Jimmy McDonough is best-known for his exhaustive bios of Neil Young (Shakey), Tammy Wynette (Tragic Country Queen) and Russ Meyer (Big Bosoms and Square Jaws), but his first published book, The Ghastly One, about Andy Milligan, the disturbed auteur of some of the grungiest exploitation films ever made, may his finest work, championed by John Waters and called “a masterpiece” by Time magazine’s Richard Corliss. An expanded reissue of The Ghastly One has just been published. Eric Davidson spoke with McDonough for PKM
Andy Milligan was a mean, crazy son of a bitch.
As biographer Jimmy McDonough describes him throughout the beautifully expanded reprint of his incredible book, The Ghastly One, Milligan really hated his alcoholic mother. The implied abuse and subsequent ghastly personality that fuels Milligan throughout his crazy career constantly clashes within his merciless work ethic and gay lifestyle among the most grimy, hidden, mid-century New York City corners.
After getting out of the Navy, Milligan tried his hand at clothes designing and rag-shop shepherding, while engrossing himself in the S&M underground of Manhattan. Then (circa 1961-67), he became the main and most insane playwright/director at Caffe Cino, a wild, groundbreaking, taboo-smashing dive theater in Greenwich Village that has been somewhat overlooked in our ever-expanding tales of “cool bad old New York.” Soon Milligan went uptown, a bit, to make unfathomably cheap films during the spiraling years of America’s sleaziest neighborhood, 42nd Street, as those surrounding blocks developed into the two-bit bacchanal of myth. Andy was a dime-store double of the classic 1940s Hollywood conveyor-belt directors who were loath to go off on lofty cinematic theorizing, but nonetheless held a deep love for the form.
There’s a great line in the book: “If Broadway was the symphony, Caffe Cino was garage rock.” It points to feelings that sometimes crop up in back of any mid-century trash culture vulture’s head – that maybe much of our interest in lost, forgotten lowbrow art from the ‘60s is not just the end-product, but often the accidentally wild production, the stories around the fly-by-night characters involved, and a kind of self-created world that might not have been as crazy as we’d like to imagine. But there is little doubt after finishing this detailed, salacious, surprisingly emotional page-turner that Andy Milligan’s life was really, truly fucked up. No mythology here.
Not unlike a band on a Back from the Grave compilation that had one great first single and then stumbled off into lesser stabs later, Milligan’s filmography started with a powerful, influential little nugget. Vapors (1965) is a half-hour peeper that tells a tale of a suburban businessman “interested” in the St. Marks bathhouses he read about in the paper, meeting and having a sad, fated conversation with one of the regulars, while various queens walk in and out of the steam room like a gossipy Greek chorus. Instantly considered a classic of Queer Cinema, by the early ‘70s, it was derided as stereotype, but comes and goes in respect and reassessment. As does Milligan’s extremely thin surviving film catalog.
A Mack truck engine of malicious energy, Milligan churned out exploitation cheapies to his death (often doing everything himself, even acting), with titles like Gutter Trash, Torture Dungeon, Seeds of Sin, Bloodthirsty Butchers, and Fleshpot on 42nd Street. They ranged from dirty little revenge dramas among sick hippies, to dirty little revenge dramas among sick Medievals, to dirty little revenge dramas with punk rockers – all involving at least one very malevolent woman. The irony was that, while Milligan masochistically abused his cobbled-together casts and crews, especially the females, many worked with him for years, begrudgingly appreciating his dedication and the chance to get to improvise these wild characters. Truth is, the women in Milligan’s films are often the most interesting and powerful. And if you have the patience, his films harbor a consistent viewpoint and physical energy that can raise them above the exploitation scrapheap. That is if you can actually get to see them. They were so skimpily distributed and haphazardly “stored” that even McDonough admits he’s seen few of them.
