'Shakey' Author Jimmy McDonough On Neil Young, Al Green, and the Secret to Biographical Success
"The first rule of thumb: I just have to be completely moved by the topic or I can't do it."
Back in January, I put together an edition of Sonic Breadcrumbs where I dove deep into Neil Young’s massive, 10-disc Archives Vol. II set. For what it’s worth, a retail version drops tomorrow, (March 5th) if you’re eager to snag a physical copy for your collection. I don’t even own a CD player at this point, and am considering picking one up. It’s that good. Also, maybe I should buy a CD player?
Anyway, in the introduction to that piece I made mention my belief that the book Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy McDonough is the greatest rock and roll narrative ever written. You don’t even need to be a huge fan of Neil or his work to appreciate the massive amount of research and character that McDonough injected into nearly every single paragraph of that nearly 800-page monolith. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read, anywhere else.
From hearses to honey slides, Tonight’s the Night to Trans, McDonough doesn’t just give you a sense of what Neil accomplished during his rise from a polio-afflicted kid in North Ontario to a Worldwide superstar, he manages to capture his entire, idiosyncratic vibe. You get a sense of Neil, and more importantly, you come away with an authentic understanding of all the “why’s” behind so many seemingly inconceivable decisions he’s made through the years. Pulling that trick off is a tall order for any biographer. It’s a challenge of Leviathan proportions to even attempt to nail down someone as seemingly impossible to nail down as Neil Young.
Shakey, however, is but a single entry into McDonough’s excellent bibliography. Along the way, he’s written vivid tomes about the Reverend Al Green, country legend Tammy Wynette, and cult filmmaker Andy Milligan. He also gave John Fogerty a hand in penning his autobiography Fortunate Son.
After I hit “publish” on the Archives Vol. II edition of Sonic Breadcrumbs, I found myself thinking, “I wonder what Jimmy McDonough is up to these days.” His work has been an immense inspiration to me throughout the years, and he seemed like a genuinely fascinating dude.
After doing a bit of digging, I found an email address, hit him up, and he agreed to have a chat. What ensued was one of the most entertaining conversations I’ve had in a while, so I decided to share the whole thing with you here.
I'm sure you hear this often, and especially from writers, but I've been a huge fan of your work for a long time. It's a real thrill to be able to pick your brain a little bit today.
Oh, brilliant. Well, I appreciate it. I'm glad somebody gives a fuck.
Isn't that the the hope? That someone out there somewhere gives a fuck?
You got it. That's right, pal. That's exactly it. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.
So what are you up to these days?
Well, I edit this site for this Danish director, Nicolas Winding Refn. It's called bynwr.com. It's a total berserk, strange... I don't know how to describe it. Nicholas, I advised him on buying some very obscure exploitation movies. He wanted to present them to the world. He wanted some culture to come along with it. So, after great resistance – the last thing I want to do is talk to a bunch of crybaby writers – I agreed to edit his site.
And then I'm working on a biography of the great honky-tonk singer Gary Stewart, who was the subject of the first profile I did in the Village Voice, back in 2 BC. I always felt like I owed Gary a book and now decades later I'm getting onto it.
Lastly, I've been working on this book about the Ormonds, who were this crazy Nashville movie-making family who went from making drive-in movies to making exploitation movies for the Baptist crowd that only played in churches. It's an incredible story, again, one I've been researching for decades. I'm about halfway through the book and it will be a relief to see that out in the world and out of my system.
How do you manage to tackle so many different disparate topics at one time and follow those threads while keeping it all straight in your head?
Well, Corbin, I just get obsessed with things. When I was a kid, I remember going to Ford’s Theater in Washington. They had to get another guide because the one that was there couldn't answer my questions. How annoying is that? I just had this early talent for being completely obsessed with things. And once I got obsessed with them, I wanted to tell the world.
It was like Gary Stewart. I'd hear these 45s, these honky-tonk 45s, they were the greatest things I ever heard. And he had fallen off the face of the earth. Somebody tells me, "Oh, he's living in a trailer in Fort Pierce, Florida, and he's painted the windows black. You'll never get to talk to him." Well “Never” is a bad thing to say to me. Within a very short time, I had gotten to Gary and he invited me in the trailer and that became a story.
After I did Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, I was offered the world if I'd just do like a Led Zeppelin book or something. I can't muster the enthusiasm for doing what I do, unless I really love something. So, that's the first rule of thumb. I just have to be completely moved by the topic or I can't do it.
Tell me a little bit about Gary Stewart. I'm not familiar with him.
Well, Gary Stewart was a honky-tonk singer who had hits in the 70s, like “Out of Hand,” “She's Acting Single I'm Drinking Doubles,” “Drinking Thing,” “Your Place or Mine.” He sang with such passion. You almost had to drive off the side of the road just to listen to the record because it was so intense. Bob Dylan himself has waxed poetic on the subject of one of his records; “Ten Years Of This,” about marriage and how it affects you over time. Then he just kind of fell off the world.
