David Libert has seen—and done—it all. From humble beginnings in Paterson, New Jersey, Libert went on to a musical career with the ‘60s doo-wop group the Happenings, whose hits included “See You in September” and “I Got Rhythm.” Libert then moved to the management side of the industry, in which he shepherded the careers of artists such as Alice Cooper and George Clinton. He’s met and worked with everyone from Prince to Guns N’ Roses and (spoiler alert), nearly became GNR’s manager!
Oh, and there was that little stint in a California jail for dealing drugs.
Now on the verge of turning 80, Libert has published a thrilling, amusing, and immensely entertaining memoir of his life titled “Rock and Roll Warrior,” in which he recounts the lessons he picked up from his parents as a young man, running with so many angels and devils in the music biz, and, of course, his ongoing friendship with Cooper.
“Rock and Roll Warrior” is now available from Sunset Blvd Books. Libert recently spoke to me (I also happen to be from New Jersey!), from his home in the desert near Palm Springs. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Why was now the right time for “Rock and Roll Warrior,” David?
For the last several years, a lot of friends of mine said, “You really ought to write a book; you’ve done all these things.” I never took it at all seriously. Fast forward to four years ago, my girlfriend Angie said, “They’re right, you do have a life story worth telling.” And it sort of became a labor of love.
I didn’t realize what an overwhelming undertaking writing a book really is. Otherwise, I might have thought twice about it. But I jumped in, and the result is “Rock and Roll Warrior.”
Getting a book published is so difficult. Did you already have an agent?
I didn’t have an agent. I am an agent, or I was an agent. So I actually sent some pre-published copies to a few people, and one of them was a music industry executive, Len Fico, who created and sold record companies over the last 30, 40 years. He was…thinking about starting a publishing company, and he fell in love with the book. So we put a deal together, and it was Sunset Blvd Books that released it.
What comes through in the early chapters is how important your relationship was with your mother and what an influence she had on your musical aspirations. How would your life have been different without her presence?
I would probably be the assistant manager of home appliances at Walmart right now if it wasn’t for those piano lessons.
She recognized, and my dad too, that I did have some musical ability. They encouraged me, but they didn’t insist. [But my mother] said, “If you say yes to these piano lessons, you can’t quit ever. You can’t quit till I tell you.” So I agreed.
After eight years, I guess I acquired some musical abilities and skills. So when my father passed away, my mother didn’t really have much control over me. I told her I’m going to quit the lessons and she said, “You said you would never quit!” Well, I don’t really care what I said; all my friends are out there playing basketball and stickball and having a good old time. I on the other hand am tethered to a keyboard. I’ve had enough, Mom.
But after years of classical lessons and chord theory, I had a pretty good basis which actually turned out to be the education that I could put to use for a career in music.
Do you still practice piano and vocalizing now?
I still play about four or five times a week. It sort of keeps my chops up, so to speak.
I don’t have the same voice that I used to have. I’m going to be 80 years old in a couple of months. I think it’s a miracle I’m still alive! I’ve sort of defied the odds, I think. But I like to play the piano, and I just enjoy it.
I live more of a leisurely life after working so hard for 50 years. I’m enjoying it, but part of the regimen is, yeah, I usually sit down at the piano most every day.
I’m told you have a Guns N’ Roses story that no one else does. Please share!
I got a call from the notorious Kim Fowley one night, who was the manager and producer of the Runaways. He was a very abrasive sort of guy [but] I liked him. I got a call from him saying, “David, go check out this band. They’re living in a storage locker just a couple of blocks away from you. Go check them out and tell me what you think.” It was Guns N’ Roses, and I was just blown away. They were very disciplined when it came to the music, as crazy as they were partying all the time, but they rehearsed hours every day. And they didn’t let any of the insanity interfere with that.
The songs are fantastic and they were really good musicians. The wild thing about it was they were the real deal, and by that I mean that they were never not Guns N’ Roses, whether they were altogether or by themselves. I don’t know if it was because of this confidence they had in themselves, but it was very intoxicating. You just knew there was no way in hell this band was not going to make it.
So I wanted to manage them, and the first thing I had to do was see if I could get them a decent place to live. The storage locker was a fine place for rehearsing, not so great for living—there was no running water. But I didn’t really have the resources at that moment to be able to finance any of this. In the end, I simply wasn’t able to pull the funds together.
We’re still friends, but we parted ways—and within a year, “Appetite for Destruction” was out, and you know the rest.
After being Alice Cooper’s tour manager at a crucial moment in his career, how often do you two speak now?
Once in a while whenever he comes anywhere near L.A. or out here in the desert, where I live, I always get a phone call from his organization. And I get invited to the show because I guess Alice and his lovely wife Sheryl get a kick out of seeing me.
Everybody is so deferential to him, and one of the things that we enjoyed doing way back when was being sort of un-deferential to each other and being good sports. I was making fun of him, saying “Listen, Sheryl, if you ever dump the old man, gimme a call.” But no one else is going to mess around with Alice like that!