Milligan is one of those old school mélanges that our current arts culture has a hard time reconciling and putting into context – an angry, abusive, sex-crazed, often charming, macho queen who was conversely quite conservative, or at least suspicious of those who could experience the freedom flowering of the Sixties without intestinal self-hate. Hell, even Screw magazine once did a negative piece about how offensive Milligan’s films were.
McDonough confronts this as to exude a grubby, subterranean world completely devoid of any traditional connections to gender relations, a proto-sexual revolution that didn’t have its strategies set yet, and so flailed and in-fought, while utilizing a literary tone equal to Milligan’s fist punch through life – but with violence and self-hate replaced with irreverence and, eventually, a very complicated respect.
If remembered at all today, Milligan was just another low-rent horror director who still has had only a few titles ever make it to bargain-basement VHS or DVD. And McDonough is sometimes saddled with a similar title. His career began as a film editor, but he grew disillusioned with the biz and has become a storied chronicler of revered musicians and film makers. He is currently Editor-in-Chief of the obsessively amazing oddball expose site, byNWR.com.
McDonough’s explosive bios on Neil Young, Tammy Wynette, Russ Meyer, and Al Green are hugged to the chests of his fans (often because they go out of print quickly and are hard to find), but met with some derision by critics who often want the “warts and” part, but not the confounding “all.” Yes, McDonough does commit the biographer’s sin of injecting himself into the narrative, but in this case, it would be impossible not to. He ended up working with Milligan for a more than a decade at the end of his life. That’s where McDonough turned his time in the Milligan grinder into this extremely fascinating, well-researched book, one that not only explores the life of a misfired auteur but might be the best book on the fabled world of 1960s exploitation cinema.
The mid-‘70s and the decline of the exploitation biz had Milligan moving back to dramatics with his Troupe Theater in Times Square, a two-story crumble he got for $50,000. The sheer constant creation and failure of that led to a move to L.A. in 1985, and a halfhearted stab at “real” filmmaking and yet another theater, until passing away from AIDS in 1991, as destitute as ever.
Even Screw magazine once did a negative piece about how offensive Milligan’s films were.
Along the way, Milligan’s intense and beleaguered soul only allowed for a few close relationships – one with a crazy Vietnam vet, Dennis “The Mad Bomber” Malvasi, who worked on his last films and drove Milligan to L.A., but ended up going Jesus-nutty and becoming the most notorious abortion clinic bomber in NYC’s history. And he’s one of the more charming people who pass in and out of Milligan’s life. There are some very dark rabbit holes in The Ghastly One. But all along, Milligan remains the main, if elusive, character. Like the large scar on his face, he is mentioned but never fully understood.
We tracked down Jimmy McDonough to talk about the resplendent expanded reissue of The Ghastly One, originally released in 2001.
PKM: So let’s start with how this reprint of The Ghastly One came about. How quickly did the first edition go out of print, and when did the reprint idea ramp up?
Jimmy McDonough: It’s been out of print for years, I do not recall when it went poof. Ever since I knew Andy, I’d been carting around this immense archive of material related to his life. I’m a pack rat, I save everything, and when I worked on 42nd Street people gave me things and I rescued much from the garbage cans. It had always been in my mind to do a deluxe edition, and then I ran into Nicolas Winding Refn, who is just as coo-coo as I am, and feels things just as deeply. We started working on projects together. With The Ghastly One, Nicolas wanted to create something so lavish I tried to reign him in. He turned the book into a glittering, impossible monument to Andy. John Waters told me we have created the most insane and collectible film book of all time. John was amazed that anyone would financially undertake such an extravagant project – and for Andy Milligan, no less. John was the first person who got a copy. He has really championed my books, and I am eternally grateful because nobody else seems to give a shit, haha.
PKM: How did you approach this new edition? How much did you edit or add to this one, beyond the new graphic presentation?
Jimmy McDonough: Well, there was new information I wanted to add here and there, things I wanted to correct. Books are fluid; they are never complete. Ever. I wanted to make this one as deep and as rich as possible though, without fucking up what it had accomplished in the first place. It really drove me crazy. If you have a ’59 Caddy and it runs like a screamin’ demon, don’t add a USB port, OK?
