How This Label Founder Went From Being Homeless to Signing Metallica

Eddie Malluk
Jon Zazula

The fairy-tale rise of Megaforce Records in the mid-‘80s reads like something out of a Hollywood script: Jon Zazula started in the music business in 1981 with the modest goal of raising enough money to make ends meet by selling $180 worth of rare and imported records at a New Jersey flea market counter. He never aspired to start a label.

Now, in his new autobiography, Heavy Tales: The Metal. The Music. The Madness., he recounts how a chance encounter led him to do just that, and as a result, usher in the thrash metal era by launching the careers of Metallica, Anthrax, Testament, and Overkill

As Zazula recounts how he and his business partner/spouse, Marsha Zazula, became a driving force within the metal community, he himself often sounds dumbstruck, attributing some of his life’s most uncanny turns to a higher power. At one point, he risked taking out a second mortgage on his home to finance Metallica's 1983 debut album Kill ‘Em All -- after every label Zazula approached at the time turned the album down, he decided to manage and finance the band himself. 

From there, it wasn’t long before Megaforce grew its roster -- and formed lucrative, long-term partnerships with majors like Atlantic and Island. Still as energized about the genre as he was back then, Zazula, now 67, shares how he chose what made it into his book -- and reveals what didn’t.

The first thing you mention in Heavy Tales is your experience being bipolar. You describe “pits of depression that were so dark and emotionally draining that at times it felt like hell on earth.” How were you able to function professionally during those times? 

I was driven by the manic side of the depression to perform, and I latched onto that performance and never let go. I just worked and worked and worked and worked. This was also before I saw a psychiatrist, so I had to self-medicate to stay balanced. If I wasn’t somehow medicated, I would go off the deep end. [When that happened] I couldn’t drive; I couldn’t think; I just laid in bed and that’s all I did. The only way out was to work; I was very fortunate, as I wrote in the book, to have an angel at my side in my wife Marsha. She kept me going on a daily basis. It’s quite a miracle, my story. 

You devote a lot of the book to your relationship with Marsha, who was instrumental in Megaforce’s success. What challenges come with having your life partner as your business partner, too? 

Well, Marsha and I had some doozies of adventures in fighting. After about 27 years of marriage, we realized that there’s only one way to not fight anymore, it’s very simple: tell your wife she’s right. We’re married 40 years now.

Before founding Megaforce, you had little to no experience in the music business -- but you also went from being homeless at 16 to having a career on Wall Street before starting the label. You were obviously suited for this path in some ways. 

I grew up to be the exact polar opposite of my father, and yet I got his knowledge of music and his knowledge of chess -- I became a very good chess player in my youth. One of the ways I managed to eat, which I don’t talk about in the book, was by winning chess games down in Washington Square Park and Central Park. I ran my life like a chess game, I never was less than four moves ahead. Even when I slept on a bench, I had to make sure I got to the bench at a certain time before somebody else was there. But when I got a little taste of money on Wall Street, I lost control and became a bad guy for a little while, that’s really what the book is about, the redemption after Wall Street. I feel like everything had a lot to do with divine destiny. Once I started working with music, everything seemed to make sense to me.

The book opens with the story of Metallica signing with a different management company the day after playing a showcase you organized to celebrate its second album, 1984’s Ride the Lightning. You’ve remained on good terms with them, but you describe that decision as heartbreaking. 

You could either go into a hole, which I almost went into, and never come out. Or you could realize you have other responsibilities and other things you have to deal with. Anthrax were really exciting me at the time, there was a lot to keep my mind occupied. I could have really caved in that night, that could have been it. The reality of it all is, I went to work the next day -- beaten to a pulp -- and did my job.


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