Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Shep Gordon, the man behind some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
Listen to the interview here or by selecting any of the options below.
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO:
You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED:
No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, kittens and squirrels. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job to deconstruct world-class performers, the best of the best, in many different worlds; whether that be chess, military or, in this case, entertainment. Now, I’ve wanted to get Shep Gordon on this show for probably a year and a half, two years, and it’ll be very clear within the first few minutes of this conversation why. He has been named one of the 100 most influential people by Rolling Stone magazine and he is the man, he is the icon behind the icons, behind some of the biggest names you’ve ever heard.
You can say hello to him on Twitter and Instagram at supermenschshep. If you like the storytelling and lessons of Cal Fussman, you’re going to love this episode. Shep has worked with and befriended and has some incredible stories about – and hilarious stories, which you’re going to hear – some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry from Alice Cooper to Bette Davis, Raquel Welch to Groucho Marx, Blondie to Jimi Hendrix, Sylvester Stallone to Salvador Dali, Luther Vandross to Teddy Pendergrass.
His job was, in effect – and he had many jobs – to make them as famous as possible. We dig into how he did that. The PR stunts, the biggest successes, the biggest failures – and there were quite a few that blew up right in his face. On top of that, he is credited with inventing the celebrity chef phenomenon, which revolutionized the food industry and turned the culinary arts into the multi-billion-dollar industry that it is today. He worked with all of the first wave of the now-known celebrity chefs: Nobu Matsuhisa, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Roger Vergé, and many others.
Then on top of that, he’s done quite a bit with His Holiness the Dali Lama. It doesn’t end there. Now, Anthony Bourdain, a huge fan of Shep’s, has released a memoir detailing Shep’s life and adventures titled They Call Me Supermensch: A Backstage Pass to the Amazing Worlds of Film, Food, and Rock’n’Roll.
I’ve been reading this and enjoying every page because it is hard to conceive of how many stories and life lessons Shep has. It is like the most titalizing – titalizing? Is that a real word? The most raucous, drug-infused, party story combined with the best MBA you could possibly receive. So without further ado, please enjoy my conversation with Shep Gordon.
Tim Ferriss: Shep, welcome to the show.
Shep Gordon: Aloha, I am so happy to be here. Thank you, Tim, for having me on.
Tim Ferriss: It’s my pleasure. I was mentioning before we started recording that about a year ago, I took my family on a trip for Christmas and we all sat down and we watched Supermensch and the collective thought was, at some point in time you need to connect with this Shep character. So I’m very excited to have you on the line. Could you place, for the people listening, where you are at the moment?
Shep Gordon: I’m on a beautiful, white sand beach called Keawakapu Beach on the southwest shore of Maui. You might be able to hear some waves rolling in the background. I’m sitting on my porch, which overlooks the ocean, and feeling very, very lucky.
Tim Ferriss: And how did you end up in Hawaii? Because I know it’s a very important place to you. Not only that, but your home has been a refuge of sorts for many people, including notable folks for decades now. But how did you end up in Hawaii?
Shep Gordon: Like many things in my life, partly by accident, partly by taking action. I wanted to quit smoking. This was back in the early ‘70s. I had read about a house that Colonel Tom Parker, who was Elvis Presley’s manager had rented in Honolulu and brought his office over to – a big spread.
Colonel Parker was a hero. I said, ohmygod, if I could sleep in Colonel Parker’s bed and quit smoking? What a cool thing to do. So I rented the house. It was in Kahala in Honolulu and brought a bunch of people from my office over. Sadly, we weren’t environmentally conscious in ’72 and I remember we all threw our cigarettes out the window driving in from the airport. I just go in with the wrong crowd in Honolulu; it wasn’t working at all.
My spiral was sort of going deeper and I decided I had to leave Honolulu and go to an outer island. I had a friend who had a tour going to the outer island. In those days, they had a hydrofoil. I took a hydrofoil, put one foot on the dock at Maui and turned around to my friend and said, “I’m living here the rest of my life.” I just feel different in my skin here. It’s been very magical.
Tim Ferriss: Now, if we were to look at rewinding the clock and a shift in location, how did you get your start in the music business? For people who do not know the back story.
Shep Gordon: Another great accident; I have great accidents. I was always a child of the ‘60s; a liberal, Jewish, socialist-leaning activist – very active against the war, active against Rodsi. I always had a vision of myself as a young man as like a savior on a white horse, charging into trouble. So I took a job as a probation officer. I had long hair. I was using psychedelics and I thought, what a beautiful thing to bring love and peace to a probation hall. Young kids – it was the Reagan era – I thought they were being misused, misguided. I went to California and got a job as a probation officer. It didn’t work; I sort of got beat up by the kids the first day. I realized I was not going to change the system by being a probation officer.
I drove into Hollywood late at night; didn’t have a lot of money. There was a small motel that had a vacancy sign. I stepped into the hotel; it had a balcony. It was exactly Hotel California. It was two stories around the swimming pool, palm trees. A life I didn’t know. I went out on the porch and took a little psychedelics. I felt a little sorry for myself, having just been beat up at a jail, but also felt amazingly empowered to be on my own in California, free, healthy.
I heard screaming down at the pool – a girl. Having just come from a jail, my brain for some reason went to violence and I thought she was being raped. I ran down and separated these two people and the girl got very mad, punched me in the mouth. They were making love. I took the wrong guess.
In the morning when I went down to the pool, the girl was Janis Joplin. Around the pool was sort of the Hollywood Wax Museum: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison would come and go, the Chambers Brothers, who were very big in those days and I was a big fan of. My journey began. One day, Lester Chambers said to me, “What else do you do for a living?” because I’d started selling some psychedelics to everybody at the hotel. I said, “I don’t really know.” He said, “Are you Jewish?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “You should be a manager.” He introduced me to Alice Cooper and I’ve managed him for 47 years.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m replaying the documentary in my mind. It seems like, as you mentioned, you’ve had some fantastic accidents, but you’ve also created some incredible things in your life.
You seem to be a master, P.T. Barnum of sorts. I was hoping you could discuss some of your favorite stunts you’ve put together because the one that jumps to mind – and I’d love to hear about a few of them – but at least one that comes to mind was the broken-down truck in London. But you can tackle them in any order that you’d like. I just think these are so genius; I’d love for you to explain a few of them.
Shep Gordon: I’ll start with Piccadilly. My philosophy was that you didn’t have to wait for history; that you could create history. We’re in the entertainment business, so different maybe than in politics where you create history. There aren’t really victims. So I always feel good about creating history in an entertainment sense.
The key to really managing an artist was to try and understand what is it that appeals to their audience? If you can get it down to a word or two words or three words, “sex appeal” or “rebellion appeal,” there’s broad categories that if you can tap into, you can pick up a big audience. With Alice, we realized very early on it was hatred of the parent; that every child at some point in their life rebelled against their parents.
I live through it now. My kids came home with hip hop music. I’m like, what are you doing? I knew hip hop music would be gigantic because that’s the way life works. It works that way in clothes, it works that way in everything. So I knew my focus. My focus was getting parents over the breakfast table to tell their children, “If you dare buy an Alice Cooper record or go see him, you’re grounded.”
If I could accomplish that, so I never really cared about the music magazines. I cared about Newsweek, Time, the network TVs. I cared about the things the parents watch, not the kids. Because I didn’t really know how to get to kids except for this was the Payola period, it was paying for hit records and we didn’t have money. So we start making some progress in America. It starts working. We start pulling stunts off. Alice would get very lucky with the chicken incident, where I threw a chicken onstage and the press thought Alice bit its head off and said these horrible stories about him, which broke him wide open in America.
