Shep Steps Into The Spotlight
On Shep Gordon’s first night in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, he got hit in the face by Janis Joplin.
He had checked into the Landmark Motor Hotel without knowing that it was a low-key gathering place for the rock elite. Gordon was relaxing in his room when he heard what he thought were sounds of distress by the pool. He ran down there and attempted to save Joplin, whom he thought was being attacked. He was just trying to help. Only Joplin wasn’t being attacked. She was having sex, and Gordon broke up the action. So she hit him.
The next day, Joplin apologized to Gordon and introduced him to Jimi Hendrix, who gave him some off-the-cuff advice that would shape the rest of his life:
“He said, ‘You Jewish?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘You should be a manager,” recalls Gordon. “So I became a manager. You can’t argue with Jimi Hendrix.”
Hendrix introduced him to The Chambers Brothers, who in turn introduced him to an act that happened to be looking for a manager: Alice Cooper.
That was the beginning of a long, fruitful career for Gordon as a prolific entertainment manager and his foray into the world of music and celebrities as a sort of behind-the-scenes guru. He’s worked with some of music’s biggest names, and his list of friends reads like a who’s who in entertainment. Yet Gordon has managed to stay behind the curtain and out of the spotlight — until now.
Mike Myers makes his directorial debut with the documentary Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, which offers an intimate look at Gordon’s life and work through the lens of a director whose admiration and love for his subject shines through. (Mensch is a Yiddish word that means “a person of integrity.”) The film provides disarmingly forthcoming interviews with Gordon himself, as well as a parade of celebrities including Tom Arnold, Michael Douglas and Sylvester Stallone, who line up to sing his praises (although Douglas does joke that Gordon can be a motherf—-at times). Sure, it is a fun romp through a thrilling era of rock ‘n’ roll alongside one of the biggest bands of the time. But at its core, Supermensch is an ode to friendship, a sober reflection on what happens when the party is over and, more than anything, a think piece on what is really important in life.
“I have been on the road for 10 weeks. I haven’t been home since then,” Gordon says over the phone from L.A. “Home” these days for Gordon is largely Kihei, Maui, where he has had a house since the 1970s. He has been touring with Supermensch, hitting the film festival circuit for screenings in San Francisco, London, Austin and a blur of other cities. It was released last week in New York and L.A. and played June 4 at the Maui Film Festival, where Gordon was recognized with the event’s Maverick Award. It is tentatively scheduled to play at Kahala Theatre starting July 2. Supermensch has been garnering a generally favorable critical reception, and Gordon is happy it’s doing so well. Still, he’s looking forward to his next stint at home on Maui, which will be just a few days before he takes off again to promote the film.
Gordon has helped propel the careers of not just Alice Cooper, but also a slew of other widely varying artists. Locally, he is credited with being a driving force behind the now ubiquitous Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement. And along with rock ‘n’ roll did come sex and drugs. (In the film, Gordon admits that his days on the road with Alice were fueled by a barrage of substances. And, he assured over the phone, the “No Head No Backstage Pass” shirt that he used to wear was not just in jest: “Those were the early days of Alice, and we were moving from city to city, and there was absolutely no time for any playing around, except maybe a real quickie. Honesty was always really important to me, so I thought this was the most honest thing I could do.”) But any hedonistic tendencies were tempered by his seemingly compulsive desire to be compassionate — in both his career and his life — and to help others when he could.
“I just try to have winners and winners,” Gordon says. “I try to do an extra little bit of work to make sure that everybody sort of wins, and there is not a winner and a loser. You can’t do it all the time, but I try.”
Now, thrust into the spotlight for the first time, Gordon is becoming a star in his own right. What will that mean?
When Gordon first checked into the Landmark, he wasn’t trying to rub shoulders with musicians. He simply was looking for a place to crash while he figured out his next step after quitting his job as a probation officer after one day. He had just moved to California from New York, where he had grown up in one of the first Long Island suburbs — a safe, tight-knit community where the neighbors all knew each other, the kids could play outside and Gordon ran a paper route. He studied sociology at University at Buffalo before heading west.
By both of their accounts, Gordon and Cooper had an instant connection.
