Your life need a tune-up?
Phil Towle wants to know you. And not that remote, cordial version of yourself that you usually offer up to strangers. He wants the whole you, control issues and all. Intimacy is like oxygen to him. That’s why he’s on call 24/7, ready for your cataclysmic meltdown, your gut-wrenching sobs, your 3 a.m. epiphanies.
When you’re at your worst, Towle’s at his best. He’s your spiritual paramedic, your exorcist, the sensitive dad you never had. There are no timed sessions, no emotional boundaries. He’s inside your head and inside your life. He dissects your motivations and analyzes your ambivalence, your self-sabotaging language, your buried vulnerability, the reasons you resent him, until you shift uncomfortably on the plush leather couch in his living room and wonder how you lost the reins of this conversation.
“Suppose there’s a fear of making mistakes,” he says, his loafers propped up on a heavy coffee table, a postcard view of verdant hills over his shoulder. “Suppose, when you write, you live with a chronic unresolved issue about not wanting to make a mistake. So you might bring a tape recorder. You might back it up with writing everything down. You might follow through with what the editor wants you to do. You might be real careful that you don’t do something wrong that would expose you to making a mistake.”
And just like that, your black felt-tip pen, Gregg-ruled steno pad and tiny Radio Shack tape recorder are the insidious tools of your undoing.
Phil Towle is a psychotherapist turned performance enhancement coach who is paid handsomely to reinvigorate the high-stakes careers of rock stars, professional athletes and CEOs. Since 1997, his clients have included Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello, Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Kevin Carter, legendary NFL coach Dick Vermeil and other luminaries too emotionally fragile to name here. But it was Metallica that cemented Towle’s second career when it hired him in January 2001 as the band was falling apart. Longtime bassist Jason Newsted had just quit, threatening to end the band’s 20-year run.
Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, best known for their critically lauded 1996 film “Brother’s Keeper,” documented much of the 2 1/2years the band spent with Towle, resulting in “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” which premieres in July. In the film, Towle cracks open the metal band to reveal the sticky goo inside -- hidden resentments, unresolved grief, power struggles and, yes, love and commitment.
It was costly work -- Towle’s fee was a whopping $40,000 a month -- but it got results. “St. Anger,” Metallica’s first album in five years, went platinum and earned a Grammy, and the band received MTV’s highest honor, the Icon Award. In the film, Towle weeps as the band discusses the end of their project. But in reality, that didn’t mark the end of the relationship.
“He became a part of the family,” says drummer Lars Ulrich. “It can be kind of awkward to end. In some sense it hasn’t ended. And in another sense it will never end.”
It’s noon, just 90 minutes into your weekend visit with Towle, and the streaming narrative that is Towle analyzing you analyzing Towle has filled your brain to capacity. He speaks deliberately, in the warm, deep tones of a radio announcer, until you feel yourself losing focus, losing time. He’s articulate, but his language is so psycho-spiritual that you always feel just a few beats behind real comprehension.
Towle is talking about his technique. He says he helps people “unlock their self-imposed obstacles” by making contact during that critical “moment of potential insight,” an awareness inspired by “seeds from the unconscious.” That means he becomes so personally involved with his clients that he experiences every shade of their personalities, ultimately drawing a multidimensional picture of their problems. Then he injects himself into their lives, using their relationship as a test tube. His wife, Gail, often participates, and as a couple they vacation and celebrate holidays with clients. Toys for Metallica’s children sit in one corner of their San Anselmo home.
“You feel, very quickly, closely connected to him, whether you want to or not,” says longtime client Brenda Rhodes, chief executive of the Silicon Valley staffing firm Hall Kinion. She remembers late nights crying in Towle’s arms after separating from her husband. “When I first started working with him, I was a little concerned. He had a long-term marriage.”
Ultimately, she says, she got to know Gail, whose buoyancy acts as a life preserver amid Phil’s briny depths, and realized there was nothing untoward about his compassion. “You can be as close as you want without ever feeling you’re treading across the barrier,” Rhodes says.
Each client takes something different from Towle. Ulrich credits him with saving his band and his marriage and considers their conversations a “think tank” on human interaction. In the film, guitarist and lead singer James Hetfield calls Towle “an angel ... sent to help me.” After the St. Louis Rams won the 2000 Super Bowl, Vermeil rewarded Towle with a diamond-encrusted Super Bowl ring engraved with his name. He says he has kept every motivational memo that Towle ever faxed him and that they plan to write a book together.
Morello credits Towle with making him the happiest he’s ever been as a musician. “It’s basically a lot of listening,” says the guitarist, who hired Towle as his band Rage Against the Machine was breaking up. “It’s such a foreign concept to rock ‘n’ rollers.... He was able to see through the defenses people had built up and the ongoing circular things that were making everybody unhappy, that were keeping everybody from success.”
Towle limits his client list to about 15 and chooses professionals who want to further their already profound success. That’s because influential people affect the masses, allowing Towle’s wisdom and guidance to indirectly reach a larger audience. It is here, he believes, that destiny is at work.