I assume it’s a great thing. When we get to England, there’s no ticket sales. I’m now trying to figure out – how do I in a matter of ten days get every parent in London to hate Alice Cooper? That’s not an easy task.
So I go in and there was a brilliant guy working at Warner Bros. who was the fifth Beatle, Derek Taylor. He was their PR man and he was brilliant. He said, “Tell me about this Alice Cooper.” He had never heard of Alice Cooper. I told him and I told him what I was thinking. We started talking and I said, “Is there anything that all the parents in London watch or do or see?” He said, “The morning shows are gigantic because everybody checks them for the traffic before they leave home.” There’s helicopters and it’s really big. It’s like – TV in Britain is very boring.
This is something that gets a lot of use. “And what’s the busiest traffic in the morning at rush hour?” He said Piccadilly Square; it’s always backed up.” Out of that developed this – we had just done a photo shoot with Avedon, which was Alice naked with a snake covering his genitals. So I said to Derek, “You know, we just had this great shot.” I took it out and I said, “What do you think about putting it on like a flatbed truck and breaking it down in Piccadilly? Would that piss everybody off?”
He said, “You can’t, come on.” I said, “We could do this.” He said, “You know, we can,” and he found a driver and he paid for the truck through Warner Bros. We asked the guy to break it down two or three times until they arrested him, because we knew they would arrest him. But that was our story. And it hit the morning news. It was helicopters, traffic was backed up 30 miles. We had – you have to remember – this is ’72 or ’73 and we had girls on the flatbed truck in hot pants giving out flyers for the concert. But it sold out.
There’s also many things that didn’t work, because when you live on the edge like that, there’s so many things that don’t work. I just gave a talk to a bunch of DJs and business guys in that world. What I tried to get across is that the failures were almost more important than the successes. That’s really what separated Alice and I from so many other managers and artists and what made his career go so long.
Because we both were allowed to fail and we supported each other. So here’s a great failure story: He gets his first stadium show – Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. I’m trying to think, what do I do? It’s a baseball stadium. We have to do something really Alice Cooper, because everything’s going to be so small on a tiny stage. In those days, I don’t even think they were using screens in concerts. This was really early days. I think it was the first stadium show, other than The Beatles at Shea Stadium. There were very few stadium shows. So I said, “I got it. Shoot him across the stadium out of a cannon. How cool would that be?”
Alice Cooper going through the stadium. So I go to Warner Bros., who built all our props; they did the guillotine, they did the gallows. The guy there was so nonchalant about it. After I explained to him what I wanted, he said “What period cannon?”
I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” He said, “No, World War I? World War II? Revolutionary War? I said, “Give me your best cannon.” He went to a drawer and he took out blueprints for a cannon with someone in it to get shot across – he didn’t say stadium, but it was the trick. It was a shallow bottom. The trick was Alice would crawl in the cannon, got into a bottom that was pitless. There was a dummy already dressed like him, looking like him. He would crawl out of the cannon, get driven around to the other side of the stadium. We would do some shtick with flames, getting ready to blow up the cannon.
When he got there, bingo. And it would go across the stadium and Alice would come out triumphant. Well, we did it the first night for rehearsal and the cannon, which was 40 feet long and six tons, the dummy came out and it went maybe one foot.
Tim Ferriss: Just flopped out.
Shep Gordon: Yeah, just flopped. It was the worst thing I ever saw. But Alice couldn’t see it, he was in the cannon. He said, “How was it?” I said, “The worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” I made a very rookie mistake, which I never made again, which was advertising what we were going to do.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no.
Shep Gordon: So at Three Rivers Stadium, they’re on the radio going, “Watch Alice get shot out of a cannon!” And we sold out. We had press coming in the night before to send stories back to the news because that’s all you had was the 6:00 news and they wouldn’t have been able [inaudible]. So now, what are we going do? I said, “Go to sleep. I’ll figure it out.” He wakes up. In the hotel were fire extinguishers that had foam. So he said, “What are we going to do?” I said, “It’s going to be a giant penis with these two balls on it. It’s going to erupt with this foam, you get on it and rub it and lick it and just masturbate it to death and the foam will come out, 40, 50 rows. It’ll be fantastic. I’ll figure out what I tell Pittsburgh.”
So he gets in and he rubs it. He works so hard and it drips out. It’s worse than the night before. One little drop. And now this is a time when most managers and artists would be choking each other to death. That is the point I want to make out of this story.
Tim Ferriss: Why is that though? Why?
Shep Gordon: Because I’ve now – I’m a manager. I thought of it. I put him on a stage in the most embarrassing situation.
Tim Ferriss: I got it, right.
Shep Gordon: As a normal human being, not to mention even an artist, you would tend to give the guy brief who put you in this horrible situation. It’s horrible. It was all on me. 100 percent on me. I write the shows with Alice. He lets me do everything. It’s 100 percent on my shoulders. Instead of it, he said, “Can you cover it?” I said, “Yeah.” He went to sleep and I stayed up all night and I figured out okay, how do I turn this disaster into a gigantic win for Alice Cooper? What would be even bigger for Alice Cooper? Because we’re sold out, so that’s okay.
Even bigger for him that getting shot out of the cannon. And here’s what we did. He showed up the next night. The cannon blew up. He was in the cannon when it blew up. The TV crews were there. They watched him getting taken off into the ambulance. We announce from the hospital that it wasn’t serious and that he was going to come and do the show. And we did the show with him in a wheelchair and nurses, doctors, everybody, giving him applause.
Nothing happened to him. It was all a set-up. The front page was about how great Alice Cooper was. What other artist in the world would come and put on a show for his audience from a wheelchair? So out of that failure came even a stronger bond. I think that’s one of the important lessons to learn from that is it takes a family to make a business as much as it takes to make a family.
It takes a group, a town, a village and the people you work with. You need to allow them to fail or they’ll never really win because both are tied so closely together in the creative world.
Tim Ferriss: Now I want to underscore a few things and ask a follow-up question. The first is, you talked about aiming to upset the parents in say London or the U.K. So in a way, you’re doing almost the opposite of, for instance, the founding editor of Wired magazine talks about 1,000 true fans and trying to find your 1,000 true fans. But you did it indirectly, almost by trying to find – targeting your 1,000 true haters. I mean, finding the people who would do your advertising for you by disliking you, which I think is just so interesting.
Shep Gordon: For a very specific reason. I think that art is a very narrow window when it comes to personal choice. The largest entertainment figures of our decade all had one thing in common: hatred of parents.
The Beatles were horrible. The Rolling Stones pissed on gas stations. Bob Dylan [inaudible]. Jazz guys with dopers. There’s only a few things that every single person goes through. They go through rebellion. If they don’t go through it, they end up on a rooftop killing people. So my attempt was to pick up – rather than get 1,000 people who lived Alice for what Alice did, if I could make him the face of rebellion, I had a huge audience to pick from. In ’72, it was the biggest tour of the world.
Tim Ferriss: And before we started recording, we were chatting a little bit about – and we didn’t get into it because speaking of rookie mistakes, I’ve learned that it’s best to talk about it when you’ve hit record. But we have a mutual friend, maybe others, but at least one mutual friend in Rick Rubin. He said to me before, “The best art divides the audience.”
Shep Gordon: I agree 100 percent. That is such an educated statement.
Tim Ferriss: And I think we’ll definitely come back to Rick. You mentioned the rookie mistake of announcing what you were going to do before you did it. Are there any other particular rookie mistakes that you made or that you see managers making? This might be a good time, just for people who are outside of the entertainment and music worlds, to define what a manager is, exactly. What does a manager do?
