A BOX OF BAD DREAMS
Introduction to Volume 1
By Jimmy McDonough
Reading time 15 Minutes
When Nicolas Winding Refn first asked me to do this project I said no. And I kept saying no. For maybe a year. Just the overall idea disgusted me. I’m a writer, I know better than to interact with them personally. Write them emails? Inquire after their blogs and podcasts? Have story ideas pitched at me like so much mutton? Coddle crybaby creative types? I’d rather drink my own urine. But NWR has a way of getting you to do things. It’s that cliché of Tom Sawyer and the fence. Before you know it there’s a brush in your hand and bucket in the other, and Nicolas is asking you, “Can’t you paint a little faster?”
NWR had been buying up exploitation films all over the planet and he wanted to share them with the world. This is an expensive endeavor, and he was trying to find a way to make it pay for itself. Various avenues were considered; he grew bored with all of them. One night on the phone, frustration overtook him. “Let’s just make the whole thing free. Charge nothing!” Now here was an idea nobody cared for. “Just give it away? Are you nuts!?!” The more others disliked it, the more excited Nicolas became.
Then the idea got even crazier: he wanted to release a fully restored film every month, and attached to that would be a digital magazine loaded with culture inspired by the movies, however tangentially. Nicolas was already blowing a fortune buying and restoring films; now he wanted to hire a crew of writers and designers and throw more money down the hole? Suddenly it had become a kamikaze mission. This appealed to me, not that I told Nicolas. Somehow, though, he already knew I was on the hook. He just had to reel me in.
Now, many years ago I had collaborated with a character named Bill Landis on a homemade rag about Times Square/42nd Street called Sleazoid Express. I felt we had done the subject of exploitation films to death, and I mean that almost literally. But NWR gets you thinking about things from new angles, and he was insistent that the site would be about much more than that. My life has just been a series of obsessions, and there happened to be a few people I wanted to write about, stories that nobody would publish in the way that they required. “Write about whatever you want,” he offered, pulling me in deeper. His enthusiasm was lethal, and eventually I said I’d consider it. “Okay,” said NWR. “Write me a proposal outlining your ideas for the quarter.”
A goddamn proposal! It sounded like homework to me, and I’m a guy who’d nearly burned down his high school. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the opportunity, and what made me finally commit was not my own untold stories, but the idea that I could give a few talented unknowns a shot. I don’t say this to pat myself on the back: the impulse was a greedy one. I wanted their art.
No sooner had we decided on a lineup, other ideas seemed to present themselves everywhere. Nicolas said yes to all of them. There were suddenly a dizzying amount of irons in the fire. A few things didn’t pan out, and when problems arose with content, Nicolas was hands-off. “You’re the editor,” he’d wryly remind me. Neither one of us had done anything like this before. A mild, uneasy chaos became routine, as well as excitement over the unknown: Do you think X will talk? Do you think Y will do that story? Can we cajole those pictures out of Z? We were assembling a puzzle piece by piece, having no idea of what the bigger picture was going to be.
A few examples on how some (but far from all) of our contributors got here:
I am a fanatic for the music of New Orleans piano player James Booker, and back when Lily Keber undertook her documentary on Booker I’d gotten in touch, dropping her a line now and then to cheer her on. The end result of her years of work was Bayou Maharajah, one of the finest films I’ve seen about a musician. I knew a bit of the hell she went through to create it, so I bugged her repeatedly to tell that story here. Bob Mehr I knew from recent trips to Memphis for my Al Green biography. I had read Trouble Boys, his acclaimed book on the Replacements--a band that never rang my bell, yet he’d made me care. A seasoned newspaper reporter, he took an old-school gumshoe approach to unearth everything known about Bert Williams and The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds--which seemed to expand every time Bert’s grandson unearthed more long-unseen family treasures lurking in the Florida family vaults (at the very last minute Bert’s daughter stunned us all by handing over his only known interviews: audio tapes of Williams reminiscing about his life). Like many of the stories here, it grew like a creeping vine, and Nicolas wouldn’t rest until every last possibility for material was exhausted. “I want it all on the site!!! Every picture, every image!!! Everything!”
