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STYLE & CULTURE

Your life need a tune-up?

Phil Towle is the stars' personal enhancement coach. Get ready for your fabulous career to be dissected.

April 21, 2004|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANSELMO, Calif. — 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.

Inside moves

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."

The technique

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.

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