Shep Gordon: I think it’s not a curriculum profession. So I think it’s a wide range. For me as a manager, I always envisioned my job was to get an artist so he didn’t have to use his second name. That, to me, was my focus. To make him an – no one that says Alice who? Or Luther who? Or Groucho who? Or Raquel who? They were my clients.
There are other managers who are very dollar-oriented who can squeeze blood out of a dollar. There’s other managers who are great at getting Coca-Colas.
Tim Ferriss: Meaning actually fetching the beverages for the artist?
Shep Gordon: Yes. It’s really an artist-driven profession, for the most part. It’s what they’re looking for and what they need, what they’re willing to share. It’s a very wide range. I think, for me, the really talented managers are the ones who get ahead of their client by six months or a year and go, “Come this way. I know there’s a pothole right here. Be careful.” Who really have a vision of what the audience is, what the attraction is, how to put it in a picture frame that doesn’t compromise it. Doesn’t make the artist chase the flavor of the month, but knows how to promote the essence of what they are, which gets so much to what Rick Rubin’s comment was.
That once you have the success and you have your audience, you’re never going to keep them out of rebellion, because they’re going to drop off in five or six years. Rebellion goes bye-bye. So it’s a matter of taking that and taking the essence of what this artist has creatively that makes them a great artist and putting that in a picture frame with the people who picked them up by these broad strokes and say yes, that I can relate to; I want to stay with that. So what he said is too brilliant. I never really thought of it like that. I always say it from the other side: you pick up your broadest audience by social revelations rather than art, but that’s [inaudible]. What he’s saying it perfectly right.
So each one of those artists, depending on what they want to do with their art, is very different. Some making the most money is the most important. Some being the most famous is the most important. Some not being told what to do is the most important. So different than a doctor or an accountant. There’s no real curriculum and nowhere to really learn to be a manager.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to come back to the rookie mistakes question, but I have to bring up – because it was one of the most hilarious portions of the doc with Mike Myers – which was a flashback dramatization, a reenactment of getting one of your clients to agree to have you as a manager. But there was a competition of sorts and I was just thinking to myself this was not the type of thing, when you said there’s no curriculum, this is probably not the case study that would be used in an MBA program about music and entertainment management. But I’m guessing that you remember which example this is. Could you please replay this for folks?
Shep Gordon: You know, it’s funny because it’s, in some ways, not my proudest moment.
Tim Ferriss: I was impressed nonetheless. Proud or not.
Shep Gordon: But it’s something I never would have ever talked about if Teddy – it regards an artist named Teddy Pendergrass. He was a very macho, African-American artist. I would’ve never talked about this if he hadn’t actually written it in his book, which amazed me that he did it. It was early on in my career, I was very successful and had a great reputation which didn’t exist in the management business at that time. One of my clients was Groucho Marx and the Executor of Groucho Marx’s estate was a gentleman from CBS named Goddard Lieberson. He was very good to Groucho. He was a legend. My armpits got sweaty every time I went to see him.
He was a living legend. He had someone in CBS reach out to me to ask me if I would manage – look at and meet with Teddy Pendergrass to manage him. He was a very important artist to the label and they would like me to be involved. You couldn’t say no to Goddard. So I went to Philadelphia. I didn’t really like the show but I realized that the fellow named Teddy Pendergrass was actually the lead singer of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, who were one of my favorite groups. So I went backstage.
There was a long line of Jewish managers. There were all these great characters. Sid Sheinberg, who had all these companies. His name was Sid Arthur, I think it was Arthur, and it was S-A-S, so he had SAS Co., MAS Co., FAS Co., DAS Co. It was fantastic. His letterhead was fantastic. He managed [inaudible]. But there were all these great Jewish managers backstage, so I didn’t even bother going in; I went home. About a week later, they called me up: “How was the meeting?” “I didn’t take the meeting.” “Please, Mr. Lieberson would like you to take it. Would you go back down and take the meeting?”
I go back down, pull up to his driveway and there’s a white Rolls-Royce with the license plate, “TEDDY.” I go up to the penthouse and this beautiful girl in like lingerie opens the door. Then the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen in my life comes walking in. I completely dropped everything I was going to say and I decided, this is not going to happen; let me just get out of here.
So I said, “Listen, man, there’s not a lot of things I know in life. But there’s one thing I know for sure. You have no credentials whatsoever to figure out which one of us fast-talking Jews is telling the truth. You had the best group in the bunch and there’s no way you’re going to know who’s telling the truth. So here’s what I suggest. Let’s get together for a weekend. Bring the best drugs you have. Bring the best women you have. Bring the best booze you have. Let’s just party.
If you drop before I do, I’m the wrong guy for you. I mean, if I drop before you – if you drop before I do, I should be your manager because when you collapse, I’ll be able to take the money from the gig out of your pocket and save it.” He looked at me like I was completely out of my mind. As he says in his book. But then he said yes. I said, oh shit, now I’ve got to do this. We met in New York in a hotel and we did what we said we were going to. He collapsed a couple of days later, and I managed him the rest of his life.
Without a contract. And by the way, he never collapsed again.
Tim Ferriss: And there were at least a few, I suppose, innovations we could call them, that came of that collaboration.
Shep Gordon: I think for me, as a manager that may have been the crowning point of creating history. Because it was so focused. I had an artist who was big enough that I had the luxury I could do it and I had an artist who completely trusted me because all we hit were headwinds. But the concept was, I was trying to – Teddy’s sex appeal was unbelievable. The amount of panties we would get onstage and bras with phone numbers. The reaction of even old, Jewish women. But unbelievable. The sex was unbelievably strong. Songs – his producer – they allowed us all to really drive it so we produced a stage show that went to that.
We produced songs that went to that. “Close the Door,” songs like that that really highlighted sex. Not romance, sex. And then I was trying to say, how do I tell this to the public? How do I really get across that this is a black Elvis? I have every black person in America. How do I get the white audience to see it and really get it and understand it? And I came up with this concept out of a very angry moment at one of his first shows, where I had to wait backstage while this bevy of women went into his dressing room and I was really angry.
After I got to see him, I said, “You know, this is crazy, man. We should do shows for women only.” That’s so that I have a chance, let me be in the house with the women. We both looked at each other and said, “Can you do that?” I said, “I can do it.” Everybody fought me. The lawyers from halls called me up.
It’s bigotry. I said, “No, we’ll sell tickets to women. We’re just going to say ‘For Women Only’”. And that’s what we did. We devised an ad. We did concerts across America. Radio City Music Hall in New York, Greek Theater, L.A. We did concerts for women only. We had 100 percent women. I don’t think one man showed up at any of them. We gave out chocolate teddy bear lollipops so they could lick one, which was so hot.
And then we got to – we went to advertise it and I got to a challenge point, which was there is a line between saying what you are and being arrogant about what you are. When I saw the ad with his picture on it, I said, “For Women Only” coming out of Teddy is a little arrogant. So we ended up not using his picture. We got a stuffed, little teddy bear that every girl loves and we put a little note on it that says, “Come spend the night with me. Love, Teddy.” It really softened it up.
It sold out in like a second and they were fantastic shows. So I was managing Luther Vandross and I said okay, how do I apply that same set of principles to Luther, who’s not sex? Luther was romance. Luther was all about wining and dining and the anticipation and how beautiful romance is. So what I did with him which I thought was not as focused as Teddy, but the same highway, which was we gave out to the top radio stations in America a contest where you could win Luther marrying you on the air.
