WHEN JON PODELL BECAME EXECUTIVE VICE-PRESIDENT AND WORLDWIDE HEAD of music at ICM, the mega-agency, last year, he regretfully informed the decorator working on his spacious 57th Street office that he wouldn’t be hanging any gold or platinum records there. During his 27 years in the rock business, Podell had collected dozens of the coveted commemorative discs, markers of his status as rock-and-roll royalty. But Podell’s gold records are now gone, along with many of his other most personal possessions. “I don’t know. I lost them,” he sighs. “My Coca-Cola-memorabilia collection-I don’t know where it went. My pocket-knife collection that my father started when I was 9 I sold for half a gram of coke in a crack house on 78th Street.”
Jonny Podell was once the hottest agent in rock, a lunatic legend as large as Keith Moon with a taste for drugs said to rival that of Keith Richards. But ten years later, Podell hit bottom-divorced, homeless, and cross-addicted to heroin, crack, Dilaudid, Valium, and a virtual pharmacopoeia of exotic uppers and downs. We’ve been talking about his astonishing comeback for several days. “I’m a guy that is very, very, very, very, very grateful,” he says in a stone-washed whisper. “I had nothin’. Nothin’. I lost almost everything.”
Since then, Podell has slowly been crawling back to the top. It wasn’t too long ago that he was assumed dead and ICM’s share of the concert-booking business was dying, eaten up by CAA and other rivals. But then Podell came onboard, breathing new life into the firm and wooing performers away from the competition. International Creative Management now represents acts from the Butthole Surfers to Michael Bolton. And after a decade in the desert, Podell is once again a kingpin; if you’re playing clubs and dreaming of stadiums, he’s the man to see. In the harshly competitive music business, he ranks as one of the three most powerful agents. “Jon is the finest agent in the history of rock and ,roll,” gushes Phil Walden, the legendary founder of Capricorn Records. But Podell is more than just another high-profile drug casualty: In a business that’s no stranger to self-destruction, he’s the ultimate rock-and-roll revival act, a rare happy ending.
* * *
ON A BALMY SPRING AFTERNOON, THE RESURRECTED superagent is sitting in his office, with its mahogany blinds, chocolate-brown leather furniture, and green granite desk, covered with stacks of contracts for his personal clients-George Clinton, the Gypsy Kings, Alice Cooper, the Allman Brothers, Erasure, Love Spit Love. Podell’s a flurry of nerves, simultaneously chain-smoking a pack of red Marlboros, chomping gum, doing arithmetic in his head, and yammering impressive numbers into the phone (“On a 90-10 we could make a million seventy-four”) while giving “face time” to one of the twenty booking agents he supervises (“Rent? Capacity? Split? Commissions?”) and jotting down notes in a hand as wired and spindly as Jonny himself.
At 51, Podell is not quite handsome: Whippet-bodied and slightly weathered, he has thinning brown hair, olive skin, and carefully cultivated stubble. In his druggie days, what you first noticed was his eyes-magnetic and demented, they flashed and rattled like the stack of silver bracelets that decorate his arm. Nowadays, you are drawn to his smile, which can seem demented, too, until you realize his joy is genuine.
