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By Graham Rae | August 2, 2007

“Never trust a junkie” – Nancy Spungen in the less-than-stellar “Sid And Nancy”

This one’s a blast from the past. Chanced across this documentary on an Online DVD Rental Chain That Shall Not Be Named (unless they want to bung me some cash and I’ll proudly plug them next time I write a review based on a movie I rent from them), remembered its now-deceased subject from an old issue of Film Threat magazine from the 1980s, rented it out…and, ummm…what can I say?

For those of you who don’t know who Rockets Redglare (guess where he gets his name from) is, you may well have seen him in any amount of movies in small character roles, like as a barfly embarrassed by his new glasses in Steve Buscemi’s excellent movie “Trees Lounge” or as the guy who shoots Eric Bogosian in “Talk Radio.” Does that help you out any? No? Maybe you’re better off being none the wiser. It’s a distinct possibility. But stick about for a wee bit of punk scandal in a minute if you don’t want to keep reading. You might find it interesting.

Rockets Redglare (real name Michael Morra) was born in 1949 to a 15-year-old heroin mother, having to be weaned off heroin in his crib. This not especially good start to life would take a further plunge into chaos with the antics of his crazy murderous father and uncle (who murdered a man when Rockets was in the house; he saw the dead man and his brains blown up the wall), his early teenage sexual abuse by a female neighbor, and the ultimate stabbing murder of his mother by a junkie boyfriend. Redglare wandered through life like a slomo car wreck for his entire 52 years (he croaked in 2001 of a one-two fuckerpunch combo of kidney failure, liver failure, cirrhosis and hepatitis C; when he died he had probably lived twice as long as he should have – or indeed wanted to), mooching money from people, dealing drugs, doing occasional acting or stand-up comedy gigs…and trying desperately to self-destruct through ingesting massive amounts of drugs and alcohol. But he appeared to be one of those (un)fortunate characters who have the constitution of lab rats and whom you can throw anything at them and still have them come back for more. And more. And more. And more. But why should this train wreck of a human being be of any interest to you…or a documentary maker? That’s a good question, and one that I don’t think the project actually fully truly resolves by the time it’s run its length.

Quick technical note: the DVD extras section only includes a Q&A section with Steve Buscemi and director Luis Fernandez de la Reguera at Sundance in 2003; an audio commentary; and the trailer. The actual movie’s quality itself ranges from decent to super-grainy video. For any indie movie fan, though, the list of names at the top of this review of people who star in the doc, alongside other New York artists like Julian Schnabel…should answer any questions as to why any potentially interested party should view this. And that doesn’t mean I’m recommending the movie, it’s just that I would understand why anybody who is a fan of these actors (especially Steve Buscemi, who appears a fair bit) would want to. But Rockets Redglare…man, he just comes across as a worthless manipulative scumbag junkie-cum-occasional-actor with no redeeming features whatsoever. And I know I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but, well, I never met him, and he certainly didn’t seem to care about his life, judging by how hell-bent he was on destroying it, so…why should you or I?

Steve Buscemi and Jim Jamusch and the like met Redglare when he was doing stand-up comedy in NYC on the early 80s. They then hooked up with him, becoming part of his never-pay-a-penny-back, learned-helplessness junkie support network, and stayed friends with him for nearly two decades afterwards. Which begs the question…why the f**k would intelligent people like Buscemi or Jarmusch or Dafoe want to be pals with a guy like the doc’s subject? I truly did not understand it. They said they thought he was a great natural actor, and that came along with running hustles and cons on people on the street…but that still doesn’t make him the kind of person you’d want to be buddies with. Were there some sort of ‘edgy-character-as-my-friend’ bragging rights that came with knowing Redglare? I would be genuinely interested to know. Obviously these filmmakers met and hung out with the man, and have a radically different view of him than I do…but, bottom line, they still knew what a f**k-up he was and still put up with it. Which I personally wouldn’t have done for a minute; after all, life is hard enough without actually inviting trouble into it.

I guess I just found Redglare disgusting and disturbing and depressing, is all, and actually genuinely felt like showering after watching this doc. I truly couldn’t believe the amount of people in the doc who seemed to be taken in by his scumbag ways and the bullshit patter that flowed freely and endlessly from his lips. He apparently was quite attractive to women, despite his horrifying yo-yoing weight and morbid obesity, and I cynically found myself thinking yeah, coke w****s who would f**k him for blow. But there were other women in the doc who at least didn’t seem like that, and they went on about how much he ‘loved’ them when it seems clear to me that he never loved anybody at all, least of all himself, which you would think would be a prerequisite for having affection for anybody else. Any woman attracted to a damage case like Redglare is either damaged themselves, naïve, slumming-it…or thinks they can (sigh, the eternal female folly in dealing with a******s) ‘change’ him. Or any combo of the aforementioned. Or maybe they were just plain nuts, or a f*****g idiot. Whatever. Hardly matters.