So it really drove romance. I think weddings – if you look at statistics, Luther’s music for that decade was probably the most played wedding songs. So that’s how you have fun and that’s how to develop an artist. But all those things – to get back to failure – take an artist and a manager trusting each other to go out on a limb.
Tim Ferriss: The question of failure, the question of mistakes made, are there any other rookies mistakes that you see a lot of people making in the position of something like a manager or that you made that come to mind? Any particular, archetypal or critical mistakes?
Shep Gordon: I think it’s less than it’s a mistake of intentions. What I see, at least, from the people I see and talk to is they’re not in the business really for service; they’re in the business for greed. Out of greed, you just do stupid things and your vision’s blurred. If you’re in it for service to your artist, which really, as a manager – again, there are different types of managers. There are managers who are power guys who I get it, they build empires off it and they’re great for their artists.
I have an assistant who has a daughter who’s being sought after by everybody in the music business – record companies, managers, publishers. She’s a beautiful 21-year-old girl, Lily Meola. I see the difference between the phone calls that come in for her and the things that I do for Alice.
I wake up for Alice and I think about how am I going to advance his career? How am I going to – right now, we’re running Alice for President. We wrote into the show a piece where Hillary beats up Donald Trump in the show and we have an Alice Cooper for President. We’re selling t-shirts. We’re going viral. It’s fun; it’s funny for us. But it’s me waking up and thinking, what can I do to add to Alice’s career? Most of these young people I see coming around, when I sit and talk to them and they ask for advice, they’re not asking advice for their artist, they’re asking advice for them.
How do I get more clients? How can I get a piece of publishing? How can I – I think it’s a generally rule, maybe for humanity, as our civilization moves along, but I think it’s motivation more than actual things wrong because I think, again, there’s no school for management. So every manager is going to make lots of mistakes.
Tim Ferriss: It reminds me of a story I’ve heard you tell. I think it was in a commencement speech, actually. I might be misplacing that. But you were talking about a guide to cooking rice from, I want to say, some type of –
Shep Gordon: From His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly. 90 percent of it or more was about the intention of when you select the rice, when you boil the rice and only perhaps 10 percent of it was technical. Let me ask you, how do you maintain that orientation? Or how did you come to have that service orientation? Because, of course, I would imagine all things equal, you want to be financially successful as a manager so that you can do the things you want to do and so on. I guess it’s a byproduct of making your clients financially successful. But how did you maintain that lens of service over greed? Did it ever get the best of you and then you correct course? Or has that not been the case?
Shep Gordon: You know, it’s a very timely, great question. Because I really thought my life was completely random and I couldn’t understand any of the decisions I made. I never questioned my decisions. You look in the mirror and you say, why would you possibly do this? It doesn’t make any sense. And things like as a manager you have a right to commission the life of the projects you work on. So I worked on The Beatles Anthology record, for example. I have a right to collect commissions on that. I always chose not to. If I’m not working with the artist, I didn’t want to take their money. So I chose never to do it.
Which, when you look in the mirror, you say, what are you, a schmuck? To yourself. But if you have a strong foundation and you can feel that foundation, which is you know, I shouldn’t really be making money of this. They’re going out, living their life, it’s their life, it’s not my life. You go back to it. I always thought all those choices were just random.
Like maybe it was ego thinking I was a good guy. Or I don’t what the motivation was. When I wrote the book, I realized that I’m actually living my father’s life. He was a man of pure service. Pure service to me and my brother. He really gave up almost everything else in his life that was joyful because he was serving us. As I met mentors along the way – Roger Vergé, in particular – I saw how he was the first person I really met who was very successful and very happy. Most of the people I would meet, I would say 99 percent of the people I met in show business who were the king pins, were miserable.
They were cheating on their wives; they were alcoholics; they were just miserable; they were just drowning the pain. I think my Dad first and then seeing the mentors made me think, you know, you’re going to die with the money, enjoy the moments you’re here on the planet.
And if service is a way to enjoy it and comes naturally to me, I don’t want to fight it by falling into all those normal traps of greed. I’m good enough at what I do that I can make a living.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve heard – and I want you to correct me here – but that it took something like 10 to 12 years for Mike Myers to get you to agree to do the documentary. Maybe you can give me some color there. But the follow-up to that is going to be, why a book? Why do a book?
Shep Gordon: Yeah, I’ve always cautioned my clients when I started working with them that if I do my job perfectly, I have a good chance at killing them because I will make them so famous that they can’t survive. So I’ve always had a very corrupted view of fame. I realize that’s what I do for a living and I’m good at it and it can provide great stuff for people. But they have to be prepared that they are going to take a fall and hopefully get up from that fall. So the last thing I really wanted to do was test myself.
Why would I really want to – it didn’t make any – documentaries aren’t financial. I didn’t view it as being of service to anybody or anything except my ego, and I didn’t want to have to deal with fame. I just didn’t want to have to flirt with it. I saw too many people I love fall victim to it. So I said no and laughed. Then I had a near-death experience and didn’t know it, luckily. It was beautiful. I woke up in a hospital room very drugged out and by the second day, realizing I was very alone and my life was fairly isolated. I was in a hospital room; I’d just almost died, feeling very high and I think starting to feel really sorry for myself.
Which is unusual for me because I’m usually feeling how lucky I am. Right in the middle of that, Mike called. “Hey, Shep. How you doing?” I said, “You know, I’m really doing miserable. It’s one of the few times in my life I can’t find a footing. I’m like sort of/kind of lost a little bit.” He said, “Well, how about doing the movie now?”
Now we have a really dramatic moment to go to. I think my ego probably said, because I was feeling sorry for myself, I said, “Yeah, yeah, maybe that’s a good way to come out of this thing. If I live, let’s do the movie.” So I got well, got some good help from my friends. Maybe a month later, I remembered that I had told him we would do the movie, so I called him up. “Hey, Mike. How you doing?” “Great.” I said, “You know, did we have a conversation when I was in the hospital and I said do the movie?” He said, “Yeah, you said go ahead and do it. I staffed up. I’ve got six people I’m working with.”
Okay. And I really assumed that like my cousin in San Diego would see it. Or that he would abandon the project. It was hard for me to think of it as real. I knew Mike socially. I didn’t know him professionally except enjoying his talent.
I didn’t realize how driven he was. He spent the next year of his life, seven days a week, 24 hours a day on this thing. I did nothing. But I remember about 11 months into it, I got to New York and he invited me up for a cup of coffee and to say hello. I went up and I walked into his apartment and it was like walking into CSI. It was pictures of me, every [inaudible] of my life, all over every wall. You know how CSI they have the criminals?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, right, right.
Shep Gordon: The movie came out and at first I was really embarrassed. Especially with the name. I couldn’t look anybody in the eye. They’d say, “Oh, I hear you got a movie. What’s it called?” And I would feel my eyes go down to the floor when I would say Supermensch. I could not look anyone in the eye. The film company asked me to come out for a screening somewhere in the Midwest.
It was the first time I had seen it with the audience. It was at some film festival. I was really embarrassed. Truly embarrassed. Supermensch. Like ohmygod, this is so egotistical. It’s so not what my vision of myself is. So I started questioning my vision of myself. But anyway, as the movie’s over, I walk out into the lobby and this very Aryan couple – they almost look like the top of a wedding cake – was standing there and the woman had tears in her eyes. They just stood in the corner. They waited for everybody to take pictures, you know, the things that happen after a screening. I walked over to them at the end. They said, “We’re so thankful. We wanted to talk to you. We just moved here from St. Thomas and our children are grown up and we’re empty nesters. We came back and we realized we have so much to be blessed for. We just don’t do enough good stuff. Watching the movie made us realize we have to change that in our lives.
