Thursday, April 19, 2007

Phil Kaufman: Executive Nanny, Corpse-Rustler, Road-Mangler Deluxe

In a long and varied career, Phil Kaufman has been almost famous several times. He appeared in several movies. He drove a pick-up truck on Larry Hagman’s Son of Blob. He’s there, if you look, in Riot in Juvenile Prison, Pork Chop Hill, Spartacus and The Honeymoon Machine.
Sadly, his film career was cut short by the inconvenience of his incarceration in Mexico and Sweden for marijuana smuggling. Kaufman found that Hollywood was intolerant of drug felons in the mid-1960s. "I couldn’t get a job because it was a drug bust. Of course, now, it’s a prerequisite. It’s like you can’t be a country singer till you’ve got a divorce and had an affair with your horse."
In an equally unremembered incident, Kaufman was the camp photographer at the Nude Miss Universe contest, and did his job wearing just a battery belt and a camera: "like a human tripod". More darkly, he was an associate of Charles Manson, sleeping with many of the women in Manson’s "family", and producing an infamous album of the charismatic killer’s songs.
All of these unlikely events are detailed in Kaufman’s 1993 autobiography, Road Mangler Deluxe, which is, without doubt, the best book ever dictated by a rock’n’roll tour manager. But, remarkable as all of the above may be, Kaufman’s notoriety has been sealed by a single incident. In September 1973, fuelled by vodka and regret, he borrowed a hearse and kidnapped the corpse of his dead friend, the country rock singer Gram Parsons, from the airport in Los Angeles, drove it to Joshua Tree in the Mojave Desert, and burned it. This unlikely event has long been a fond chapter of rock mythology, and was made into a half-entertaining film, Grand Theft Parsons, with the star of Jackass as Kaufman. "If you expect to see Johnny Knoxville stapling his foreskin to my forehead," Kaufman warns, "that’s not going to happen."
Kaufman’s entry into rock legend was an accident in a chain of accidents. He was unemployed, and apparently unemployable, when a friend told him the Rolling Stones were coming to LA to mix Beggars Banquet. Kaufman, a self-confessed "jazz-bigot", hardly knew who the Stones were, but borrowed money to buy a shirt and a new pair of tennis shoes, and caught the bus to the studio.
"So I started cooking - I’m a pretty good cook - and I started taking care of them. Marianne Faithfull was in bad shape. I got her some Percodans and a masseuse.
"Let me tell you something: I saw Marianne Faithfull naked. The most beautiful woman ever. Even if Venus de Milo had arms, she’d still come in second place to Marianne Faithfull. Oh, what a beautiful woman. I just happened to walk in when the masseuse was masseusing."
At the end of his first day, Kaufman drove Jagger and Faithfull back to their house in a 1969 Cadillac convertible. Jagger gave him the car and $1,500 from his pocket. "I drove back that night, to my old place at Silverlake, and my girlfriend came running out. She said: ‘You crazy sumbitch, you goin’ back to prison. You stole that car.’ I said: ‘No no, look. I got cash, they gave me the car. It’s called rock’n’roll and I’m going to be in it a long time!"
Kaufman had never been to a recording studio, and his unfamiliarity with the etiquette of musicians may, ironically, have made him more suitable for the job. On his first day, he astounded the studio staff by delivering the band on time. He also brought fruit, a novelty in the diet of the Rolling Stones.
"In a recording situation there are hours and hours of smoke. So I was bringing bottled water, and in 1969 who had heard of that? Perrier was the only one. I made sure there were lots of healthy things in there, fruit instead of Twinkies and Ding Dongs. How can you put something in your mouth called a Ding Dong? It sounds like a porno candy bar. I brought salads. I brought a different kind of coffee, just to keep them going, and they liked that.
"Later on, someone asked Mick Jagger: ‘Who’s that guy that’s always bringing the car, and sorting things out?’ Mick said: ‘He’s my executive nanny.’" Ever since, Kaufman’s business card has sported the job title: "Road Mangler Deluxe - Executive Nanny Service".
Kaufman’s impression of the Stones was that though they were uninhibited in their hedonism, they were always businesslike. "Keith [Richards] might get out of control. He might be up till four in the morning, but at seven o’clock he’d be the first guy up and playing his guitar. Keith could eat nails and piss rust. He has the constitution of a cement mixer. What goes in will come out, and he will live."
