The Vatican Rag

Pope Francis arrives in the U.S. today, and it’s quite a spectacle seeing so many agnostics and atheists posting quotes by him, as in “See, I told ya, even the pope says so,” about climate change or colonialism or many other things. Of course he doesn’t go far enough for some, and too far for others, but if you don’t have a soft spot for a pope who comes to the U.S. for just five days and visits a prison in Philadelphia, then you just don’t have any soft spots.

As Tom Lehrer said, “Ave Maria, gee it’s good to see ya”:

Shep Gordon, Supermensch

There’s so much more to SuperMensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon than just old tabloid fodder, though it’s rich in that that too. My first time watching it, I was so dazzled by the anecdotes, I didn’t see what a thematically tight, and uniquely structured film it is.

You can forgive me for that, with stories like how Shep became a rock and roll manager: He woke up in a motel after a night of doing acid and saw Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin poolside, and Jimi asked him, “Are you Jewish? You should be a manager.” Or how Shep’s long-time client Alice Cooper befriended an elderly Groucho Marx and used to tuck him in at night – Groucho, according to Shep, understood Cooper’s act as vaudeville – until he learned how disastrous Groucho’s finances were, and so he hooked him up with his own manager, Shep, who helped make his final years comfortable and worry-free, without charging him. Or how he got on his knees and begged John Lennon and Harry Nilsson to come get their photo taken with Anne Murray, which made her career. Or his epic three-day drug binge with Teddy Pendergrass that sealed their business relationship.

Shep Gordon: Supermensch.

Shep Gordon: Supermensch.

Watching it a second time (It’s still streaming on Neflix.) you realize the whole rock and roll story is literally half the film. At minute 45 it’s done. You move on to chapters of semi-retired Shep’s life, his entertaining, his work with the Dalai Lama, and his search for a family. Following a heart attack, he says, “ I’d spent my whole life making people famous, but there’s nothing about fame that I’ve ever seen that’s healthy. It’s something that’s very hard to survive, and has no intrinsic value unto itself.”

Mike Myers, who directed the film and appears in a few interview snippets, tells a story of how Shep leveraged a difficult position Myers was in during production of Wayne’s World to get a new Alice Cooper song in it, and turned it into a “win-win,” if you’ll pardon another ’90s catchphrase. You get the impression there are many more, less flattering stories you’re not hearing. Let’s just say that, in addition to the many stars who gush about what a mensch Shep is, you can put together an A List from just the people who have prominent roles in all the Shep stories but never go on camera for Myers.

While on tour back in the ’70s Shep used to wear a tee shirt that read “No head, no back stage pass.” Everyone on camera makes it clear that he was a womanizer, but of a specific time and place: the mid-century Jewish-American male id that also got released via Philip Roth and Woody Allen. Shep, it seems, road the crest of the counterculture for his own gratification longer and higher than the other guys did. You wonder whether the lengths he went to make Anne Murray’s career were some peace offering, some proof that he could think of women as good for something other than sex.

All that, and he made a name as a legendary manager whose business model was simple: Take care of your friends! I was most moved by the fact that Shep and Alice Cooper have never had a written contract in their 43 years working together. The basis of his business practice is relationships, not contracts.

I am a better person than Shep Gordon is…if you need someone to give your 17-year-old daughter a safe ride home, that is. One way I’m clearly not is on account of the times I’ve let friends down by second-guessing the quality of their work. Once, back when I was a film critic for a weekly paper, an old friend of a friend hustled to deliver a short film to me before a deadline. It was part of a shorts showcase at a film festival. I think it was on VHS, even. Working late, I watched it once and didn’t like it. I was on the spot, do I do right by my old acquaintance, or do I listen to the prig inside who feels some responsibility to the readers? I went with the prig. Readers read copy and forget about it all the time, but friends have long memories. That old acquaintance, and the friend who introduced us too, never forgot me, nor have they spoken to me.

Shep, I venture to say, would never have done that. Oh, another reason I like Supermensch, my friend Joseph Krings edited it, but it bears repeated viewing whether you know Joe or not.

Time and Narrative

As summer ends, in the social if not the geo-physical sense, I’m thinking back on the great films I saw and scripts I read, and nothing moves me to go back for a second visit like this episode of On Being, the radio show hosted by Krista Tippett. She interviews the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, in a conversation she titles “The Inner Landscape of Beauty.” It was one of his last interviews before he died.

O’Donohue was by this time a former Catholic priest who loved talking about his spiritual forefather, the 14th Century mystic Meister Eckhart von Hochheim, and about the Celtic mind. I suppose his idea that it’s uplifting to connect with natural beauty – that “landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time.” – resonated after I’d walked inside a farmhouse after a long hike through this kind of landscape…

…and been practically forced to listen to this episode by my friends.

“Philosophically,” O’Donohue says, “stress is a perverted relationship to time, so that rather than being a subject of your own time, you become its target, its victim.” Isn’t that why we go to the mountains or the beach, to places with what he calls “an ancient conversation between the ocean and the stone,” to reshuffle the cards in the great gin rummy game we play with time, and deal out a new hand?

On a deeper level, and more relevant to the general content of this blog, one of O’Donohue’s refelctions on the American mind, as opposed to the Celtic, is the following: “It often seems to me here that a person believes that if they tell you their story, then that’s who they are….that there’s a reduction of identity to biography.” In other words, we get so fixated on our stories – we screenwriters, especially those of us who’ve made forays into public relations, preaching the art of story-telling as a way of putting a face on for the world – we sometimes obscure as much as we illuminate.

With so much to ponder about the relationships narrative has with identity – be it script to film, screenwriting to direction, or institutional history to present-day action – I need a reminder now and then about the questions that are deeper still. What the hell am I doing today? Or even, who am I? By coercing me to listen to this, my friends opened a portal to new ways of understanding this – in O’Donohue’s book Anam Cara, and his hero Meister Eckhart, two must-reads. A good place to start, it seems, is rethinking time.

Coincidentally, my wife and I attended a wedding here in Brooklyn yesterday, at which Whitman was read by the father of the bride. There was Whitman at our wedding, but also a poem called “The Time Wars,” by the American poet Tony Hoagland. It ends,

“We ourselves aren’t thinking about the future anymore.
What we want is to calm time down, to get time in a good mood,
to make time feel wanted.
We just want to give time many homemade gifts,
covered with fingerprints and kisses.”

It’s the last day of summer, but it is still summer. The sun is beating, and the afternoon dew on my back is as real as it would be if it were the first hot day of June.