I T ' S T H E W A Y
H E M A K E S Y O U F E E L
A Journey to Maui to Meet Shep Gordon
Written by Michelle Sullivan
Creative Direction by Beatrice Hurst
Photography by Damian Weilers
Shep Gordon recently celebrated his 70th birthday. Within the international music industry community, he is widely known and respected as a talent manager: most notably for his work in guiding the careers of Alice Cooper, Anne Murray, Blondie, Teddy Pendergrass, and Luther Vandross. Shep is featured in the 2014 documentary, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon. It’s the film that we’ve all been talking about; directed by Mike Myers - it includes commentary from those close to him, including Myers, Michael Douglas, Emeril Lagasse, Anne Murray, Willie Nelson, Sylvester Stallone, Steve Tyler and his longtime assistant Nancy Meola.
I first learned of the film in late 2014 via a recommendation from my Manifesto co-founder and collaborator – Beatrice Hurst. Since that time we have listened to Shep being the topic of conversation at dinner tables, bars, business meetings and many an email dialogue. “Have you seen the Shep Gordon documentary?” we say. “Supermensch! He’s amazing!” is the response.
This year I have witnessed the film develop a cult-like following. Or rather, that life has imitated art and Mr Gordon has become the quintessential super-mensch to a much larger group of people than was originally intended. He will never meet them, but they feel a connection to his story. He is their spirit animal.
Truth be told, it was back in March 2015 that we began our journey to Maui. We started with a promise - between myself and Beatrice – that if Shep would be a willing participant, then we would make this story happen. We just needed to make a start. Naturally I went and sought advice from my friend Justin Shukat at Primary Wave. Justin is a wonderful connector of people and the perfect accomplice. We discussed the film at his office in New York’s Union Square, and he made an introduction for me to Bob Emmer. Bob has known Shep for many years. More phone calls ensued and in late August, written correspondence with Shep began. Shep is very responsive over email - always replying and always in a timely, albeit brief, fashion. One morning in September the phone rings. “Michelle, it’s Shep”, he says in his deep velvety voice. “Good Morning Shep!” I say. “So I know you want to do this story. I’ve got a heavy workload, but if you can push your timeframe back to after mid-October then I can make it work”. “Sure” I say, “I’ll talk with the team and come back to you”. He hangs up. Shep doesn’t say ‘bye’ to herald the end of a phone call. More weeks pass and more emails. We almost lose him a few times, but he is a man of his word, we agree on late October and we book the flights.
On October 19th I fly from New York to Maui, eagerly anticipating the arrival of my Manifesto comrades – Beatrice, and our beloved collaborator and London photographer Damian Weilers.
I send an email to Shep upon arrival suggesting we meet a day early to break the ice. “How about a drink at sunset?” he says, “I’m right down the beach from where you are staying - you can walk.”
The following day and as the sun begins to descend, I walk up the Kihei beach, positively schvitzing in the heat. As I arrive at the beachfront access to his home, I look up - it’s Shep waving me over. I climb up the rocks and find myself on the grass. There is minimal conversation and he suggests I lay on the banana lounge, which is positioned next to his, and he offers me a drink. We talk and watch the sunset. It’s surreal - but nice. A few hours pass, the sun slips into night and our conversation comes to a close. He is concerned as to how I will be getting home. It’s dark, and so he insists on driving me back to my hotel. As we drive down the road, he offers for our team to come ahead of our scheduled time tomorrow. “I am happy for you to come early and make yourselves at home,” he says.
The next day – Beatrice, Damian and I arrive at the home of Shep Gordon. His assistant Nancy gives us a tour, a beer and takes us to the hut where Shep has his of office. In we walk, and there is Shep - sitting comfortably in his deep blue sarong. He insists that we watch the Hillary Clinton skit from SNL. Laughter follows, the video ends and we suggest that we begin our preparations. Everything is just rather casual. He is friendly and thoughtful. He tells us to help ourselves to anything in the fridge. “Perhaps we would like another beer?” he says.
Over the course of that afternoon we take pictures, we talk, we laugh, we watch the skyline and at times we sit in pockets of silence. At the end of the day, interview and photographs complete, he makes us a round of martinis - we talk about our favourite London restaurants and compare recipes for anchovy pasta. He offers for us to stay and enjoy the view, but the sky is now turning into a wash of navy blue and tangerine, and we know it’s best to call it a day.
