If you walked down Washington Street in the ’80s—past gay bars and sex joints like Eagle’s Nest, Hellfire, and the Vault—you might have spotted Michael Alago on his way to a metal concert. The A&R executive, who signed Metallica to Elektra and White Zombie to Geffen, was an out gay Brooklynite who split his nights between S&M clubs with Robert Mapplethorpe and underground rock clubs with Lars Ulrich.
By 1990, though, Alago had a secret: He was HIV-positive. As he reveals in director Drew Stone’s recent Netflix documentary, Who the Fuck Is That Guy?: The Fabulous Journey of Michael Alago, it wasn’t an admission he could share with his boss. “At Elektra, the few gay people I knew would come to my office, close the door, and say, ‘Michael, I’m sick. But I don’t have what they say everyone has these days,’ ” Alago says.
Alago didn’t get sick until five years after his diagnosis. “I had full-blown AIDS in 1995,” he says, “and was home on my sofa for about nine months thinking I was not going to make it.” Patti Smith, whom Alago had met through Mapplethorpe, would call him every day; Rob Zombie sent him flowers. Friends from both of the worlds he straddled— one suffused with a subtextual über-butch sexuality, the other unapologetically queer—desperately wanted to see Alago survive.
“For a long period of time, I hid my illness from my mom,” he says. “I remember being in Brooklyn, sitting at the dining-room table with her and my sister, and I said, ‘Mom, I’m really sick,’ and we all just cried.” A devout Catholic, she lit candles for her son at the local church.
It wasn’t until the birth of potent cocktail therapies that Alago was able to emerge from his apartment. And he went straight back to work.
Alago’s rise through the ranks of the music industry was somewhat unlikely for a Puerto Rican gay kid from Brooklyn. But his ability to distinguish the signal from the noise came at a young age. “Michael could see the art in something even if someone else just saw chaos,” recalls a member of White Zombie. Perhaps his comfort with aggressive metal could be traced to his childhood bedroom, which overlooked an elevated subway track, with a near-constant roar he ably slept through.
An intrepid teenager, Alago used the music listings in The Village Voice like a Star Map to cavort with idols like David Bowie, Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry, and the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten. In photos, rock legends seem a bit stunned by the spunky, slightly effeminate boy in their midst. “I was 16 and looked 12½,” Alago says, but that didn’t stop bouncers from letting him in. He became a fixture at venues like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. “I had no fear,” he says now. “I developed fear later in life, but as a teenager I was all bravado. I was full of myself.”
Over the years, Alago worked with not only metal acts, but also Tracy Chapman, Nina Simone, and Cyndi Lauper. As an exec, he signed bands based on hunches—a killer riff, an irresistible energy. He might have signed White Zombie just because he thought the drummer was cute, or at least that’s how one band member remembers it. He was fearless when it came to sex, too. “Michael would pick the biggest, meanest-looking skinhead in the crowd and say, ‘That’s my boyfriend tonight,’ ” recalls heavy-metal guitarist Kurdt Vanderhoof.
He could party just as hard as the bands he signed, but the ubiquity of drugs and alcohol nearly killed him. And when AIDS first hit the gay community, it wasn’t easy to find people in the rock and metal scenes in whom he could confide. “I was living in two different worlds,” he says. “One did not cross over into the other. If I was out at the rock club, there would be no talk about the crisis.”
Today, at 58, he’s bridging that gap more successfully, capturing in photographs the homoeroticism of hypermasculine types. “I’ve always been drawn to men who are burly, tattooed, and scarred,” Alago says. Inspired by Bruce Weber, Mapplethorpe, and George Dureau, Alago’s images vibrate with a similarly charged sensuality. “I wanted to do what they did, but I wasn’t going to be glossy about it,” he says. “I was going to be raw and in-your-face. When you follow energy you’re drawn to, things wind up being real good.”