I refuse to open the book now, as there are already things I want to add/correct/change. I will never revisit a book like this again. Although I am returning to the first major story I ever had published, one about honky-tonk singer Gary Stewart. So I must be nuts. What else is new?
PKM: You’ve also written about Russ Meyer. What’s the latest on a possible official, well-done, full DVD reissue of his catalog? Or has that window closed? And what’s the status of the Russ Meyer or Tammy Wynette biopics that were optioned from your books?
Jimmy McDonough: You’d have to ask the Meyer estate. Wear garlic and carry a cross, though. That story is a tragedy on so many levels. Meyer’s negatives need to be rescued before they completely disintegrate. Movie-wise, nothing is happening with the Meyer book, but there are new plans for the Wynette. We’ll see if anything happens. Tinseltown had both of those books for a while. It was a colossal waste of time. These people, they don’t even read the books they buy. I was relieved when it all went away. I’ll never be dragged into that situation again. Buy the book, but leave me alone.
PKM: How annoying is dealing with film producers? And you must’ve been up at night sometimes wondering what pretty face was going to get cast as Russ Meyer.
Jimmy McDonough: Put it this way: I tell them to meet me at the fence, throw the money over the top, then say goodbye. After that, I don’t care if they cast Rip Taylor as Russ Meyer, which would be a challenge, given his state. Outside of The Ghastly One, I really don’t care what they do with them.
PKM: So after reading The Ghastly One, I’m surprised you ever wanted to work within the film biz again, as even on the cheap low level that Andy Milligan ran in it seems so cutthroat. I assume it would only be worse once you get past five-figure budgets…
Jimmy McDonough: I worked in cutting rooms in my younger days, and found it tedious… I worked as a lowly sound editor for Brian DePalma, Sidney Lumet, and Volker Schlondorff; and in the exploitation world I was picture editor for Radley Metzger and David “Debbie Does Dallas” Buckley. I quit the latter gig because ”producer”/mobster Mickey Zaffarano was getting increasingly impatient with Buckley, and I wanted to live. I like doing things my way.
Now, I have partnered on many recent projects with Nicolas Winding Refn because I get a kick out of the guy. He’s a true original, which is a rare commodity in this $1.98 world. And if he comes up with an amusing idea – like sticking me in his Too Old to Die Young series in a trio of minor roles – I do it. I’m in it for fun, for the laughs.
Nicolas has gotten me to do all sorts of things I never, never would’ve entertained previously, particularly with the byNWR.com site, such as edit a bunch of crybaby writers and fly to faraway places I never wanted to go in order to yap about the site. I mean, suddenly one day we’re onstage at the Paris Cinemateque and I’m abusing a big audience of French people with this ridiculous character I’ve created for the site, Monkee Puppet. And they’re shooting this crackpot pageant with three cameras as if it were something actually worth preserving!
To make things more surreal, when I arrived backstage who does Nicolas introduce me to but Alejandro Jodorowsky. And Nicolas demands I do my sad little puppet act for him. I’m no Wayland Flowers, to put it mildly. Then Jodorowsky politely asks me to hand Monkee over. And he proceeds to do a graceful, hypnotic ballet with my puppet that rendered all present speechless. Turns out Jodorowsky was a puppeteer earlier in his life. The humiliation was sublime. I mean, I had to get onstage with that stupid little puppet after that! Crazy shit like that happens all the time when Nicolas and I get together. Although I should point out that most of our communication is over Skype. He’s like Howard Hughes in that way. I’ve only met Nicolas in the flesh a handful of times.
PKM: So The Ghastly One can be seen as going beyond a Milligan biography, and more of a history of exploitation cinema as it developed in the 1960s, via 42nd St. But, of course, Andy isn’t just a framing device – you became quite close to him. When it did occur to you that this would be a wider history?
