Road Mangler in his East Nashville world headquarters. Photograph by Heather Lose

Phil “The Road Mangler” Kaufman is good in the ’hood

He’s Been Everywhere, Man

The rock ‘n’ roll universe is studded with legends and stories, and one of its brightest, most fascinating luminaries is a figure operating in the shadows, far from the spotlight. “Road Mangler” Phil Kaufman is arguably the best-known road manager that has ever worked music’s highways, and his stories are intertwined with the stuff of legend.

Once upon a time, rock ‘n roll was lascivious and epic. Marauding rock gods and their minions roared from city to city, plundering women, trashing hotel rooms, and horrifying parents. Televisions were smashed on sidewalks. Vats of drugs and booze were shared openly. For the kids in the audience, it was all larger than life. For Kaufman, it was just another day on the road, and it was his responsibility to make sure the show went on.

Kaufman’s business card has two titles on it: “Road Manager Deluxe” — which is also the title of his autobiography, first published in 1993 — and “Executive Nanny Service,” the title bestowed upon him by Mick Jagger. He’s been wiping bottoms and warming bottles since 1968 when he took a job taking care of Mick and the boys while the Stones were in Los Angeles mixing Beggars Banquet. The job paid $100 a week.

Since then, Kaufman has worked with a cast of characters that includes Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Frank Zappa, Etta James, Vince Gill, the Divinyls, Joe Cocker, Dwight Yoakam, Lynda Carter, and Nanci Griffith. To date, he’s only set one client on fire, which is a pretty good track record.

Kaufman has resided in East Nashville for seven years. Pulling up in front of his duplex, you know you’re in the right place when you see the Tennessee license plate that reads, “PH KAUF.” His home is full of memorabilia illustrating his many years in show business. The interview begins, and the zingers start flying. Kaufman is funny, warm, and smart. And he loves living on the East Side.

“It’s just a very comfortable place to live. It’s user and bruiser friendly. This street that I live on, it’s just two blocks long, and there are no sidewalks, so it just gives you that feel like you’re out in the country. I told my landlady, ‘You couldn’t get me out of here with dynamite.’ I just signed another three-year lease, and if I told you how much I pay, everybody would be knockin’ on my door. So I ain’t gonna tell ya. But it’s a hell of a deal,” he says.

This is a man who could live anywhere. He’s seen a lot of territory. Kaufman was born in Oceanside, N.Y., in 1935. His father’s side of the family was in showbiz; they were “vaudevillians,” according to Kaufman, and his dad was the leader of a big band in the ’30s. The family moved around a lot during Kaufman’s childhood, and he joined the Air Force in 1952. He ended up in the Korean War and was assigned to the 37th Bomb Squadron running photo-reconnaissance missions. He left the Air Force in 1956 and traveled to Los Angeles in 1957.

Between the late ’50s and the late ’60s, Kaufman crisscrossed the planet, racking up a motley collection of hometowns and girlfriends and stories, a few stints in jail, and one notorious bunkmate who would later shock the world: Charles Manson.

Kaufman tells the story. “When I was in prison for marijuana, I didn’t get to pick my roommate. And this was a dorm situation. He was in the dorm, and I got to know him. It was 1965, ’66. Maybe ’67. And he was a singer; he played guitar and all that stuff. That was my contact with him. And then when he got out, I hung out with him for about three weeks, in about 1968, and then I divorced myself from him. (Editor’s note: The Tate/LaBianca murders took place in August 1969.) So that was my basic contact with Charlie. He used to call me on the phone. The last time he spoke with me, he was talking — I think it’s in my book — but I was going, ‘Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. You know the difference between you and I?’ I said, ‘You’re doing life and I’m living it.’ And then I hung up on him. And I haven’t heard from him since.”

Kaufman left Terminal Island Prison in 1968 and drifted to Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles, a hilly area near Sunset Boulevard and Laurel Canyon populated with disenfranchised, hippie folks. It was later that year when he met the Stones and began “moving people, not equipment,” as his business card states. Kaufman describes his profession: “I’m a tour manager, but I was once a road manager, the difference being tour managers have iPods and electronic devices, and a road manager had a roll of quarters and a yellow legal pad, and a ‘Stop the bus, there’s a phone booth!’”

Has anything else changed out there on the road? He nods knowingly. “Well, the drugs and the groupies … that’s still going on, but it was rampant in the ’60s. It was obligatory. You had to be crazy to be on the road, and so we were! But now, with the electronic age, people tell on each other. So it’s kind of hard to be crazy on the road if you have a significant other. Touch a tit, you’re gonna get a twit,” he laughs.

Does he miss the old days? “No. Nobody could have continued that and lived.” He pauses to amend his words. “Only Keith Richards, who can eat nails and piss rust; he’s the only one. Gram Parsons tried, and he died. He and Keith were buddies, and he was like, ‘Hey!’ They had similar tastes. ‘I can do what Keith does!’ Wrong.”

