“It is sort of a unique story, stealing a body and burning it in the desert,” allows Phil Kaufman.
It’s such little career highlights that permit Kaufman, a road manager, to have an autobiography out at a time when some of his former star clients don’t even have active careers. Especially the ones he has torched.
OK, he only stole and cremated one body, and that was actually a noble, if thoroughly drunken, act of friendship toward his departed friend, country/rock pioneer Gram Parsons. But that’s not the only event that makes “Road Mangler Deluxe” (written with Colin White, White/Boucke Publishing, $9.75) a rambunctious page-turner.
Kaufman also happened to produce the now-infamous “Lie” album by his onetime prison-mate Charles Manson. As one of the persons who defined the job of road manager , Kaufman has worked for Parsons, the Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa, Joe Cocker, Emmylou Harris and others, becoming an industry legend in the process.
He’ll be sharing some of his road stories during a book-signing at Tower Records in Anaheim (220 N. Beach Blvd.) at 1 p.m. today and 11 a.m. Sunday at Bookstar in Torrance (2730 Pacific Coast Highway).
Recently at the Burbank “Tonight Show” studio, Kaufman was at work, though you’d scarcely know it by seeing the 58-year-old walrus-mustached, tattooed half-biker/half-cherub dancing down the halls, casting one-liners at the unwary celebrities and crew in his wake.
His longtime employer and friend Harris was appearing on the show, and he’d already done his work--"a 100% need-to-know-basis responsibility"--of making sure his client was at the gig and in working order.
That oftentimes is a major task. In the case of working for legendary imbiber Cocker, it meant:
“Take Joe to work on this shoulder, take Joe home on that shoulder,” Kaufman recalls. “It was a very distasteful, menial job for me. But once I got Joe to work, it was almost worth it when he was onstage.”
His job also entails having the foresight to deal with any contingency, so that when everyone was snowed-in once at the Denver airport, Harris and her band were among the very few to make it out, arriving at their gig in four-wheel drive vehicles he’d rented from a ski resort.
When Zappa’s band missed a connecting flight, Kaufman scoured up private Lear jets to get them to the show.
Once he gets the logistics out of the way, the other big part of his job pretty much is the dancing and joking part.
“I kinda like me. I feel better than James Brown,” he said, and he seems so at home, and relaxedly outrageous, in any situation, that it makes the gigs go smoother.
“If I may be so bold, I’ve made an art form of this job, in getting along with people and taking care of business. I’ve had guys tell me, “Hey, thanks man, you’re really nice; most road managers are real asses. Usually, the bigger the star, the bigger the attitude of the road manager.’ The way I see it, my job is not to make it difficult; it’s to make it easy for the artists and everybody, but keep control. If you can make your point with humor, you don’t lose a friend doing it.”
Of course, there are those Kaufman doesn’t especially care if he’s friends with. He’s extremely protective of his artists.
“If somebody’s rude to Emmylou, he’s gonna really hear it from me. In London once, this guy came up to Emmylou backstage at the Wembley Arena, and he grabbed me and said ‘I got an artist here; she’s better than Emmylou; she can sing better. . . . Emmylou’s gonna be eatin’ her shorts.’ I said ‘Excuse me, could you come with me for a second?’ I walked him to the door and decked him.”
He took a similar approach on an airliner once.
“The band’s crew was having a food fight, really rowdy. The stewardess came up said to me, ‘Look, I am gonna have them arrested at the airport unless you do something.’ So I went up to the biggest guy in the crew, said ‘stand up,’ and (expletive) hit him right in the mouth, sat him down and said, “Now you (expletive) sit there and don’t get out of that seat until we get to the airport.” Boy that made it quiet in the cabin.
“See, something like that could have reflected poorly on Emmy. I don’t think I’m as paternalistic toward my artists as I am pal-istic. I’m their pal. I’m not exactly a fatherly image, but if I can help them with something, I do.”
Adds Harris: “I keep hiring Phil because he’s the one who remembers all the funny anecdotes so I can tell them on the ‘Tonight Show.’ ”
Their friendship stretches back over two decades to when she was a backup singer with Parsons.
Kaufman has his job wired pretty tight, considering that when Parsons first asked him to become a road manager, Kaufman’s response was, “What’s that?”
He learned it was simply a mobile version of what he’d already been doing for the Rolling Stones while they were in Los Angeles finishing up their “Beggar’s Banquet” album. Kaufman, fresh out of prison and a self-proclaimed “jazz bigot,” had never heard of the Stones when a friend lined him up for a job as their “executive nanny,” as Mick Jagger came to call him.