Jimmy McDonough: I don’t know, I just follow my nose, there’s no grand plan. I knew that in order to tell Andy’s story, you had to delve into the worlds he passed through. And thus I had to know as much as possible about them. All my books are that way. In Soul Survivor, my Al Green book, there were fifty pages on the history of Hi Records. They wanted to cut it all out. One of my best books, and there isn’t even a paperback edition. Shall I cry you a river? I’m amazed I even got away with that one, to be honest.
PKM: Glad you did! Andy Miiligan worked in theater first. Caffe Cino is somewhat forgotten today, and it’s one of the many great things about this book, that it brings back that underrated trashy treasure. Is it fair to say that Warhol stole the street scenesters-as-stars concept from Caffe Cino in an effort to concoct The Factory?
Jimmy McDonough: Hmmm, I don’t think so. The Factory was its own entity, as was the Cino. Did they influence each other? I certainly believe so. The Cino was a little more beatnik. The Factory was supersonic Sixties. Both were kamikaze missions. They were bound to feed off each other. Andy never mentioned going to the Factory, and I think he would’ve. I believe Warhol may have breezed through the Cino, but it was really other Factory denizens such as Ondine that represented the Warhol faction there. “The Warhol People” – the Cino old-timers really hated them, particularly Warhol. But you can’t stop the future.
PKM: When The Ghastly One turns to Andy’s film making, I was thinking that you basically have two templates of classic midcentury Hollywood directors: the tough-guy types, war vets known for their dominating, style – John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah, Sam Fuller, etc.; burly macho men. Or, you had the more cerebral types – Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Nick Ray, Robert Wise, Hitchcock. Now I’d say those latter directors were the kind who championed cheap budgets, stranger character studies, and pointed towards the “new Hollywood” that Andy Milligan might’ve wanted to aim for. But I bet he appreciated those former types more, and in fact seems to have utilized that kind of burly, macho style, though he was openly gay.
Jimmy McDonough: Andy detested pretension more than anything, and he certainly considered the latter directors you name pretentious. Andy really did have to churn them out – but was it a stance, necessity, or just his nature? If he had been the slightest bit more patient, I think his films would’ve benefitted. I say statements like that and I can hear Andy saying, “Oh, fuck you!” in my head. Haha.
PKM: Your amazing depictions of Milligan and his cruel treatment of others expose a very damaged person who projects a lot. It made me think, if he was alive today, Andy would probably be a Trump fan. Is that fair? Did he talk politics much?
Jimmy McDonough: Andy never seemed to be aware of who was President. I don’t think he cared. Andy and Trump, that could lead to violence. I could see Russ Meyer being gung-ho on Trump, however.
PKM: From the beginning, Andy was making these sleazy little flicks of social outcasts, regularly discarding any notion of propriety to toss in some nudity and blood so he’d get more funding – but then lambasting those who dared to smoke some weed or talk about sex around him, right before he went off to fuck some junkie boy in an basement somewhere. How does that disconnect happen?
The Factory was its own entity, as was the Cino. Did they influence each other? I certainly believe so. The Cino was a little more beatnik. The Factory was supersonic Sixties. Both were kamikaze missions. They were bound to feed off each other.
Jimmy McDonough: I don’t know. Andy was a mass of contradictions. Every wire was crossed. So being around him was endlessly exciting. You just had to know when to duck.
PKM: Andy makes those complaints about how “nowadays” every 4-year old knows bad words, and that we’re regressing in morals and manners. Yet his films and the film strata he ran in helped create that reality, right? Not that I think we’ve regressed, but you get my drift.
Jimmy McDonough: Andy did regard himself as an artist, and he regarded little that came after to be of the same ilk. So in his mind, it was one thing for him to knock down the barriers, and another for the schlockmeisters that followed. Of course, the world views that in reverse. Maybe Andy was the pretentious one, I don’t know.