I’m a tour manager, but I was once a road manager, the difference being tour managers have iPods and electronic devices, and a road manager had a roll of quarters and a yellow legal pad.

Phil “Road Mangler” Kaufman

Kaufman is perhaps most famous for making a pact with Parsons that he couldn’t not keep. Kaufman was Parsons’ road manager for a while, and they also bummed around in their free time. In July 1973, Parsons and Kaufman went to the funeral of Clarence White, a fellow musician on the country-rock scene in Los Angeles. Kaufman tells the story in his autobiography. “We had told Gram we wouldn’t let him have one of those long, family-and-friends funerals.” The two had gotten drunk after White’s funeral and made a pact that if either of them died anytime soon, “the survivor would take the other guy’s body out to Joshua Tree, have a few drinks, and burn it. The burning was the bottom line.”

Tragically, and ironically, Parsons died of an overdose of morphine and alcohol two months later. Kaufman managed to borrow a hearse from a friend and snagged Parson’s coffined body from LAX before it was flown down to New Orleans for the family. Kaufman and his partner in crime, Michael Martin, managed to talk their way through several layers of security, including a policeman who had to move his car so they could drive away with the casket. “At this point, we were getting a little giddy. We were driving out of the airport. We had Gram. We had our buddy in the back. We were talking to him. We said, ‘We got you, buddy.’”

Then the two, slinging back beer and Jack Daniel’s, drove to Joshua Tree National Monument and stopped near Cap Rock. Contrary to popular lore, there was no real significance to the place. The two had just gotten so drunk along the way that they couldn’t drive any further. They got the coffin out of the hearse and opened the lid; poured in the high-octane gas they’d bought during the trip and lit a match. They watched as their friend was reduced to ash and then they hightailed it out of there.

These days, Kaufman spends his hours with motorcycles, friends and stints on the road here and there.  Regretfully, he missed this year’s Tomato Art Fest because he was in Los Angeles taping an interview for the BBC. He’d like to petition for an encore because, “My dance card is empty!” He’s going on a music cruise with East Nashville musician (and The East Nashvillian May/June 2013 cover story subject) Todd Snider in February, and the two of them just finished up a video. “I just did a video with one of my favorite new guys in the whole world, Todd Snider. Todd has his own ZIP code. We just did a video of a wedding. I’m not sure what the sexual orientation was — who was the bride and who was the groom — but it was really fun.” Snider’s take on the proceedings? “We made a video of a gay wedding set in the South. The main visual we wanted to get was two men kissing while other clearly straight and clearly southern men cheered. Kaufman played the father of a groom and gave his son away to be married.”

Kaufman is in a motorcycle gang called the Sons of Arthritis — a bunch of old cats who like to ride Harleys. “You know the saying, ‘oy?’ That’s our call. When you get on the bike you go, ‘OY!’ All the motorcycles have electric starts; if you use a kick-start you can’t be in the Sons of Arthritis. What we do is … we ride! And we stop! And we pee! And we ride, and we stop, and we pee!” Kaufman and his cohorts (who shall go unnamed by request) enjoy their road trips, recently thundering up the highway to Owensboro, Kentucky, the home of Moonlight Barbeque, a joint specializing in lamb and mutton barbeque. “The guys say, ‘How far is it?’ I say, ‘About four Oys! — maybe three if you take the Interstate!’”

Kaufman is currently working with a young musician named J.J. Lawhorn. “I’ve been working all these years with artists as they matured, and now here’s this young kid that I think you might want to keep your ears open for.” He is still in demand for his “nanny services” on the road. “Some people call and ask me for advice — mostly for touring. In my line of work, the music is secondary. It’s ‘get the people from A to B, collect the money, hotels, airplanes’ — that’s it, you know? If the music is great, that’s a bonus. That’s good if you like it. If you don’t, you still go to work every day!”

He expounds on what it’s like on the road these days. “It looks really romantic, especially from the audience’s point of view, but if you have a long tour, it’s very tiresome; you’re away from home, you’re away from East Nashville. You know, I’ll tell you something: I was just in L.A., and I just couldn’t wait to get back here! Like I’m sitting here in my chair now, here, with all my crap, and this is it! This is home, this is East Nashville!” His eyes crinkle. That happens a lot. Here’s a guy who has lived a couple of lifetimes already, and still finds the joy in each day.

Nanci Griffith provides her view of what’s so special about Kaufman: “I love working with Kaufman because he’s a guy that makes decisions … and he doesn’t nag me!” According to Eastside musician Elizabeth Cook, he possesses special skills. “It can get a little gangster out there in promoter land; you want a man that has access to a hearse working for you,” she says. Todd Snider has praises, and a prediction, of his own. “He will be the first tour manager to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. America is like a little backyard to him. He could draw it from memory. He has seen everything a couple of times, and he never takes anything very seriously, while very seriously getting everything done.”

Snider continues, “He asked me how old I was once. I said,
‘I’m getting old.’ He answered, ‘And who’s getting young?’ I’ll never forget it.”