At lunch with Shep Gordon, the godfather of everything, who played a central role in fostering the careers of everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Alice Cooper to Emeril Lagasse to Daniel Boulud.
I was running late to meet Shep Gordon at Charlie Palmer Steak in Midtown Manhattan for lunch. Not terribly late or fantastically late, just noticeably late. By the time I arrived, Gordon, sitting at a large circular booth hidden by foliage, had ordered and finished a half-dozen oysters. Their empty shells lay accusingly, hollows up, on a bed of ice.
But Gordon, perhaps the most famous unfamous man in the world, was unperturbed. He is accustomed to solitude. Half-Zelig and half-Svengali, Shep Gordon has shepherded the careers of pretty much anyone you ever heard of in the last century: Alice Cooper, Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross, Emeril Lagasse, Raquel Welch, Groucho Marx. A man who moved so much and so quickly must, almost by necessity, fly solo. Here was a man from whom much of today's culture emanated. Had Shep not sold acid to Jimi Hendrix back in 1968, would there be Electric Ladyland? Without Shep, Groucho Marx would most certainly have been forgotten. Had he not convinced Teddy Pendergrass to perform ladies-only concerts, millions of Americans, conceived as "Close the Door" played softly on the Hi-Fi, wouldn't be alive. Had he not become a manager as a cover for his illicit drug-dealing income, would Vince Furnier have transmogrified into Alice Cooper? And without Alice Cooper, there would be no Marilyn Manson, and without Marilyn Manson, Joe Lieberman would never have made a name for himself, at least not enough to get on the Gore ticket of 2000, which lost to a Bush. And without Shep Gordon, who convinced some dude named Emeril Lagasse that a chef ain't shit if he doesn't have merch, there would be no Food Network. "It's very Forrest Gump, like so Forrest Gump it's ridiculous," Gordon says, laughing.
And yet there clings to him a resolute ordinariness. I'm not sure what, exactly, one might expect from so momentous a life: an aura, merit badges, scars, asthma, or something. He's just a regular guy, or as he likes to say, "Shep from Oceanside." And if he's proud of his quietude, that pride is too quiet to perceive.
Gordon is in town from Maui, where he lives, to promote his memoir, They Call Me Supermensch: A Backstage Pass to the Amazing Worlds of Film, Food, and Rock 'n' Roll. In the book, the à la minute finishing of which was the reason for my tardiness, Gordon reveals that as a boy, he spent many hours cloistered in the bedroom of his family home in Oceanside, Brooklyn. He was hiding from Skippy, a vicious mutt his mother had bought for his older brother Edward, who wanted to be a veterinarian. The dog loved his brother. But Skippy hated Shep (and Shep Skippy), and in the familial scrum of affection, the boy lost out to the family pet.
"In a bizarre way," he writes, "my life came to revolve around that dog."
Gordon was effectively banished from the common areas of the home. He spent hours alone in his room or out of the house, playing basketball until dark. Gordon is forthcoming about the upside—"I can get lonely, same as anyone," he writes, "but my ability to sit alone quietly for hours at a time, thinking, visualizing, would play a huge role in my successes as an adult"—but does not dwell on the psychic damage of the situation, which came not from the aloneness per se but the fucked-up hierarchy of his mother's love. Left unexamined, for instance, is how his relationship with his mother relates to his jarring objectification of women, though that attitude seems at least partially a product of the time (the 1970s), the drugs (endless), and the company (rock stars).
“In a bizarre way, my life came to revolve around that dog.”
Gordon may have been sitting alone quietly, happily appreciating the residual brininess of the oysters and sipping a cranberry-and-vodka. But heavy on my mind now is the ghost of his mother, whose diminishing deleterious presence pervades the pages of his book and, no doubt, his life. Conspicuously left unthanked in the thank-yous, she is just one of many prodigal presences throughout the memoir: movie stars and legendary musicians, accountants and label men, drug dealers and chefs.
The cognitive dissonance of Shep Gordon is how normal the man seems for how abnormal, how utterly ahistorically aberrant and exceptional, his 70 years on earth have been. He probably has a lot more famous friends than most of us have friends at all. Many text him throughout our lunch. Later that night, they will be at the Shinola store to celebrate the publication of the memoir. The event is being hosted by Alice Cooper, but "I'm telling my friends not to come until late. It's going to be too crowded. Even Tony Danza is coming," Gordon says happily. "I haven't seen him in 30 years."
The party was fine, but the man had lived a life of endless fiesta. "This has been my worst food week I can ever remember in my life," he says. "Every night I have an event, and the places I want to go to are closed by the time it's over." Tonight his dear friend Nobu's restaurant, Nobu, is open late, and it will be to Nobu that Gordon will go. "Celebration at dinner," he says, "is the most important thing to me. I don't throw away any dinners. Life is too short."
