If you're something of a follower of the ins and outs of Hollywood, the music scene or just entertainment in general and don't know who Shep Gordon is, don't worry; that's probably how he prefers it. In the new Mike Meyers-directed documentary SUPERMENSCH: THE LEGEND OF SHEP GORDON, the curtain is finally pulled back on the subject's long and often sordid career as a manager for musicians, occasional film producer, friend and host to the stars, and apparently the inventor of the celebrity chef, by the current definition (thank you, Emeril Lagasse).
SUPERMENSCH doesn't just cover Gordon's professional life; it also dips a bit into his personal life as a ladies' man (he dated Sharon Stone in her absolute prime), sometimes husband, and champion of a few not-so-well-off friends. The Alice Cooper stories are worth the price of admission, but there are so many terrific tales of making the deal, making sure his people got paid, and legendary falling outs that the film almost feels too short when it's over. A parade of famous faces get before the camera, both in archival footage and new interviews done by Meyers (Cooper, Michael Douglas, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Sylvester Stallone, and even Tom Arnold).
Probably the least known part of Gordon's life the films he helped get made, such as genre works like PRINCE OF DARKNESS, THEY LIVE, SHOCKER, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, as well as more serious fare like CHOOSE ME, THE WHALES OF AUGUEST, A TIME OF DESTINY, THE MODERNS, FAR NORTH and COOL AS ICE (ahem…).
SUPERMENSCH is opening wider this coming weekend, and it's a whole lot of fun, as told to us by a man who excels at telling great stories. I had a chance to sit down with Gordon in Austin earlier this year at the SXSW Film Festival, and he was just as much fun in person as he comes across in the film. Please enjoy my talk with the legendary Shep Gordon…
Shep Gordon: Hello.
Capone: Hi, Shep. Nice to meet you.
SG: Nice to meet you too, Steve.
Capone: I was just telling someone outside, while I was watching the film, I felt weird that I know so little about you, but then I thought about it, and maybe if I knew more about you then you wouldn’t be doing your job. You stay out of the spotlight. Was it strange now opening up your life in such a complete way?
SG: First of all, you're exactly right. It's not my job to be famous. And yeah, it's very very strange. It’s a combination of emotions. It’s humbling, embarrassing, exhilarating. It’s really this mishmash of emotions, and I’m new on the ride. So I’m trying to watch myself be affected by it, and it’s really interesting. I watch it, and it’s almost like it’s not me.
Capone: That might help.
SG: Yeah. It’s what I’ve always told my clients: think of it as a third person, and in some ways it is because it’s an amalgamation of who I am and who Mike would like me to be and who Mike sees me as, because it’s his movie. He made a real piece of art, so it’s not a straight line--“And then I... And then I... And then I... And then I...” I’m floored by it. So it’s really interesting because it’s a combination. When I see Shep Gordon up there, it’s not the Shep Gordon that I necessarily know completely, but it is.
Some of us choose to spend a lot of our life trying to understand why we do what we do, and others don’t. I’m one of the ones who never spent a second trying to understand why I do what I do, and it’s impossible for me not to think about it when I see it in the movie. It’s like, what affect did my family have? I never really went there before. Is that the link to my not having a child? I didn’t get married until I was 60. What’s that about? If you really want to have a child, and you don’t get married till you’re 60… So it opens up a lot of questions that I don’t think I really want to answer. It’s been interesting. It’s a very reflective moment.
Capone: You’re lucky that you’ve led an interesting enough life that even just a surface treatment of your life story is really entertaining.
SG: [laughs] It’s interesting, Anthony Bourdain, who is one of my heroes, is doing the book of my memoirs. He has an imprint at Harper Collins, and he came to me and asked if they could do a deeper version, and I said, “Yes.” Because I’m in this “yes” mood now.
Capone: I was going to ask you, why did you choose this and not a book? But you’re going to do a book too. That’s when you really have to ask the tough questions.