He spins around in his swiveling office chair, proudly pointing out the “stars” whose framed photos line every surface: Andy Warhol, Jimmy Carter, Lou Reed, Johnny Depp, Biz Markie (“the surprise guest at my son’s bar mitzvah,” he says), Teddy Pendergrass (“I’m bringing him back. I just got him a $400,000 book deal”). Photos of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant share shelf space with his most recent success story, David Blame, whose million-dollar ABC special-packaged by Podell and heralded by an unprecedented two months of prime-time promos — aired in May. “He doesn’t just book the deal; he makes sure it goes right,” says the 24-year-old magician, the latest in a long line of Podell’s proteges. “Jonny makes people’s dreams come true.” Podell made his first foray into the music business in 1965, scalping Beatles tickets at Shea Stadium. In the seventies, he single-handedly redefined the rock-booking business by creating the first boutique agency, toured Alice Cooper into a fortune, put Crosby Stills, Nash & Young in the Guinness Book of Records (for the then-highest concert gross of all time), and booked the first post-Beatles tour by a Beatle. But by the early eighties, he had descended into the spiral of drug addiction that would leave him destitute and suicidal. Now Podell is a man transformed — the perfect poster boy for this sober decade. “Jonny’s proved you can come back and succeed,” says music-business man Michael Klenfner. Podell appreciates the irony. After last year’s Grammy Awards, he hit a round of parties before heading home at 4 A.M. Once, he would have left with three babes on his arm and an eight ball in his pocket. Now, “walking out behind me,” he smirks, “there’s 16-year-old Bijou Phillips, 21-year-old Elijah Blue Allman, 22-year-old Sara Gilbert, 24-year-old David Blaine, and 15-year-old Cassidy Podell. My little ducks.”
* * *
I FIRST MET JON PODELL IN A BLIZZARD OF COCAINE. IN 1974, I spent several days following him around for a profile in a men’s magazine. “They’re doing my life story for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not,” he bragged. At the time, Podell was the most flamboyant agent in rock, and something of a wild man. His toothy, coke-fueled grin was a beacon that attracted people to him; his outsize generosity insured that they stayed. He was a carefully cultivated character: He delivered sexual innuendos, social slurs, and wild fabrications in a manner that combined a manic Queens patois with a flamboyant rock-star queeniness. He and his wife, Monica, were the prettiest, skinniest people on earth, swaddled in plush, pricey furs and creamy leathers. When Monica wasn’t around, other women usually were.
“He was truly a rock star, a legend,” says Alice Cooper. “We’d get up in the morning and read his reviews in the paper.” One night after an Alice Cooper concert, Podell visited Ashley’s, the Balthazar of that moment. He parked his Rolls right in front, and as a crowd gathered and a photographer furiously snapped pictures, he mounted his car like a bull, the car’s famous winged hood ornament, the Spirit of Ecstasy, sprouting between his legs. Two groupie types, decked out in trash and flash, clambered up there with him.
Podell was also on hand the night George Harrison was playing the last of three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Podell was Harrison’s agent, thanks in large part to Bill Graham, rock’s golden-age impresario and Podell’s professional mentor. In time, Graham also became the agent’s moneylender, his protector, and finally the leader of the intervention that freed Podell from the grip of hard drugs. That night, Graham wore a necklace with the word BAD spelled out in gold letters. Podell had one, too; his said BADDER.
I trailed Podell from the backseat of his Rolls to the bowels of the Garden. As we disembarked, the agent handed me his bulging cosmetics bag; he didn’t want to spoil the line of his skintight white suit. We went backstage. The minute Podell turned his back, a security goon was upon me; my pass wasn’t sufficient to get me into the Garden’s tightly guarded inner sanctum. I was pushed outside a velvet curtain and ordered to wait. A few minutes passed before Podell reappeared and rescued me. Twice more, the goon pushed me out; the last time, he warned the sentries they’d be fired if I got past them again.
Finally Podell summoned Graham, who squeezed my cheeks like a grandfather and shoved my head in the sentries’ direction. “You see this face?” he barked. “It stays!” Only when we were back in the Rolls after the show did I discover the reason for Podell’s intent solicitousness. The pouch I’d been holding for him contained a mountain of cocaine.
A few nights later, we were in Podell’s apartment: a plush, dark cave in the East Fifties decorated with gold records and thousands of dollars’ worth of music boxes and Coke memorabilia. We pushed an official Alice Cooper promotional cocaine mirror back and forth between us as Podell reminisced on his life up to the age of 28, the conversation punctuated by the sound of razor hitting glass and sharp sniffs.
