Interview: Shep Gordon
Shep Gordon discusses life with the stars - and the film about his managerial career
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Shep Gordon with a youthful Alice Cooper
As Shep Gordon was driving to Oprah Winfrey's house for dinner last week, a thought struck him. "I went, 'Oh my God, you're this little Jewish kid from Long Island and you're going to have dinner with Oprah Winfrey. How did this happen?'" The answer is explained in actor Mike Myers's directorial debut, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, an affectionate documentary charting an extraordinary life. As a manager, Gordon, among many other things, helped to create Alice Cooper's shocking image, rescued Teddy Pendergrass from exploitation and saved Groucho Marx from financial chaos.
The 67-year-old also pioneered the celebrity-chef genre - taking on talented chefs as clients at a time when he felt they weren't being properly remunerated and promoting them like rock stars - and has himself cooked for the Dalai Lama. He married, and divorced, a Playboy centrefold, dated Sharon Stone, and has celebrity connections that dwarf the game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Myers claims that Gordon is responsible for up to a quarter of the culture he grew up with. Yet Gordon is not a man to trumpet his achievements. Speaking from his home in Maui, he says he rebuffed overtures from film-makers for years - "I didn't see any real value in telling the story other than ego" - and insists that the title is "a little far-reaching. I don't stand on mountains about what I do. I just do it because I want to do it. I'm not someone who likes attention. It just seemed The Legend of Shep Gordon was a little heavy-handed. But it's not my movie, it's Mike Myers's movie. And when I saw it, finally, I said: 'Wow, what a beautiful love letter to me.'"
They met in 1991 when Alice Cooper appeared in Wayne's World. Myers then also bought a property in Maui, "so we've spent a lot of time together over the last 15 years. I knew, of all the people that I had met along the way who were storytellers, he was the one who appreciated the stories the most and I could feel his respect and his admiration. So, with him, I never felt I needed to even see the movie until it was done."
Shep with the Dalai Lama
Such was Gordon's faith in Myers that he eschewed the advice he had always given to artists about turning reporters' questions around to suit their own agenda. "I felt like my job was to answer his questions before I thought about them. I don't think I would have said a lot of the things I said if I had put a beat or two in. But I think that's really what makes the movie work."
Especially "painful", he reflects, is the one line left in the film about his mother, whom he describes as "cruel". It was part of broader conversation and, anyway, he doesn't think his experience was atypical of the time.
"In first -generation Jewish households in America, the way in which love was shown in many cases was very bizarre and didn't quite come across as love. I've talked to my friends from similar places and been getting letters and emails from people who saw the movie and there's so many people in a similar situation. But I knew that my mum loved me. I just felt she couldn't really help herself."
He always knew that this experience impacted on his "relationship with women and family" (he's never had children of his own, despite a strong desire to). But he recalls "waking up fairly happy every day and going to sleep fairly happy." A lot of his friends spent "hours in psychotherapy, getting more neurotic and more burdened by their childhood rather than released by it. I never took that path."
Gordon found other ways. He took drugs, which "were definitely a part of escapism. When I look back at it, I'd wake up in the morning and just work till late at night - maybe that was a way to avoid the emotional issues. But my rhythm was one of working harder than anyone. I still work really hard. And it's very possible that that is a choice made to avoid personal-relationship issues. I'm still pretty happy."
His life isn't what he imagined growing up. Gordon originally intended to be a probation officer. However, when that career lasted just one day, he headed to Hollywood and checked into the Landmark Motel, a notorious hangout for aspiring musicians and artists. "I had no plan except desperation. And the only thing I really knew how to do was play poker and sell drugs. So find a poker game."
One day, Janis Joplin introduced him to Jimi Hendrix, who asked if he was Jewish. "I didn't know whether to run or answer. It was still an era when antisemitism was not unusual. So I took a few beats before I answered that question." When he told Hendrix he was, the musician told him he should be a manager and that there was an artist called Alice Cooper who needed one. "It was the luckiest day of my life telling him the truth," Gordon laughs. He believes his upbringing in a culturally Jewish household informed his methods as a manager. He always tried to be fair, rather than ruthless, making deals that were a "win-win" for everyone. "I put a lot of my compassion and ability to do what I do down to my heritage. It's sort of my DNA - be kind to people. And I think it probably also had some effect on my always picking the underdog. Whether it was black artists who were being beaten up, or chefs who were being beaten up, or Jews who were abused. I'm sure it had some influence on those choices."
Part of the appeal to Gordon about working with Myers on the film were the actor's ideas about fame. Myers terms it "the industrial toxic waste of creativity". Gordon has seen it destroy lives and around 10 years into his career told potential clients that if he did his job properly, it would probably kill them.
"By that time Hendrix was dead. Joplin was dead. Morrison was dead. Alice was in rehab. Everybody was so f****d up. It was becoming the norm for acts not to show up. Cancel shows. And then you'd see the artists that were still playing for $50 and carrying their own equipment and they were pretty happy."
So did Gordon become ambivalent about facilitating a journey he knew could end in disaster? "No," he says gravely. "It always weighed heavily on me. I think it's probably why I retired." In fact Gordon is only semi-retired. He still manages Alice Cooper and is busier than ever with other projects. "For the most part, I gave up making people famous," he suggests.
Although he appears content, there is an undercurrent of melancholy running through the film. But he accepts that it is Myers's movie. "Mike had just had a child - his first child - and for him that's the greatest thing that ever happened in his life. He loves me. So I thank him for making this movie. He wanted to not only tell this story but also lead me when I watched it into a place of going to have a child. Which may happen, you never know."
Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is released today.