I got him on the phone and he told me there was a record he was looking for by Wild Bill Emerson. I know he thought I'd never find it. And he said, "Jimmy, if you find that record, pal, you can come down here and interview me." Well, I had the fucking record the next day. So now he's trapped, and he has to let a lunatic like me into his life. That whole story, it was just unbelievable. He ended up throwing a knife at me. It was a kitchen knife, so, like it mattered. Anyway, he was just great, and the story turned out great. And I always meant to get back to it, but I had to write Shakey, which took 37 years.
Gary, unfortunately, committed suicide some years ago. Very terrible thing. In the back of my mind, I always heard this voice and I just...I'm very tenacious, Corbin. If a story gets me, I just never leave it. It's almost daunting the amounts of research I have on Gary Stewart. Every time I think about it realistically, I kind of shudder because there's interviews over years and years and decades. In a certain sense, he gave me my career in terms of doing profiles and I just want to do this book. I just have a burning desire.
What's your research process like? How much information do you need to take in before you can commit to putting something on the page?
If I had my way, I'd just be like... Who's that LBJ guy?
Robert Caro, yeah, yeah, yeah. I'd just be like that, man. I could do a 10-volume series on Charlie Feathers. The problem is you've got to get somebody to pay for it. I'm just an obsessive researcher and I just keep going. I did this book on Andy Milligan – my favorite book by far, of all-time – and about 12 people have read it. Andy Milligan was this gay, misogynist ex-puppeteer who made monster movies in his garage and soft-core sex and all this stuff for Times Square.
He was the most fascinating character I ever, ever encountered. And I ended up going out to California and being in his last movie and then taking care of him as he died of AIDS. I revisited the book because Refn, this lunatic who's hired me to do his website, wanted to put it out in a deluxe edition. I'd always wanted to tinker with the book because I've learned more things and I will never ever do this again because that book, it was like a fly in amber.
How do you properly balance that? As a writer, I obviously try and pick topics that are vastly interesting to me as well, but do you have to be aware of the commercial element?
Corbin, man, I tell you, I never think of the commercial angle. People around me wish I had thought about it a lot more. There have been several directors who've wanted to make my books into movies and I passed on all of it. I just told their reps, "Meet me at the fence with the money and goodbye." I just want to do my thing. I've managed by hook or by crook to get these books out in the world, but with nary a thought of like, "Wow, Andy Milligan, number one with a bullet." I don't think so. It was like I was on a mission from God. I just have to do these things.
You wrote a long piece a while back about the guitarist Link Wray that I think is the most definitive account out there about him as a person and an artist. How did that come together?
I conned him into talking to me for Shakey because I wanted to play him “Dangerbird” to see if he felt there was any similarity between his music and Neil's. What a tenuous idea for an interview, but you know, I was tenacious and I got in there and for a brief window, I saw into his life and man, what an incredible guy. He had the vibe of doom. He was like something out of a Sergio Leone movie. You just saw him, and you expected a theme song to play. The guy was a total bad ass. As the bassist Tim Drummond used to say, "He was one of the mighty few,” Link Wray. There wasn't anybody like the guy.
You seem to be drawn to people who don't work inside the lines and break the mold. There is a sort of throughway through a lot of the different artists or people you seem to biographize…if that's a word.
Yeah. I've never looked at it that way. I'm inside it. But I would say that would be accurate. It's very funny because I have all these fans who know me from Andy Milligan and the Russ Meyer book. They never read Shakey. They don't know anything about the music books, but I feel like I could have a party and all those people would get along great…or there might be a knife fight. One of the two. But it wouldn't be dull.
Let’s talk about Shakey a bit. How did you go about talking to all the people you talked to? It seems like you managed to dig up every person who ever interacted with Neil at every point across his entire life.
Well with the Neil Young book, I was given, I would say, pretty much carte blanche. There was an area of the book that was agreed upon that Neil would have control over, very small area concerning his family. Now that didn't mean everybody was jumping up and down to talk to me, I can tell you that, because they were fearful. They were fearful. It always is that way when you have a celebrity who pays people and you want to talk to them.
I can remember when the live album that came out after Ragged Glory came out. David Briggs, his longtime producer and in my mind the hero of the book, one of them, he didn't want to talk to me because he was pissed off and that was the kind of guy David was. He was very loyal to Neil and he didn't want to dump, but Neil was the one that said, "Hey, Jimmy, you should go talk to David now that he hates my guts." Well, thank you, Neil, because it's one of the best interviews in the book. It's raw and real and you asked for it, pal.
It's weird because when you're doing a living person, it's like you're doing a living autopsy, at least the way I do it. I try to just go for it, Jimmy style. As much as possible and it's a burden to the people... I feel sorry for the person who gets me as their biographer. You're in for a world of hurt, son. Then, again, Neil and I had a whale of a time. We had a lot of laughs and I hope I provided a few of them. And there's all the people around, the handlers, and the managers.
You're at the opposite end of the spectrum from what they want, hate to tell you.
The enemy, yeah.