I had lived with Carole Nicksin, so I knew first-hand her crazy, consuming obsession with Barbie dolls. They were everywhere! I’d wake up to find Wild-Haired Ken staring at me from across the room. She’d made a beautiful little book detailing her passion back in those days and I figured it would be up NWR’s alley. I emailed him some scans. “Love it!” came the reply. With it came an order: this had to go on the site. Trying to adhere to the rules, I was struggling to find a way it related to one of the movies in my quarter. “It’s about dolls,” said Nicolas. “There are mannequins in The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds! It belongs there!”
I felt some of our contributors required more than one installment to expose people to their talent, so they’ve gotten entries in each month of my three. I’ve known Molly Scott a few years, and her brutal tales of the strip world had me crying, often with laughter. Molly would shoot me seething, sardonic emails about her work that were beautifully crafted (I’d notice even her Amazon customer reviews were executed with panache). I find her voice a refreshing antidote to some of the current attitudes of the day. Call it “Sex-Negative.” Although it took forever to extricate the writing out of her, I’ll admit it: her entries are my favorites here.
Charlie Beesley I’ve run with for decades. Charlie has been collecting found photos for years. Nowadays this sort of thing goes by the dreary name of vernacular photography, and it’s attracted a lot of highfalutin interest. I’ll tell you what: none of the fancy vernacular photo book collections I’ve seen thus far can hold a candle to Charlie’s powerful aesthetic. To call Beesley’s passion a mere obsession renders it almost quaint. Photos are the driving force of his life. Perversely, his is a collection you can never complete. There is always one more picture. The room where he for the most part lives is stuffed with vintage suitcases containing thousands of images—somewhere around 55,000. I would venture to say Charlie has the best collection of such photography in the world, and his archive has never been shared with the public until now.
Brian O’Hara and I worked together many years ago doing post-production sound work on a low-budget piece of crap entitled Spookies. Watching the film we were struck by the rather…fecal nature of the monsters in the film, and that inspired O’Hara to create a Wall of Gas soundtrack (some of which, as I recall, we created rather organically, if you catch my drift). When this audio assault was unveiled at the mix the producer loved it; the director, obviously feeling ambushed by our crass addition to her first non-porno credit, fled the room in tears. But people were often running away from Brian. O’Hara was sort of the Travis Bickle of the grindhouse cutting rooms back then, floating from one bad porno to another with an attitude to match. I thought it would be interesting to unleash a few of his 42nd Street tales, starting with notorious pornographer Phil Prince, a man O’Hara documented in his pungent, definitive short documentary, Prince of Porn.
I became acquainted with David K. Frasier via my Russ Meyer biography. A man who appears at first glance to be a mild-mannered Indiana librarian, Frasier possesses a razor-sharp mind teeming with unsavory interests. His most unnerving works are encyclopedias of mayhem: Suicide in the Entertainment Industry, Murder Cases of the Twentieth Century, and Show Business Homicides. NWR and I love his Jack Webb/Dragnet/Just the Facts, Ma’am approach to crime reporting, and in his third installment it gets rather personal. You’ll just have to read that one yourself.
I would’ve never included so many stories of my own here, but somehow Nicolas talked me into those, too. We’d be discussing this or that obscure filmmaker and I’d think, “Hell, I’m not assigning that to anybody--I’m gonna do it.” My workload became immense. One major story coming in the third month was entirely NWR’s idea. I scoffed at first, but the more I investigated, the more I was itching to get on a plane and go meet this guy. Which is exactly what Nicolas wanted.