“There are certain moments in your life where your instincts sharpen and tell you what to do,” Cooper says. “When I met Shep, I knew he was one of us.”
When they met, the band hadn’t been in L.A. long and hadn’t seen a lot of success. They’d had a good run in Phoenix, where they had formed as high-schoolers. But L.A. audiences didn’t seem to appreciate the particular brand of performance. Rather than airbrushing the band’s image, Gordon egged them on, encouraging onstage antics that included simulating executions with guillotines or electric chairs, Cooper wrapping himself in a 15-foot-long snake and doing unspeakable things to baby dolls.
“Shep was the guy from the outside who was smart enough to see what was great about the band and emphasize that,” Cooper says. “He understood what the audience reacted to. And the more negative press we got in the beginning, the bigger we got.”
Cooper took off, with hit songs like School’s Out and I’m Eighteen.
With Alice Cooper gaining mainstream success, Gordon sought new challenges, taking on clients that included singers Anne Murray and Teddy Pendergrass, bands Blondie and The Pointer Sisters, and actress Raquel Welch. He launched his own company, Alive Enterprises, which also produced films.
In the mid-1970s, Gordon spent a couple weeks in Honolulu to take a break from the L.A. scene. Local music promoter Tom Moffatt, who had met Gordon through a mutual friend, happened to be putting on a show on Maui, so he took Gordon with him.
“Shep just fell in love with Maui immediately. He is just a genuine person, and he is a nice person, and he is very giving,” Moffatt says of Gordon, whom he calls a “dear friend.” “He has a great aura about him. He is somebody you like from the moment you meet him.”
Within days of that show, Gordon bought a house in Kihei — the same one he lives in today.
Locally, alongside Moffatt, Gordon has produced concerts including UB40, The Who, Aerosmith and Willie Nelson. But perhaps his most visible and lasting contribution to Hawaii has been his work with local chefs in creating the Hawaii Regional Cuisine movement. Gordon, who has been to culinary school and often traveled with renowned chef Roger Verge, had been cultivating the concept of celebrity chefs — and wanted Hawaii to also benefit from that.
“There were a lot of great chefs (in Hawaii). I wanted to try to do something for them to make their lives better,” Gordon explains. “It was hard to take any one individual living in Hawaii and really make an impact, so we got a group together.”
“He gave us guidance … and insight. He was a friend and an adviser,” recalls Mark Ellman, one of the founding chefs of HRC, adding that the group would gather at Gordon’s place for meetings/parties.
HRC alumni include some of the most well-known local chefs: Alan Wong, Sam Choy and Peter Merriman.
Gordon also partnered with Ellman to open Maui Tacos and Mala Wailea. Currently, the pair is working on what Gordon calls the “next wave” of HRC with the launch of Migrant at the Wailea Beach Marriott, headed by chef Sheldon Simeon (of Top Chef fame). While the HRC of the 1990s relied primarily on European tastes, Gordon feels the next wave will offer a wider range of influences.
“He was someone who was raised on the techniques of HRC, but brought a (Filipino) influence into it,” Gordon says of Simeon.
Although Gordon explains that his strategy as a manager has been mainly “flying by the seat of your pants,” he has had one reigning mantra through it all: Act with compassion.
Even when it comes to the paparazzi. He’ll often try to strike a deal with them: They can take their photo, the star gets to choose it, and he gets a cut of the money that he donates to the Maui Food Bank.
For Gordon, this is the “only (philosophy) that makes any sense.” It has a place in his personal life, too. A friend of the Dalai Lama, Gordon serves on the board of the Tibet Fund, which supports Tibetan refugees. In 2007, he brought the Dalai Lama to Maui for talks that drew 10,000 people on back-to-back days. He also helped to raise four children — the grandchildren of a former girlfriend now all in their 20s and 30s. He bought the Williams family a house, took them on vacations and brought them along on tour with Alice.
If Gordon has been on the sidelines of the spotlight, it’s because he prefers it that way. For all of those years he spent making people famous, Gordon remains surprisingly skeptical, if not downright critical, of fame itself. Early in Supermensch, he shares a warning he would give prospective clients before taking them on: “If I do my job perfectly, I will probably kill you.” When I ask him about this later, he elaborates: “I will make them very famous, and fame kills.”