“I think we all have a contract with whoever we believe is our creator,” he says. “The God source. The source of life or however you want to look at it .... You’re the only Gina on this planet. I’m the only Phil on this planet. It seems simple to me to understand that because I’m the only Phil on this planet and have been given a certain physical, mental, spiritual composition, with certain inherent gifts, my primary responsibility is to give it all away. To leave every drop of myself on the planet.”
For most of the Metallica documentary, Towle is a quiet but ubiquitous presence. He’s leading group therapy in his Four Seasons Hotel room, reading the band’s new “mission statement” (“We come now to create our album of life,” he intones). He’s on a Northern California hillside with Ulrich and his father, facilitating dialogue.
He’s in the recording studio, a bit out of place in his turtlenecks and pastel sweaters but still bonding over music, standing just behind Ulrich’s drum kit, suggesting a song lyric, nodding along to the churning guitars, even interviewing new bass players.
During lunch one day, Ulrich jokes, “So what part of our careers are you going to manage today?” Towle replies, “I’m managing the whole thing ... because you guys can’t seem to do it.”
On another day, Towle posts motivational slogans all over the studio, annoying everyone. Soon, the band starts talking about firing him. “I’m afraid he’s under the impression that he’s in the band,” Hetfield tells Ulrich.
Towle says the film doesn’t tell the whole story. His work with Metallica hasn’t ended -- in fact, he says, he met with the band just the other day. Still, the personal investment Towle makes in his clients’ lives inevitably triggers his own psychological issues, particularly when his clients decide they’ve outgrown him. He admits he’s guilty of “over-coaching,” a remedy for his own sense of “isolation and alienation.”
With Metallica, “I wanted to be able to experience the kind of depth that a process like this could bring to everybody, including myself ... to be able to have the freedom to become closer and to feel that sense of getting connected in terms of ...”
He pauses, then starts again.
“It’s like making love. Getting as close as you can to somebody. Getting inside of them and they inside of you. For me, that’s the reason why I do what I do.”
“Wow,” he says. “That’s revealing.”
There’s a lot of talk about sharing and intimacy when you’re with Towle, but he is guarded when you ask about his background. “I don’t see how that’s relevant,” he says.
Eventually, details emerge. Towle is 65, the oldest of two sons born to an insurance salesman and a social worker. (His brother is a Unitarian minister.) He grew up in South Pasadena, earned a degree in sociology from Occidental College and attended graduate school at the University of Chicago.
He and Gail met in the early 1960s while working in the settlement houses of Chicago. They moved to Topeka, Kan., for Towle’s fellowship in the psychiatric social work program of the Menninger Clinic, and had two children. As Towle built his private practice, Gail operated bed-and-breakfasts.
But after 32 years as a psychotherapist, Towle suddenly switched to coaching. The reason, repeated like a mantra by both Towle and his clients, is because he grew tired of working with “people’s nightmares,” longing instead to “work with their dreams.”
A lifelong fan of the Los Angeles Rams, Towle decided to become the “performance coach” to the team, which had recently moved to St. Louis. He befriended the team’s publicist and general manager, and spent months visualizing himself on the 50-yard line. When Vermeil arrived as the new coach, Towle cold-called him to offer some help.
“He knew more about the Los Angeles Rams than I did,” says Vermeil.
Within a few weeks, Towle was hired. The Rams won the Super Bowl in 2000, and along with his Super Bowl ring, Towle got an introduction to Vermeil’s son-in-law, Steve Barnett, then a senior vice president at Epic Records. That led to his work with Morello, and then Metallica.
During the years Towle worked with Metallica, his life acquired some of the luster of a rock star’s. He relocated from the Kansas City suburbs to the Bay Area, rocking out backstage at shows and staying up late in the recording studio. He and Gail moved around a lot -- from the Four Seasons in San Francisco to a downtown apartment owned by Ulrich’s wife to a house in Solano Beach to a $3.3-million hilltop home in San Anselmo.
Gail describes the life-altering shift this way: She has always been more suburban Junior Leaguer than big-city sophisticate, but after years of involvement with rock stars and their wives, she’s now seriously considering an ankle tattoo.
There’s a scene toward the end of the documentary in which Hetfield confronts Towle about his plans to sell his house in Kansas City and move to San Francisco. The band, Hetfield makes clear, isn’t sure it needs him long-term. Towle assures him that the move isn’t definite. But he adds, “To me, the work isn’t over.” From there, the dialogue devolves into therapy jargon, with salvos of “trust issues” and “boundaries” lobbed from either side.
Perhaps it’s Towle’s own “chronic issue” that’s at work here.
Ten years ago, one of Towle’s psychotherapy clients filed a complaint with the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board, accusing him of urging her to continue therapy after she decided to end it. The board investigated and, among other alleged violations, cited Towle for “continuing treatment when it was not beneficial to the client” and “failing to terminate the social work relationship.”
Ultimately, Towle admitted no liability or wrongdoing, but he agreed to dissolve his practice and surrender his license. Today, he declines to talk about the case but acknowledges he’s experiencing “an ongoing process of healing and growth.”
“It is still hard for me to let go of whatever’s unresolved, because when you see it and you know something can be done about it, it’s hard to look away.”