When he came home from his first day on the job with a handful of cash and the keys to a Cadillac, his girlfriend of the time hit the roof, thinking he’d stolen them. “No, it’s this thing called rock ‘n’ roll. They give you money and cars.” He got to like the life--and the music.
He attributes the confidence he brings to his job to his prison experience, which resulted from a botched marijuana-smuggling attempt in the early ‘60s.
“It’s not something I want to do again; I don’t recommend it as a panacea for people with inferiority complexes, but prison gave me a real insight into life. It really woke me up. I came out a better person, not because of the penal system, but because I decided I wasn’t going to let it be a negative experience. I actually had some good times in prison.”
And, while there, he made contacts with influential people.
“Yes, some of the finest murderers I know are in prison,” he said. When he met Charles Manson at Terminal Island in the mid ‘60s, Manson was a skinny would-be musician who Kaufman said sang like Frankie Laine and hung around his “family.” He wasn’t impressed by Manson’s rap, but he did like the family’s free way with sex. Later, when the family was arrested, “I realized I’d had sex with every one of those murderesses,” he recounts in the book.
He had already fallen out with Manson before the murders and indeed says he may have been one of the intended targets of the La Bianca murders. Until all the evidence against Manson came out in the trial, Kaufman hadn’t thought the “take acid, make love” Mansonites could be capable of such crimes.
With that belief, and seeing money to be made, in 1971 he released the “Lie” album, made from sessions he had previously produced of Manson’s music. Though quite a collector’s item now (and with a song off it recently covered by Guns ‘N Roses), it didn’t zoom up the hit parade then.
“Still, prior to the convictions, I went up to Telegraph Road in Berkeley, the most radical place in the world in the ‘60s, but not one shop would touch that record. Granted, it was a real piece of trash. But it’s a great interest generator, isn’t it?”
Kaufman claims Manson had signed the rights to the songs over to him, and he’s having a lawyer look into collecting royalties on Axl Rose’s version of “Look at Your Game Girl.” He doesn’t feel any guilt in trying to profit from the Manson connection, figuring it’s due recompense for having his life threatened by family members. And that Rose-covered tune was the song Manson used to entice females into the family.
“He meant ‘Look at your game, girl,’ like ‘See the the head game you’re playing, when you could be free and be with me.’ I’d listen to him sing it to these new girls, and it worked.”
Kaufman’s most noted participation in rock history came in 1973 when he and a friend used a borrowed hearse to steal his friend Parson’s body from LAX and drive it out to Joshua Tree to cremate it. Parsons had been estranged from his wealthy Southern family, and he had a pact with Kaufman that if he died, the body would go to his beloved Joshua Tree, not the family plot.
Kaufman’s recounting of that tale is moving, hilariously irreverent and too involved to detail here, making it a good thing it’s all in his book. The outcome is that Parsons’ charred molecules are now part of the desert scenery, and Kaufman was tried and compelled to reimburse a mortuary for the cost of the casket.
While burning corpses can give one a bit of a reputation, Kaufman says it hasn’t given him a stigma to live down.
“A lot of people in this business were fans of Gram’s. So when they talk to me, it isn’t ‘I heard you stole somebody’s body.’ They know the story.”
His greatest credibility comes, he says, from working for Harris.
“Emmylou gives me credibility. When somebody as respectable as Emmylou continually asks for me to work for her, it means I must be doing something right. I feel very honored to work for her.”
He’s not over-enamored of the changes that have taken place in the music business since he’s been in it, even if its business-like manner makes his job easier.
“In the old days, you’d have situations like, (he assumed a mellow hippie voice) ‘My old lady will make the meals man, and we’ve got a van; we’ll pick you up in and take you to your tents .’ That’s gone now. Years ago small entrepreneurs were the promoters. Now it’s big promoters. They have gotten more callous, too, more corporate, more business. In older days they were fun people.
“They’ve even changed the title of what I do. Now it’s a tour manager. The difference between a road manager and a tour manager, the way I see it, is a tour manager has Hal Burton briefcases, pagers, at least one cellular phone, an incredibly (expletive) attitude, and they are more important than the artists. The road manager is the opposite: He takes care of business. I am definitely a road manager.”
He’s been considering getting into the more lucrative field of artist management.
“I’ve been entertaining that thought, that or take all the money from this book and go buy a Volkswagen camper and (go) off somewhere.”
Last year, he met co-author White, and began dictating his stories into a cassette recorder. When the publication of “Road Mangler Deluxe” was feted at Brown’s Diner in Nashville, Tenn., a few months back, more than 400 friends and celebrities showed up. After decades of working behind the scenes for others, Kaufman says he doesn’t feel odd to have the spotlight on him now.
“I’ve always been a celebrity, in my own mind. I’m just getting more coverage now.”