Al Dellentash had balls of steel. He needed them to be. In the seventies, he had begun heading multimillion-dollar operations flying Pablo Escobar’s primo manufactured cocaine from Columbia to Carlo Gambino’s crime family in New York. Neither Escobar – then busy massacring police officers, judges, locals, and prominent politicians with impunity – nor the Gambino organisation – responsible, though never convicted, for nearly 200 contract-killings during the late-seventies and mid-eighties – had reputations as soft and fuzzy new-age employers, so you did your best not to fuck up. Al found out what the drug smuggling business was about when he flew his first mission, somewhere around 1974 he reckoned. Born in 1948, he’d had a pilot’s license since he was sixteen years old. It just seemed magical to him, a chance of freedom and escape from his humdrum life in New Rochelle, Westchester County, one of the plusher environs in New York State.
Al’s dad – Alfred Senior – was in construction – the chief ‘legitimate business’ owned by the Gambino family – and his mom was a local Republican and fine, upstanding American. Growing up, Al had just two passions: music and flying – well, three if you counted women, and four if you counted drinking and having a good time. He followed his father into construction, married young and had two kids, but he found suburban life stultifying. He bought a wrecked plane from a dead guy called ‘Flamin’ Eddie’ and discovered in the process that the bank would give him a substantial loan against the title of the aircraft. He set up a sales and charter operation at an airfield in New Jersey, where he ran into a guy called Lenny, who wanted to buy as many of these Swedish light planes with trapdoors in the bottom as Al could get his hands on. It turned out that flying drugs into America under-the-radar was a fast-growing business in the mid-seventies, and planes with trapdoors were perfect for the job. The New York Times had even written about it. Al read that some guys were making $50,000 per flight! That sounded good to Al, who seemed to be permanently on the breadline and struggling to keep his business going.
His first job for Lenny involved a trip to Belize. He used a Cessna Skymaster 337, which had its propellers on the front and rear, an unusual design. One of the Belize guys walked into the rear propeller almost as soon as Al had taxied to a halt. As he lay on the runway bleeding to death, a man pulled out a revolver and put the poor guy out of his misery right in front of Al. No fucking around.
Welcome to the jungle, baby…
Al got into the music business when he was chartered to pick up Mick Jagger and fly him from Woodstock to New York. He got talking to Mick and discovered that all of the rock bands that were making millions of dollars on the road in America were chartering their own planes, so Al forged a bank loan agreement to buy a Falcon jet and soon he was flying ELP and the Grateful Dead, Kiss and the Doobie Brothers, his plane full of rock stars, groupies, booze and everything else on the menu in the star-crossed 1970s. Al loved the action, absolutely fucking adored it, and soon he was rocking the skies with his own fleet, each chartered out to a different band. People magazine wrote an article about Al and his floating palaces of excess, kitted out with ‘thick carpeting, plants, phones, telex printer, electric typewriter, bedroom and bar’ – everything a self-respecting rock star might need at 30,000 feet.
Al boasted to his friends about his money and his lifestyle, about all of the contacts he’d made in the entertainment industry. Then he began to think that maybe he could become a mogul too, like Albert Grossman and all of those fat cats. He signed up a few bands and tried to manage them, but that didn’t really work out until one day in 1980, when a couple of guys he’d chartered flights for introduced him to David Sonenberg, music business lawyer, and manager of the writer and singer of the biggest album of 1978, Bat Out Of Hell.
The only problem was, Al was still in the drug-smuggling business via the Gambino family’s main drug trafficker, ‘Steve Teri’: a ruthless mobster named Salvatore Ruggiero – aka ‘Sal the Sphinx’, aka ‘Sal Quack Quack’, aka ‘Sally’. Steve Teri introduced Al to his ‘Columbian connection’, aka Carlos Lehder, a big-time cocaine supplier with a direct line to Pablo Escobar. Al pondered, it was strange how the drug business was a lot like the music business – you knew a guy who knew a guy, and you sort of hooked it all together and you were away, up into the clear blue skies, where no-one on earth could touch you… At least, that’s what Al thought, anyway. The perfect guy, then, to manage an overweight, oversensitive singer in a mid-career crisis – yet that’s what happened in 1981.
Around the time that Meat was finishing up Dead Ringer and making plans to go on the road: ‘David Sonenberg had come to me and asked if he might transfer half of my management contract to Al Dellentash,’ the singer later wrote. ‘I gave him my permission. Dellentash leased planes to celebrities. They called him ‘Helicopter Al’.’
Meat knew that Sonenberg was super smart, and that in many ways Dellentash seemed to complement him, to fit Sonenberg in the same way that he fit Jim. Sonenberg was a Harvard lawyer who dressed in expensive linen suits. Al was a more classic Noo Yawk Italian-American street guy… shirt unbuttoned to the navel, shades, chunky jewellery, moustache, respectable wife, lots of sexy girlfriends. Al was now the frontman in Meat Loaf’s management company, the negotiator, the guy who walked in and demanded the money. After all, once you’d negotiated with the Mob and Pablo Escobar’s guys, how hard was it to walk into CBS Records and get them to write a cheque? As the British writer Jeff Maysh put it: ‘Dellentash brought street charm and muscle to the bargaining table; Sonenberg crunched the numbers.’
It was Helicopter Al who’d tough-talked CBS into paying $1.5 million for the Dead Ringer movie. By the start of the eighties and his increasing involvement in Meat Loaf’s career, Al had money pouring in from all sides: from CBS (he’d got another $250,000 out of them for a Bay City Rollers album, which he had Dead Ringer producer Stephan Galfas oversee); from the aircraft leasing business, where he now owned three Convairs, two helicopters, a Boeing 707 and a Lear Jet; from the other business he conducted in the skies between central and North America…
With all of that cash burning a hole in his pocket he decided he needed an HQ fit for a mogul like him. He found a grand place on Riverside Drive on the West side of Manhattan and set about filling it with expensive crap. He had Louis XV furniture in reception; a pink ‘party room’ with a pale pink grand piano; a gold lobby; an in-house chef; all real rock star shit. In his office, Al’s desk was twenty-five feet long and his chair was from the first-class section of a decommissioned airliner. He had a bodyguard called the Brick, and as he told Jeff Maysh, had: ‘a full-time guy just to keep the fireplaces roaring at all times and a theatre room with a twenty-foot screen. We’d host sex parties with all the best girls.’
Sex parties were of no interest to Meat Loaf, with Leslie now expecting their first child together; a girl, Amanda, born in January 1981. In fact, Al’s excesses were starting to seriously freak Meat Loaf out. Al was full of stories – the Pakistan gunrunning trip that ended in a shoot-out; the box-loads of US currency he was moving to an offshore tax haven using his own planes… He’d get up in the middle of meetings and disappear, too, sometimes for days on end… As Meat Loaf recalled in his memoir, “The music biz was just a sideline for Al… He would tell these stories of flying to Libya with a load of automatic weapons.’
The idea was that the movie would not only be great (obviously, how could it not be with Big Al behind it…) but that the videos for the singles would be re-cut from the footage. The castings for Dead Ringer were held on Riverside Drive. While Al was calling-in girls to jiggle about in front of his twenty-five foot desk, he met Bonnie, a Playboy bunny for whom he would eventually leave his wife.