PKM: It seems that Andy really did stick to his guns about not doing drugs. But there must’ve been some drug abuse at some point, at least once he became more sick later on…
Jimmy McDonough: No drug abuse ever, as far as I know of. I can’t even imagine an exception. Andy had to be in control. He even refused any and all drugs once he was diagnosed with AIDS, drugs that could’ve helped him. It was beyond grim. I don’t like to think about it. Whatever picture I paint in the book, it was probably worse.
PKM: You mentioned how Andy didn’t jump on the mid-60s “roughies” exploitation trend, and I’m wondering if that was because of his odd, albeit very American morality – like it’s okay to show bodies being killed and cut up in cheap horror flicks, but it’s not okay to show more explicit, rough sex, something he engaged in seemingly daily.
Jimmy McDonough: I’m not sure Andy liked shooting the gore, either. I got the picture he enjoyed sadism most when the clothes remained on. He really didn’t enjoy shooting sex scenes. And when Andy had to dip his toe into hardcore to shoot inserts for Fleshpot on 42nd Street, he rejected it completely. Fabulous movie, that one. You can smell the Deuce.
PKM: It has struck me that we think of “The Sixties” as a whole decade of wild abandon and change. But as with Caffe Cino’s closing in 1967, you say that the “possibilities weren’t as wide open anymore.” Essentially, “The Sixties” of crazy, fun creation were about 1964-67. For Andy anyway, shit got pretty solidified and dark by 1968/69.
Jimmy McDonough: Some say the Sixties ended in 1967, I don’t know, I think Andy carried that spirit with him his entire life. Even at the end, a big framed portrait of Joe Cino graced his wall. I can’t imagine him having that kind of reverence for anybody else.
PKM: You touch on it in the book, that once all filmic taboos were gone and you could show sex and violence up on the screen, Hollywood started churning out big budget versions of previously vilified subjects, and that ironically ended the era of exploitation where it all started. That left directors like Andy without a place in the world. What do you think came first – that pop cultural shift that destroyed the exploitation biz, or Andy just getting tired of making movies?
I got the picture he enjoyed sadism most when the clothes remained on. He really didn’t enjoy shooting sex scenes. And when Andy had to dip his toe into hardcore to shoot inserts for Fleshpot on 42nd Street, he rejected it completely. Fabulous movie, that one. You can smell the Deuce.
Jimmy McDonough: I think they happened pretty much simultaneously. The business was evaporating as Andy was running out of steam for a particular kind of picture. He kept up a breakneck pace in his primo years. Maybe it was a relief.
PKM: You delve well into the Troupe Theater situation that Andy struggled with in the ‘70s.
Jimmy McDonough: I loved the Troupe. I well remember the first time I went there. Andy was wearing layers of mismatched, tattered clothes and resembled something out of Dickens. He seemed angry to take our tickets, angry there was a play going on, angry that he had to be in the play as well as run the lights. It was a drab, no-frills theater, a monolithic concrete gulag with no heat, no comfort. You could see the actors’ breath hang in the chilly air, and they all seemed deathly afraid of Milligan. It was something out of hell, really. And with the wallpaper from The Ghastly Ones there on the wall! If only I could go back.
PKM: As mid-20th century exploitation was rescued and ironically reclaimed in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, it seemed to me that us misfits could see in those movies some value previously cast-off as forgotten, cheap nonsense. Did Andy ever feel he was trying somehow to raise up his characters as brave or misunderstood in some way? Or was he just trying to present severe emotional situations and that’s it. I suspect he felt the latter.
Jimmy McDonough: He wouldn’t entertain such frivolous notions. I will tell you that Andy remembered all his creations vividly and recalled his movies as if they had happened in real life. To have all that work reviled and mocked must’ve been demoralizing. But he never quit, never stopped. Right ’til the bitter end, when he physically couldn’t do it anymore.
PKM: You mention that Andy thought Russ Meyer’s films were too glossy, and were not “real exploitation.”
Jimmy McDonough: Andy felt Meyer’s movies were too slick and bereft of depth. They were cartoons. Cartoons in the tradition of Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery. Andy didn’t make cartoons. Although there was humor, his movies were as serious as death.