* * *
BORN IN THE BRONX TO MIDDLE-CLASS JEWISH PARENTS, PODELL breezed through Forest Hills High, Queens College, City College, and NYU but never got his master’s degree because he neglected to write his thesis. “I was a genius,” he boasted that night. “It’s only recently that drugs dulled my brain.” In college, Podell was introduced to the music business; he worked mixers and sometimes scalped tickets. After college, he briefly taught at P.S. 17. He fell in love with a girl he met on National Boulevard in Long Beach. Monica Faust looked like a cross between Jean Shrimpton and Little Orphan Annie. She wouldn’t give him the time of day.
He got a job as a jewelry salesman. Then, hoping to meet girls, he went to work for a record plugger with the memorable moniker Morty Wax. A year later, in 1969, he got a job as an agent at Associated Booking Company (ABC), an agency that had specialized in booking rhythm-and-blues bands. As the house hippie, Podell started out with minuscule responsibility-booking “junior colleges in Providence, Rhode Island, starting with the letter W,” he joked. But by the early seventies, he was booking big rock acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Canned Heat. His social life improved as well. After a dogged courtship, he finally won over Monica in 1970.
Podell’s first musical coup was the Allman Brothers, whom he met at the start of their career. “At first I thought he was a little bit jive,” admits Gregg Allman. ” ‘Course, everything back then was a little overdone ’cause everybody was high as a kite. But you could see through all that to the realness behind the man.” Under Podell’s shrewd tutelage, the Allmans went from playing college dances to headlining the closing night of the Fillmore East. His next project was shock-rocker Alice Cooper, whose co-managers, Shep Gordon and Joe Greenberg, kidnapped Podell, handcuffed him in a limousine, and flew him first-class to Detroit to see their band play. “In New York, they weren’t worth $100,” Podell said, but he saw potential where others saw putridity: When Bill Graham heard Podell had signed the outre Cooper, he sent the agent a letter notable for its prodigious use of profanity.
“Jonny’s plan was to play anyplace that will have you,” says Cooper. By the time of its Billion Dollar Babies tour in 1974, the band had become one of the biggest acts in the world. At one stadium date, Podell stuffed $100,000 in cash-the night’s proceeds-in his socks. A hefty percentage of it would end up in his nose. One night, Cooper barged into a backstage bathroom where Podell was using a gold spoon to snort coke from the hollowed-out gold peanut he wore around his neck. “You’re really starting to believe this Billion Dollar Babies bullshit, aren’t you?” he snapped. “I’m surprised the coke’s not gold, too.”
Despite his excesses, however, Podell inspired intense loyalty from his bands. “It’s a camaraderie that has to do with heart and music and tragedy and overcoming tragedy and making beautiful music,” Gregg Allman says. “I love him like I did my brother Duane.” He also became a legend among the young promoters who would soon come to rule the rock roost. John Scher-now a top promoter, then a student booking shows in a Jersey skating rink-arrived at ABC’s Park Avenue headquarters one night to pick the agent up for dinner. Knocking on a half-closed office door, he accidentally pushed it open, and there was Podell, inT-shirtirt, leaning back behind a massive oak desk, wearing a big, stupid smile and moaning. “Then out from under the desk crawls this incredibly waify, supermodel-gorgeous, doe-eyed woman,” Scher marvels, laughing. “She said, `Bye, Jonny’ and we went to dinner.”
Podell quit ABC in 1972, when he started seeing Allman Brothers routing sheets in his head while making love. “In a flash of brilliance, I quit, asked Monica to marry me, and moved to an apartment that was twice as expensive, all in the same week.” He acknowledged he’d been taking psychedelic pills called `blue fucks’ every morning for some time. Alice Cooper saved the day by paying for a first-class honeymoon-and inadvertent detoxification-in Maui; as his gift, Shep Gordon offered Podell the chance to book an Alice Cooper tour for commissions that matched his salary at ABC.
Not long afterward, Podell decided to open his own booking boutique, which he named BMF, after Cooper’s description of him: “the baddest motherfucker you ever met.” Determined to run his company as a guerrilla operation, Podell refused to list BMF’s phone number, a pretense that infuriated Gordon. “I took out a full-page ad in Billboard and put his home phone number in it,” Gordon gleefully recalls.
At the time, the business was dominated by huge, bureaucratic agencies like Premier Talent and ABC. Quirky and fearless, BMF quickly shook things up. “Jon made his own rules, and the acts loved it,” says Chip Rachlin, an ICM agent at the time. “He was the first national agent. No single agent had that kind of control.” In 1974, BMF landed the Crosby Stills, Nash & Young summer stadium tour and George Harrison’s winter arena tour. In the next two years, Podell signed Lou Reed and the burgeoning Blondie. He was sitting on top of the rock world. And then his life began to unravel.
* * *
TWENTY-THREE YEARS AFTER OUR FIRST INTERVIEW, PODELL AND I meet to do another. This time the focus is drugs. Podell sampled his first joint in the sixties. He started getting high on a regular basis as a way to combat his natural reticence. “I found out the key to getting dates was drugs,” he says. “They made me older, taller, faster, sharper, better.” He first tried cocaine with the manager of one of his acts-a stretch-limo cowboy who controlled the lucrative publishing rights to early acid-rock hits and spent the proceeds on the stuff he dubbed “glow.”
By 1974, Podell was making half a million dollars a year at BMF He blew much of it on cocaine. “The clients were fucked up, the managers were fucked up, but it was tolerated,” says John Scher. “Jon got business done. Then there came a time when he couldn’t do it anymore.” Podell’s drug of choice was cocaine, with a Valium chaser. He hired seaplanes to fly his stash to Fire Island. “I was out of control,” he says. “But I was fun and people liked me, so no one wanted to confront me.” Not even Jimmy Carter. When the Georgia governor announced he was running for president, Capricorn’s Phil Walden, an early supporter, arranged a meeting with Podell. Later, the candidate complained he hadn’t understood a word the strung-out agent had uttered.
People laughed when he turned up for concerts a day early, but his life had slowly turned into a real-life version of This Is Spinal Tap-played as tragedy instead of farce. A few days before I interviewed him in 1974, he’d smashed up his Rolls and been arrested for hitting several cars and for public intoxication. Hauled before a judge, he fell down on the courtroom floor. Back in jail, he made an ass of himself. “Give us a cigarette,” he heckled the guards. “There’s no mustard on the bologna. Where’s the sugar? The cuffs are too tight. You pulled my hair.” He laughs. “I was a piece of work.”
Over the next ten years, he would be arrested at least six more times. One particularly memorable rampage began in Las Vegas, where he’d booked a series of casino gigs for Alice Cooper. After an all-nighter spiced by an encounter with several burly casino security men, Podell flew to Los Angeles to cop some heroin, then caught a plane back to New York. “I was a mess, I guess,” he says, explaining how he got into an argument with a flight attendant and a pilot, pulled out a pocket knife, and began stabbing the seat next to him. He woke up to find himself in chains at Newark airport. The charges were eventually dropped. “I didn’t do anything,” he says, smiling sheepishly. “I got mad at a seat.”
* * *
PHIL WALDEN RESPONDS WITH A LONG, THOUGHTFUL PAUSE WHEN I ask him what happened to Podell. “Peer pressure, youth, and ambition; insecurity, pain, shortcomings,” he says. Podell himself blames his troubles on fear. “I was scared,” he says. “I was having too much fun. I didn’t know how to handle it. I couldn’t have a conversation like this, so I got high. Did I stop and think, This is not normal? I knew it wasn’t normal, but I liked being different. I was invulnerable.”