Going against the grain of quick-hit journalism that is so omnipresent these days, I had warned NWR some of the stories would be very lengthy by online standards—absurdly so. “Make them as long as you want,” he said, as if only an idiot would raise such a concern. As we got into some of these tales they morphed into something beyond just text. Discussing my years-in-the-making story about Texas honky-tonk singer Frankie Miller, Nicolas wondered aloud: what if we go down there and shoot Miller playing his music solo? Now, Frankie is a hardcore country guy in his mid-eighties--playing acoustic was probably something I figured he’d associate with long-haired hippies in sloppy clothing. Turned out Frankie was game, and then some. The ante was upped when our cameraman Brian Rosenquist mentioned he had the equipment to shoot it in 3D. Being a longtime stereo photographer myself, I seized upon the notion. It seemed totally absurd. We’re not talking Lady Gaga with a crew of fifty dancers and unlimited pyrotechnics; this was just a cool old Texan in his living room with a guitar, one who barely has to move doing his thing. Of course it should be in 3D. NWR’s reaction? “Go for it!”
We ended up executing this same approach for my other articles in the quarter, and I like to think we’ve invented a slightly new way of telling a story. After we’ve had our say in words, we let the subject do their thing—they are the exclamation point that ends the tale. And the 3D puts them right in your face, unencumbered by any third-party opinion. This is not your grandpa’s headache-inducing anaglyph stereo with the annoying red-and-blue glasses, so I implore you to go to the trouble to pick up a cheap viewer to use with your phone online. You’ll swim in the luminous details of our superstars.
That’s how it went with the first volume of byNWR. I have to say I am humbled by the end result. There’s a lot of new information here, and many untold stories. Some of it is quite personal. “I am trusting you,” more than one subject implored (a few had no intention of talking in the first place). Hopefully we did them justice. We have an incredible crew; many people gave their all. If you don’t like this quarter, blame me--Nicolas let me do it my way. There will be another entirely new and different world coming to byNWR right after mine. I hate to say this, as it was an intense amount of work, but I will miss it.
Oh, and before I forget: here’s a special gift for the boss. A never-indulged family man himself, NWR loves to wallow in the depravity of others. He’s particularly fascinated with those grim, grimy Sleazoid Express days, when I ran around Times Square high out of my mind. I had always hoped that one day there would be a lavish, luxury, slipcase edition of the complete original Sleazoid run.
I wanted to affix a little added bonus: a used glassine bag, from a pile I’ve held onto for decades for just such an occasion. (Although faded now, each bag has a little stamped illustration serving as a bit of nefarious advertising for the product within: The Incredible Hulk, Toilet, Slow Death.) Not only would you get the book, you’d be guilty of possessing trace amounts of narcotics.
I doubt that will ever happen, so I am leaving this Box of Bad Dreams to NWR. Nothing I’m proud of....but undeniably a one-of-a-kind collectible. Now, as you know, Nicolas, there’s always a catch to such a deal, and this one? I have to die first.
Jimmy's special thanks: Tracy Pitcox, Hank Davis, Richard Weize, Bob Mehr, Charles Massegee, Keiley Mynk, Bruce Holecheck, Daniel Griffith, Alex DiSanto, Chris Poggiali, Stephanie Kreutter, Susan Secord, Natalia McDonough, and the ones that got away: Tess Alexandria, Martine Heales
Media Archivist/Film, Audio Restoration Coordinator/Sound Recorder and Mixer for 2D/3D Digital Video Shoots: Peter Conheim
Director of Photography/Editing/Post Production for 2D/3D Digital Video Shoots: Brian Rosenquist
Digital Video Shoots Mixed and Mastered at Red Channels, El Cerrito, CA
Flannelgraph Engineer: Cepacol Slim
Jimmy McDonough is a biographer and journalist. He has written acclaimed biographies of Neil Young, Tammy Wynette, Russ Meyer and Andy Milligan. Time magazine declared his Milligan biography The Ghastly One "a masterpiece" and John Waters has repeatedly named it one of his all-time favorites. McDonough has also authored profiles on Jimmy Scott, Gary Stewart, Hubert Selby, Jr., the Ormond family and Link Wray. His latest book is Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green. Jimmy’s website: www.jimmymcdonough.com