What's Going on, USA
Reading time 12 Minutes
It’s 1967, and America is tore up, ripping itself apart over race and locked in a basic fight over who belongs and who might not. People are fighting and living and dying in the streets. And through it all, you can find the struggle not just in the newspapers and political speeches of the day, but in the popular culture filling people's heads as they make their way through the streets.
It’s 2019, and Americans are fighting with a heat we haven’t felt in years, battling over race and who belongs and which lives matter. It’s there on Twitter and in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, and it’s there in the movies and music we listen to, argue about, and turn up to drown the other side out.
Welcome to WHAT’S GOING ON, USA.
I’m a writer who grew up in Detroit. I remember 1967, the year my city went up in flames with 43 dead in a racial uprising, until the National Guard and Army were called in to shut the conflict down. After the smoke cleared, whites by the thousands gave in to racial fear and bailed on the city, my family included. I remember that – and I remember a song from 1967, playing on the radio and made by Detroiters who hadn’t left, the Motown vocal group the Temptations: “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep.” Here was a pop song asking us to look past skin color, or, really, past what we thought skin color represented, and to embrace people as individuals.
That summer I lost friendships and also my kid’s vision of the world. 1967 shaped a lot of stuff that happened to me later. Today I am a writer who looks at the artifacts we make – a movie, a song — to hear to what we are saying to each other. Sometimes it’s a conversation and sometimes it’s a fight revealed in work as diverse as comedy routines, drive-in movies and subway graffiti. That interest of mine may be why Nicolas Winding Refn and byNWR’s Editor-In-Chief Jimmy McDonough asked me to take on this project, assigning and editing a gang of films and stories featured here that speak loudly, and luridly, to the world around them. Or maybe I was just the guy to pick up the phone at the wrong time. Either way, hello. It’s a pleasure to meet you.
The House of Seven Belles
Director Andy Milligan was an outlier even in 1960s Greenwich Village, and he liked it that way. His legendary unfinished dress-up epic antebellum bitchfest The House of Seven Belles touches on a lot of issues, including the Civil War, the madness of failure, and whether or not you can wear hoop skirts after Labor Day. Here it finally is, seen in its incomplete glory for the first time ever. We’ve included a short bonus film, Milligan’s unfinished bohemian rhapsody Compass Rose, made in that fateful year of 1967 and shot largely at New York City’s legendary off-off broadway theater Caffe Cino. These two lost works seem like a right fine way to launch this project. And you can hear the Cino’s tortured, fascinating story told via three audio excerpts read from McDonough’s seminal Milligan biography The Ghastly One, which are spread out amongst the chapters.
The fabulous Seven Belles only — or should that be barely?— seems to be set in a plantation South rocked by the end of the Civil War. Really it’s true home is the singularly weird mind of its creator. I wanted to enter that funzone, and in “Patriotic Gore” I report back.
Southern gothic tales of lust and betrayal, often set around the time of the Civil War, are a hardy film genre that started with Hollywood and haven’t ever really stopped. The film industry have turned the whip and the ripped bodice alike into show business. San Francisco-based critic Dennis Harvey is a writer with style and a good sense of humor, both of which come in handy when examining the best and worst of this genre.
What if Milligan had finished Seven Belles? Would it have become half the legend that its absence has made it? I asked Detroit’s own Mike McGonigal to explore the subject of the unfinished masterpiece. Why is it that an incomplete work, a book destroyed, a painting hidden from view, so often drive not just their makers but their fans nuts? What is the deal with Jerry Lewis’s never-seen The Day the Clown Cried? There are many questions; McGonigal provides some answers.
Charles Aaron is a North Carolina-born, Georgia-raised writer who has long wrestled with what it means to be Southern. This year Alabama-rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd launched their final Last of the Street Survivors tour, and that was more than enough reason to ask Charles to take on the ghost of the undead band that gave us Sweet Home Alabama and which has performed a decades-long dance with the Confederate flag.
The songwriter, singer, record producer known as Swamp Dogg has done his own shake dance with the American flag: he waves it, and rages at it, and doesn’t ever settle for clichés about that for which it stands. For fifty-plus years he has been writing songs about race and rats and love and autotune, and he ain’t done yet. I had to meet this guy. So we went out to his Southern California home and conducted an epic podcast interview. And then, after wolfing down a couple of chili dogs, the Dogg assembled his band and played a song in his home studio. Every day should be like this.
When the mysterious band the Residents’ Hardy Fox died last year, a torrent of rumors poured forth. Some of them were even true. The Residents have long been a source of myth and falsehood, which was just the way the band wanted it. Writer Barry Walters had known Fox for years, and knows the myth and the misdirection of the Residents. Walters, who is currently writing Mighty Real: The Music That Built LGBTQ America for Penguin, mixes them together in a profile of his friend.