His daughter, Brittany, was born in 1977. Podell claims he quit drugs while Monica was pregnant, “which meant I would only do a little coke and a little Valium and try to come home for dinner.” At the same time, the Podells bought a huge house with a swimming pool in Englewood, New Jersey. He finally had it all; unfortunately, that included impeccable sources for heroin, opium, Dilaudid, and cocaine.
By then, an era was ending. The Allman Brothers broke up as a result of drug and personality problems. Alice Cooper stopped drinking and eased out of the fast lane. Podell’s business relationship with Lou Reed-which singer Elliott Murphy described as “a marriage made in the emergency room”-flatlined. Blondie said good-bye, too. BMF went out of business soon after. “We all just faded into black,” Podell says.
Ostensibly, he was still in business, working out of his attic in Englewood, but he spent most of his time up there smoking freebase, his glass pipe burbling behind his ever-more-incoherent phone calls. Soon, he gave up the pretense of normalcy and began spending his days in New York getting high. Though he’d head back to Englewood at 6 P.m., he wouldn’t arrive until early morning, stopping his car every few feet to smoke more freebase, “ducking below the dashboard, lighting the torch, paranoid-`What if somebody sees me?’ ” he says.
One morning at 4 A.M., somebody did. Podell was inching through Englewood when a patrol car suddenly pulled up behind him. “It’s like a movie,” he remembers. “I’m dead. I start to drive. I do a series of right turns to put my car out of their vision. It’s a lot of paraphernalia involved-you got a pipe, you got a torch, you got lighters, you got stirrers, you got shakers — it’s making martinis. With each right turn, I open the door and drop a little more paraphernalia, the stirrer, the pipe, the coke. There’s four cars behind me. There’s sirens. There’s a car on every corner in front of me-eight [police cars].” A moment later, he was lying facedown on the pavement with a bloody nose and a broken rib. “I can only think of Monica killing me,” he says, “killing me!” When he called his wife from jail, she slammed down the phone.
His friends began to grow alarmed. “I heard rumors,” says Walden. “We had a meeting and Jonny literally couldn’t talk. His motor system was in disarray” Walden staged an informal intervention and persuaded Podell to enter a clinic in Georgia. But the rehab didn’t take. “I was petrified,” Podell says. “Am I going to become the hole in the doughnut? I thought I’d lose my personality. You’re so sure it’s all fueled by heroin and cocaine.”
Soon after he emerged from rehab, Walden made him a partner in Paragon, the booking agency he co-owned in the South. Podell opened a New York branch. But every morning before work, he would withdraw $200 from a cash machine to score some smack. Soon, Paragon New York went broke and shut down. Podell left Monica, tried unsuccessfully to kick heroin alone in a 53rd Street studio, attempted rehab again, and moved back home. Cassidy was born in 1981. “We hoped that would straighten me out,” Podell says. “But it didn’t. It didn’t.”
His world grew smaller. The few friends who didn’t shun him were as messed up as he was. “Both our drug use got out of hand,” says Walden. “Our relationship was very strained. Then I fell off the edge of the world and disappeared.” The two rarely spoke again until the late eighties, when Walden joined a recovery program, too.
Podell got another job, with an agent named Norby Walters, but he was still scary, thin, and hyper. “He unraveled right in front of my eyes,” says Ron Stone, a notable rock manager who remained a friend. “He went from a brilliant, positive life force into a disastrous human being. He’d show up at my house in Laurel Canyon at all hours to borrow money, and I wouldn’t see him again for months.” One day Walters caught Podell shoving drug toys into his desk drawer. “What was that?” he demanded. “Never mind,” Podell answered. “I quit.”
Finally, he had only one client left-the Psychedelic Furs. “The manager calls every day” Podell says, “and I cannot pick up the phone. I get some courage, I calm down, I take another hit, it gets me paranoid, 1 can’t pick up the phone. I’m driving into New York every day, freebasing, can’t come home. Finally, he goes, `Jonny, we have to let you go.’ That was the end.” Podell’s marriage crumbled. He finally left for good at the end of 1982.