PKM: I’m going to guess Andy did not like the concept of women’s liberation?
Jimmy McDonough: He probably would’ve gone on a rant at the mention, but the truth was Andy gave his leading ladies unusual opportunities, featuring strange, unique roles, and they loved him for it, even while hating his guts. Despite his many provocative statements about the female race, he could be very empathetic towards them.
PKM: His explanation of how people “turn out gay” – would you say he believed homosexuality was a product of upbringing? And can I assume he would have difficulty with today’s ideas of gender fluidity, even though he defied traditional gender norms himself?
Jimmy McDonough: I wouldn’t hazard a guess on that one. I can imagine Andy working up quite a lather over today’s world. “LGBTQMNOPWXYZ?!! Who turned over the Scrabble board? What’s the big deal, darlin’?” I would’ve loved to have watched “RuPaul’s Drag Race” with Andy. That would’ve been a gasser. He would’ve fumed through every minute, while he critiqued each performance in detail.
Andy felt Meyer’s movies were too slick and bereft of depth. They were cartoons. Cartoons in the tradition of Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery. Andy didn’t make cartoons. Although there was humor, his movies were as serious as death.
PKM: You have a picture of Andy’s old phone book, and there’s a listing in there for Marie’s Crisis. Did he frequent that West Village piano bar?
Jimmy McDonough: Since Andy didn’t drink, he hung out at no bars that I know of. He really hated alcohol. But there’s the number, so there must be a story. I can’t stand not having these people around to question further. I just cannot stand it. Ghosts…
PKM: So Andy finally moved out to L.A. at the end of the 1970s. You mention that his doomed Troupe West Theater was once a punk club – do you remember what it was called, or who might’ve played there?
Jimmy McDonough: No I don’t. There are all sorts of research-mad creatures online these days that specialize in that kind of arcane information. Hopefully my info isn’t suspect, because I no longer remember the sources. Otherwise I will be vilified in some endless, incredibly detailed Facebook post only seven people will read.
PKM: Did Andy ever cross paths with the punk world at any point in the late-70s/early-80s?
Jimmy McDonough: Haha. Take a look at the opening of Milligan’s 1987 picture Monstrosity and you’ll get an idea of Andy’s version of “punks.” Andy was blissfully unaware of such things, which certainly adds to the entertainment value. I mean, I worked on the thing, and I wasn’t going to sit him down and school him on the world of Darby Crash. That would’ve taken the fun out of it.
PKM: Your implications, near the end of the book, of sexual abuse that Andy experienced as a child – it felt to me that after Andy died and you’d finished the book, you really did not want to delve into that any further, anymore, ever. Was it hard to revisit this book again?
Jimmy McDonough: Yes, for a variety of reasons. But again, the main one being I didn’t want to fuck it up. I will never, ever revisit a book in this fashion. Forget it. Now as I say that, I have returned to the first major feature I had in print, the story of Gary Stewart. So clearly I am nuts.
Take a look at the opening of Milligan’s 1987 picture Monstrosity and you’ll get an idea of Andy’s version of “punks.” Andy was blissfully unaware of such things, which certainly adds to the entertainment value. I mean, I worked on the thing, and I wasn’t going to sit him down and school him on the world of Darby Crash. That would’ve taken the fun out of it.
PKM: You admit that even you haven’t seen the majority of Milligan’s work because most of it is lost to time. And that of the ones you did see, half were just genuinely bad. Was there a point where you thought maybe your vision of Andy – an admittedly dark, suspicious one, but obviously not without respect – was mythologized? It does feel in The Ghastly One like you put a check on yourself the minute you get close to glorifying him or his films.
Jimmy McDonough: For me the creator and the creations go hand in hand. I want to enhance your appreciation of what they’ve created, hopefully. With Andy I thought it was important for people to understand that the real gore happened behind the camera. And I wasn’t going to go all Lincoln Center on Andy, that would be ridiculous. Even Andy would’ve hated that. So I struck a balance that works, for me. I’m no film critic, I’m a biographer. I write these books to please myself.