Kaufman met Parsons through his friendship with Richards. "Keith and Gram had formed a bond. They’d been in the south of France together, they’d been playing together. The Rolling Stones were into blues. Gram told them that the white man’s blues was country music. It ain’t all honky. If you listen to the lyric it’s very soulful.
"We’d sit around, I’d play the records. He’d say, play this, play that. ‘Listen to this, this is Don Rich singing with Buck Owens, listen to him hit the high part.’ George Jones and Merle Haggard. And they would go, ‘Wow, this is like the white man’s blues. Really tellin’ a story.’"
When Kaufman’s parole conditions stopped him from travelling to nursemaid Brian Jones, Parsons asked him to be road manager for his band, the Flying Burrito Brothers. "That was the beginning and end of my life as I know it."
Subsequently, Kaufman worked for dozens of acts, from Joe Cocker and Etta James to Frank Zappa and Hank Williams III. He has a fond association with Emmylou Harris, which dates from his time with Parsons. Both are unflinching in their attention to the singer’s reputation.
Kaufman is pleased that the film is at the centre of a revival of interest in Parsons’ "cosmic American music". But his hostility to Gram’s widow, Gretchen, remains undimmed.
"When I called her to tell her Gram was dead, the first thing she said was ‘where’s his cheque book?’
"When Gram died, he was deaf in one ear, because she had hit him with a wooden coat hanger and he had left her because of the abusiveness. The marriage was over. She leads you to believe that if it wasn’t for me they would be back together. Bullshit. He left her. I didn’t come and take him. He needed a place to stay and he came to my guest house. My girlfriend and I looked after him, and kept him healthy. Guys would bring drugs and I would stop them in the driveway. I was trying to clean him up. And I should have gone to Joshua Tree with him. He said ‘Oh, I’ll be all right.’ Then I got the call the next morning, early, that he was gone, and it was too late to be there, and it was time for me to start honouring our deal."
The deal was a drunken pact, made two months earlier at the funeral of Clarence White of the Byrds, that if either Kaufman or Parsons died, the survivor would burn the body of his friend at Joshua Tree.
"I said OK, I’m going to jail, but a deal’s a deal."
Ultimately, Kaufman didn’t go to jail, because the only crime that could be pinned on him was the theft of the casket, as the body had no intrinsic value.
Kaufman is happy with the portrayal of the incident in the movie, particularly as the more absurd aspects of the story really happened. "We actually did get a cop to help us move the body. We actually did hit the hangar door while driving the hearse."
At this point in the conversation, Kaufman gets a little teary, so I ask him about Charles Manson.
He snaps back. "No. This is about Gram Parsons. I don’t want to taint him with that."
Quickly, though, his good humour is restored.
"Do you know that Jimi Hendrix sat in with the Flying Burrito Brothers, at the teen fair in Hollywood? Janis Joplin came and fainted on top of Gram Parsons in New York. I had to pull her off so we could go on stage. I kicked Jim Morrison out of a limo, physically. He was bein’ obnoxious. He was drunk."
He reaches into his bag and pulls out a frayed denim jacket, with embroidery on the back. It has the embroidered design from the Byrds album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with "Sin City" above it.
"That’s the jacket I wore when I stole Gram."
A few years ago, Kaufman contracted prostate cancer. As a road manager, he had no insurance, and no income if he wasn’t on the road, so a number of artists held a "Concert for Manglerdesh" to bail him out. His health is now restored. "The doctor said I am now a perfect asshole. He said it didn’t take much examination to come to that conclusion."
Kaufman has tried retirement, diving for gold off the coast of Florida, but has now settled back in Nashville on the fringes of the music business. He is cheerfully dismissive of what has happened to the industry. "When I started off I was a road manager. When I retired I was a tour manager. A tour manager has e-mail, a laptop, a walkie-talkie, cellphones, an iPad. A road manager has a roll of quarters and a yellow pad and a pencil. ‘Stop the bus, I want to use the phone.’ Now there’s an industry you don’t want to invest in: payphones."
The road may be over, but Phil Kaufman still drives a car with the phonetically-rude number plate PH KAUF. He has no plans to die, and - despite his part in the Gram Parsons debacle - has no fancy instructions for his own funeral. "Put me in the blender. Into the incinerator and off I go."