SG: Right. I just started going through it, and it’s really interesting because this was, for me, not for Mike but for me, this was a surface journey. And the , just after five or six days of working with a writer, I could see it’s real psychoanalysis. It’s very painful and exhausting. I’ve really become sympathetic for people who have gone through years of psychotherapy and this type of exercise, because it is difficult. I mean, Even in my limited scope of doing it, I could see where it’s going to, and there are places that are painful.
Capone: Were there things that Mike’s film did hit kind of on the nail that you just went, “Wow, that’s troubling.”
SG: Yeah. I think that the line I say about my mother being very cruel is deeply reflective for me. I never thought about it in those terms. My job, I always felt on this, was to not bring my skills and my experience to my answers. I’ve always trained my artists, or to tried to, to never answer the question. Take the question, and use a piece of it to get across what you’re looking to get across.
Let’s say I’m Alice. There’s a reason why I would be sitting with you, and the reason is always because you would have a piece of product to promote. So if you would say to him, “So, Alice, when did you actually get started in the business?” His answer to you would be, “You know, that’s funny because I was thinking today that I have a new album coming up. I was thinking it was 34 years since I started in the business. We’re going to release it on July 15…”
Capone: Stay on message, sure.
SG: Yeah, stay on message. So with Mike, I decided that my job for this if I knew what kind of effort he was putting into this--he payed for it with money from his pocket--that my job is to completely knee-jerk answers to the question. Whatever comes first to my brain, I have to give him.
Capone: So, it’s more like free association.
SG: Yeah, there are a few times when I hear myself say, "…and I took some acid," and I'm like, "Oh my god, why did I say that?"
Capone: Somebody made a joke yesterday that you’re now on the other end of publicity and you’re answering all the questions from strangers, not to your friends. Are you finding that you’re reverting back to advice you gave to clients?
SG: Yeah, definitely. I’m more structured in my answers here than I was on the documentary. I’m thinking about what the readers will see. I’m still pretty open. I’m a pretty open book, but it's definitely different. Mike’s thing was really almost like a Rorschach test, when you say the first thing that comes out. So, yeah. It’s strange. It’s strange to watch myself say things that I’ve never said to myself. I’ve never said that about my mother to myself. I’ve never used that choice of words. So it’s a journey.
Capone: I know bits and pieces about Alice Cooper' career, and really the first half hour of this movie could be "The Alice Cooper Story." It really is just the two of you walking hand and hand into music history.
SG: Absolutely and still.
Capone: Yeah, oh yeah of course. But I had no idea he was so engrained in pop culture and music culture back then. And the people he was meeting in your hotel room.
SG: It’s amazing.
Capone: The Teddy Pendergrass stories, though, are incredible. It’s almost like a case history of the success that can come from following your advice, and the tragedy that can from from not following your advice.
SG: Rick James, I also managed. It was so tragic. I think Rick was the smartest client I’ve ever had. He was so together.
Capone: So talented as a musician.
SG: So talented, so happy, so on top of his game, to see what fame and drugs did to him is a case study of how dangerous it is. I think one of the reasons I told myself I was doing this, I don’t know if it was true or not, because I think in the end it probably was just ego in the hospital feeling sorry for myself alone. "I wanted to be important" maybe was the true answer. When I got successful, I would get calls from my friends when I started in music, and they would have kids who played guitar, and they’d ask me could they get a job being on the road to see the life, how would I get them a record deal, or could they send a tape--something to do with the craft. When I got in the cooking world, I’d get so many calls from my friends: “My kid loves cooking; she’s going to the culinary institute. Could you help place her in a restaurant?” Over the last seven or eight years, the calls were “I have a daughter who’s a cook. She went to the culinary institute. How do I get her on Top Chef?”
Capone: “How do I get her on TV?”
SG: “My son is a really great musician. How would I get him on American Idol?” The goal became fame rather than perfecting the craft, and to me that’s really dangerous.
Capone: Do feel like you set loose a monster with those shows?
SG: That’s sort of what I'm… You know, it’s an interesting reflection, because I had this conversation with Anthony about why he wanted to do the book. His question to me was, “I want this book to deal with, is the same thing going to happen to the chefs? This fame, is it the same?” And my knee-jerk reaction was, it's absolutely the same, and then when I went home and I started thinking about it, I realized that the chefs are much healthier. And I wondered, why would they be healthier? Because they’re getting famous.
