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."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Reign Over Me: Adam Sandler In A Bob Dylan Wig, Waving Not Clowning

In Reign Over Me, Adam Sandler is incapable of acting in a normal adult manner. As casting decisions go, this may not seem surprising. Sandler, a graduate of the Saturday Night Live school of comic sophistication, has made a career of critic-proof comedies in which he plays a doofus, a goofball, a meathead or a dimwit. He is the schlub’s schlub.
Lately, though, Sandler has shown signs of versatility. In Punch Drunk Love, Paul Thomas Anderson cast him as a dimestore retard with a collection of tinned puddings – so far, so Sandler – and then asked him to perform without clowning. He was pathetic, in a good way, which was progress.
Reign Over Me goes further, not least because Sandler is unrecognisable in it, performing from beneath Bob Dylan’s hair. In some circumstances this might seem comic, but it doesn’t here, because writer-director Mike Binder has paired him with Don Cheadle, an actor who transmits likeability without effort.
The two are an odd couple; college roommates who have drifted apart. Alan Johnson (Cheadle) has become a dentist, with a fine home, a wife, and children. Sandler’s character, Charlie Fineman (the name is a clue) has dropped below the radar. He has no job, no friends, and – apparently – no memory of his previous life. He lives entirely in the moment, pursuing the distractions of a male student. At home, he batters the drums in his own practice studio, or plays Shadow of the Colossus on a giant flatscreen television. He eats take-out food, and sidesteps loneliness by riding the empty streets of New York’s East Village on a Go-Ped scooter. When it all gets too much, he seeks cheap laughs at the all-night retrospective of Mel Brooks movies. He does no work, busying himself by endlessly remodelling the kitchen in which he never cooks. In everything he does, he loses himself.
Charlie is a clearly a distant cousin of Taxi Driver's anti-hero Travis Bickle, a character whose moral clarity and charming nihilism have come to haunt filmmakers of a certain age. In recent memory, both Christian Bale (Harsh Times) and Ed Norton (Death in the Valley) have channelled their inner De Niro without ever overcoming a sense of pastiche. Not surprisingly, in a film which patrols the nocturnal streetscapes of Manhattan with a sense of dread and doomed romance, Sandler is given his Travis moment, standing with a loaded gun in front of a diner painted like a yellow checker cab. The way that scene evolves says much about the changing neuroses of New York.
Reign Over Me is a post 9/11 movie, but Binder introduces the subject gently. To Alan, Charlie is “the one from dental school whose family was on the plane”, but he is also a reminder of a life without responsibility. Alan, as much as Charlie, is in need of rescue. He winces almost imperceptibly when his wife Janeane (Jada Pinkett Snith) enrols him for an evening class. His sense of inner stagnation is only slightly more evident when she encourages him to sit down and help her complete a jigsaw. Acute trauma may be absent from Alan’s life, but he is emotionally numb – a condition he signals by fashioning accidental meetings with his angelic psychotherapist friend Angela (Liv Tyler) in which he regales her with minor dissatisfactions, none of which is his real problem.
Reign Over Me would work without reference to the Twin Towers. Perhaps it should. At heart, it is a midlife crisis picture, and an exploration of the emotional inarticulacy of men, which is a bleak enough proposition to be going on with. There is an element of male fantasy, too. It is as convenient as it agreeable that the therapist is Liv Tyler, and that Alan’s peaceful progress as a dentist is almost derailed by the unwanted attentions of Donna (Saffron Burrows) a beautiful, unhinged female patient who wishes to repay his small efforts at cosmetic dentistry by performing oral sex. Binder seems to be aware that he is having his cake and being eaten by it, and tries to atone by taking his guilt out on Charlie, who blames his incompetence as a therapy patient on the beauty of Angela’s breasts. This seems crass, but it is merely ironic: Charlie is being honest at a time when politeness should dictate otherwise.
The film is at its best when exploring the dumbness of men. The broader theme, of a society racked by post-traumatic stress, is less convincing, particularly in a story which puts so much store in therapy and the need to address problems by articulating them. In the end, it turns into a courtroom drama, with Donald Sutherland playing Solomon when asked to decide on Charlie’s fate.
Audience sympathies are with Charlie throughout, but the director can’t resist underscoring the emotions with a plangent electric piano. And Sandler, finally prised from his cocoon, hits a few wrong notes when trying to convey deep emotion to the parents of his dead wife. His hurt has a comic tone, and the film’s bleak outlook is sugared by bathos.
It’s an open question whether Charlie is better off at the end; his brand of denial has its attractions, not least to the Alans of the world, weighed down by the predictable comforts of success. Who wouldn’t rather be Charlie, watching Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire dance over the widescreen, thinking of nothing?