Yeah. Right. So there's that and that's always a drag because they want you to kiss their ass and be censored by them. And I'm like a loose cannon. I can't be controlled. It's just the way it is. So there's that. And then as the other pickle that Neil would only talk to me every few years. It was like Waiting for Godot with an electric guitar, I suppose. And that had its own tortures and it got worse because it wasn't like I was going to go away. By the time the years that passed, I was interviewing his dentist. No, I did interview his PE teacher, not his dentist, but it's not like I was going to find other hobbies.
I wasn't going to leave this project until I got the book I wanted. And I think that weighed heavy on somebody like Neil, because it just got to be a bigger and bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, "Oh Jimmy's talked to..." "Oh, he's talked to him five times?" And I empathize, but tough luck. I'm here, I'm not going anywhere. Okay, so there's that and then all the insanity that brings.
How about the biography you wrote about Al Green? You basically got stone-walled on that one. How did you work around that lack of access?
With somebody like Al... there’s only one Al Green. You can't compare him to anyone. He's like a being from another dimension, but it became clear early on he wasn't going to talk to me. And if he did, he wasn't going to tell me anything intelligible about himself. Although I would have loved for it to happen just for the kicks. Kicks keeps getting harder to find.
I realized the story was in all the people around him and he was sort of this black hole at the center, so to speak, but that didn't make the gig any easier because people were afraid of Al. Reverend Al. And some wanted money to talk. Like a lot of money. Some didn't show up when they said they would talk to me and of course, there's this mysterious death in his life that no one wanted to talk about and I dug deep into that. So, in a sense, it was very freeing because... Well, that's a weird one because he's still alive. And yet, he was so remote. It wasn't like he was even present in his own life, if that makes sense.
I get it, but it's a weird way to live.
Yeah. Each of these books presents their own conundrums and I seem to excel at making them as difficult as humanly possible.
When you went down to Memphis and watched some of his sermons and went to his Bible study group, did you ever approach him and have any sort of casual conversation with him?
No, I didn't. I tried, I just couldn't get to the guy. I wrote him letters to his personal PO box. All of a sudden, he changed his box. He just wouldn't engage at all. And then it was kind of liberating in a way to be quite frank, Corbin, because I'd seen like every interview he'd done on the face of the planet. And while entertaining, it just didn't have much bearing on anything of interest. So, I went for it in a different fashion. There are many ways to tell a story.
The Al Green book is one I empathize with a lot. I wrote a book about Chris Cornell, and couldn't talk to my subject. And so, like you, I had to find different throughways and frameworks to write around that.
Right, right, right. That was a very tough book, man. I was glad to get out of it. It was just so dark. All of it. I mean, great artist, man. You can't beat him. But his life just filled me with unease and I was glad to be free of it.
What's the most unexpected revelation you've discovered while researching or reporting a book?
Well, it's funny because I guess I was very naive when it came to Al Green. He just exuded a certain warmth and openness. And I went in I guess with a lot of naivete, thinking, "Oh, I'll win this guy over somehow or whatever." And his life was so the opposite of how he comes across, how it's been portrayed in the media. There was this kind of very cliche portrait of the singing reverend that nobody went outside. They just didn't. And then once I started digging it was like, "Oh God, this is really going to be up the river with Colonel Kurtz." So yeah, that was a surprise, man and it just changed the course of the book; the nature of the story. You just have to go with what you find out and let it live.
Going back to Neil Young, you wrote so many years ago about “lost” albums like Homegrown and the Tonight's the Night show at the Roxy that are finally starting to see the light of day thanks to his whole Archives project. Did you get to listen to those records the time? And have you heard them since they've come out in the last year or so?
Yeah. Elliot Mazer played me Homegrown, although he denied it. Later, he said I'd never interviewed him and never been to his house. I interviewed him twice, second time at his house. He played the Homegrown, so a little fake news for you there, friends. Not that I'm bitter or anything, I just find it amusing.
Right? Why lie about that?
Also Neil, through his archivist Joel Bernstein, gave me copies of some of that stuff way back when and I guarded it like plutonium. I haven't even heard Archives Volume 1 to be honest. I'm taking a break until the year 2025 and then I'm going to listen to all that stuff. Right now, I'm still on a hiatus from Shakey. I'm still in the recovery period, but yeah, I figure in 2025, I'll do that and I'll have a slice of pie. I've never eaten pie. My friends all bugged me about it. I don't know why I find pie suspicious. So that’s what I'm going to do, 2025, I’m going to sit down, listen to Archives Volume 1 and 2, have me a piece of pie. You had the scoop on that, Corbin. You heard it first.
I have a follow-up question for you. What are your feelings about cobbler?
See, another thing, we'll throw the cobbler in as well. I'm a really weird guy, Corbin. I have so many irks and quirks, I could keep you bored for another eight hours.
I'm sure you could, but I won't let you do that! Actually, I have one more question for you. I'm curious to know, what’s the most important piece of advice you'd give an aspiring biographer?
Get a job at Amazon.
Fair enough, Jimmy, haha. And, if they were disabused of that notion?
Let me think about this, Corbin. [pauses] Write about things that move you and don't take “No” for an answer.