Redglare’s extreme lifestyle and deathwish (he comes across as one of those people who just perform more and more extreme acts to try and get some sort of sick kick from it because they can’t feel anything and can’t get off on normal stuff – and hell, junkies are emotionally closed off by their addiction anyway) attitude to women and sex are illustrated (remember the late great music journo Lester Bangs talking about being disgusted by Redglare talking about how he and his girlfriend would cut each other with razorblades during sex) in a story he tells about shooting smack into his c**k as he comes in a porn star’s mouth (have some coke in her smile?). What a loving, caring individual. If I was a woman I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the same room as him. If the story is even true, that is.

And that’s another thing about this doc. Redglare was quite clearly mad, and, like all junkies, a pathological liar. A couple of the filmmakers in “Rockets Redglare” basically say that they thought this junkie shakedown patter helped him in the acting stakes, and he came across very naturally. Of course he would – he’d been practicing talking s**t for money or sex or drugs his whole life! Anybody who believes every word that comes out of a hardcore self-destructive junkie’s mouth (or even half of them) is a damned fool; s**t, they’re so whacked out (as Redglare often is during the running time) half the time even they don’t know if they’re telling the truth or not. Thus I constantly found myself wondering if some of the stories Redglare spouts in the doc, like the sex one above, are even actually true, vaguely entertaining as they are on a repellant scumpunk level.

One story I do believe is true is when the ‘actor’ relates the sorry tale of his mother’s murder by an abusive, insane junkie boyfriend, and cries as he does so. What is clear is that Redglare never had any real chance in life, and his wretched half-existence was the result of an appalling childhood that crippled him for the rest of his life. Which is truly sad and tragic, but there’s a million junkies with stories exactly like that, and they don’t get a doc made about them, do they? Nope, because nobody (including them) would give the slightest s**t about their sorry sordid soon-snuffed-out lives. And much of the footage of Redglare in this doc just isn’t really that interesting or different from skanky s**t any amount of smackheads could tell you. What is different, though, is the story involving Redglare and Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. The actor/stand-up comedian (whose sick, damaged, sporadically-funny comedy, about his mother having sex with dogs, or children strangling puppies, reeks of that of a man in deep mental and emotional pain trying desperately to make unfunny subject matter humorous) dealt drugs to the notorious punk f**k-up starcrossed smacktossed lovers and was around on the night they died.

In the movie Redglare relates how he saw some guy with a video camera (can’t remember who he said it was and can’t be bothered watching the doc again to find out) and an accomplice coming out of the Chelsea Hotel with a video camera just after Spungen had been killed, trying to imply that they had been filming a snuff movie with the worthless junkie cow as star. Now. If you were going to make a snuff movie, you couldn’t go far wrong with using somebody like Spungen (taking her idiot copycat worshipper Courtney Love with you when you did so, for extras on the DVD or something, or just plain laughs) as subject matter. However. Writer Phil Strongman, in his 2007 book “Pretty Vacant: A History of Punk,” reckons that it was actually Redglare himself, and not Sid Vicious, who murdered Spungen. This theory (which was one of the reasons I was vaguely interested to see this doc, to see how it addressed the murder) is not universally accepted but, personally, looking at Redglare, I could believe it. In one segment he’s talking about finding out that “if you make somebody laugh…you can get away with murder,” and he laughs oddly. And yeah, you could say I’m reading too much into that, but that and the fact Spungen died a stabbing death like Redglare’s mother…leads me to believe it was the drug dealer who killed her. There’s a theory that he then sold Sid Vicious some lethally pure heroin to bump off the only other witness to events that legendary shady-event-shrouded night…but we’ll really never know.

Oh well.

Rockets Redglare was a total damage case. In the movie he talks about drinking three cases of beer a day for a year and his weight ballooning up to 600+ pounds. You wonder where a creep like him would get the money to do that. Suppose the ultimate answer is from the people who believed his utter-gutter-mutter hype and junkie carnie con routines. And from people he dealt drugs to, of course. But what does it all ultimately matter? At the end of the day… who really cares? The man was a vaguely interesting historical countercultural curiosity, he’s dead, and he’s probably better off that way. Least he’s at peace now. And his friends can breath a sigh of relief they’ll never have to ‘lend’ him money they will never get back.

Never trust a junkie indeed.

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  1. Chris Menard says:

    Interesting bit on Redglare. I had the pleasure or displeasure of meeting and hanging with him in NYC. Met him and Matt Dillon on several occasions at a bar on 7 and Ave. B. We drank a lot and I bought drugs from him. I ended up one night having a wild time when we later went to a dance club called Save the Robots.
    He really did know a shitload of people and I really found out more about him after his death than before.

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