PKM: Does it seem strange that our interest in so many exploitation film world characters arise not from their actual creations?
Jimmy McDonough: I can tell you that I find myself watching Andy’s films more than ever these days. Because now I feel like I understand a little something about them.
PKM: It’s strange you have this reputation as some kind of contentious, brutal biographer simply for describing the obvious faults of your topics. I mean, isn’t that at least half of what a biography is?
Jimmy McDonough: I’m not the one to answer that question. I do know that the biography police continually scold me. They find the most ridiculous people to review my books. Like that dreary old granny who was at the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley. In his review of my Tammy Wynette biography, Tragic Country Queen, he complained that he’d been reading the book on a plane and was desperately hoping it would crash so he wouldn’t have to endure the horror of finishing my work. I thought that was just fabulous. I considered it a victory, considering the source. Needless to say, my publisher didn’t share my enthusiasm for the review.
The way I see my job is this: I want to inject the reader with the essence of the person that I am writing about, so that you feel like they are sitting across from you, that you can reach out and poke them. The feeling of the person, that’s where it’s at. Facts are great, everybody loves facts, but facts alone don’t lift you out of your chair. I’m after something else.
My books seem to strike people as a misfit collection. The Neil Young people will never read the Andy Milligan. The Al Green people won’t read the Tammy Wynette. The Tammy Wynette people don’t even want to know about Russ Meyer. Rarely do I find anybody who’s read them all. I see them all belonging together, myself.
PKM: You mentioned Lincoln Center earlier. Sorry if I’m forgetting, but did you go to the Caffe Cino exhibit at Lincoln Center in 1985? How did Andy Milligan not get mentioned in it?
Jimmy McDonough: No, I must have been somewhere else, maybe Arabia or Newark, N.J. When I started the book there were a couple of Cino people who were actively trying to prevent Andy from being included in any history of the place, including my book. I believe they’ve changed their tune since. I was such an outsider, and writing about someone that many considered marginal. People actually laughed when I told them I was writing a book about Milligan. That worked in my favor. People like to confess, and who was I anyway? Confess they certainly did. There are things revealed about the Cino in my book that you will find nowhere else.
PKM: Can I guess that maybe a part of the reason for this repress of The Ghastly One is an attempt to option Andy’s life for a movie? ‘Cause that would be a doozy!
Jimmy McDonough: No, this was just an insane art project. A couple of people have inquired as to The Ghastly One rights over the years and have been politely shown the door. I doubt I’d permit it unless the circumstances were really extraordinary, like I’ve taken ten Xanaxes. This book is very close to my heart. I’d rather not experience the inevitable, “James Franco IS Andy Milligan in his MOST DEMANDING ROLE! Oscar bait! The digitally recreated Times Square took this reviewer’s breath away!”
But you know how it is, if there are enough zeroes at the end of a check, everybody’s a ho. I doubt I’m going to get a call from Spielberg on that particular book though.
The way I see my job is this: I want to inject the reader with the essence of the person that I am writing about, so that you feel like they are sitting across from you, that you can reach out and poke them. The feeling of the person, that’s where it’s at.
PKM: You are editor-in-chief of byNWR.com, which is a pretty amazing, exhaustive website covering nefarious underbelly film work. Tell us about the site, and what you hope to do with it.
Jimmy McDonough: Where do I begin? Using me as a guide, Nicolas Winding Refn bought piles and piles of old exploitation films. Then he decided he wanted to share them online with the world. And he wanted to create a mountain of tenuously-related content to go with it. Most daunting, he wanted me to edit the damn thing. I kept saying no, which is like waving a red flag to a bull with NWR. So I did the first volume. One of the movies we had was this no-budget Texas monstrosity by Dale Berry, Hot Thrills and Warm Chills. Berry was a sometime cowboy actor who wanted to break into Hollywood and thought that making an incomprehensible movie starring Lone Star strippers and questionable thespians was his ticket to Tinseltown.