“I had no real reason to be in the spotlight,” Gordon says. “And there is nothing I find attractive about it … I enjoy having my anonymity.”
After a pause, he adds: “Although that seems like it is fading.”
That fade has been in conjunction with the release of the film. Although he’s been around fame his whole life, it’s been more like he was toeing the surface. Now, it looks as though he will become fully submerged.
“It is wild, really wild,” he says. “It is hard not to become cold because you want to be compassionate to everyone … Fame has such an aura that that person telling you that they saw you 20 years ago is important to them. You don’t want to become the kind of guy who doesn’t care. But you also want to have a life.
“I don’t think anybody balances it well,” he adds. “I am at the tip of the iceberg here. Hopefully I will keep my humanity and my compassion, but I can already see how tasty it is.”
He’s been grappling with early signs of becoming recognizable: Recently, on his way to an interview in New York, he was approached by a woman who said she had seen Supermensch. She had a question for Gordon she hoped he could help her out with. Gordon cut her off. He had to go. He was late for his interview.
But the thing is, what really tore him up was not that someone approached him; it was that he felt bad he was not able to answer her question.
“I had to ditch her. That’s tough, you know?” he laments. “That’s tough stuff.”
After establishing chefs as bonafide celebrities, Gordon quit being a manager, save, of course, for Cooper: “I felt like I had done what I needed to do and was going to check out what my life was rather than managing other people’s lives.”
In that time, he got married. Then he got divorced. He visits Hana when he gets the chance (“Oh my god, that is the greatest place in the world.”), hangs out with the Williams kids (“Chase is having his baby’s first luau in about 10 days … and I had dinner with Amber last night in L.A.”) and is working on some new projects (“Anthony (Bourdain) is going to publish my memoir.”).
In addition to the critical reception it has received, Supermensch also has been a crowd-pleaser at festivals. At each premiere, people come up to Gordon and tell him that the film has inspired them to be more giving in their own lives. One couple at the Sun Valley Film Festival, for example, told him that it reminded them to be more generous. And they wanted to start with him. They gifted him some fresh elk, which made delicious elk sausage the next morning.
“It is just nice that that is the effect (Supermensch) has,” Gordon says. “It makes it worthwhile.”
And, there is invariably one woman in each audience who jumps up as the credits roll and screams that she wants to have his baby.
Myers has stated in interviews that he was inspired to create Supermensch after years of hearing Gordon’s stories from his rock ‘n’ roll days.
The two met on the set of Myers’ 1992 film Wayne’s World, in which Alice Cooper made an appearance. When Myers was going through a tough personal time, he called Gordon and asked if he could stay on Maui with him for a couple weeks. Gordon, who has an open-door policy when it comes to his friends, said of course. Myers ended up staying there for two months, with Gordon caring for him “like a baby chick that had fallen out of the nest” as Myers recalls in the film.
“(Myers) stays up late, and he would always say, ‘Before you go to sleep, you got to tell me a story,'” Gordon recalls.
Myers had wanted to make a film about him for years, but Gordon always declined the request. Then, in 2012, Gordon was in the hospital recovering from surgery, unsure if he was going to live or die. When Myers called him to check in, Gordon agreed to the idea of a documentary: “I don’t really know (why), but instead of ‘no’ coming out of my mouth, ‘yes’ came out.”
That Supermensch has its origins in that type of closeness makes sense in the no-holds-barred type of stories that Gordon shares. Tales about dealing pot at Landmark Hotel. Creating a traffic jam just to show off a giant poster of a mostly naked Alice Cooper. The truth behind Cooper’s infamous “Chicken Incident.” Gordon, now in his late 60s, is open about expressing the potential consequences of maintaining the exploits of a freewheeling lifestyle paired with a propensity to work all the time. He bares all in his desire for a family, for a child, for something that will mean he won’t wake up from surgery alone in a hospital room.
While the film could easily slide into more melancholic territory, it’s Myers’ comedic instinct, and moreover Gordon himself, who keeps it from going there.
Does he have regrets?
“No, I wouldn’t say so,” Gordon says. “I am one of those believers that it is all perfect.”