Podell spent the next year moving in and out of friends’ houses. When his contacts ran out, he slept in his car, trading his possessions for drugs or borrowing money from a shrinking circle of friends. For a time, he crashed on a couch on West 98th Street, owned by two star-struck musicians from Chile. “I’d con somebody out of a couple hundred bucks, freebase all night, and finally get to sleep.” he remembers. “I was only clear when I’d get up in the morning. I could feel my energy being drained. I’d sit there morning after morning and say to myself, `I can’t do this anymore. Stop or kill yourself. OD or suicide.’ And then I’d see my kids in school, with somebody walking down the hall behind saying, `His dad OD’d,’ or `Her dad committed suicide.’ Over and over again.”
Soon, Podell had even run out of friends to get high with. He started carrying all his paraphernalia with him in a cosmetics case; he’d ask dealers to let him smoke on the spot. One night in 1983, he flagged a cab outside a crack house at 5 A.m. The driver sped to a remote, secluded clearing where he and a confederate grabbed Podell’s last valuables, beat him and left him bleeding in the street. “I felt like a cockroach,” he says. “I had no money, I had no anything. That was the bottom.”
* * *
TWO YEARS HAD PASSED SINCE PODELL’S SPLIT WITH MONICA. He was despondent and close to the breaking point when a friend from the music business threw him a lifeline. “She told me, `I’ll feed you, you can use my phone, you can have your friends over, you can even get high.’ ” In exchange, she demanded $3,000 and a promise that Podell would see a psychiatrist, which she’d pay for with his money. “I said I didn’t have it,” he recalls. “She said, `You always find money for drugs. You need help. You’re going to lose your kids.'”
As low as he sank, however, Podell never abandoned his children. “There was no time when we didn’t see him,” Brittany says. “He was always together enough to play some part.” It was on such a visit, under Monica’s wary supervision, that he received a serendipitous call from a friend in Alcoholics Anonymous, inviting him to a meeting.
The call proved to be a turning point. Slowly Podell set about patching his life together. His sister suggested he sell clothes at Charivari, where he was once a regular customer. But Podell didn’t want anyone to see him. “So we agreed I’d be a box boy at the Red Apple on 98th and Broadway,” he says. “It was far enough away that nobody was going to see me.” Presented with a job application, Podell crumbled. “I had forgotten how you live, brush your teeth, go to work,” he says. Then a friend spotted a want ad: “Young, intelligent, motivated sales people wanted.” The next day Podell met Pam Hum, a young entrepreneur who was looking for people to sell her novelty “massage” pillows (she later became the third wife of Tonight Show sidekick Ed McMahon). “I went door-to-door,” Podell recalls. “First day I make $6. Second day, $12. Third day I make no dollars. Fourth day I make $40 and I go, `Look out, God! Here I come!'”
Soon, Hum had made Podell her manager. They rode the bus home together every night. She gave him motivational books to read; today he passes them out to his ICM staff. “I knew he was special, and I told him he was destined to do wonderful things,” she says.
In fact, he started almost immediately, as Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith, can attest. Tyler and Podell first met in the seventies. “I can’t say that I partied with him or copped from him or gave him drugs; I just remember meeting him,” Tyler says. Their next encounter was more memorable: In 1984, a surprised Tim Collins, Aerosmith’s then-manager, ran into Podell in a club and asked, “You’re still alive?” The agent’s answer kicked off a series of events that ended with all the members of the band getting clean and sober together. Though rumors have surfaced recently that Tyler is using again, the singer angrily denies them. “The five members of Aerosmith have ten-plus years sober,” Tyler says firmly. “Thanks to Jonny Podell.”