Why is this story important? What do we know that we didn’t know before? Our time spent with Shep was an experience that we will never forget, and yet nothing truly remarkable happened. It was not as much a series of events as it was a feeling of warmth that we came away with – as though he is a long-time friend whom we had come to visit. There is a special quality about Shep that could never be truly articulated in a documentary, although it’s probably the reason why Mike Myers tried for 10 years to convince him to make the film.
Shep Gordon is a man with kind blue eyes. They are spirited, and also a little shy. They are perhaps intuitive, for no doubt they have seen many things - looking for his way of being in the world. He’s a simple man, a charming man, a fragile man and a compassionate man. There is an openness to him that is completely disarming. It’s not about what Shep does, it’s just the way he makes you feel.
Michelle Sullivan: What’s the last year been like for you?
Shep Gordon: Last year was the strangest year of my life. It’s the first year I felt like I lost control. It’s my first little touch into the public life. I’ve always had a very private life, and having done the documentary a year ago, I find that I’m constantly taken on other people’s journeys, rather than going on my own. Today, for example, I had two emails and a Facebook note from people who have never met me, watched the movie and felt that it was changing their lives. Everyone has a different story, but they’re reaching out in a very compassionate way to me. Today I had two or three business proposals based on who they think Shep Gordon is in the movie. Each one of those takes energy, and I want to be compassionate.
MS: Who is Shep Gordon in the movie?
SG: People think I have a magic wand - that’s what movies do. Movies are magic, and it’s a beautiful thing. I‘m very happy that I did the movie and that so many people have reached out to me. It’s about being successful in the entertainment business without leaving blood - and people are very thankful to hear that, especially young managers and young artists. You can’t ignore it, but at the same time I’m just a human - I do what I do.
MS: I think the film represents an idea that has really connected with people. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the times?
SG: I don’t know the big answers - it’s a combination of things. A lot of us, as artists, as disappointed political, religious and spiritual humans, find something there. I think there’s a reaction. The last wave was so cold, people were just about money, money, money. All anyone cared about in the world for the last 15 years was the accumulation of money, and me, me, me.
MS: What about the mood of the music business?
SG: I would say that the music business has been hijacked. I see no real music business anymore. There are suitcases buying hit singles in one form or another, there are classic acts, but we’re not building anything. I see passion for hit records, not for artists. There are a few minor exceptions, but that’s my perception. I think it needs a whole new reinvention, and I don’t know what it is - but I know that now artists are considered brands - and that’s really scary. As much as I treated all my artists as a brand, they were also based on a foundation. Now nobody cares about the foundation. Disney can keep popping out TV kids who have huge hits and sell millions of records, and pop radio can keep producing artists that are brands rather than artists. It’s manufactured stuff. I think at some point it’s got to get back to the wandering minstrel, which is where it started. Someone plays a song for somebody who smiles, and it builds from there. Then you’re playing for a hundred, then a thousand, then ten thousand.
MS: We’ve become obsessed with celebrity. We are being taught that we should care more about the celebrity than about the art.
SG: I used to get a lot of calls in the early days from kids who wanted to be musicians or work in studios. I used to get calls asking, “Can you get my kid to work in Daniel Boulud’s kitchen?” Now it’s, “Can you get my kid on Top Chef?” They want the fame, not the foundation of the fame.
MS: I think we have a responsibility to culture, particularly youth culture. What are your thoughts on that?
SG: I earned my living by manipulating culture, so it’s hard for me to completely address it in an honest way. Music, film and art in pure form are a reflection of culture. It’s a reflection of the times.
MS: Do you have any practices that you have in your life that you do just for yourself?
SG: I don’t have any real rituals. My meditation is cooking, that’s my favorite thing to do. I love jacuzzis and I play golf.
MS: Do you play golf as a meditative exercise?
SG: No, it’s just beautiful to be out there. It breaks up the day. It’s healthy and it’s fun.
MS: Did these practices of putting space in your life come later on?
SG: I’ve always lived the same kind of life. That’s an interesting question. I went through a period of a lot of alcohol and drugs and staying up late every night - and owning a nightclub in LA. So I was living in a much faster lane.
MS: Which nightclub?
SG: Carlos and Charlie’s. I guess my life has changed quite a bit, but I feel like I’m the same person. These are big questions. I just sort of wake up, do what I do, and go to sleep. I don’t really deal with too many of the big issues.
MS: I don’t think they are necessarily big issues. I do however believe that we learn through storytelling.
SG: I definitely agree with that, I don’t have all the answers though.
MS: I agree that you don’t have all the answers, although there is something that can occur through us telling these stories.