Murder In Mississippi
The 1965 film Murder in Mississippi is a white-hot bundle of nerves, an all-but-unknown labor of love inspired by a turning point in civil rights history: the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers. The film made a year later by the mysterious Joseph Mawra was one of the first movies to deal with the civil rights movement. It remains one of the strangest.
David Dennis, Jr. teaches at Morehouse College and writes for The Guardian, Uproxx, and the Atlantic. His father was recruiting activists to register voters in the South in 1964, and was supposed to be in the car with James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner when they were killed in Neshoba County, Mississippi. We invited Dennis to watch Murder in Mississippi with his dad; in his essay he suggests that, 55 years after the killings, Hollywood still hasn’t woke up.
Amanda Gorman, the first-ever Youth Poet Laureate of America, has also watched Murder in Mississippi, and was moved to write and perform her fabulous response, the poem “Ourselves Highfalutin Negroes.” We filmed her performance – and it’s presented in 3D as well.
I took time out from editing to wander down the rabbit hole that was the life of one Murder in Mississippi’s actors. Richard Towers, aka Tony Armada, aka Gaylord St. James and more, was a real-life Broadway Danny Rose who had a secret life performing in deranged, low-budget cinema. From Horn of Plenty to Last House on the Left, Towers threw himself into his roles.
Mike McGonigal comes back with a report on the making and impact of Mississippi-raised gospel group The Staple Singers’ classic 1965 album, Freedom Highway. The music became the soundtrack to the Movement, and America’s not done with it yet.
But what of Mississippi now? New Orleans-based writer Alison Fensterstock perambulates the Delta to share a few ghost stories about the Mississippi landscape today. As a kicker we present a portfolio of work from Euphus Ruth, a Mississippi master photographer who captures the haints and holy spirits that wander the back roads still.
Los Angeles writer Matthew Duersten digs deep into American history to retrieve the story of Black Pete, a freed slave, one of Los Angeles’s founding fathers, and a black man who came to grief for praising the Confederacy. Long before Kanye donned a MAGA hat, Black Pete was putting his — deeply felt and all but unfathomable today — beliefs way on the line.
The Believer’s Heaven
You may or may not agree with Reverend Estus Pirkle’s views, but, as his epic sermon in this 1977 film by Ron Ormond shows, we can agree he had mad arts and crafts skills. He puts all of his talents to use recreating his vision of Heaven (and a wee bit of Hell) in the last of the three collaborations Pirkle made with Ron Ormond that are presented by byNWR. Pirkle was a True Believer, and he launches a conversation about the powers and pitfalls of heartfelt oratory.
ByNWR executive editor Jimmy McDonough sat down with Ann and Greg Pirkle, the late Estus Pirkle’s wife and son, to discuss the career of the late Baptist minister from New Albany, Mississippi and share excerpts of some of his sermons. We include a portfolio of photographs Pirkle himself took in the 1970s on trips to the Holy Land.
Kevin Nutt is a devoted student of gospel music and a collector of recorded sermons. On his weekly radio show Sinner’s Crossroads on WFMU, he plays everything from sweet quartet harmonies to bafflingly raw street corner stomps. It made sense to ask Kevin what was the best sermon he ever heard, and his answer, Apostle James Moses White’s “The Word of God Don’t Change,” does not disappoint.
Mississippi-born comic Jerry Clower was a contemporary of Pirkle’s, and was, in his own way, a man of faith as well. Clower was a star on the late-60s comedy show Hee Haw and a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. Charles Aaron comes back to shed light on Clower’s life and the underappreciated message of racial hope couched in his popular story-telling humor.
I’ve long been curious about the Prosperity Gospel, the hugely successful theology that urges empowerment through enrichment. One of the faith’s most controversial proponents, the late Harlem-based Reverend Ike, has especially intrigued me, and in “My Garages Runneth Over!” (one of the Reverend’s many celebrated one-liners) I look at a man who called himself a God, and who walked the streets with outrageous flair.
In his own way, Johnny Fay, too, was a zealot — a believer in the power of rock & roll to change your life. He lived it as a young man in Cleveland, and when his convictions were not reciprocated by the world at large, Johnny threw his records away and got on with his life. But now, in retirement and in his 70s, he found out that the modern world wanted to hear the sounds he laid out more than 50s years ago. Cleveland music journalist Annie Zalewski tracks the life of a rocker turned barber turned rocker again who isn’t done yet, and you can find footage of Johnny belting it out for byNWR (in both 2D and 3D) on the Expressway.
RJ Smith is the author of American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank (2016, Da Capo Press), The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (2012, Gotham Books), and The Great Black Way: Los Angeles in the 1940s and the Lost African-American Renaissance. He’s written for The New York Times Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Blender, The Village Voice, and Yeti. He lives in Chicken Corner, California, and is currently writing a book about Chuck Berry in the age of #metoo.