Heavy metal titan and founder of Megaforce Records/Crazed Management Jonny Zazula — best known in metal circles as Jonny Z — is tantamount for giving a voice and a platform to what was once an underserved and underrepresented musical community.
All that changed in 1981 when Zazula and his wife, Marsha, opened a record store (with only 21 imports to start) in the Route 18 flea market located in East Brunswick, N.J. The store mainly catered to musical connoisseurs with heavier tastes who flocked to the store — dubbed Rock N’ Roll Heaven — as a mecca of metal, a church to trade music or stock up on merchandise of their favorite bands.
“It was a church, especially when [Ozzy Osbourne guitarist] Randy Rhoads died, there was like 500 people that came by that weekend,” Zazula tells Variety. “The flea market was packed with people wearing Ozzy shirts and ‘Rock N’ Roll Heaven’ shirts.”
One day, a demo by an unknown San Francisco band named Metallica came to the attention of Zazula, and a light bulb went off.
“When you met Metallica for the first time, you knew you were dealing with lightning in a bottle without even listening to a drop of music. They were really electric. They were really punk. They were really crazy, but you just knew there was something special about them,” he says.
Zazula tells this tale — and more — in his autobiography, “Heavy Tales: The Music. The Madness. As Lived by Jon Zazula,” which was released in 2019 and is now available as a seven-CD collection, with the story told entirely in Zazula’s voice. The story follows the Zazulas early beginnings in the flea market and eventual expansion of the store and a once-in-a-lifetime moment of a fan bringing a demo of a band that would light fire to a musical movement that lasted a decade.
“It’s all a blessing when you work hard and you stay smart and you go into the game and then eventually something comes your way and you’re ready for it. And you’re able to jump upon it and ride it,” Zazula says. “We were very fortunate, Marsha and I, that we have them to choose as a band that became the biggest band in the world. Not to mention a bunch of other great bands that made history.”
As a bonus, the set includes two hours of Zazula answering music industry-related questions offering invaluable insight into the business. An additional disc includes 100 photos that originally appeared in the print edition of the book. The audio CD is available in most libraries and retailers nationwide. The book — as told to author Harold Claros-Maldonado, who originally contacted the Zazulas to write a report on the early days of Metallica — name drops many music industry executives and includes an introduction by Testament lead singer Chuck Billy and an epilogue by Marsha Zazula.
“Of course she gets the last word, because she wanted to say that this book is really true,” Zazula says.
The book starts on a night when Megaforce Records should have been on top. Metallica had just released their second album, “Ride the Lightning,” with most of the material penned at the home of “Metal Joe” in Farmingdale, N.J. The Zazulas organized a huge showcase at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City to celebrate, along with sets by Anthrax and Raven. The night took a bizarre turn when the original singer of Anthrax Neil Turbin abruptly quit after playing to the largest audience of the band’s career and Metallica left the next day to sign a deal with Elektra Records. The whole scene plays out like the opening of an epic film, and Zazula, who ironically named the label after a movie he saw titled “Megaforce,” intended it that way.
“That night was like the beginning of the end of the beginning. That was the big heartbreak, the big trauma, the big crescendo of it, all the super success out of nowhere. And then we were faced with, ‘What do we do? Do we sit there and die? Do we put our attention to Anthrax and Raven? And do we continue in the business that we didn’t know we were even in at the time yet?’” he said. “[Neil] walked out, I had Island Records there and they were whispering about a deal. And I had to face that. I had Metallica telling me that they were leaving me. I had to face that. And Atlantic records was there for Raven. So it was quite crazy — and right after that came the whole Megaforce Records deal with Atlantic Records.”
From that point in the book, Zazula — in his Bronx accent — takes the reader back in time to his childhood and formative years as a teenager in the ’60s and a prophetic meeting with a stranger on a bench that gave him a card with an inspirational quote: “Nothing to it, but to do it,” a mantra he still practices. From there he brings the reader on a rock-and-roll-journey through the decades, from his early days as a loyal fan of the Grateful Dead to finally putting the pedal to to the heavy metal in the ’80s and ’90s, working with Testament, Mercyful Fate, Overkill, Exciter, Stormtroopers of Death, Method of Destruction, Ace Frehley, King’s X, Ministry. Mindfunk, Nudeswirl, Warren Haynes, Disco Biscuits, Love in Reverse and others.
“That changed my life,” he said. “The book was written like a movie. That’s how I wanted it done — to start off with a bang and then think back to the beginning to [the second chapter] ‘The Dreams of Dali.’”
“It also kept us in touch with the fans. And that was imperative to our success,” Marsha said.
Zazula’s book extends into the 2000s, including the end of the label, a successful benefit headlined by Twisted Sister raising money for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and the couple’s induction into the Hall of Heavy Metal History with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The Zazulas now live in Florida, and Jonny Z hosts a show — Jonny Z’s DEFCON 4 on Cranium Radio Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2 p.m. ET and Saturdays at 8 p.m. ET.
“That’s about where my head’s at right now,” he says. “I have a lot of people call me for advice, I give advice and pretty much we’re just living our retired life right now. Marsha and I.”
To order the book, go to https://www.jonzazula.com/audiobook