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A Gun and a Guitar

February 7, 2014 | by

Jerry McGill: Sun Records artist, Memphis fixture, and “crazy sonofabitch.”

Jerry McGill

Photo: Randall Lyon, Jim Lancaster

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. Read More »

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Object Lessons: A Conversation with Christian Patterson

June 24, 2013 | by

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Sissy Spacek in Badlands, 1973. By permission of Criterion Collection.

Lovers on the run tend to travel light. Generally speaking, in our collective imagination, accoutrements tend to be limited to car (probably stolen), gun (also stolen), clothes on their backs. Yet Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate (captured in 1958 after a violent shooting spree in Nebraska and Wyoming that left eleven dead) become legend in part by leaving behind a physical trail. Of the multiple films inspired by the Starkweather-Fugate killings, Terrence Malick’s 1973 Badlands (newly released by the Criterion Collection), is the one that—even as it takes dramatic liberties—most explicitly focuses on these tangible objects. Kit and Holly (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) cart along a birdcage, a copy of Kon-Tiki, and a Maxfield Parrish painting; the film’s art director, Jack Fisk, filled one character’s house with $100 worth of random pieces—a jar of black widows, a giant ball of twine—he’d bought from the relatives of a dead man. Just prior to their capture, Kit buries a few of their belongings, described in deadpan voice-over: “He said no one else would know where we put ’em, and that we’d come back some day, maybe, and they’d still be sitting here just the same, but we’d be different, and if we never got back, well, somebody might dig ’em up a thousand years from now and wouldn’t they wonder.”

Nearly forty years later, Christian Patterson’s 2011 book of photographs, Redheaded Peckerwood, continues down a similar path. Already in its third edition, with a thoughtful introduction by Luc Sante and curator Karen Irvine, Patterson’s is a work that defies the easy definition of photo book, approaching as it does the Starkweather narrative from a number of vantage points: newspaper clippings, interviews, ephemera. The photographs of bits of evidence, or of things belonging to the killers and victim—a hood ornament from the getaway car, the teenage Fugate’s stuffed toy poodle—have the aura of a saint’s relics. Tucked into the binding of the book are more souvenirs, reproductions of documents related to Starkweather (a store receipt with a poem printed on its reverse side; a typed list of dirty aphorisms). Even those things that are not directly related to Starkweather and Fugate take on the air of authenticity; the effect of seeing all these effects, in the context of the photographer’s present-day mapping of their journey, is transcendent and shocking, the objects themselves acting as witnesses.

What struck you most about Badlands when you first saw the film?

I was taken with the film in every way. Visually, it was just so damn beautiful, with its big, painterly skies and endless, romantic landscapes. And thematically, well … it was one hell of a crazy story. Sheen and Spacek were great too. It’s a great film.

What were some of the first pictures you made that appear in the book? And when you arrived in Nebraska, what were some of your early impressions?

House at Night and Ray of Light stand out in my mind. The former is the first of my photographs that appears in Redheaded Peckerwood and the latter is one of the last. Read More »

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