SG: I agree with that. Our recent experience with The Hollywood Vampires in Rio is definitely connecting all the dots in what I’ve learnt. I try to visualize what I would like to see happen, and then I figure out how to make it happen. For example, Luther Vandross. How do you define Luther Vandross for an audience? How do I tell the world that he’s the most romantic guy in the world? He’s overweight, but his song is one of the most romantic songs. How do I get everybody who has a candle to buy a Luther Vandross record?
MS: A candle?
SG: Make love by a candle! What if every single wedding they went to, Luther was the person singing! Why don’t we do that on the radio? We’ll run radio contests, marry folk on the radio station, and Luther will sing live to you at your wedding on the radio station. It got Luther airplay everywhere because the radio stations were tied into it - it made these people’s lives. We got ahead of the curve and we made history. With Luther it was romance - with Teddy Pendergrass it was about pure sex. We held For Women Only concerts, and we’d give them chocolate teddy bears. Let’s give the women something to lick on! We created culture.
MS: Did you have mentors?
SG: Roger Vergé. Jerry Wexler. Joseph Campbell in his writing - he was a very powerful influence in my life. I just wanted to be able to eat lunch. But I always enjoyed creating culture. For me, I loved being the marionette and not being known.
MS: You must have a very practical brain.
SG: There’s nothing I do that’s rocket science. I get up early, and I’m a list-maker. I do think that cannabis and my early days with psychedelics really helped me - because I don’t think in the box. I know that when I get really stuck, I go smoke a joint. I don’t always figure it out, but if I do it long enough - I usually can.
MS: Was there a point where you had a loss of fear? You seem quite fearless.
SG: No, never. I’m scared to death every second, but I’ve never had the fear. I’ve had to get Alice out of situations that were so horrible, and were such failures - but that’s part of doing what I do. You can’t expect it to work every single time.
MS: What things didn’t work?
SG: Oh, there are so many...
MS: How do you deliver bad news?
SG: The same way I deliver good news! Alice bought a new house in L.A, and he wanted to see how much it would cost to put a sky roof in the bedroom. The day he bought the house, it burnt to the ground. I was watching TV and they had it on the news. I called him up, he was on the road, and I said “I’ve got good news and bad news - what do you want first?” He said give me the good news. “Skylight’s no problem!”
I think one of the things about not having contracts with artists is that you can fuck up. If you have a contract, it’s very hard to get past the fuckup. I’m just a human.
MS: You don’t want to be working with people who don’t want to work with you.
SG: I think mentoring is really important. I can’t imagine my life without being mentored. I think it’s the most important thing you can find in your life, and I don’t think it has to be in business. My relationship with Mr Vergé affected everything I did in my life. I was lucky to find Mr. Vergé, lucky enough to be around His Holiness, and lucky enough to have a father who was amazing. My father was a quiet man, but the older I get and the more I look back on my life, I realize that he gave me the foundation not to be afraid.
MS: You strike me as a very traditional type of man.
SG: I am. I think it’s hard to even talk about being compassionate; it’s out of my wheelhouse. It’s just what you should do - be compassionate. I listened to your podcasts with The Manifesto this morning. They are really good. I listened to all three of them ... I took our meeting seriously. It was important for me to know what you and Beatrice do – if I’m going to be compassionate with you and treat you properly. It was important for me to find out which way you’re headed and how I can help. I want to learn more about you. That’s what we can do for each other.
MS: [silence]. Thank you Shep. That means a lot to us.
SG: Of course Michelle, I want to be compassionate with you. We must always learn through example. Mr. Vergé was completely by example. He never sent back a plate to a kitchen that had a morsel of food on it, even if he hated the meal. He would never want to knowingly hurt the feelings of the chef.
MS: When you cook for someone - it’s a way of caring for them.
SG: It wasn’t even a question - that’s what you do. I wore a tie every night I ate dinner with him. I never wear a tie, but I wore a tie out of respect for him.
MS: Tradition and respect are important values.
SG: Those are the things that get lost when you’re searching for a life, especially in our frantic world. Those are the things that are really important.
S H E P ’ S A N C H O V Y P A S T A
SERVE WITH A BAROLO.
01 — Use regular spaghetti
02 — Heat olive oil and make garlic chips.
03 — Use that oil in a bowl to combine anchovies and oil into the pasta.
04 — Cook the pasta al dente and put it back in the pan.
05 — Put in with the the oil and garlic. Add some butter.
06 — Serve with a parsley garnish.