* * *
PODELL WAS A NEW MAN. BUT NOT FOR LONG. LATER THAT YEAR, after a promising $2 million business deal went bust, he landed back in rehab. When he got out, he found it impossible to land a job. In desperation, he called his old friends George and Charlie Fina, who’d inherited Michael C. Fina, the silver-and-jewelry company, where he’d worked after college. “Everyone in show business was fed up with him,” says George Fina. “But I believed he was going straight.” The Finas let Podell open a corporate sales department, which crafted awards for organizations. The first client he went after was the MTA, which was soliciting sealed bids for safety awards. “I not only got the job — eleven years later, Fina still has it and they’ve made over $3 million,” Podell says. “I started getting my confidence back.”
Increasingly, he became restless to get back into the music business. In the summer of 1985, he got his chance. Willard Alexander, an agency that made its name booking the big bands, asked Podell to start up a new contemporary-music department-a $50,000-a-year job. “Alice Cooper shows up,” Jon says. “He’s sober. I’m his agent. I sign the Beastie -Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I still had it.” Unfortunately Willard Alexander didn’t. In 1988, the struggling agency went bankrupt. Podell panicked, but once again, Bill Graham rode to the rescue. Mick Jagger wanted to tour South America. Graham convinced him that Podell, who’d booked Brazil for Alice Cooper, was the man for the job.
Podell flew to Rio to meet with promoters and corporate sponsors. On arrival, he called AA for an English-language meeting schedule. Come on Thursday, they said. “Unfortunately I called on Sunday and a funny thing happened on my way to the meeting. I saw a beautiful girl. I asked if I could buy her dinner. She explained she was a prostitute, do I want to party? And I said, `Can you get me some coke?’ ” He ended up cooking up batches of freebase cocaine in his hotel room. He even excused himself from a meeting with the president of an ad agency and returned 45 minutes later, drenched in sweat. Luckily, he ran out of money and called several friends in New York asking for some. Tim Collins said he’d get some money-but only if Podell came back to New York.
The homecoming wasn’t sweet; shortly after he arrived, his fed-up girlfriend broke up with him. Soon, Cassidy Podell was telling his sister, “I think something’s wrong with Dad again.”
Finally, a couple of friends from AA broke down his door and dragged him to a meeting. Several days later, he was shakily dressing for a wedding when his ex-girlfriend summoned him. Unbeknownst to Podell, she had contacted Collins-who was in a meeting with Bill Graham at the time-and together, they hatched a plan for an intervention. They had rehearsed for days, and now each person addressed Podell in turn. Graham spoke last. “I will always be your friend as long as you seek help. If not, you can just throw out my number.”
As far as Jonny was concerned, this was ridiculous; he’d been straight for the better part of four years. “After each person gives their speech, I go, `Fuck you, I don’t need you.’ I was consumed with hate,” Podell says. “But after eight of them, I’m running out of friends.” The group appointed Graham to finish up because he was the only one who could close this deal. It still wasn’t easy. They insisted that Podell go straight into rehab in Reading, Pennsylvania. He wouldn’t leave without seeing his children.
“I say to my kids: `Can I talk to you guys?’ ” Podell says. “Britt sits down. Cass is playing video games. `Listen, while I was in Brazil, I started using drugs. If I’ve been acting funny, that’s why. My friends have kind of interrupted and feel that I should go get help. I’m going to take their advice. I’m sorry if you’re, y’know, disappointed.’ Everybody’s crying. Britt’s crying, Monica is crying, Cass is playing video games, I’m crying, and off I go.”
When he got to rehab, there was a letter waiting from Steven Tyler, who was honeymooning in Bora Bora. “So,” it began, “you got caught with yo’ knickers down … I heard about your journey to Brazil … We have to get you a leash, boy. You almost lost it all this time … But you are the miracle that made me a miracle. Can you dig that? You saved my life … I was sinking like a rock. Now I’m rising like a rock star … You like me have got more people that love you and would do anything for you on your side, now do for yourself … ”
* * *
ONCE AGAIN, PODELL CAME BACK, WITH A little help from his friends. A colleague from Willard Alexander arranged a job for him at an agency named Variety. “They were willing to gamble I could keep it together,” he says. “I’d slipped, but I was on the path.” Then several more friends conspired to bring him back into the big leagues at William Morris. “We vouched for Jon and said, `This is somebody we want,’ ” says Ron Stone, whose management company represented several acts at Morris. “My faith was not misplaced.” He landed a job at William Morris soon after.
