Michael Sheppard, longtime L.A. concert promoter and founder of the Iridescence and Transparency labels, died in his sleep at age 59 last Thursday, March 17. “Michael was found in his room by his housemates on Thursday,” close friend Bennett Theissen of Kill Radio told L.A. Weekly via Facebook.
“I last spoke with him on Sunday; he called me because I had left some messages concerned about his health — so some of us were aware of potential problems. He had been complaining of being tired, but as usual was mostly concerned with trying to raise money for Transparency and to move out of where he was living.” According to Theissen, the cause of death was complications from diabetes.
For decades, Sheppard was one of L.A.'s most tireless advocates for experimental and avant-garde music. He brought Throbbing Gristle to Los Angeles in 1981. He put out records by Sun Ra, Aleister Crowley and the L.A. Free Music Society. He was the twisted genius behind the Celebrities at Their Worst CD volumes, favorites on Howard Stern's radio show in the '90s, which overflowed with obscenity-laced outtakes by John Wayne, Buddy Rich, Barbra Streisand and many others. More recently, he was deeply invested in spreading the good word about Italian pianist Alessandra Celletti.
In a music-industry town, Sheppard was the opposite of the slick "record man." He existed proudly outside of whatever was currently considered mainstream, hip or cool. To look at him, he seemed constitutionally uncool — and yet, like a pulsar, he rotated to unveil a kind of coolness you could never have imagined. He embraced the outré, the outsider, the offbeat. The weird was not to be feared. The twinkle in his eye was more like a cackle, but if you saw it when he talked to you, you knew you were on to something.
Reaction from those who knew him in the L.A. music community was swift and sorrowful. “I met Michael not too long after the Throbbing Gristle show. I just thought he was the coolest person for having done that," said Stuart Swezey, editor and publisher of alternative publishing house Amok Books, speaking to L.A. Weekly by phone. "I looked up to him a lot, and so I kind of learned this idea from him of how one puts on these kind of one-offs, bringing things to L.A. that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. I was probably about 18 or 19 and I started doing some small shows around town — and I looked at him as the guru of these kinds of things."
“He put out my first-ever solo release and we became friends during the process of putting that together," Best Coast's Bobb Bruno said via email. "I always enjoyed visiting him at his various living quarters and was touched by how much he loved his cat, Michael Jr., and his efforts to get every Sun Ra live recording out into the world.”
“He approached my old band Vox Pop and offered to put out a record," said Don Bolles, of early L.A. punk bands The Germs and 45 Grave. "I said, 'Sure, if you want to – that’d be great!' And he did." That record was the 1980 7-inch "Cab Driver."
"He put out 45 Grave’s first single, too — the 1981 'Black Cross' 7-inch," Bolles continued. "That was the first we’d met him. He started a label, Bad Trip. I think the Angry Samoans ended up on that label. Michael was a good guy. He cared about stuff, you know? He had really great taste — he knew a lot, was very well-read. He knew a lot about avant-jazz and avant-rock and avant-garde classical. He cared about stuff — and he was such a hustler, too! He wanted to get the stuff out there to the people.
“He would go around town on the bus — he would be barefoot on the bus, going around hustling these records. Then he wanted to start a legitimate label. We were going to call it Bzang, which is the Tibetan word for lightning. Our first signing was The Centimeters. I turned Michael on to them; he thought they were great. So we met up with them at Philippe’s downtown and signed them up and put out their German Verbs CD, because it was only on cassette."
“He hardly had any money, but he offered to sell some of his things when he saw that I might need support in releasing music for my project, Rococo Jet," remembered Nora Keyes of The Centimeters. "I was so touched by this gesture. I couldn’t believe anyone would care to help me that much.”
“He put out so much stuff that if he wasn’t the one to put it out, it wouldn’t get put out," said Mitchell Brown, aka Nanny Cantaloupe of dublab and KXLU. "Like Steve Thomsen’s stuff; the Gary Kail Creative Nihilism double LP on Iridescence is one of my favorites. The Kraig Grady stuff — Kraig was not really great at telling people that he had recordings that he wanted released, but Michael saw the void of someone’s work not being out in the world and he took it by the reins and put that shit out."
Brown says Sheppard's passion for music that might otherwise never see the light of day influenced his approach to running his own label, Melon Expander. "I felt like that’s what fueled the early days of me putting stuff out — grabbing onto artists that really spoke to me, that I thought the world wasn’t getting enough of, because these were humble hermits that didn’t really push their work on the world. They just made this brilliant music, tucked away in L.A., and people [outside] of L.A. didn’t know who they were."
Swezey noted that Sheppard's efforts in promoting and releasing experimental and underground art extended beyond the world of music. "He was the earliest publisher of John Gilmore’s Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder on Zanja Press. He just got into a lot of different spheres and I just learned a lot about boot-strapping things into existence."
Nearly everyone L.A. Weekly spoke to after Sheppard's death fondly remembered his eccentricities, as well. "Michael lived with us in Long Beach for a while — and he smelled so bad that he had to stay outside," Bolles said. "He never would do things like wash his clothes — and his cats would pee all over him. He didn’t even know that he smelled like cat piss. You could smell him like a block away.”
“That’s definitely something I’ve joked about in the last few days to friends, talking about him," Brown agreed. "He had a big, smelly, supportive, loving heart that, unfortunately, gave out in his sleep. I can’t stress enough how full of love he was. In a town where some people are reserved with their feelings, the guy was not afraid to remind you that he loved you whenever possible. That was the way he said goodbye to me just about every time we saw each other.”
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"You’d see him riding the bus, taking his shopping cart full of records to stores," said Swezey. "He just pushed the limits of DIY to their extremes. Michael was a visionary, but he was also a true character. He always had time for people, to talk or just meet somebody on the bus — and then they’d wind up backing his record projects. It was like an alternate reality with him. He was really erudite in that way; well-read and articulate about putting connections together. I think that’s why it came as such a shock that he was dead. Michael’s been living like this for so long — how could it be any different?”
"I felt like a radiant artist standing before Michael Sheppard," said Nora Keyes. "I felt fully understood."