He’s a great guy, and it was a wonderful experience being his tour manager. I’ve got a lot of fond memories of it all, most of which are in the book.
Tell me about your relationship with Prince.
While I was [managing] Sheila E, I saw him all the time. I think the last time I saw him was when Sheila and I parted ways. I became Sheila E’s manager because Prince went to his [own] management company, Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli, and said, “You’re going to be spending all your time managing me; go find someone to manage Sheila.”
So I somehow was deemed to be an acceptable choice. But once “Purple Rain” was finished, I guess Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli felt that they could manage Sheila E and Prince—and Prince wouldn’t mind. So that’s how I ended my management of Sheila E.
I ran into him at a disco and he gave me a big hello, and we got along pretty well, actually. Much better than most people, and I think that was because he was sort of diminutive in stature—only about 5’2”. I think he was socially very awkward, whereas Alice Cooper was a very charming and engaging kind of guy. He would go on “Hollywood Squares” and play golf with Perry Como. Prince would avoid those kinds of situations, as if it was the plague.
So Alice ruled out of love, Prince ruled out of fear, but [Prince] was always very nice to me, even though he was on a lot of occasions not very nice to almost anybody else. I think it was because he knew I had managed George Clinton, someone who he really idolized. I think it’s amazing Prince even cared what I thought about him, but in some way he did!
You did a stint in jail for dealing drugs, even though someone rather famous told you early on to stay away from them entirely.
Frankie Valli came down to the studio one night when the Happenings were recording because he was curious about this “other” New Jersey band. “Don’t do drugs! Don’t do drugs!” That was the advice he offered. I guess we didn’t get the message as clearly, but that’s all part of it.
Would you give that advice today?
I wouldn’t recommend doing anything self-destructive, whether it’s in pursuit of a music career or not. I guess it’s a chapter of my life, like a chapter in my book, [but] no, I don’t recommend being a drug dealer.
The music business has changed so much from when you were coming up a half-century ago. What advice would you have for 20-something musicians now that you maybe would have liked to have known at that age?
As difficult as it was when I was 22 years old, in the mid-’60s, the odds of making it maybe were a thousand to one then; it’s gotta be a million to one now. Now it’s easier to get your stuff heard, but it’s so diluted with the internet, and nobody really listens to radio like they did way back when, which was the primary source of where you listened to music. It’s all over the place today.
I think most people have to resign themselves that instead of seeking fame and fortune, you’ve just gotta love music enough to want to play it, and hopefully you get to eke out a living by doing live dates and things of that nature.
Since you have experience as a booker, are you planning a traditional book tour for “Rock and Roll Warrior”?
One of the things we’re kicking around is I’m going to go into some markets and do book signings. In the spring, I’m going to do a college lecture tour at schools that have music departments or communications departments.
Anybody can write a memoir, a book of all the crazy things that goes on in the music business. My book really isn’t like that; it’s not a tell-all, salacious type of memoir. It’s more how it all works: the business end. Sure, there’s a little bit of “that stuff” in the book, it’s rock n’ roll after all, and it does make the book interesting. But mostly, I focused on how it all worked, and I think this piqued the interests of certain schools because a lot of their students would be very interested in [understanding] the infrastructure of the music industry.
Do you have any plans to come to Washington, D.C., to promote the book?
Hopefully I will. I love the D.C. area. I have a lot of history there with Alice, who would play in Baltimore or at the Capital Center. Is the Capital Center still there? Does it still exist?
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Capital Center was demolished in 2002.]
And certainly [D.C.] was Parliament Funkadelic’s biggest market, and Bootsy [Collins’s] as well. So I have really fond memories of the D.C. area and the 9:30 Club. I think that when we start putting the book-signing tour together, the D.C. market will certainly be one we’ll be visiting.
You’ve done so much in your life, David!
It’s probably why I have no hair on top of my head, Eric.
Speaking of hair and makeup, if “Rock and Roll Warrior” is turned into a movie, who would you like to play you?
Most of it would suggest Pee-wee Herman. I would think Brad Pitt…no I’m just kidding. Who knows. They’re talking about it, so wouldn’t that be nice, turning it into a movie. I’ll be glad for anyone to play my part except maybe Quasimodo or somebody like that. Otherwise, I’ll leave it to the movie makers.
Where can people find the book?
You can buy it on Amazon, or if you want an autographed copy, you can go to RockandRollWarrior.com and get a copy signed by me.
Anything else you’d care to share with this fellow Jersey boy—and our audience?
Who am I to give anybody advice [but] pursue your desires with singlemindedness and don’t get distracted. There are no guarantees in life, but you will certainly increase the odds of your dreams coming to fruition if you look at it that way.
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
Recent Articles Keep Your Secrets of Washington D.C. have a new release, “trauma.” that was just debuted today on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, etc., that