As the founder of Rock ‘N’ Roll Heaven (a treasured New Jersey record store) and the gargantuan Megaforce Records—both of which he started and ran alongside his wife, Marsha—Jon Zazula played a critical role in the rise of heavy metal. After all, he helped jumpstart the careers of icons like Metallica, Anthrax, Testament, King’s X, and Mercyful Fate (among others) in the midst of selflessly, humbly, and affably becoming a beloved industry presence around the world.
In his autobiography, Heavy Tales: The Metal. The Music. The Madness. As Lived by Jon Zazula, he offers an endearingly earnest and comprehensive account of his life as a record executive and business owner. Perhaps even more rewarding, though, are the ways in which those stories are coated in his self-portrait as a devoted and grateful husband who embraces his faults. The book is not without some flaws, but anyone who’s a fan of Zazula, his enterprises, and/or pioneering metal music in general will enjoy it.
As with everything in Heavy Tales, the Zazulas’ modest yet zealous ascents in the aforementioned ventures are documented with a strong, if blemished, mixture of bare confessions, facts, and assessments. In other words, it seems as if he’s leaving nothing out as he relives his stories with the uninhibited wisdom and wit that can only come from being far removed from the situations. For example, he explains how a chance trip to a flea market music stand in East Brunswick, New Jersey—coupled with his “ultimate dream to be able to pay for [his] own family’s groceries”—resulted in him devising a means to resell records for a profit.
That strategy, in conjunction with his and Marsha’s love of music, was the basis for Rock ‘N’ Roll Heaven, a place aimed at specializing “in music by dead people”. At the risk of spoiling the fun, suffice it to say that the climb of Megaforce Records—with all of its complications and prosperities—is a far more in-depth, startling, and engrossing saga. Once it’s over, and through the good and bad times, it’s abundantly clear that they put every ounce of passion, determination, hope, and love they had into their artists, fans, and others whom they worked with.
Anyone looking for juicy anecdotes about those bands will likely be satisfied, too, as Zazula offers several highly detailed, revealing, and amusing recollections about watershed concerts, albums, press relationships, and various surrounding circumstances. One particularly charming moment comes when he discusses how he and Marsha invited Metallica to stay with them, only to realize that their lifestyles weren’t exactly compatible. He specifies an unsurprising observation with a certain ex-member as follows: “Their guitarist, Dave Mustaine, took a fifth of vodka with him [to Rock ‘N’ Roll Heaven] … The thing that fascinated me with Metallica was they went to bed after me but they woke up at 5-6 in the afternoon. They were like vampires”.
This kind of content is commonplace in a music autobiography. What truly separates Heavy Tales from comparable autobiographies is how illuminatingly honest and egoless Zazula is in and around those industry recaps. Specifically, he clarifies (in the press release) that he wanted the text to be an encouraging and eye-opening look into his battles with manic depression, “poverty, incarceration, and humiliation”. Similarly, he digs into the trials and triumphs of his marriage without limitation. He constantly gives Marsha credit for everything they’ve accomplished, as well as for keeping him level-headed, motivated, and secure along the way. In speaking of an especially taxing period in their life together, he writes:
My mental health would always come last since I worked day and night for these bands. I was on a mission and my mind was focused everywhere on everything. I have Marsha to thank for the amount of fortitude she showed during these times where I was about to lose every brain cell I had left. Marsha would talk to me as I walked around with my hands over my head talking to myself with the overwhelming emotion of stress and her voice alone would calm me down [sic].
Heavy Tales includes 40 pages of absorbing photos—color and B&W—that more or less span the Zazulas’ journey. Standouts include a 1982 picture of Anvil, a shot of a young James Hetfield (Metallica) at Rock ‘N’ Roll Heaven, numerous concert posters, and the Zazulas on stage as they’re inducted into the Hall of Heavy Metal History. Such a visual trajectory helps convey how far they’ve come over the past few decades, as well as how adored they were by countless people along the way.
By featuring so many prints in place of more insights, though, Heavy Tales ultimately feels a bit too rushed and brief in terms of providing an all-encompassing tour of their history. The text itself takes up only 150 pages or so, and Zazula frequently chooses to spend several on a single incident instead of cutting to the chase for overall conciseness and the ability to pack in even more milestone happenings. What’s here is golden, but there could be more of it.
Moreover, his writing style is concurrently personable and imperfect, with a significant amount of technical and organizational issues that sometimes make it hard to follow. He surely establishes endearing ethos, but perhaps simply telling his yarns to a more experienced writer would’ve been a better choice.
Still, Heavy Tales at times soars. From start to finish, Zazula captivates with his fearless and humorous musical memories. His bravely raw reminiscences about the hardships he overcame truly humanize him and demonstrate the kind of brutal honesty all memoirs should have. Heavy Tales is a must read not only for fans of metal, but for anyone looking for an inspiring rags-to-riches redemption story (of sorts).