We’d love to start with you. We don’t have much, but we’re hunters and you said you like to cook and eat. We have a lot of venison in our freezer; can we give you some venison?” I went back to their house and got the venison. It turned out my roommate in college was their next-door neighbor in St. Thomas. They had a picture of him.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, wow.
Shep Gordon: When I saw the effect it had on those people and then I came back and I started getting emails and calls. We spoke about Rick Rubin before. That’s how we reconnected out of nowhere. I hadn’t seen him in 30 years and he got ahold of me and said, “Can I fly over to Maui and spend some time with you? I saw the movie and I really could use some time with you.” He came over and I hadn’t seen him in 30 years. So it affected – the first package I got when I got home was this beautiful birdcage that came from Africa.
It had like 50 white, silk flowers in it and one pink one and this four-page letter from a 19-year-old girl who said, listen, “I’m not different than the other flowers, but I know if you would let me out of the cage, I could really help my people.” Things coming from every corner. So that was sort of a side note that I had a friend, Roy Choi, a chef who had a book signing in New York when I was there. He’s on Anthony Bourdain’s imprint. I’d never met Anthony and I was a huge fan. At the book signing, he walked over to me and he said, “Hey, I want to do your book.”
Maybe this is a moment where I can try and figure out what motivated me and maybe if there’s anything in what motivated me that other people can use, maybe some techniques that I never was aware of that I could find by looking backwards. That’s really the exercise. They agreed that if I didn’t want to put out the book, I could give them back the money and we’d just end it. So that was the journey for me, was to try and see.
Mike always said there are these interconnections and I always thought of my life as random. To see are there connectors that could help people along the way and hence the book.
Tim Ferriss: And what impact would you like the book to have?
Shep Gordon: I would like people to realize how lucky they are. I end the book with maybe one of the things that maybe I can add to some people’s lives, particularly here in America, which is just where you drop out of the womb, you won the game. You win. You won already. You’re in America. You have a chance. You can get clean water. You get food. Hopefully you get some love. There’s not a bomb dropping on your head every second. That alone is something to meditate on every day – how special you are and how rarified it is to be born into something like this.
Then maybe the second thing is to try and see the miracle in everything. So that when you see somebody who your initial reaction is hatred or you see a snail walking on the ground and your initial reaction is kick it out of the way, to try and see the miracle in it.
Because everything is a miracle. You’re not going to be able to hurt it. You’re going to have a different attitude towards it. To the person you hate, you’re going to feel sorry for that they don’t see the miracle in themselves. Sorrow is a much better emotion than hated. Selfishly, for yourself. In there, there is also practical – how you try and make business into compassionate business. How you try to make it a win/win, not winners and losers. I talk a lot about how you create history. Things like guilt by association. Taking a non-famous person and putting them next to famous people, the fame starts to bleed off. We live in a fame-driven world. So for commerce, fame is important.
Tim Ferriss: So I want to ask you about regular practices in your life related to Buddhism and appreciation in just a minute. But since you brought it up, could you describe what you did for Anne Murray that pertains to your last example of that fame by association?
Shep Gordon: Anne was a great example of guilt by association. She’s a wonderful singer and one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard. She was a schoolteacher in Toronto who went on a TV show for the summer and sang a song called Snowbird, which became a No. 1 record around the world, huge impact. But she was very Canadian, white bread. But she wanted to make it. She wanted to be on Midnight Special, which was a big show there. She wanted to play in Vegas. She wanted to do all the things that stars do, but she wasn’t a star. She was a girl who had a hit record that nobody really knew who sang it. So she came to me for management.
One of the first things I did with her was try and – because the song was so big and so strong, I knew that I could include her in stuff if I had her with important other people. So I booked her – at that time, Alice Cooper had a group called the Hollywood Vampires, a drinking group.
It was John Lennon, Harry Nilsson and Micky Dolenz from The Monkees. Big faces at the time, particularly John Lennon, who was in his dark era and was not being seen at all. When he left Yoko for a while. He was in California. Everyone knew he was there, but nobody was seeing him. The press were anxious to see him. So I booked her in California on Thanksgiving, which I thought was very funny because she was Canadian. I try to make it all as absurd as I possibly could.
I went to see the guys and I got down on my hands and knees and they all – I used to drive them all home at night because they all got too drunk to drive and nobody could afford cars, so I was the designated driver. So I got down on my hands and knees and I said, “Guys, I’ll drive you all the time, but you got to come help me with this girl from Canada who is so opposite from you that if you guys would stand next to her, I could help make her famous and I’ll drive you forever.”
They came down and we got this great picture of Anne Murray, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper, Micky Dolenz, which went out around the world. Immediately, Midnight Special called up to have her host the show. Oh, by the way, do you think she can get John to come with her? Well, we’ll try. Rolling Stone called up for a big interview. She made a bunch of covers with the picture. For the next year or so, we sort of dangled a little bit that maybe John or Alice or somebody would show up. The rest is history. She got a long-term contract in Vegas and life went well for her.
Tim Ferriss: I didn’t know the contrast aspect of it that you thought through. Because when I looked at the photograph, she does pop out. Almost like she’s superimposed on top of the photograph. She really pops out. Oh, man.
Shep Gordon: I don’t know if she ever forgave me for doing the picture. She thought she was compromising her career.
Tim Ferriss: Seems to have worked out pretty well. Now, you mentioned Roger Vergé. A lot of people associate you with music, but you’re also very widely credited with creating the celebrity chef phenomenon and movement. How did you meet Emeril Lagasse?
Shep Gordon: I met Emeril on a trip to New Orleans. I had started to become a little bit of a foodie because of my association with Mr. Vergé. Down in New Orleans, there was a chef called Paul Prudhomme who was very famous, the only really famous chef. I had a friend of mine who had just taken over a large record company – EMI. We went down for Jazz Fest and it was his birthday, so I got ahold of, I think it was Mr. Vergé or somebody who made reservations at Paul Prudhomme’s for the two nights we were going to be there. We went the first night and it was not a good experience, so we decided to go somewhere else the next night.
We went to a very touristy but well-respected operation called Commander’s Palace.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. Very famous.
Shep Gordon: They served 1,000 meals a day. We had a reservation. We get there and a guy with like half-glasses was looking at us at the maître d’ stand and says “45-minute wait. Take them to the bar.” To get to the bar you walk through the kitchen. I caught this guy’s eye and he came over and gave me a big hug. I had never been there. He said, “You guys taken care of?” I think “hooked up” was the words he used. I said, “No, as a matter of face, we’ve got to go stand in the bar.” So he took us to the bar. He poured us champagne, came back in five minutes, took us to the A table and proceeded to bring every course up to the table with the help.
And every time he’d leave, we’d say, “Who does this guy think we are?” He’s greeting me like I’m his best friend for life. But we didn’t want to blow our cover. When the meal’s over, I said to him, “Okay, who do you think I am?” He said, “You know, I have no idea.”
I didn’t know if you knew about Vergé or not. Which is always like an underpinning. Maybe he knew I was Vergé’s friend. But he said, “No, it’s boring here. Once a month or once a week I pick someone coming through the kitchen who I think wants to go on a ride and I take them on a ride.” And he took us on a ride. Then he gave us a note to go to Tipitina’s to see the Neville Brothers, which was sold out and poured an old bottle of cognac into four paper cups for us to leave. Maybe a couple of years later, maybe a year later, a year and a half, two years later, I ended up in a unique situation with 50 or 60 great chefs who asked me to manage them: Wolfgang Puck, Nobu. I had Paul Prudhomme. I had a whole big group of chefs.