I realized that the world that I saw of fame was 99 percent live-action throngs of people applauding--20,000, 50,000, 100,000 people saying, “You are the greatest thing ever.” But you're the same guy with the same hole to fill that drove you hard enough to want to get to that place, and it doesn’t fill a hole. For the chefs, that’s not what drives them. What drives them is service, and that's a very different thing. It’s not a hole that needs to be filled. So, I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is. For the most part they’re much healthier.
Liquor becomes a problem for the chefs, but not at the high end. When you look at the Mick Jaggers of cooking, it’s Daniel [Daniel Boulud's New York City restaurant]--clean as a whistle. Nobu--clean as a whistle. Wolfgang--clean as a whistle. The top of the game. And then you look at the top of the music game, and they’re all dead. So I think I’m changing my thought. You see everything through your eyes and through your journey, and my journey was always with fame, but fame with people on stage getting that immediate thing. So, I think it’s still really dangerous, and it may be that now I’ve done the documentary, I’m looking for something maybe if you can get famous and not get hurt, for myself [laughs].
Capone: Has any actor ever wanted to talk to you or observe you, just to play a version of you in a film?
SG: Stallone for a moment, but he never made the movie.
Capone: Right. We see a little bit of that.
SG: There’s a new Scorsese project on HBO that Mick Jagger is executive producing [with the working titles "The Long Play." I’m actually in it, I’m a character in it, but with my name.
Capone: Playing a similar job?
SG: Alice’s manager. But not really.
Capone: Ok, you seem like you’d be right. I mean, you hear about other producers or people that people deserve.
SG: Wolfman Jack played "Gordon Shep" in a movie [1978's HANGING ON A STAR]. He played a manager many years ago. Remember Wolfman Jack?
Capone: Of course. AMERICAN GRAFFITI is one of my favorite films ever. With people who come into this film and aren’t familiar with you as the institution and the driver of these careers, what do you hope they come away with?
SG: I hope they come away with the fact that they can be successful and not have to be a motherfucker. I think we have that perception. I see these young kids who go into business and think there has to be winners and losers, and they have to walk over people, and you don’t have to do that.
Capone: Blame "Entourage" for that.
SG: That’s part of it. But it’s the human condition; it’s not just show business. I think that we’re forgetting that we’re all miracles, and we’re all in this together. It’s just the journey here is so short, there’s no reason to have to make it harder than it is.
Capone: My last question was going to be about these parties that you put together, because I’m dying to know like what the formula is for casting those parties, because that seems like what you're doing.
SG: I’m very fortunate that I live on Maui, which a huge attraction for people of notoriety and unique talents. It’s a unique place, and it draws people for some reason. And there’s nothing to do in Maui. It’s not like Boston or New York. There’s nothing to do.
Capone: No distractions.
SG: There’s nothing. There are no restaurants that are open late, there are no night clubs, there’s nothing. So everyone is looking to do something, and I provide the something. And I love to cook and I love to cook for a lot of people. So I just developed the reputation, and that’s what I enjoy doing. It just works great. They all want to meet each other.
Capone: It was such a great diagram watching you figure out you putting yourself next to this person, and these people should be together.
SG: And they love meeting each other, which is really beautiful. Some of the highlights were like one year Larry David came. And everybody was so excited. It was like a feeding frenzy. George Harrison came one year; people’s mouths dropped open. Stallone was like, “Oh my god. George Harrison's here.” A great little side note: George Harrison lived in Maui and never came to my parties. But he’s an isolated guy, he likes the quiet life. One year, he called up, “Hey, can I come to the party?” It’s George Harrison, he’s a Beatle. “Of course you can come to the party.” Why did he come to the party? I asked him. His son heard that the guitar player from Iron Maiden was going to be at the party, and that’s his hero. Can you imagine? [laugh]
Capone: People will do anything for their kids.
SG: That was the lesson of the story. Even if you’re a Beatle, if your kid wants something, you drive four hours and do it.
Capone: Shep, thank you so much. It was really a pleasure to meet you.