Gary Kurfirst: Manager of the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Eurythmics and Black Grape
Wednesday 28 January 2009
It's not easy being in a rock'n'roll band," Dee Dee Ramone said in End of the Century: the story of the Ramones (2003), the warts-and-all documentary about the punk group's two-decade career. Gary Kurfirst, their longstanding manager, was one of the people who made things that little bit easier for the notoriously moody quartet whose contribution to popular music was finally recognised when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
Kurfirst was the only manager closely associated with four acts granted that accolade: he also looked after the groundbreaking new-wave bands Talking Heads and Blondie, and worked with the former Clash guitarist, Mick Jones, when he later led Big Audio Dynamite. Although US-based, Kurfirst managed several British groups, including Eurythmics, the Waterboys, the Thompson Twins and Black Grape, the band fronted by Shaun Ryder of the Happy Mondays.
He extricated the notoriously unreliable Ryder from his previous contract, persuaded the US authorities to allow his client entry to the country despite his criminal record, and signed Black Grape to Radioactive, the label he had launched in partnership with MCA in the Nineties. Under his stewardship, Black Grape recorded the chart-topping album It's Great When You're Straight. . . Yeah (1995) and has four Top Ten hits in the UK.
In a career lasting over 40 years and taking in concert promotion and music publishing as well as management, Kurfirst's biggest commercial success came at Radioactive when he discovered the angsty US band Live playing at CBGB's, the New York club where the Ramones and Talking Heads had made their name. Led by their charismatic singer Ed Kowalczyk, Live saw their second album, Throwing Copper (1994), slow-burn its way to the top of the US listings, repeated the feat with Secret Samadhi (1997), and sold 20 million albums around the world. Kurfirst always took the long view, and saw his belief in Talking Heads rewarded when they finally broke through in the US in 1983 with Speaking In Tongues, their fifth studio album. They followed it up with Stop Making Sense, the 1984 concert film directed by Jonathan Demme and produced by Kurfirst.
The manager was considered "the fifth Talking Head" ("he took the blows that the music business dealt us," the band's drummer Chris Frantz reflected) and also served as producer on the frontman David Byrne's directorial debut, True Stories (1986), and Mary Lambert's thriller Siesta (1987), which boasted a Miles Davis soundtrack thanks to Kurfirst's involvement.
Born in New York, Kurfirst showed flair and business acumen in his late teens when he began organising events while studying at Forest Hills High School in Queens. In 1967, he opened the Village Theater – later the Fillmore East under Bill Graham – and helped the blues-rock band Mountain in their contractual negotiations with the Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who became a lifelong friend and business associate. Blackwell subsequently called on Kurfirst's help to launch the reggae artists Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Third World in the US in the mid-Seventies.
In 1968, Kurfirst organised the New York Rock Festival, presenting Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Doors and The Who in Flushing Meadow Park. Three years later, he signed the Brazilian artist Deodato and enabled him to turn his funky adaptation of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra into a worldwide hit.
But Kurfirst really made his mark in the late Seventies and into the Eighties at the cutting edge of rock and pop through his tireless work on behalf of Talking Heads, the Ramones, the B-52's and Blondie.
It was while on tour with the Blondie singer Deborah Harry in 1990 that he first met Shirley Manson, then the keyboard player with Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie in Glasgow. When Manson launched her own group, Angelfish, he signed them to an album deal after hearing a two-song demo. Though Angelfish failed to live up to their promise, the striking-looking Manson came to the attention of the Nirvana producer Butch Vig, who asked her to join his band Garbage in 1994. Garbage went on to sell 15 million albums, earning Kurfirst a tidy return on his original hunch and investment.
A notoriously tough negotiator, Kurfirst secured himself a percentage on future earnings after parting company with Jane's Addiction in 1990, but was gracious enough to offer a similar deal to Danny Fields and Linda S. Stein when he took over the Ramones' management from them. He also liked to credit himself as "Executive Producer" on albums by many of his acts when he had had little input into the production or mixing of the tracks.
Paying tribute to Kurfirst, Manson said, however: "He was just so passionate about all his artists. He didn't need to have anyone affirm his taste. He loved what he loved and everyone else be damned."
Gary Kurfirst, manager, promoter,publisher, label owner: born New York, 1947; married (one son, one daughter); died Nassau, the Bahamas 13 January 2009.
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