Sex, drugs & a rocker with a soul - Alice Cooper's old hippie handler gets his own movie
It all began when a young Jimi Hendrix enquired: “Are you Jewish? You should become a manager.” Five decades later, Shep Gordon has few regrets as he looks back on one of the most successful careers in rock’n’roll
Shep Gordon enjoys the good life: ‘Where would I have ended up? I might have ended up in jail. I might have been a rich dealer and owned a Vegas Hotel, but life took me on another path’
It’s not all that easy to make an exciting documentary about a nice guy. Hit docs are (to paraphrase Father Dougal) about mad fellows like Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson. Nobody wants their evening spoilt with tales of generosity and fairness. Mike Myers’s Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon proves the exception to this normally reliable principle.
In an age that saw many rock managers pressing their case with baseball bats while lining pockets with their charges’ money, Shep was the guy who actually looked out for his clients. Beginning as bag carrier for Alice Cooper, he went on handle such diverse acts as Anne Murray, Blondie and Luther Vandross. Nobody got ripped off. Everybody loved him. He was, indeed, the Supermensch.
“I’m sure there were plenty of others like me,” he says over his trademark throaty cackle. “I came out of that generation of hippies who really wanted to do good. We burned our draft cards. We didn’t just accept things. We tried to make things happen. I hope I brought that spirit to my business: trying to help the underdog.”
It’s a point worth making. Still, he must have been surprised when Mike Myers – yes, that Mike Myers – suggested the notion of turning his life into a film.
“I thought he was completely out of his mind,” he laughs. “The first thing I said was that if I was managing him, I’d say this was the worst idea. Absolutely not.”
Oh, this is one heck of a story. Born in New York City, Shep seems to have had the sort of difficult upbringing you encounter in early novels by Philip Roth. He describes his mother as a “cruel old lady” who greatly favoured his more academically minded brother. The film tells us how, terrified of the family’s savage dog, Shep spend most of his childhood in his room.
“I lived in fear of that dog and that was a safe place to be,” he says. “That did seem kind of cruel. She had two children and the other became a veterinarian. That’s all I knew. But I made up things and that helped me with my career.”
Like many of his contemporaries in the rock music world, he was forced to invent his job and devise new strategies. After all, nobody had ever done this before. By the late 1960s, with a degree in sociology from New York State University, he found himself kicking about shadier corners of Los Angeles. By his own admission, he made a living by playing poker and flogging the odd bag of weed.
“Where would I have ended up? I might have ended up in jail. I might have been a rich dealer and owned a Vegas Hotel, but life took me on another path,” he says.
It was Jimi Hendrix who turned things around. Then shaggy, spectacled and prematurely balding, Shep bumped into the guitarist at a hotel and was taken aback when Jimi asked him whether he was Jewish. When Shep nodded, Jimi suggested he should become a manager. It’s a peculiar moment in the film. Was that the only thing a Jewish kid could do in the business?
“A historian could maybe answer that question,” he ponders. “The stereotypical answer is that they were great businessmen because they were cheap. Ha ha!”
Nobody in the film suggests that Shep was remotely cheap. Indeed, there is a fascinating passage describing how, while managing Teddy Pendergrass, he went up against dodgy promoters to ensure artists on the chitlin’ circuit got properly paid.
Certainly, Alice Cooper had no complaints. When the two men came together, neither owned much more than the pants they stood up in. Their initial ambition was to ensure they earned enough to pay for lunch. Shep was simply grateful that he had “something [he] could do for a living”. But he did have his eyes on the big prize.
“I decided I wasn’t going to quit until I became a millionaire,” he remembers. “Alice and I said: ‘Let’s shake and we will figure this thing out.’ So it then got serious. We both accepted each other’s talents. We never had a contract. We always trusted one another.”
Shep was instrumental in helping Cooper create a new class of pop – harder and more vaudevillian than the hippie stuff – that eventually evolved into glam rock. They sold a great many records. They packed more than a few stadiums. And, of course, they took their fair share of drugs.
“There were no consequences as far as we were concerned,” he says. “You have to remember that nobody had died yet. There was no thought of consequences. You got high. You passed out. You woke up. It was only really later on when Jimi and Janice started dropping you began to think. It was when we became aware of those consequences we stopped. We are in this pretty deep. Do we want to follow this path?”
If the film does strike one bum note, it comes when Myers and Shep touch on the business of sex. Shep explains that one of his priorities was to ensure that, when the debris was cleared away, there were no underage girls about the place. He points out that this could cause a great deal of trouble. And “it was wrong”, Myers stresses. Shep agrees. But there is laughter. We think differently about such things now.
“It’s true. Things have changed from then. We don’t take it at all frivolously now,” he says apologetically. “If it was my movie, there would be a few things I would have done differently. And that is one. I really didn’t mean it that way.”
At any rate, Shep survived the mayhem and prospered. When the Weinsteins were still promoting gigs, he moved towards independent film and helped bring Ridley Scott’s The Duellists and Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense into cinemas. He worked with a legion of soul singers. Partly to escape the drugs and the mayhem, he moved to Hawaii, where he hosted parties for all classes of celebrity and developed an interest in Buddhism.
“The things that start polluting you are getting upset if you’re not at the number one table in a restaurant,” he says. “Or if they park your car in the wrong place. That sort of nonsense. When those things started to matter, I knew I was in trouble. So I had to get away.”
Gordon admits that he has found it impossible to completely retire. The oddest things draw him back to the metaphorical anvil. In recent years, he has helped a few celebrity chefs achieve their full financial potential.
What will grab him next? The remaining hair is grey. The brow is creased. But he still bubbles with positive energy.
“I never really had that thing of waking up and thinking: this is what I want to do,” he laughs. “I just bump into it. I guess we’ll see what I bump into next.”