Hillbillies, Hustlers and Fallen Idols
Reading time 11 Minutes
Personally, I’m about as low-key and mild mannered a fella as you are likely to find, certainly among those who flit about the fringes of the culture trade. And yet, for much of my so-called career, I’ve been drawn inexorably to and written obsessively about excess. For reasons I can’t fully explain, my interests have always tended towards the artists who see a red light or a guardrail...and gun the motor. Or the ones who prefer to set up shop way out there, on the decadent and occasionally lunatic fringe.
Whether recounting the adventures of rock and roll marauders The Replacements (the subject of my bestselling biography, Trouble Boys), or detailing the death throes of junkie saint Johnny Thunders (whom I previously profiled on this platform), these subjects share a common penchant for the extremes of human behavior and aesthetic comportment.
Perhaps that’s why byNWR’s titular benefactor Nicolas Winding Refn, and its executive editor Jimmy McDonough (neither of them shrinking violets, I assure you) sought me out to edit this volume, which is loosely themed around the light entertainments of music and pornography.
What you will find here is a beguiling selection of stories about those who instinctively mingle their creativity with criminality, habitually push the boundaries of common sense and good taste, and seem to thrive on a chaos of their own making. In short, my kind of people.
But you too, dear reader, will thrill to these (mostly) true tales of madmen, murderers, money launderers, camera wielding lechers, part-time pimps, and full-time lushes, as well as the odd gospel singing little person – and that’s just for a start.
Hillbillies and Holy Rollers
Our first collection is centered on the 1967 country music comedy Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers. This thick slice of cornpone offered us a chance (or, really, just a convenient excuse) to investigate the varied strains of hillbilly and Southern-rooted entertainment.
As he proved in his bestselling, rip-roaring study of American humor, The Comedians, Kliph Nesteroff has a remarkable grasp on the elemental forces – vanity, greed, opportunism – that have long shaped show business. Here, he explains how a convergence of creativity and commerce fostered the short-lived but colorful redneck cinema subgenre. More specifically, he examines Chickenpickers and the enterprise behind it, Southeastern Pictures, as well as its head, the notorious money launderer, Charles Broun Jr.
Although Amy Nicholson is one of the preeminent voices in contemporary film criticism, she’s also a brilliant student of Hollywood’s golden and damaged past. She delves into the tragic life of Lila Lee, the silent film queen who romanced Chaplin, broke Valentino, and quite possibly murdered her husband -- and whose slow fade from stardom found her making a final screen appearance among the Chickenpickers.
In researching her piece, Amy also discovered the last living cast/crew member from the film, a dashing 87-year old Danish ex-pat by the name of Preben Sorensen. Ensconced in his Hollywood apartment, Sorensen – who served as a set photographer and bit player on Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers – offered up his archive of images from the film. But the greater discovery was his own story, as we learned how a serious photojournalist ended up serving as confidante and aide-de-camp to a rogue’s gallery of filmdom’s most notorious figures.
About 20 years ago while working at an alt-weekly in Arizona, I began editing the music scribblings of a grad student, and English PhD candidate, named Eric Waggoner. Over the years, Eric’s proven to be a renaissance man -- a journalist, musician, publisher, and professor, as well as a proud son of West Virginia, where he teaches in the MFA program at the state’s Wesleyan college. Eric was the only person I considered spiritually attuned enough to profile three-foot-ten-inch gospel powerhouse Lowell Mason. The famed “Singing Midget,” Mason has spread the good word of the Lord for more than 60 years and is still going strong. Traveling to Mason’s home in Carthage, Missouri (along with byNWR’s cameras) Eric explored Lowell’s expansive life, and in doing so also came to understand the mechanics of the post-war gospel music business, the roots of televangelism, and the secret Christian war against Russian communism.
As we dig into a Southern culture a bit, we also present a truly remarkable galley of previously unseen images by photographer Patricia Rainer. A William Eggleston-inspired nightcrawler, Pat documented the deconstructionist daze that was late-‘70s Memphis, shooting artists like The Cramps, Alex Chilton, and Charlie Feathers as they haunted the studios and stages of the city after dark.
Fallen Idols, Nature Boys and the Fame Machine
As far as rock and roll fables go, you’d be hard pressed to find one as visceral as the Arch Hall Jr. vehicle Wild Guitar. This 1962 black and white fantasia serves as the centerpiece for a month of stories about the fickle, fleeting nature of fame.
