December 3, 2021

Drugs, Dictators and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

I thought I had moved on from my tot-rock and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles obsession. But then I stumbled across a bit of information that appeared to link a couple of 1990 Ninja Turtles shows to drug trafficking and Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. And of course, once I’d discovered the possible connection, I couldn’t not pursue it.

I learned of the potential bombshell through an unlikely source: the podcast Wind of Change, which explores rumored ties between the CIA and the 1990 song “Wind of Change” by the German heavy metal band the Scorpions, which presaged and may even have played a role in the fall of the Soviet Union. In a later episode of the podcast, host Patrick Radden Keefe lays out a theory that the CIA’s involvement in the song was facilitated by the band’s manager, one Doc McGhee. The theory goes that McGhee – who also oversaw the careers of Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe and other major hair metal bands of the eighties – was recruited as a CIA asset after a 1988 conviction for helping smuggle $20 million of marijuana into the US, as part of a drug ring that also saw personal involvement from Manuel Noriega. As an aside during this episode, Keefe mentions offhandedly that McGhee happened to work with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well as the aforementioned metal bands.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. The convicted drug smuggler who usually trafficked in songs like “Shout at the Devil” and “Girls, Girls, Girls” and may have helped the CIA bring about the end of communism worked with the Ninja Turtles? With just a single sentence, Wind of Change upended my neat and tidy understanding of the tot rock group’s story.

And it turns out it wasn’t just a coincidence McGhee was involved in both. The condition of the deal he struck with the US district court judge was that he set up a foundation – the Make a Difference Foundation – to help fight drug abuse, specifically by promoting three concerts with an anti-drug theme. The first of these was the 1989 Moscow Peace Festival featuring the Scorpions alongside Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe and others, the concert at the heart of the story so thoroughly dissected in the Wind of Change podcast. The other two? You guessed it: a pair of shows on the Ninja Turtles’ Coming Out of Their Shells tour.

So how did this come about? How did the manager of the most successful hair metal bands on the planet and a convicted drug smuggler hook up with a tot-rock group comprised of off-Broadway actors dressed up in rubber suits? The short version is, he called the producers of the Turtles tour and offered to put on shows in North Carolina and Louisiana, the two states in which he had been charged with drug trafficking. Why? The slightly less-short version is, he saw in the Turtles not only a way to fulfill his obligations to the US justice system but also an entrée into the world of tot-rock, which he was sure would be the next big thing in music – an ironclad way to make more money as a manager. A 1990 article in the Raleigh News and Observer said he could barely contain his excitement in talking about the potential of the group he had enlisted ostensibly to help spread an anti-drug message. “I’m exploring a lot of different marketing ideas,” he told the paper. “The Turtle fans will buy rock ‘n’ roll, but we don’t market it right.”

And here’s the final twist: The first McGhee-promoted Ninja Turtles show, in Raleigh, lost some $100,000 for the Make a Difference Foundation. (I didn’t find any figures for the second show.) McGhee covered the losses himself, possibly dipping into his ill-gotten gains from his not-so-long-ago days in the drug trade. Thus, while a German heavy metal band was helping end communism and bring down the Berlin Wall, a cartoon tot-rock group may have played a part in laundering drug money acquired through a deal with a tin-pot dictator. The world really is a strange place.

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