. At first, I was very excited, and I told her yes. The more I thought about it, the more I thought I don't know.

There are going to be a lot of things that are very hard to deal with; things that I don't know should be brought up. A lot of my life has been very public. The way people interpret what happens or what happened is different for everyone. Experience and truth are sometimes at variance with each other.

Some of those things were very public, like what happened what really happened on the night of the San Francisco riots, for example, after the death of Harvey Milk, or what actually happened to Dan White. I don't know that I want to tell that story publicly. Maybe if this came out after I was dead that would be a better way to handle it. But I don't think that the author is interested in spending a year writing a book for it to come out after I died [laughs].

Finally, is there one band that you're currently loving and want to share with readers?
When you say right now, you could be talking about in the last week, in the last day, in the last hour. That's how it is for me. When I go on YouTube now, immediately every song by a band called Las Cafeteras pops up. The reason for that is because I've been listening to Las Cafeteras so much [laughs] that YouTube keeps feeding me that. That's a band from East LA. I've never seen them play live. Someone turned me on to them because they did a really wonderful version in Spanglish of "Georgia On My Mind." They did the song for one reason, which was the election. I loved it so much that I went to see what else they've done in the past. They've been around a long time. I found so much music that I love that I can't stop listening to them. I want to turn everybody onto Las Cafeteras.

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