My longtime newspaper colleague John Beifuss – one of the most passionate experts on the marginalia of American cinema – was the ideal person to deconstruct the forces that guided the film. In his Wild Guitar essay, Beifuss shows how pushy papa Arch Hall Sr. and b-movie stylist director Ray Dennis Steckler put a strange twist on the overnight success story and (accidentally) created a post-modern masterpiece, one that resonates deeply in our current viral age.
Since his earliest days at the Village Voice in the 1980s, RJ Smith has been one of our great cultural storytellers. His books – whether on LA’s Central Ave jazz scene, funk-soul titan James Brown or art photographer Robert Frank – are testimony to his gift for seeing the big picture while seizing on the most evocative details. Here, the subject is a fallen idol, as RJ investigates and meditates on the mystery of Little Julian Herrera – the ‘50s Latino pop star from Los Angeles, whose career was derailed after he was arrested on rape charges, and revelations emerged that he wasn’t who he claimed to be.
We enlisted another SoCal cultural historian, Brian Chidester, to look at the life and lost music of Eden Ahbez, the composer of the 1940’s pop hit “Nature Boy.” The wandering guru would go onto become the prophet of the concept LP, a hippie pioneer, and godfather of the psychedelic movement. Chidester, who has spent a decade researching the subject, also provides an abstract from his in-progress documentary As the Wind: The Enchanted Life of Eden Ahebez, as well a collection of rarely heard songs that allow us a peek into the songwriter’s strange, singular, mind-expanding output.
A couple years ago, while visiting Los Angeles, a friend of mine tipped me to the existence of pre-fab teen idol from the 1950s. He was newly back in the U.S. after several decades living in the Far East, and performing monthly at a Burbank steakhouse. When I got there and glimpsed Jimmy Angel’s singular visage, then heard his voice, I knew instantly there was a story that needed to be told. As my article and the accompanying short films will attest, the journey of Angel – a onetime Elvis neighbor, longtime Mafia mascot, and unlikely Japanese cultural sensation – is a wild maze that cuts through the post-war history of show business and the underworld.
Bare, Beautiful, and Unbowed
Another film from 1962 – this time the proto-nudie cutie House on Bare Mountain – serves as a jumping off point for our final selection of pieces, which touch upon the myriad ways women have been victimized, empowered and generally affected by the sex film industry.
Critic Mike Pinnington provides the backstory to Bare Mountain and its unseemly creators Bob Cresse and Lee Frost – and how their puerile filmmaking formula helped kick off a cinematic revolution. As an adjunct, internationally regarded film writer and programmer Kier-La Janisse looks at how Cresse – one of the truly brazen pirates of the exploitation world -- hijacked the music of recording industry heavyweights Randy Newman and Jack Nitzsche for his films.
From her past work for GQ and The Paris Review, I knew Zan Romanoff would bring an evocative personal perspective to a piece on the changing ways our culture has viewed pornography. What I didn’t know at first, and what seems fated now, was that her father, Andy Romanoff, was among the key behind-the-scenes figures working on the earliest nudies and gore films, from Boin-n-g to Bell, Bare and Beautiful to Blood Feast. It seemed natural, then, to enlist the elder Romanoff to recount his journey from wide-eyed bat mitzvah photographer to hardened skin flick cinematographer.
In his books, acclaimed author David N. Meyer has expertly covered topics ranging from country-rock avatar Gram Parsons to the great auteurs of film noir. Meyer is at his best writing about rebellious, iconoclastic figures. For byNWR, he chose to celebrate the life and work of Eve Babitz, the sharp-eyed chronicler of the ‘60s/’70s Hollywood demimonde, who refused to sublimate her sexuality as she penned a series of literary masterpieces.
To help close things out, I once again called upon RJ Smith to provide an investigation into the offstage activities of R&B musician Johnny “Guitar” Watson and his running buddy Larry Williams. Although both were successful and influential artists – Watson as a flamboyant six-string ace and Williams a vocalist and hit songwriter for Little Richard, the Beatles, and Rolling Stones – their disturbing dual lives as Hollywood pimps and procurers underscore the inescapable lure of sex and sin.
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 Angel shoot: thanks to Marti Townsend, Andrew Sandoval, Viva Rancho Cantina.
Arch Hall Jr. shoot: thanks to Halley Phillips, Jud Phillips, Wesley Graham, Jeff Powell and all at Sam Phillips Recording.
Special thanks to Sarah Heldman
Bob Mehr is the New York Times bestselling author of Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. A former editor with the Village Voice Media and New Times Inc., he’s also served as the music and culture critic for Gannett’s daily newspaper in Memphis, The Commercial Appeal. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, MOJO (U.K.), and he helped inaugurate byNWR with his epic investigation into Bert Williams and The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds.