By Bruce Sylvester
“Johnny Cash ain't never been to prison in his life. He ain't no criminal. Neither was Waylon [Jennings]. And they called them outlaws! I'm an outlaw!” Jerry McGill explodes in documentary director Paul Duane and producer Robert Gordon's raw DVD/CD Very Extremely Dangerous (Fat Possum). The film first appeared in theaters in 2012, not long before McGill's death.
And who, you may ask, was Jerry McGill (1939-2013)? A manic-talking, expletive-spewing blue-eyed soul rocker from Memphis, he recorded one 1959 single, “Lovestruck”/”I Wanna Make Sweet Love” for Sun Records (Sun 326) in its twilight years. Subsequently, he spent time in prison and on the lam (occasionally in drag), resurfacing (as Curtis Buck) as Jennings' road manager and even sharing author's credit with him on trad-blues-based “Waymore's Blues.”
Duane first learned about McGill through Gordon's book It Came from Memphis. (“McGill may be obscure, but he's a strange part of the jigsaw puzzle of Memphis music. I wanted to make films about a lot of legendary wild men, but Jerry's the one who emailed me back.”)About the time Duane sought him on the Internet so did a woman named Joyce, Jerry's high school girlfriend from 47 years earlier. Ever craving attention, he connected with both of them as he battled terminal lung cancer, chain smoking all the way and even shooting up his meds. Joyce won't allow her face on film, but we watch them fight constantly no matter how much they love each other. When he tries to strangle her while she drives a car, it's too much even for Duane, who turns off the camera.
Like a Sancho Panza to McGill's Don Quixote, his long-time buddy Paul Clement seems like a beacon of calm as McGill revels in madness, degradation, rage and utter candor about his hometown. (“I knew every burglar, dope dealer, armed robber, forger. And I liked them.”) Want any do-it-yourself advice on counterfeiting? The man makes the young Steve Earle look like an altar boy. Prowling his (more likely Joyce's) comfortable suburban neighborhood for rattlesnakes, he talks about kissing them. Don't be too sure that he wouldn't.
Friends fear him, though he generously offers to share his dog tranquilizer pills with them. He melts his meds to inject them intravenously and cleans a sink with a toilet brush.
Like the singing brakeman Jimmie Rodgers making up “T.B. Blues” (1931) about his own fatal illness, Jerry sings of his cancer. Always the showman, he spontaneously performs for a few hospital staffers in a linen storage room. He even gets a late-in-life (2010) recording session at Sun Studios with Sun's legendary Roland Janes engineering and the North Mississippi All-Stars among the sidemen. It's on the DVD's accompanying CD, which also includes his Sun single, the film's soundtrack and some '70s material – for example, a song that continues to fight the Civil War. Confederate flags abound on the DVD. In film footage from the '70s, he looks like a redneck Mick Jagger.
But is McGill the film's ultimate psycho? Among the DVD's bonus features is a brief segment where he talks of another character's horrific distant past – a history that Duane would never have otherwise imagined given how stable the person appears now. Truth or fiction? Checking turns out to be easy. Duane was right in deciding that the passage wouldn't have fit in the film and is better left as a post script. Yes, the DVD's title Very Extremely Dangerous describes McGill, but lurking beneath the surface it may fit someone else here even more.
As Duane has said, “If there are any larger truths I learned while making this film, it is to never think you understand a story. Understand slowly, if at all. Jerry did many terrible things, but was deeply loved. What can you say about that? The other insight I gained is that those who live by the sword are sometimes enabled to die in a comfortable bed surrounded by their loved ones.”