For Podell, corporate life was not easy. He took it “a day at a time, learning how to do it, forgetting to return my associates’ calls, not putting who’s more important’s name first [on memos]. It was a struggle.” But there were also perks: a new girlfriend-a model-and a new apartment with a terrace and a bedroom for the kids.
By 1989, Podell had been promoted to director of East Coast contemporary music. One of his first moves was to persuade Dickie Betts and Gregg Allman, the surviving stars of the defunct Allman Brothers Band, to put aside years of drugs, drink, and managerial differences and reform their band. This spring, the Allman Brothers Band was the No. 5 touring attraction in America. “He kept checkin’ on both of us and gettin’ us to check on the other until we both realized that the closer we stick together, the better off we are,” Allman says.
By the early nineties, Billboard was lauding Podell for rebuilding the lucrative concert business at William Morris. In the fall of 1994, ICM came courting with an offer to double Podell’s salary. He defected soon after, taking over ICM’s New York music division during a particularly troubled period at the agency. “ICM had taken a beating over the years,” says Bob Grossweiner, New York bureau chief of Performance magazine. “[It was] a sinking ship that was hemorrhaging clients because its top agents were feuding and refused to speak to each other.” Six months later, Podell lured Michael Bolton away from CAA.
Last June, after he was promoted to worldwide head of music, Podell vowed to make ICM No. 1 in music again-a position it hasn’t held in years. Since then, he’s pursued his goal with typical singleminded zeal. Podell has personally signed George Clinton, Bijou Phillips, Billy Idol, and Meat Loaf, and other ICM agents have landed Rod Stewart, L.L. Cool J, Julio Iglesias, Willie Nelson, and Michael Flatley, whose Lord of the Dance show is now the top-grossing touring act in America. At the same time, Podell has broadened ICM’s touring roster to include non-rock acts with broad-based appeal like David Blaine, “reinventing himself and ICM,” as John Scher puts it. Now, finally, he has the confidence to take a shot at his own dream: being the biggest-if not the baddest-again. “Tom Ross [Podell’s counterpart at the No. 1 music agency CAA] started out the same time I did,” Podell says. “He didn’t take a detour like I did, so all things considered, I’m doing good. I haven’t lost my enthusiasm, my energy, my heart, my memory. I never thought I could catch him.” The grin. “I can catch him now.”
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TIME AND AGAIN AS WE TALKED, PODELL SPOKE OF HIS children as the one thing in his life that prevented him from falling into the abyss. The turnaround for him was a Thanksgiving night soon after his umpteenth “recovery” when a skeptical Monica allowed the kids to sleep over at Podell’s home-a roach-infested apartment on Third Avenue with mattresses on the floor. He woke up in the middle of the night and suddenly knew he would make it. “The kids are asleep and I wake up and I can’t believe that I have them,” he says. “I’m sober, people like me again, my life is filled, and I just start to cry. I had averted the disaster. I didn’t die. That Thanksgiving night I’ll never forget.” Since then, Podell has tried not to look back. “From this point forward, I always need to give back,” Podell says, “’cause the miracle has already happened, I had my life restored, and I was restored, as they say in AA, to sanity. I’m not ashamed of where I’ve, been; I’m very fortunate that I was able to come back from that and establish a life. And you know it’s all by the grace of God. God’s grace. There is no other way to explain how something like this happens,” he says, happily surveying his plush domain. “‘Cause I’m not that smart. And I ain’t that good-looking.”
©1997 Michael Gross