Monday, April 16, 2007

From Selling Soap To Number One: The Quiet Triumph Of Kate Walsh

In the basement of the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, Kate Walsh can finally take stock of a remarkable month. Today, her album Tim’s House is at number three in the iTunes chart, behind the Kings of Leon and Timbaland, but above Amy Winehouse and Take That. She has been at number one, and her music is now attracting worldwide attention. Tim’s House, the album she recorded in the Brighton home of her producer Tim Bidwell, using velvet curtains from Debenhams as sound insulation, sits just outside the iTunes Top 40 in the USA, and the Top 10 in Canada.
There is nothing predictable about this success. Walsh’s music is unassuming and poetic. To call it lo-fi is slightly misleading, but most of the work is done by her voice; a breathy, bird-like instrument, which sounds conversational, but is actually a model of controlled emotion. When she accompanies herself on guitar, most of the noise is made by the chords she doesn’t play. She sings about heartache, mostly. And, having come this far this quickly, all the signs are that her success will multiply.
It’s fair to say that Walsh hasn’t let all of this go to her head. Though messages of support clog her Myspace inbox, she can still walk the streets unmolested. As a small concession to her sudden popularity, she has handed in her notice from her job “selling posh soap to posh ladies” at Crabtree and Evelyn in Brighton. Today, her manager Jonathan sits at the next table, fielding calls from record companies, anxious to explain how they can take her career to the next level. But Walsh, chastened by a bad experience with the Newcastle label Kitchenware, is in no rush. “It would be silly to jump into anything. We know that people like it regardless of who’s backing it, so we’ll just keep doing it ourselves if we have to. We’ve got the choice. We can do that.”
The speed of Walsh’s arrival would have been scarcely imaginable until recently, and is a further sign of how the internet is revolutionising the music business. A year ago – in circumstances that have been the subject of some dispute - Sandi Thom won a record deal and a worldwide hit by broadcasting a series of concerts from her Tooting basement. Thom’s popularity on the Net may have been exaggerated in order to attract record company interest, but Walsh’s story seems simpler. Her distributor did a deal with iTunes to release the music, and iTunes offered her song Talk of the Town as a free download, thus creating interest in the album, which is available at half-price. “It was an experiment they wanted to try, and it works. Obviously, this must show the labels and the marketing people that instead of raising your price and selling less albums, reduce it and get more people listening to the music.
“It makes sense. People just bought the record. There’s no marketing, no hype. It’s lovely for me because I know that people love the record just because it’s there. They’re not being told it’s good.”
Walsh grew up in a music-loving household in Burnham-on-Crouch on the Essex coast. “I never had to be told to do my piano. I always loved it.” Her two older brothers listened to Orbital, the Utah Saints, and psychedelic 1960s music, and her father like prog rock, and tuned the radio to Classic FM. Her mother played piano, and had a fondness for Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. “She’s great. About a month ago she came down to Brighton because she was going to go on a shamanic drumming weekend. She’s not a shaman, and she doesn’t drum, but she just thought she’d give it a go.”
Walsh’s memories of Burnham are reflected in the lyrics of Talk of the Town. “It’s like any small town. It’s not that I dislike the place, I just didn’t fit in, and I couldn’t hide the fact that I was frustrated being there.”
I ask her to describe it, and she pulls a face. “There’s a Co-op and a petrol station on the outside of the town. There’s no Dixons or Boots. But it’s very pretty. There’s a couple of bric-a-brac stores. Quite good ones, actually. You can get some nice vases.”
A shy adolescent, she recalls sitting alone in the fields with her black eyeliner on, smoking roll-ups and writing poetry, while listening to Radiohead’s The Bends. She says she “went off the rails” as a teenager and, lacking the discipline to do well at grammar school, elected to go to the local comprehensive, where her grades continued to deteriorate. She got into trouble – “just small town jollies” – and decided to sort herself out by going to boarding school in Bishop’s Stortford.
“You’re locked up you can’t go out, and every night there’s an hour and a half of supervised prep. So you do all your work. My grades were amazing when I left, and I was a more confident person. And I cherished my family. It just changed me. It really started to make me who I was.
“I had no reason to go off the rails. My family are lovely. I grew up in this really pretty town. Maybe it was just my frustration at not having an outlet, or not being with likeminded people. I just rebelled, and it’s always the ones closest to you that you hurt the most.”
Walsh is 24 now, but had her fingers burned by the music business when she 18. A classically-trained pianist, she had deferred her entry to the London College of Music and Media to work on her songs, when a producer called her and asked “what do you want to do with the rest of your life?” She recorded her first album, Clocktower Park in 2001, and spent a fruitless year living in Newcastle, but the album wasn’t released until 2003. She now considers it to be soulless and undeveloped. “I was still learning to be a singer-songwriter. I’m still finding my sound now. Back then I was 18, and it got taken out of my hands. I didn’t trust my own judgement. The production is so polished, and it’s not like anything I listen to.”
She started playing the piano when she was five, and had lessons until she was 16, when her teacher, Sue Hazelton died of cancer. Tim’s House is dedicated to her. “We were very close. She even ended up living next door to me at the end of her life. My piano at home was so out of tune, and she used to listen through the walls to me playing it. I used to go round and show her my poetry when I was 13. She was wonderful. She always said that I reminded her of her when she was my age.”
Walsh says she wasn’t dedicated enough to be a classical pianist. “Classical musicians are playing like a job all day every day. And when you’re 15 you don’t want to be playing piano all day.” Still, hints of her training can be detected in her music. The melodies come from her love of Debussy, she says, and she considers his First Arabesque to be her signature tune. “It takes you somewhere else.”
She imagined she would work on film scores, or songs for other singers, never dreaming that she could use her own voice. “For me, being a singer on stage, was like jumping out of an aeroplane; it was never going to happen. I’d never do public speaking. I’d never jump out of a plane, I’d never bungee jump and I’d never sing on stage. But now I love it.”
On stage, amid the sofas and the lampshades of the Electroacoustic Club, in the basement of the Slaughtered Lamb, Walsh certainly shows few signs of nerves. She closes her show with Your Song, a wispy ode to her “greatest love”, the man broke her heart two years ago.
The song is devastating in its simplicity. On the record, it is augmented by strings. Live, there is just Walsh and her slightly out-of-tune guitar. Tonight, in the silence before the final chorus, someone drops a glass, which smashes loudly. In that moment, as she prepares to share her heartbreak, Kate Walsh can’t help laughing.