It's easy to dismiss the oft-told story of an Alice Cooper audience tearing apart a live chicken as apocryphal. But Shep Gordon, Cooper's manager for nearly 50 years, swears it happened. "The show was outdoors at a place called Varsity Stadium in Toronto, and there were feral chickens," he says of the 1969 incident. "I didn't bring the chicken, but I threw it [onstage]." With that, Gordon breaks into his unmistakable laugh, noting the irony of telling the fowl tale at the Music City Food and Wine Festival, where he's just finished signing copies of his new memoir, They Call Me Supermensch: A Backstage Pass to the Amazing Worlds of Film, Food, and Rock 'N' Roll.
A companion piece to Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Mike Myers' inspirational 2013 documentary about Gordon's life, the book expands on his exploits as an artist manager (along with Cooper, he's overseen the careers of Teddy Pendergrass, Anne Murray and others), film producer and champion of the culinary arts – which is what brings him to Nashville. But it also serves as a how-to guide for living, as the soon-to-be 71-year-old shares tips for doing what he calls "compassionate business."
"Maybe there is something in my life that can have some meaning for other people," he says, "and meaning for me – because I have no idea what it's all about."
Does your book mirror Mike Myers' documentary?
Mike's a storyteller. He took the parts of my life and turned it into this beautiful heroic story and built in a lot of sympathy and some drama. What the film didn't do was deal with the failures. When I saw the movie, Mike was very nervous: Did I like it, did I hate it? I said, "You know, Mike, I'd love to have lunch with this guy."
Why do you think people connected so strongly with the film?
The hardest part of the documentary was accepting this outpouring of love that came after it. Some of it was self-serving, singers who wanted me to manage them. But then there was this whole world of people who were asking these really deep questions about how to be happy, and how to be successful and not hurt people. My whole life, I've always been very wary of anybody who thinks they know anything – because none of us do. What's life all about? How do you get happy? What's the right way to live? Those are big questions and they are questions that don't have answers. But that doesn't mean you can't live your life believing in something.
You credit the French chef Roger Vergé with changing the course of your existence.
I would say the biggest influence on my life was Roger Vergé. I was at a point in my life where I was about to be a victim of success and meeting him pulled me out of that.
You mean the trappings of success?
Yeah, all fool's gold. Bigger car, more jewelry, more blow up my nose, more beautiful women. But everybody around me was miserable. And dying. Jimi Hendrix, [Janis] Joplin. The people I knew, their knees would shake at dinner. They'd never look you in the eye. I was realizing I was becoming one of those people, and then I met Mr. Vergé and he was the first really successful man I met who was happy.
To you, chefs are on par with rock stars.
Oh, yeah, they live the same lives. They change their clothes to go onstage; a chef changes to go in the kitchen. They have to play their hits: Nobu has to serve sushi, Wolfgang [Puck], a pizza. And as Alice has played "I'm Eighteen" 10,000 times, they probably cooked the pizza 10,000 times. But at the same time you have to give your audience new recipes, new songs.
Emeril LaGasse was among your first "celebrity chef" clients, but his stardom didn't come easy. Can you tell that story?
Emeril was the star of the Food Network. It was just starting on the air and wasn't making money, but if it could get to a 1.0 rating, it was successful. And Emeril's show hit a 1.0 rating. He was having dinner that night with the new head of the network. She said, "Can I see you for a minute? We're thrilled that Emeril got a 1.0, but his contract is up and he's going to have to make a decision: does he want to be a TV star or be a cook?" And I said, "How does that translate?" She said the only way they were going to renew his contract was if he gave up his restaurants. I said, "You're paying him $250 a show. Are you going to give him a raise?" "Oh, no, we won't be able to give him a raise." I said, "Well, you're going to have a rough night." So Emeril and her went out to dinner, and I got a call from the restaurant that the police had come in. Emeril had thrown the table on her! Which he rightfully should have done.
What's the secret to your long-running relationship with Alice? It's an anomaly in show biz.
We started off so early in life, and we failed so many times and forgave each other and supported each other during the failures. We never had a contract. He's never asked me, "What am I making tonight?" Ever. And I've never said to him, "How are you going to sing the songs?" We do our jobs. We trust each other. It is a remarkable relationship. And we very rarely talk. There are times that a year will go by and we actually don't talk. He doesn't have a cell phone; he doesn't have a computer.
But you were here in May with him for the launch of the new tour.
Because it was a new show. I write the shows and direct the shows, so I stay with him until we break it. I stay until it works. I do my job.
How do you come up with some of the more outrageous Alice set pieces?
I smoke a lot of marijuana. And that's really what does it.
The most disturbing part of your book involves Alice, some fan mail and … semen.
[Laughs] I'll never forget that morning because I was so excited we were getting fan mail. Maybe this was the 25th letter we had gotten. I had just moved back to New York. I was downstairs and opened the mail there, and there was this little plastic baggie. I thought, "What is this?" Then I started to read the note: "I get so excited that I jerked off." Oh, no! He packaged it.
You'll be 71 in October. Is there anything else you want to do?
Two things. I spent 40 years on toilets in hotels blowing marijuana into exhaust fans. I'd like to try to make sure that generations after me don’t have to do that.
You're talking about legalization?
Yeah. To change the face of cannabis to something that is not about forgetting but remembering. It's the healthiest crutch you can use in my opinion. And it has these unbelievable qualities that people aren't allowing. Veterans not having access is criminal. They're committing suicide and this can help them. Kids having all kinds of fits. It can help them. There are real medical applications for it and that should be the face of marijuana. Recreationally, it's fine. But that shouldn't be the game.
And the other thing is I feel very proud of helping establish the culinary arts. But I think [chefs] really need to institutionalize into their fabric [the idea of] giving back. If your craft is feeding people, how can you feed just $200 dinners when everybody outside your restaurant is starving to death? To be a real art form, it needs real humans, and that's part of being a real human.