And I remembered Emeril and how he treated me. I said, you know, I’ll do it, but there’s one guy in New Orleans I want to bring in, Emeril Lagasse. They’d all heard of him. I didn’t realize at the time he had just opened his own restaurant. That’s why they had heard of him.
I called Commander’s Palace to tell them what I was doing and see if he wanted to join and they said he opened his restaurant and it was Emeril’s. Our journey began.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. We could go into so many different rabbit holes with all these stories. But I’d love to talk about some of your current practices. We were talking about recognizing miracles and, by extension, appreciation. What practices do you have in your life to help cultivate that and maintain that perspective?
Shep Gordon: I wouldn’t say that I have a discipline. I’m not a practicing Buddhist and I don’t really practice any hard and fast disciplines. What I try and do in my life is – Joseph Campbell always talked about going into a quiet room for 20 minutes and doing what makes you happy. What I try and do is schedule – I know the things that make me happy. I know being in a Jacuzzi makes me happy.
I don’t know why, but I get in a Jacuzzi, I sort of leave my body; I space travel. I deal with issues that I don’t deal with when I’m in my body or perceive to me to be in it. That 15 or 20 minutes I usually say is like a tuning fork. I do that. Cooking for me gives me that same head space. So when I get to a point where I’m starting to get confused, I’ll go to the kitchen and cook for a half hour and that sort of brings me back to a place of thankfulness, consciousness, focus, just brings me back to where I want to be. I think, for me, those are the two that I really use as my foundation when I’m truly lost. I go to those two. I think if you’re lucky in life, you find those things that get you back to what’s important because there’s so much fool’s gold.
There’s so much noise that to really stay focused on what’s important and what makes you happy and what is compassion is difficult and I think needs constant retuning.
Tim Ferriss: What have you noticed – I mean, you mentioned the dangers of fame and how a lot of these celebrities just become moths who are consumed by the flame, so to speak. What separates the people who get killed by fame versus the people who do not?
Shep Gordon: I think the one thing I always say, fame – and I realize that I need to put a qualifier on, which I didn’t do in the movie or really in the book – I need to qualify it by saying that the fame that I’ve dealt with for most of my life was fame attained by people who were in front of large audiences in real time. So 90 percent of my artists who achieve fame had live people applauding in mass amounts.
As opposed to film stars, as opposed to authors, as opposed to people who got fame in other ways. So mine is fairly slanted, so for me, until I really wrote the book and started to think about these things, saying those words was because the people in front of me were normally trying to be headliners in stadiums. And for that sub-group of people, I think rejection is so gigantic to get to a place of success, that there’s normally something driving it, some hole somewhere in their life, something that they need filled. Maybe it’s love from other people, maybe it’s – I don’t know. In each person it’s different. Maybe they don’t have a personality, so that’s their personality.
But when you get to filling a 30,000-seat hall, for the most part, whatever that hole was doesn’t get filled. That’s when the real problems begin. That’s what you see in artists. When they’re selling 300 and 400-seat halls, they’re fine. They may have a drunk or two. When they’re headlining stadiums, now they go to rehab. It’s part of the tour. That’s the [inaudible]. 65 days, then we’ll go to rehab. So I think my view of it is very slanted.
But I think there’s so many common things about it. My first glint of fame was they were playing the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival and Michael Douglas was doing a talk with me. I was walking to it and walking to me is one of the things like the Jacuzzi or the cooking. When I’m walking, I don’t put headphones in. I sort of space travel and deal with issues. I’ll deal with a topic that’s been on my brain.
I love that. That’s what I love about walking. I walk five miles a day here. I walk in New York a lot. It’s quiet time because I’m not famous, so nobody stops me, nobody cares. So I’m taking my walk and a very nice lady said she worked at CNN and they had just screened the movie; did I have a few minutes to talk to her? I stopped for a minute and she explained that she had been trying to get into management and production. She had problems as a child at home. She wanted me to talk to her about how I overcame those insecurities of youngness to become who I am.
My instinct would be to be thankful to be able to help her. Those are the moments you want in life; when you can help somebody who needs help. But I couldn’t. I had to get to the theater. As I was walking there, I explained to her, “I’m really sorry.” I gave her my email.
As I was walking, I started thinking about someone like Michael, who I’ve walked with a million times. He gets stop by every single person who wants a picture, wants to tell him a story about how he met his father. All great stuff. But to completely lose your own path in life. You’re now on someone else’s path. I’m sure it happens to you many times. It’s weird. That’s a weird thing to cope with.
Tim Ferriss: It’s really – I don’t know if you experienced this that time, but it’s really sad and frustrating also because the person who you told you had to leave to go to this meeting may or may not have even believed you, right?
Shep Gordon: Correct. I like to him of myself as a Johnny Appleseed of joy. So anyway, my question to Michael when I got there was, I said, “Before you ask me a question, I got to ask you a question.” I said, “For the last 30 minutes of my walk, I got stopped by this girl. And for the last 30 minutes of my walk, all I thought about was how horrible it is that I couldn’t give her what she needed and it was so simple.
Was she angry? Was she not angry? Would she ever contact me? Michael, what goes through your –” I said, “I’m the guy who’s put up his arm for 30 years to keep people from you. What goes through your brain when there’s a guy in a wheelchair and we walk by him and you know he wants to stop you for a second? It’s important to him and we’re just walking by. You’ve been doing this your whole life. What does that affect?” He said, “It’s horrible, but you get numb to it.” He said, “I hate to admit it. I hate that it happens to me, but you realize that you only have 24 hours in a day to get through life.
You have to make some choices and it’s horrible because it takes an edge off who I’d like to think I am.” So those kind of things build up. That’s just one little part of fame, where if you’re a conscious, good person, all of a sudden you start hating yourself for what you have to do all the time.
Tim Ferriss: And I don’t know, this may be completely unrelated, but I heard from a mutual friend that someone came to your house recently who wanted to share a record, but that you didn’t have any type of music system and haven’t had a music system for 20+ years. Is that true? If so, why is that?
Shep Gordon: Rick Rubin came. I have no idea why, except that I almost feel cheated if I don’t hear the ocean. The rhythm of this ocean, like I’m hearing it now, is just so beautiful and so the rhythm of life. I feel so blessed to be on it and hear it, that it almost felt like an intrusion so many times. So Rick Rubin came and I had – I think I mentioned it before, we had a nice lunch and we talked. Then he wanted to play me something and I said I don’t. I listen in my car. I don’t really have stuff to listen here.
So he outfitted my house with Sonos. Which I must say I am really happy I have, because I use it a lot. I do realize that music was missing in my life. It really has heightened my life here.
Tim Ferriss: What type of music do you currently listen to the most?
Shep Gordon: I would say 90 percent of the time, I listen to Teddy Pendergrass radio on Pandora.
Tim Ferriss: No kidding; I’ll have to do that. I listen to Pandora on my Sonos every day while I’m writing. So I’ll see how Teddy treats me.
Shep Gordon: He really makes me feel good. I love Teddy and it just makes me feel good. It makes me smile every time his voice comes on, plus I love his music.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to ask just a couple of short questions and the answers don’t need to be short, but these are some of the questions that I love asking everybody that I have on the show. You can certainly punt if one doesn’t provoke anything in you. But what book or books, besides your own, have you gifted most to other people?
Shep Gordon: Joseph Campbell many years ago. A couple of the Dalai Lama books. Most recently, Norman Lear’s book.
Tim Ferriss: Is it a biography of Norman Lear?
