PROMO JERRY MCGILL & VERY EXTREMELY DANGEROUS
Published on August 21 2013 by Chris Morris
A few years ago, during a footloose time in my life, I went down to Memphis, where some knew me as ''Peaches'', to attend a couple of music festivals. I soon found myself in the company of a young woman about thirty-five years my junior who had an ill-defined role in one of the city's many garage-rock bands. I believe she played keyboards. Or something.
One afternoon, we were engaged in desultory, fully-clothed conversation at her place when she admitted two agitated young men - dreadlocked, filthy, wearing grimy clothing and redolent of marijuana. It became swiftly apparent that these lowlifes were there to drop off a significant quantity of drugs, on consignment. One of them began loudly bragging about taking off some local dealer for a large amount of dope, cash, and guns. Expecting either armed thugs or representatives of the Memphis Police Department or the DEA to crash through the door at any second, I muttered something regarding seeing a man about a dog and exited with all deliberate speed.
I recount this sorry-ass tale only to support my hypothesis that in Memphis there is frequently less than one degree of separation between the music and criminal communities. This may well be quite true in other places as well, but the connection seems to be writ large in the Bluff City. And one new documentary feature has writ it even larger.
''Very Extremely Dangerous'' contemplates the unhinged and occasionally nasty life of musician-felon Jerry McGill, who died on May 2013 at the age of 73. The work of Irish filmmaker Paul Duane, the feature surveys the remarkable re-appearance of McGill, a shadowy and menacing presence on the Memphis music and art scene during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, who vanished into the criminal netherworld for decades. Duane charts McGill's scorched-earth progress as he returns to recording and performing in 2010, his many stormy personal relationships, and his battle with lung cancer (he was diagnosed as filming began). It's a portrait as terrifying and sobering as it is sometimes affecting.
McGill did not lack musical bona fides. In 1959, the Memphis native cut a lone 45 for Sam Phillips's Sun Records, ''Lovestruck'' b/w ''I Wanna Make Sweet Love'', backed by a group that included his better-known label mates Charlie Rich and Billy Lee Riley. It was competent if feeble rockabilly, but McGill was a magnetic enough performer to sustain a local career (and to hang out with Elvis, too).
Over time, the police got to know the name Jerry McGill well, so well that he adopted several aliases, but he kept plugging away as a musician. An apotheosis of sorts took place in the mid-1970s, when he cut a few powerful, still-unreleased sides, most of them produced by arch-maverick Jim Dickinson, including a moving, near-definitive reading of Guy Clark’s ''Desperados Waiting For A Train''. Gunfire can be heard on one number.
During that period, McGill was filmed extensively by Memphis photographer William Eggleston, who employed an early portable video unit to document the lives of his companions in the local demimonde. A frightening confrontation between a grinning, pistol-wielding McGill and artist Randall Lyon became an indelible highlight of Eggleston's video work Stranded in Canton, which in 2005 was finally edited into a 77-minute feature from thirty hours of footage by Memphis writer-filmmaker Robert Gordon (the producer of ''Very Extremely Dangerous''). Deconstructing that scary footage in Duane’s documentary, Memphis music vet Jim Lancaster, a friend and frequent sideman, says that in the day McGill was ''a cross between Lee Marvin and Mick Jagger ... He was a charmer. He’d also stab ya''.
Later in the 1970s, McGill, then a.k.a ''Curtis Buck'', became road manager, sometime rhythm guitarist, dope bagman, and producer for Waylon Jennings. As ''Buck'', he is credited as co-writer of Jennings'’s 1970s song ''Waymore's Blues''; apparently the two musicians were so high at the time that it took the both of them to rip off Furry Lewis's ''Kassie Jones'', previously a staple of Dickinson's set.
McGill probably could have continued to fiddle around on the fringes of music, but crime apparently held more appeal. ''Johnny Cash ain’t never been to prison in his life'', the unrepentant McGill says in ''Very Extremely Dangerous''. ''He ain’t no criminal. Neither was Waylon. And they called 'em outlaws. I'm an outlaw''.
Roland Janes, Jerry Lee Lewis's longtime guitar player and the house engineer at Sam Phillips Recording for decades, and a sideman on the Topcoats session of 1959, evaluates McGill's career trajectory this way: ''He's got charisma, he's got everything you need. His timing and his choices were always suspect''. McGill himself bears out Janes's estimation when he says, ''We played nightclubs, beer joints all over Memphis. I played every one of 'em. I knew every burglar, dope dealer, armed robber, forger, and I liked 'em. That's how I got involved in it''.
Busted more than ninety times in Memphis alone, and God knows how many times elsewhere under other names, for offenses including assault, armed robbery, and attempted murder, McGill spent years on the lam and did at least three jolts in state prisons. He was newly released from a Florida jail in 2009 when a post on a music blog reunited him with an old Memphis sweetheart, Joyce Rosic, with whom he settled in Huntsville, Alabama.
