“I’ve heard hundreds of thousands of records,” Seymour Stein says on the phone from Athens, where the seventy-five-year-old co-founder and president of Sire Records and vice-president of Warner Bros. Records is on a working vacation, en route to a music-industry festival in Cannes. His estimate may be too low. Stein signed the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Madonna, and brought to American shores a canon of indie music: the Smiths, the Cure, Depeche Mode, the Beat, Echo and the Bunnymen, Soft Cell. “I just put it out because it’s a great record,” he says.
What makes a great record? “A great song.”
And what makes a great song? “I’ll just tell you,” he says, with a sigh, “that the only answer to the question can be found in a song written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s from ‘South Pacific’ and the name of the song is ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’ But forget the name of the song. The line goes, and I don’t mean to insult you with this, but the line is, ‘Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.’ O.K.?”
So, why write a memoir? “I was asked.”
As was Grace Jones, who wrote a miracle of a memoir, called “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs,” in which she persuasively locates the genesis of her genius inside hurricanes of evangelical Christianity, physical and psychological abuse, and twentieth-century art, while only deepening the mystery of her music. Carrie Brownstein and Viv Albertine both wrote thrilling memorials to under-respected scenes (riot grrrl and post-punk, respectively) that explicate what they were fighting for, and at what cost. In Stein’s new memoir, “Siren Song,” he does little of any of this. What he’s up to, he tells me, is his own kind of evangelism. “I want to see a continuation of the music business, and the point I want to drive home is: start young.”
Born Seymour Steinbigle in 1942, with a hole in his heart, in the center of Jewish Brooklyn, he couldn’t get early R. & B. stormers like Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” out of his head. As a teen-ager, he began selling ice cream on Coney Island for record money, telling anyone who’d listen that someday he’d work in the music industry. “The first step in any teen-age ambition is to fake the persona you wish to become; the next is believing it