Shep Gordon: It is a biography. It is just the most brilliant thing I’ve read. Keith Richards’ book. I gave away a bunch of those. I thought his voice was so pure.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I’ve heard tremendous things about that as well. I haven’t read it yet myself.
Shep Gordon: I send it to a lot of artist friends of mine, saying if you’re ever going to write a book, you want your voice to be as clear as his voice was. Questlove’s cookbook.
Tim Ferriss: Questloves – that’s right. What is it called?
Shep Gordon: Innovative Cooking.
Tim Ferriss: Innovative Cooking. He is the nicest guy.
Shep Gordon: He was just here for a week.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, is that right?
Shep Gordon: Yeah, we had a really nice time. He was another one who reached out. Saw the documentary and said I really would love to speak to you for a while and threw a dinner party for me in L.A. and then he came out here for a week, which was really nice.
Tim Ferriss: He’s an extremely nice guy. I met him years ago and believe it or not, at one point at least – I’m, he’s spoken about this – lost I think it was 50 to 70 pounds following the slow carb diet in my second book.
Shep Gordon: Yeah, I think he mentioned that to me, actually.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, no kidding?
Shep Gordon: He told me he did the slow carb diet.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, he’s such a sweetheart of a guy.
Shep Gordon: You know, he’s a real artist. I don’t meet that many pure artists anymore because I’m not living in that world, but everything he touches – I went to see – he was doing a DJ thing. I had never been to a DJ show and he did one here and it was brilliant. But the cookbook is brilliant. It’s completely different than anything you’ve ever read.
Tim Ferriss: Great cover too.
Shep Gordon: Yeah, great cover.
Tim Ferriss: If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere, what would it say?
Shep Gordon: Help! Today, if I had a gigantic billboard, it would be completely different than probably any other time in life. I don’t want to talk politics, but I think everyone has an obligation to try and highlight how filthy this has all become and how disastrous and how wrong. So I think – although I normally would say I would use it for something completely different, like climate change. Right now, I’m just really scared to see the direction of our country. A country that I love that’s given everybody such great opportunity.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have a quote or any quotes that you live your life by or think of often?
Shep Gordon: Not really. I think in my professional capacity, “Get the money.” I definitely have to force myself to think of that. But not really. I’m very lucky. I’m really thankful. I live a very simple life at its core. So no, there’s no real – every second of my life I’m really blessed; I’m lucky.
Tim Ferriss: Who are – I’m just arbitrarily pulling out a number here – three people or sources that you’ve learned a lot from or followed closely in the last year or so?
Shep Gordon: Let’s come back to that one.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll come back to that one. What is the best or most worthwhile investment you’ve made? And by investment, it could be money, time, energy. For instance, there’s a woman named Amelia Boone. She’s one of the world’s top endurance athletes who was on this podcast. For her, it was paying her first $450, which was a financial stretch at the time, to enter a competition called World’s Toughest Mudder, which she ended up winning and it created this whole path for her in life that she never would have anticipated. Does any particular investment of money, time or energy?
Shep Gordon: My investment of money, time and energy was for the four children I raised. To see the effect it can have on a human’s life and that I could be helpful in it. Just amazing.
Tim Ferriss: And are all of your children are adopted?
Shep Gordon: I never quite – I never adopted them. They were family from Newark. Three sisters and a brother. In the days when their mother died, it was a huge safety net for children without parents. The government provided huge benefits. Although we didn’t partake of any of the benefits, I never really – I’m not an accumulator, so I could’ve been broke at any time. I lived by making money, but I wasn’t an accumulator. I didn’t want the responsibility on my head of once I adopted them, they lost the entire safety net.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I see. The change in legal status.
Shep Gordon: Change in legal status changed everything. The consequences to me were they couldn’t be a tax deduction.
Tim Ferriss: I see. Now by accumulator, does that mean that you historically or even still currently don’t save?
Shep Gordon: I save, but I’m not a billionaire.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Well, most people aren’t.
Shep Gordon: [Inaudible] I’m at a point now in my life where I can maintain my lifestyle. I feel confident for the rest of my life I can maintain my lifestyle, probably more than my lifestyle. But in 1970-, whatever year it was that I – 1992? I think. We got together. I know it was 26 years ago, whenever that is. I didn’t know that I would be able to keep my lifestyle. It was only dependent on being successful. I just didn’t want that on my head. It was easier for me to pay the taxes on the money. That was really the only dividing line.
Tim Ferriss: What advice would you give to – I have at least three friends who have brand-new infants right now or are going to have their first kids in the next several months. What advice would you give to them as first-time parents?
Shep Gordon: Spend time with them. Provide them with all the tools they need. As little TV as possible. Lots of love, just love and compassion. If they see the miracle in that kid every time that they look at it, they will never get annoyed at them crying and screaming or pissing on the floor. It’ll all become a miracle and beautiful and that’s what it should be.
Tim Ferriss: I remembered, it seems like something that might be easy for people to gloss over, the spending of time. But it was something that was emphasized to me also by Seth Godin, who’s an author among other things.
He said, in effect, I’m paraphrasing here. He said that your kids are getting homeschooled from 3:00 p.m. to say 10:00 p.m. no matter what, and it’s up to you to choose whether it’s by watching TV they’re getting homeschooled or by interacting with them. He has conversations with them over dinner a lot of the time. That’s one of his rituals because it offers sort of a very informal, semi-distracted environment in which they can tell him the truth without having a serious feel to it, if that makes any sense.
Shep Gordon: Yeah, no, I think the thing to remember is they only have one path. So if you make a path for them that’s compassionate and reasonable and it makes sense, that’s the only path they know. If you give them a path of neglecting them and letting TVs teach them everything, they’re going to live in an alienated world.
Tim Ferriss: So I promised I would, so I’m going to come back, but we can skip this one if need be. The people or sources you’ve learned a lot from. You know what? You mentioned mentors earlier. This could be way back in the day. It doesn’t have to be recent.
Shep Gordon: Okay. I think some of the most significant people in my life – for sure, Roger Vergé, who is a great French chef, considered the godfather of all the chefs.
Tim Ferriss: And for people who want to look him up, how do you spell his last name?
Shep Gordon: V-E-R-G-E. Through his kitchen came people like Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, Alain Ducasse, Hubert Keller; some of the great chefs of our time came through his kitchen. What he taught me is you can be successful and happy and you do it through service. It’s a hard concept sometimes to get in your brain. But when I got to spend time with him, I could see in some ways how selfish it was because he became so happy making someone else happy.
Then I had the unbelievable luck and honor of meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama and cooking for him on a number of occasions. The same thing. It’s service. It makes him so joyful. He giggles every second. He lives his life in service. To me, those are probably my two greatest mentors. Then someone like Michael Douglas has always been an amazing inspiration to me. The work he does quietly with the UN for Israel. For anybody who needs him and things that he feels important.
He’s been on an anti-nuclear kick for as long as I’ve known him, probably 35 years, before anybody was talking about it. He’s been an Ambassador for the UN. He never says no to helping people. He has fun, lives his life, creative, he’s productive.
He doesn’t take security with him. He lives his life and is of service. I’m doing a benefit in New York in September for Chef Vergé with the CIA and 12 great chefs. Michael is coming and talking, just because I asked him to. There was a time when I was trying to make the chefs famous. I wanted guilt by association for the chefs. So I asked him if he would host dinners with all the famous people in L.A. who would come if he invited them with my chefs, with Mr. Vergé. We had these dinners where Michael would present Vergé and in the room would be Stallone and Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Anthony Quinn.
That guilt by association worked, as you can tell. They are celebrity chefs now. So I think he’s been a big inspiration. I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of people.
