McDonough has made a career out of presenting unflattering, flawed and decidedly human portraits of cultural icons.
Journalist and biographer Jimmy McDonough has made a career out of presenting unflattering, flawed and decidedly human portraits of cultural icons. Well, at least one cultural icon in Neil Young; Russ Meyer or Andy Milligan’s status as cultural icons is more a matter of perspective. Regardless, McDonough seems to take great pleasure in knocking his subjects down a peg or 12, unflinchingly offering up a warts-and-all look at these decidedly human figures we as a society have, for some reason, tacitly agreed to deify. In this way, McDonough is the singularly focused pain in the ass who dares pull back the curtain and share with everyone he can what he has found hiding behind it.
Such is the case with his latest, Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green. The photo of a cringing Green on the book’s cover could just as easily be the moment of impact as he’s hit by the full weight of what both McDonough and former band members and acquaintances have to say about the Rev. Green’s multifaceted, willfully enigmatic and impossibly difficult personality. Anyone coming to Soul Survivor with a favorable impression of the soul legend will leave strongly questioning their ability to sit through such hits as “Let’s Stay Together,” “Love and Happiness” and “Tired of Being Alone” without thinking of the egomaniacal monster lurking in the shadows of the grooves. Yet, to be fair, both McDonough and Green provide a warning preface to all comers: “Beware of men who speak well of you, my brother.”
Interspersing his own musings on his subject, vintage live clips and his own interviews with members of the Hi Rhythm Section, the legendary backing band assembled by producer/trumpeter Willie Mitchell to back the likes of Green, Ann Peebles, O.V. Wright, Syl Johnson and others at Royal Studios, McDonough spares little in exploring the plurality of the myriad Greens existing within the Al Green persona. Alternately reverential and vitriolic, his approach makes for often difficult reading, not due to his style of writing or narrative structure, but rather the sheer unlikability of Green as presented here. While the well-documented Green charm crops up here and there, it comes across as little more than a false-smile-flashing Jekyll to the animalistic, misogynistic, abusive (not to mention potentially murderous) Hyde.
Indeed, much of Soul Survivor reads more like an airing of grievances than a holistic look at Green’s life and career. Full of speculation and contradictory reports from Green’s own autobiography and those who were there and claim differently, Soul Survivor paints Green as the Trump of soul music, completely unconcerned with the truth and anything but his own personal, professional and, most importantly, financial gain. In fact, by narrative’s end, Green comes across as such a despicable, duplicitous, evil embracer of moral ambiguity that there is really little in the way of redeeming qualities to be found.
It’s an interesting approach to a biographical subject, particularly one who is still alive and kicking (not to mention potentially available for interview). But McDonough presents himself as someone who, like Green, simply does not give a fuck about what others think and is willing to go where no one else would dare to by being both investigative journalist and intentional provocateur. By inserting himself, as he does throughout, it makes it difficult to engage with either McDonough or Green as both come across as representative of alternate ends of the insufferable scale in terms of their personality and treatment of others.
Because of this, Soul Survivor reads more like a sordid tabloid (albeit far more thoroughly researched) examination of a man whose public persona presents him as infallible, when in reality it’s merely a front for the antithesis of everything he literally and figuratively preaches. It’s a weirdly winding headtrip that, like its central subject, goes from likable to despicable in a matter of moments with little to no warning one way or the other. For all the praise McDonough heaps on Green’s career, particularly during the ‘70s, there’s an exponentially greater amount of mud slung about both by those who knew the man and by an author who feels he knows his subject through his own conclusions reached via the work of others. Like Green himself, McDonough’s Soul Survivor is a frustrating mass of contradictions punctuated by moments of the sublime.