Sometimes, I like our business better than others. This isn’t one of those times. I lost a friend this week. We all did, even though most of you reading this Editorial didn’t know Michael Atkinson. Too bad. You should have.
Michael was a promotion manager at Columbia Records in the 1970s. He was one of the best. He also was executive producer on a few albums for artists you’ve never heard of. Like Michael Jackson.
I first met Atkinson when I was PD of KHJ Los Angels. Columbia was trying to resurrect Sly Stone’s career and talked me into doing an interview with the “new and improved” version. Michael brought Sly to the station. Despite Columbia’s promises, the interview was a disaster. I was angry and embarrassed. Mike was 6’1” when he arrived at KHJ that day… much smaller when he left.
Out of this strained beginning, a wonderful friendship was born. One of the great things about Michael was his ability to laugh in the face of disaster. He always managed to find something funny about everything that happened around him professionally. That was his life. Unfortunately, he wasn’t so quick to find humor in his personal affairs. That was his death.
Bob Sherwood, who headed up Columbia’s promotion team at the time, joined with Michael and I on some odd journeys, Being a true son of the South, I was colorful. These two California boys weren’t. So they borrowed shamelessly from my life and vocabulary. The three of us used the same greeting toward each other for over 20 years.
You had to be there.
“Son” took me to Las Vegas to see Charlie Rich. We had to sit through his performance, so Michael and I began drinking heavily. A very mediocre comedian from New Orleans opened the performance and we began to heckle him unmercifully. When he started a bit about the great football team in Louisiana, I screamed, “Go Tigers!” The LSU Tigers are revered in the state.
The poor guy stared weakly into the audience and moaned, “I was talking about the Saints.”
This was extremely funny to Dr. A. It must have been the booze. For years, he sent me memorabilia from LSU…everything from pillowcases to stuffed animals inscribed, “Go Tigers.”
Michael left Columbia and joined a start-up trade publication that became his life. For 17 years, Michael was the conscience of Radio & Records. The publishers came and went, but Michael was a fixture.
When I was appointed captain of the ship of fools known as Network 40 six years ago, I tried to hire Michael.
“I love R&R, he said. “It’s my life.”
Later, when I started beating R&R unmercifully, Mike would call when I went too far. “Son,” he would begin, “although most of what you’re saying is true, accusing Joel of murder is a bit over the line.”
About a year ago, Michael was fired from R&R. It was a tragedy. Dr. A lost his job. R&R lost its conscience.
Michael never recovered.
I immediately offered him a gig. So did many others. We talked to him of a new beginning. He talked of betrayal. We spoke of the future. He couldn’t forget the past.
Inevitably, Michael became a statistic. In our business, we are quick to apply labels. If you have a job, you’re a winner. If you’re out of work, you’re a loser. The truth is, anyone who labels others is loser.
Michael was a good friend…always willing to go the extra mile to help out. However, as good a friend as Michael was to others, he couldn’t accept our friendship in his time of need. Ultimately, Michael cared more about what the creeps in our business said about him than what his friends thought.
It’s a sad commentary.
Sadder still is the fact that all of his friends did all we could. We offered help. He refused. We called. He never picked up the phone. We knocked. He didn’t open his door. We sent letters that remained unopened.
In this instance, those of us who believe we can change the world were unable to save one life.
We are the losers.
The moral of this Editorial? There are several. We should all struggle to find the good in others as quickly as we point out their shortcomings. There is more to our lives than our jobs…we need to judge our worth by who we are, not what we do. We need to learn how to accept help as well as we give it. Labels are too easy to apply and we’re all better than that.
Michael Atkinson’s life and times are proof positive of all the above…and more.