A Gun and a Guitar
February 7, 2014 | by Rebecca Bengal
Jerry McGill: Sun Records artist, Memphis fixture, and “crazy sonofabitch.”
Jerry McGill by the numbers, hazy as they may be: He cut one 45 for Sun Records (the rockabilly “Lovestruck,” with a backing band that included Charlie Rich). Years later, in the backseat of a limousine in Memphis, he cowrote one more song with Waylon Jennings. Shot at least three bullet holes into the ceiling of the Sam Phillips Recording Studio, where they still remain. Racked up nearly a hundred arrests. Assumed six aliases. Disappeared for twenty-five years—and ultimately reemerged, at the behest of filmmaker Paul Duane, to collaborate on Very Extremely Dangerous, a documentary about the tornadic trajectory of his life. In January, Dangerous was shown at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel, accompanied by a reading from Memphis writer-producer Robert Gordon, whose films will screen this month.
Flash back forty years, to the dimly lit bars, back rooms, and late Delta nights traversed by William Eggleston with his Sony Porta Pak, an early video camera. “It was back when everyone liked quaaludes. ‘Let’s get down,’ ” narrates Eggleston in his cinema verité of that era, 1974’s Stranded in Canton. His voice trails off into the sound of a shot fired and then Jerry McGill’s face jumps into the frame, wild and practically translucent. McGill has the looks of Mick Jagger, the constitution of Keith Richards, and the heart, it would seem, of a snake. His eyes masked in sunglasses, he grins in the dark, lunges, thrusts the barrel of his gun to the head of another man, and holds it there.
That scene still haunts. Rachel Kushner, in a portfolio of her visual inspiration for The Flamethrowers published in the Winter 2012 issue of The Paris Review, included a still of McGill from the film. The same screen capture accompanied McGill’s death notice in the Memphis Commercial Appeal last spring. It was seeing that gunplay scene and reading about McGill’s exploits in Gordon’s It Came from Memphis that inspired Duane to seek out the elusive, felonious musician.
In the midseventies demimonde of Memphis, things had a way of becoming totally and suddenly unhinged, and McGill was frequently the author of their unhinging. As Waylon’s vagabond and oft-arrested rhythm guitarist—prone to performing in disguise when the alias he then toured under, Curtis Buck, did not offer sufficient protection—McGill arguably out-outlawed the Country Outlaw himself. “Curtis Buck was a crazy sonofabitch and he ran around with me,” Jennings writes in Waylon: An Autobiography. “While I was singing, he’d go find the girls, and if we needed drugs, he’d go find the dope.” When Duane and Gordon teamed up to document McGill, it was a devil’s handshake deal: knowingly, if not entirely willingly, they submitted to the volatile ways of their subject. True, McGill had just been diagnosed with cancer and professed a desire to revitalize his music career. But altering his violent ways was not part of the program.
As many concert dates as McGill played in his lifetime, he was as likely to show up with a gun as a guitar. His life was largely spent trying to outwit and evade authority, and wrapping himself in a bolt of self-destruction. He hid from his real name, even, thus never making much of one for himself. He would steal the clothes right out of your closet, and he was as proud of his songs as he was of the counterfeit bills he printed. These are the qualities that compelled Paul Duane to track the guy down.
Very Extremely Dangerous will charm you, sure, with the sight of Jerry McGill singing and strumming in a hospital waiting room as a fellow patient thumbs through a back issue of the print version of WebMD. There’s also McGill pillaging a pile of ten-cent junk in the middle of a dirt field, coming away with a pair of boots, a cane, and a gigantic carnival-prize stuffed animal with bright, gaping eyes.
Never, though, does a feeling close to actual love for him burrow its way into your heart—neither, really, does the desire for Jerry to be redeemed. You don’t want him tamed. This is, after all, a man possessed of a remarkable self-awareness; as you watch him rasp through a recording session after something like four sleepless days, or see him cook up Dilaudid in the backseat of a car, two things become simultaneously clear: one, this is a man whose musical fame passed him by decades ago, and two, this is a born performer who recognizes the power of the camera rushing to catch his every pouncing move.
Still, you root for the guy, as you do any underdog; in the realm of characters, he’s somewhere between stock villain and reality TV star. He’s an eternal optimist, an opportunist, a folk hero, and his attitude is infectious. The film is structured against time, against the days ticking toward Jerry’s cancer surgery, but even as you witness him cooking up that Dilaudid, you don’t worry that he might die soon. If anything, you worry that someone else might die soon. Dangerous as his persona is, there’s little fear reserved for Jerry alone.
So, little love, little fear. Does that make him simply a curiosity? I think not. What I think is that there’s a part of us wanting to be Jerry, unbridled, uncontained, making up the days as we damn well please; as messy and lethal as his life is, he’s a classic American romantic, and we are voyeuristically drawn to him like a jealous Tom Sawyer who deep down would rather be Huck Finn and float down the river and smoke cigarettes all afternoon, but is too afraid. There’s the impulse of tourism: the desire to inhabit Jerry McGill’s world, to live his life, for just a little bit, but get back home safe. Director Paul Duane flew from Ireland to find McGill; he worried for his own life as he held up his camera in Jerry’s car, erratically racing down the highway at ninety miles an hour. Now, it’s always suspect when an outsider descends on Memphis, or anywhere in the South. People ascribe a certain exoticism to the landscape, as if it explains everything and reveals nothing.
Memphis, after all, “is a place where America assigns oddity,” said Robert Gordon, but he added an important caveat: “go across the bridge to the next town and you’ll find a bar filled with characters just like these ones.” Could Jerry McGill have been born elsewhere? Yes. He could be a character out of a Barry Hannah story or a shit-talking river-rat ex-con in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, set four hundred miles west in Knoxville, Tennessee. Memphis does not lay exclusive claim to the outlaw or the outsider.
At the same time, acknowledging this diminishes the myth of the place, a little bit. The night after Very Extremely Dangerous screened, in prelude to a presentation by Gordon, the novelist Michael Parker said,
Most of all I admired Robert Gordon’s abiding but unspoken understanding that place does not confine or for God’s sake refine us but define us, that—as suggested in the Cormac McCarthy quote Mr. Gordon chose as an epigraph for his wonderful biography of Muddy Waters—“they said it was no accident of circumstance that a man be born in a certain country and not some other and they said that the weather and seasons that form a land form also the inner fortune of men”—language and culture arise out of landscape. And in the case of Memphis, in the silt left by the recess of the bands preceding bands, the forgotten and neglected and often dead-and-gone forerunners.
When you are from these places, you collect your own McGill stories, stories of larger-than-life characters with an unassailable will to survive. They thrive figuratively in the works of everyone from Twain to O’Connor to Portis; they live next door. Take away their cars, and they will, like George Jones, hop on their lawn mower and ride into the sunset. Check the bills in your wallet: you just may be carrying Jerry McGill’s counterfeit cash.
An encore screening of Very Extremely Dangerous will be held at the Wythe Hotel screening room on February 9, followed by Gordon’s Stax Records documentary, Respect Yourself, on February 16, and Stranded in Canton on February 23.
Rebecca Bengal is from North Carolina; she is completing a collection of short stories. Her work has appeared most recently in The New Yorker’s Page-Turner, Oxford American, and Vogue.com. She last wrote for the Daily about Christian Patterson’s Badlands-inspired photobook, Redheaded Peckerwood.