Tim Ferriss: And you’ve passed that on, also. I mean, if you just look at the culinary world as one example. For people who want to check it out, you gave a great – I think it was a commencement speech at the CIA, which I should probably explain for people is not the Central Intelligence Agency. It’s the Culinary Institute of America. You mentioned that before the celebrity chef phenomenon in a way sort of paved the highway, as I think you put it – people at the top of their game.
These are the A-Rods or the Derek Jeters of their sport, so to speak, in the world of chefs who are making like $100,000.00 a year. Now you can come out of culinary school and some people will get entry-level, or I should say first jobs that are $100,000.00. So it’s really opened up a world of opportunity for those people as well.
Shep Gordon: And a word of caution, as I said in the CIA speech, if their only focus is making meals that people pay $100.00 a piece for, they’re in for a big crash, them and the culinary arts.
They have to start feeding – and I told the kids, “You’re going to graduate. You’re going to get job for $125,000.00. You’re going to be in a restaurant that’s $400.00 meals and you’re going to walk outside the restaurant, look to the left and look to the right and there’s going to be homeless, hungry people. If you think your only job is feeding those diners, you are in for a really rough life.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely. I want to give credit to somebody you mentioned earlier, in fact, Roy Choi. So he and a friend of mine named Steve Jang, who’s involved, and also Daniel Patterson, who has quite a few restaurants, one of which, Alta SF, I’m involved with in San Francisco; great guys. They have started, I believe there are at least two locations now, a low-cost, healthy food Loco’L.
I went to their first location opening in Los Angeles. So he’s doing really good work, I think, in trying to give it back.
Shep Gordon: He’s the real deal, Roy. A fellow from England, Jamie Oliver, who in my opinion was the first really conscious chef. I had him in the celebrity chef movement. I think they’re all – I don’t mean to say that any of the other ones are conscious. He was a fellow who understood that it was important for him to use his fame to not only do $100.00 meals. Roy Choi has picked up the gauntlet here. I got very lucky to know him well and he is the real deal, Roy. He really gets it. He wants to make money, he wants to send his kids to college. He wants to do all the things that we all want to do for our families. I’m sure he wants to be famous like everybody else. But he completely understands that we all have to travel together. This is not a one-person journey.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, definitely. He did a hell of a job training Jon Favreau for Chef, as well.
Shep Gordon: [Inaudible], I really liked it a lot.
Tim Ferriss: Just a couple of last questions and hearing the sound of the waves is making me want to get outside and go for a long walk.
Shep Gordon: Can you hear it?
Tim Ferriss: Oh yeah, I can definitely hear it. It’s making me want to go chase daylight to go for a hike with my dog.
Shep Gordon: There’s that rhythm that exists all over the planet, whether it’s the breeze coming through the trees or the sound of the waves or the ice melting. Those sounds that you sort of know you’re home.
Tim Ferriss: It’s meditative, very meditative. So one question I have to ask is for all the people out there who may end up cooking for the Dalai Lama – should you have yak milk tea on the menu? Maybe you could provide some, if you have any experience.
Shep Gordon: Yes, I do. So I was really fortunate. He was coming to Hawaii and they accepted my offer to cook for him. Again, I’m not a practicing Buddhist and I didn’t know a lot about His Holiness, but I did some research and I assumed he was vegetarian. I couldn’t get anybody – Tibetan people are so beautiful and so gentle that when you ask them, what should I make for His Holiness?
They would never – it’s so aggressive to them to tell you what to make. So all they would say is, “Oh, he would love anything you make.” They’re completely of service. So I couldn’t really find out. But in the research, it said that the only real staple in Tibet is yak. Yak is a cross between like a goat and a cow. They live high in the mountains.
There’s no vegetables really there. So everything is made from yak. It’s yak stew, yak milk, yak butter, yak cheese. The most popular thing is yak tea. So I have a friend who does tours of Tibet, a wonderful guy named Kenny Mallard. I asked him if he could get me some yak butter and make yak tea, so that I could have yak tea for His Holiness for his first breakfast, thinking I was – ohmygod, how cool is this? I’m so cool. I get the yak butter and it’s the smelliest thing you’ve ever smelled. It was in a jar. That stuff smelled up my whole house. It’s so smelly. But I had it. The only requirement for cooking for him – they asked me no questions.
They didn’t ask me if I could cook. All they said was, “You can’t have expectations. If you have an expectation that you’re going to meet His Holiness, then you shouldn’t cook for him.”
So I went to my crew. We got all those expectations out of our brain. You have to assume you’re not going to meet him. We’re going to cook the meal. Someone’s going to deliver it to him. You’re doing this for service, not for a photo op. The first morning, they asked me to bring him his meal. Now, I’m completely shocked, because I assume I’m not even meeting him and it’s 5:00 in the morning. One of the things on the tray is the yak tea. They have you cover your mouth to meet His Holiness.
So I cover my mouth and I go up the steps into his room and I walk in and he’s in his robe with the top down, so his chest was bare. He’s brushing his teeth, looking in the mirror. He’s gets a big smile and looks over. “Oh, hello.” Big smile. Your Holiness, I’m so nervous, I can hardly speak. I tend to get nervous in front of power figures, particularly at that point in my life. Now I’ve sort of adjusted. But it was almost overwhelming. I just didn’t want to faint.
He takes a whiff or two and he goes, “Oh, yak tea.” And I said, I got so proud. Ohmygod, Shep, you pulled this off. It’s so amazing. It was worth all the effort, all the smell. You are the coolest guy in the world. And I hear him say, as I’m telling myself this, his second line is “Oh, that’s why I leave Tibet. It smells so bad.” That was the end of the yak tea. It was a great leveler.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, man. Well, we could go on for days and I don’t want to keep you for days. But I want people to hear your stories and to learn from you. What is the title of the book? Where can people find it? What would you suggest people do who want to learn more?
Shep Gordon: It’s called The Backstage Pass. I have to look up the title.
Tim Ferriss: And I can certainly link to it also in the show notes for people who just want the convenience.
Shep Gordon: Here’s the name. They Call Me Supermensch: A Backstage Pass to the Amazing Worlds of Film, Food, and Rock’n’Roll.
Tim Ferriss: Supermensch.
Shep Gordon: It can be ordered through Amazon or through any of those services. It’s published by Anthony Bourdain through Ecco. I’m really proud that Anthony is the publisher. I hope everybody enjoys it.
Tim Ferriss: And for those people listening, I will of course link to everything in the show notes at fourhourworkweek.com/podcast. And Shep, any last words? Any requests of the audience for them to take with them and consider or act on? Anything else that you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Shep Gordon: This is so out of my wheelhouse, but the only thing I really have to say is please go vote. We need everybody to vote their conscience.
Think about their children and about what kind of world they want to live in, then make a choice. But this is a critical time. We need to vote.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. Hear, hear. Well, Shep, I hope we do get to meet in person sometime.
Shep Gordon: Thank you so much.
Tim Ferriss: This has been a blast.
Shep Gordon: I love your show. I listen to it; it’s amazing. Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I think you’re doing important work and we didn’t even have a chance to skim the surface, really, of a lot of what you’re doing right now, but I will add –
Shep Gordon: In Maui, we’ll do another show.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll do another show. Maybe I can have one of those papayas. Thank you so much for the time. I really appreciate it.
Shep Gordon: Thank you. Mahalo as we say in Hawaii. Have a great day.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely. And everyone listening, as always, thank you so much for joining us and until next time, pay attention, experiment often, be nice, and pay attention to the miracles.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with over 400 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.