Impressed by Gordon's depiction of McGill in his 1995 book ''It Came From Memphis'', Paul Duane undertook a fly-on-the-wall observation of McGill as he careened through his renewed career and cancer treatment. The documentarian notes with welcome honesty that he initially viewed his subject as ''a dying outlaw looking for redemption'', but he came away with a movie about a man who was, in large measure, unredeemable. First seen as he attempts to throttle his girlfriend while she’s driving on the interstate, McGill emerges as a sociopath; a selfish, manipulative, conniving liar; and a thief. Though he is purportedly on the road to recovering his music career, all the behavior that landed him in stir is still vividly present onscreen. Drinking hard, loaded on prescription pain medication (which, in one hackle-raising sequence, he shoots up in the back seat of a moving car), and usually armed to the teeth, he rips through people’s lives like the tornado you read about in twelve-step literature.
McGill’s closest friends, all of them invariably supportive, are portrayed as victims in front of the camera, a point of view that leads us to contemplate McGill's demeanor as one might warily eye the movements of a cornered rattler. His good-time buddy Paul Clements, now dead, was his partner in a thirty-year drinking and drugging bromance, though Clements tells Duane that he felt threatened enough by the increasingly erratic McGill to sic the police on him. During his attempted comeback, McGill's affairs were handled by one Dr. Herbert Brewer, an Alabama chiropractor who served as his manager-enabler; by the end of the film, ''Doc'' has been dumped by his ungrateful charge. Jim Lancaster and his wife Jill display nearly infinite patience as McGill tears through their Florida recording studio for chaotic sessions; the couple, who relieved him of several items he attempted to steal from a home he was staying in, finally drove him nearly four hundred miles to be rid of him. Even director Duane took a hit, paying several hundred dollars for McGill’s cab ride from Huntsville to the Florida Panhandle burg of (swear to God) Niceville.
''McGill has this tendency to believe that everything belongs to him'', Lancaster tells Duane. ''So, if he sees anything he likes, he'll take it''.
McGill’s interaction with Joyce Rosic is especially hard to watch. Very Extremely Dangerous reaches its boiling point with a protracted, screaming argument on the highway between the abusive McGill and his increasingly agitated and incensed significant other, filmed by Duane from the back seat. “The Indians said that if you fuck with somebody that’s nuts, bad shit’ll happen to you,” McGill warns her. And then it does. After his attempt to strangle her behind the wheel, Rosic deposits him and his belongings in the parking lot of a Mississippi casino.
Ugly? Definitely. But if Jerry McGill were nothing more than a hooligan and a bum filled with rage and braggadocio, there would be no reason to watch ''Very Extremely Dangerous''. Time and again during the film, we find that beneath his bruised, beat-up, track-marked surface, McGill has an artist’s heart beating within.
In the immediate aftermath of his cancer diagnosis, McGill sits with a teary-eyed Clements in front of Duane's camera in a seedy hotel room. He says with impassioned sincerity, ''My whole attitude changed about life, because I might not have much longer. If I crash, I wanna do somethin'''. Then, weeping and speaking haltingly, he adds, ''I asked God. . . to let me . . . make some good music''.
It is during the film’s musical moments when one acquires some sympathy for the devilish McGill, as in his gleeful first recording session in thirty-five years at Memphis's Phillips Recording, where he is produced by Janes and joined by Jim Lancaster and Cody and Luther Dickinson (Jim Dickinson’s sons). Later, as he struggles to complete a vocal at Lancaster's studio, one catches a glimpse of his great will, and something of his still-present creative gift. Finally, there's an exultant moment captured at McGill’s comeback show at Memphis's Hi-Tone where the musician, though plainly addled by drink and drugs, gets the young audience to sing along with him on ''No More Tears'' He may have shown up at the club with no pick and a guitar strap resembling a strip of police tape, but he can still nail a crowd.
Another such moment wraps up the movie. By this point it is mid-2011, about a year after McGill's successful cancer surgery (which was nearly interrupted by a visit from some bounty hunters). He is back with the ever-forgiving Rosic, who explains, ''You get attached to Jerry, he's crazy, but you do''. A title tells us that the old crook threw his shotgun into the Tennessee River.
He is shown playing, solo, softly, in front of a banner displaying his various aliases, a self-penned composition called ''Reasons Why We're Here''. He sings in his battered voice, ''Is there anybody who knows all the reasons that we're here''? And then he cocks an eye to Duane's camera, laughs in his throat, and asks, almost daring the audience to judge him, ''Well, do ya''? There's the basic question that ''Very Extremely Dangerous posits. Why was Jerry McGill placed on earth, to rob and con people, or to make rough-hewn, raucous, and often poignant music? It hangs over the movie like a huge, dark nimbus, and it is not easily sorted out. Things are complicated that way in the Bluff City.