Nevertheless, when the waiter asks if we are ready to order, Gordon says, "I want everything." And he pretty much gets it. A 30-day-dry-aged steak arrives sizzling. A half-dozen more oysters and their smaller friends, clams, arrive on ice. Three bright green asparagus shafts are covered by a vinaigrette. Gnocchi is studded with swarthy black truffles. "Oh," he says, "Charlie [Palmer] told me I have to try the chicken, too." Palmer, of course, is a personal friend as well. "I told him he has to let me pay this time," says Gordon. "If not, I'll never eat here again!"
The enormity of Gordon's professional accomplishment and his long-term impact is hard to comprehend and difficult even to describe. That's one reason talking to him gives one the sense of missing something important. Words are both too far and too close to get the real picture. He is, literally, the Godfather of Everything and the Best Friend of Everybody.
Take, for example, how he knows Palmer, and Nobu, and Bourdain, whose imprint at Ecco published the book, a frank, artless, and thoroughly enjoyable chronicle of hard-partying, shrewd marketing, and auspicious meeting. The year was 1984, and Gordon was in the extremely successful film producer phase of his life, with Ridley Scott's The Duellists, starring Harvey Keitel in braids, and Roadie, starring Meat Loaf as a guy named Redfish, under his belt. He was in Cannes for the festival with G. Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary, the dueling subjects of Return Engagement, a documentary produced by Gordon's company, Island Alive Films. Liddy, Leary, and Gordon were eating at Roger Vergé's Moulin de Mougins, a 10-minute drive from the town center. Vergé was already famous in France, but chef famous, which was a much lesser type of fame back then.
Vergé was, in fact, the first celebrity chef. It wasn't that he was a celebrity, but that he served celebrities. The day Gordon, Liddy, and Leary had lunch there, they were joined in the dining room by Anthony Quinn, James Coburn, Luciano Pavarotti, and Clint Eastwood. Gordon was, by his own estimation, "pretty stoned and drunk."
At some point Leary decided to make a scene. He jumped up and declared he had smuggled in a hundred tabs of acid and would like to trade them for sleeping pills and other sundry narcotics. This was poorly received at the time, and a dick move. Leary's outburst toxified and alienated the room, which clammed up and seethed. (Gordon tells me he came away from the project "respecting Liddy but not respecting Timothy," and was "disappointed in his choices.") All of a sudden, in swept Vergé. "He was like a white light in a room of darkness." The chef, handsome and suave and all smiles, was an instant diffuser of bad mojo. Up jumped Anthony Quinn, then Coburn and the rest, to greet him. Gordon was smitten. Not only had Vergé the power to dispel darkness, but he was evidently important enough for the leading men of the era to rise for. "I've always been a little bit of a groupie," Gordon says. So Gordon told Vergé he wanted to be his Grasshopper, which made no sense to the elderly Frenchman unfamiliar with David Carradine's Kung Fu. Vergé told Gordon to go to culinary school, which he did, and come back, which he also did.
It was the first time in Gordon's long career that he had wanted to do something, not make someone else known for doing what they did. And yet even this—the sudden urge to be a chef—was grounded in the desire to serve. Gordon credits his father, who worked in Manhattan's shmata trade, with instilling this sense of selflessness. "He worked his entire life for my family," he says. "I realized writing this book that I've lived my life as I think he would have."
By the 1990s, Gordon and Vergé were good friends. And Gordon realized that chefs were laboring under the same abusive circumstances he had encountered with Pendergrass on the Chitlin’ Circuit. "The Chitlin’ Circuit was very much like the chefs when I started with them," he says. "In the black music field, the artists were convinced that the only way they could continue to get hit records was to go play shows for the radio stations and the record company, basically for free, and that would keep them in the public eye."
Similarly, Vergé and other chefs of his caliber were frequently asked to cook for free. This enraged Gordon. "It was absolutely fucking insane." So Gordon began managing chefs, just like he did Pendergrass and Cooper. "It was so obvious to me that it was the exact same thing: They both have to do their hits. They have to write new recipes. They have to take their audience with them. They both wear street clothes to the gig. They both change backstage. They both go home after the show. But if they don't have products and media, they're just wandering minstrels with pots and pans."
The days of free labor were over. Merchandizing had begun. Gordon's roster of clients is, like so much about him, inconceivably major now: He started with, among others, Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Daniel Boulud, Larry Forgione, Nobu Matsuhisa, Emeril Lagasse, Jeremiah Tower, Jonathan Waxman, and more. It was under Gordon's watch that they turned from journeymen to celebrities.
Gordon is lost in the present (or perhaps just present in the present). But, as he asks the waiter to pack up the leftovers for me, my mind is still turning back to his childhood bedroom. Gordon has spent his whole professional life making other people feel special, and getting them to be treated thusly. Might that, I wonder, have something to do with that infernal hound? But Shep politely skirts vivisection. "I saw so many of my friends unscrew the jar and never get the top back on," he says. The waiter arrives sans check. He says, "Charlie wants to take care of you." Gordon smiles and says, "I had a feeling."