I thought it would be interesting to find the women in the picture and see what they were up to today. It turned into a five-part, 60,000 word series with a zillion pictures, “The Dames of Dale Berry.”
To top it off, we went to Texas and shot some of the women doing their thing: Beverly Oliver Massegee doing her Christian ventriloquism act with dummy Erick, and Facebook provocateur Keiley Mynk doing her indescribable rap-songs as well as swinging from the ceiling in a catsuit. Not only that, we shot all this stuff in 3D.
This led to other stories I’d dreamt of doing. Honky-tonk singer Frankie Miller, still going strong in his eighties. Entertainment supernova Georgette Dante, who started in the carnival at age five as a midget stripper. That one is 20,000 words, 400 pictures and hours of vintage footage. Cabaret assassin Tammy Faye Starlite, Detroit rocker Margaret Doll Rod. Nicolas didn’t care how long these stories were or how I wrote them, he just wanted me to get the story, whatever it took. I’ve written about a lot of women for the site. I’d like to just do that for the rest of my life, to be honest. I love these people were are documenting. Love. I want to celebrate them while they’re still here.
So Nicolas lets me do my thing. Who else is going to give me this opportunity? Who?! Nicolas stands alone, and he doesn’t fuck around. We dream up a crazy idea, we do it. We’re a team, and you can’t buy that kind of understanding at Walmart, pal. So I’m in this ’til the bitter end, and we have some fantastic things planned. Do we rant and rave at each other? Yes. Hopefully we’ll get all these things done before I keel over while arguing with him on Skype, haha.
By NWR.com is maybe the most rewarding thing I’ve been involved with, ok? I’m very proud of what we’ve created. Everybody should check it out. Of course, Nicolas forbids a table of contents, so you’ll have to dig around to find it all, haha. Like we say, byNWR comes with a mystery attached.
I wish Lux were here to see all the 3D on the byNWR.com site. He loved 3D and knew more about than anybody, including the so-called experts. I still have his majestic old Belplasca camera, which he covered in green lizardskin. It’s uniquely beautiful, like Lux. I miss the guy.
PKM: How did the obsession with 3D start?
Jimmy McDonough: That’s Lux Interior’s fault. He was an old buddy. My paramour Natalia Wisdom was interested in 3D, and he got us an old Stereo Realist camera he’d taken apart and serviced. Stereo became an instant obsession of ours. Natalia and I have taken thousands of 3D pictures of scantily-clad females, it’ll be a book someday. Lux loved these photos. I was always emailing/calling him from some cheap motel in the middle of the night for technical advice as a couple of broads stood on the bed holding turkey basters or some other stupid prop, impatiently waiting for me to say “cheese.” These old cameras frequently malfunctioned, and Lux was a stern teacher – probably because I was very bad student, since I never learned the first goddamn thing about photography, haha. A collection of these photos – “My Romance” – is actually on the site under an alias. You can only see ’em correctly with a 3D viewer. I wish Lux were here to see all the 3D on the byNWR.com site. He loved 3D and knew more about it than anybody, including the so-called experts. I still have his majestic old Belplasca camera, which he covered in green lizardskin. It’s uniquely beautiful, like Lux. I miss the guy.
PKM: You live up in the Northwest now, described as a kind of hermit. Is that fair? I have to say, your state of mind at the end of The Ghastly One seems like that of someone who needed a long break.
Jimmy McDonough: Well, I didn’t get one. I actually wrote Shakey, my biography of Neil Young, before The Ghastly One, even though it came out after. The legal mire surrounding the former meant no vacation was possible for many a year. I hate doing anything else anyway. My life is just one project after another. I only write about people I admire. Like Jerry Lee Lewis once said, “I like to give the great artists what they’ve got coming to them.” And there’re still a few names left on the list. If I don’t make the finish line, blame it on time, to cop a line from Charlie Feathers.