To know who Jimmy McDonough is, is to know the subjects of his work. Whether it’s his highly-lauded (and controversial) biography on Neil Young, his work covering the elusive rock and roll alien Link Wray, or his time spent with Sleazoid Express-Jimmy’s got cool on lockdown. But when it comes to his work, nothing has been has been quite as captivating and gonzo as his Andy Milligan biography, The Ghastly One. As I write this, I suspect most of you reading it are saying “who the fuck is Andy Milligan?!” Great question…
Andy is a guy who entered my life through a shitty double feature DVD, given to me by a great friend, who shares my affinity for sleaze and schlock. The Andy half of this disc was a movie called Carnage, which by all accounts, isn’t very good. Nonetheless, always being a glutton for punishment, I HAD to find out more about Andy Milligan. Only a a handful of his movies were actually available, and I got my hands on those as quickly as possible.
The funny thing about these movies-none of them are good. But hell, none of us like grindhouse because it’s good-we like it because it’s crazy film made by crazy people. But stripping away at the surface of these movies finds some frenetic camera work, impossibly insane acting, and very defined disdain for all things female. This is where Jimmy comes into play.
Finding as much as I could, I thought I’d consumed all things Milligan. I was wrong, for that same aforementioned friend got me a copy of The Ghastly One as a birthday gift (my favorite of that year). It’s an immediately addictive read. I found myself actually shaking my head at what I was reading. Was this guy really the lunatic he appeared? Did this shit really happen?! Well, the only way to find out was by contacting the man himself, who not only got the real insight on Andy Milligan’s psyche, but actually worked with him in his final years on earth.
Jimmy’s book was insanely well-researched and reads like more like a love letter to the films (and film makers) he loved and less like your typical textbook biographies. I hope you all enjoy reading this as much as I did. Follow it up by picking up some of Jimmy’s work and finding out about this grindhouse psychopath he called friend.
Blood Sprayer: As a writer, you’ve had the fortune of working w/ some pretty incredible pop culture figures (Neil Young, Link Wray, Russ Meyer, etc.). That begs me to ask you the question: Why Andy Milligan? Anyone who reads The book, The Ghastly One, can see his story is ripe w/ the kind of insanity that makes a great read. Still, how did you decide on writing a book on his career?
Jimmy McDonough: From the minute I saw a poster for one of his movies, the world of Andy fascinated me. And when I walked into his old Troupe Theatre on 39th street and briefly met the man himself, I was hooked. The Troupe, what a place. A d
ecrepit old firetrap of a building hosting a bunch of desperate thespians putting on the moth-eaten classics for an audience of zero. The wallpaper from The Ghastly Ones was up on the wall! Andy not only took your ticket but showed up for a role or two. I used to go see a couple of exploitation flicks on the Deuce, then mosey on over to see Milligan exploit his starving actors. Both environments seemed curiously similar. What’s that line of Meyer’s from Faster, Pussycat? “Welcome to violence,” hahaha. That was a very dark period in Andy’s life. He seemed much happier once he hot-footed it to California…
I had actually planned on writing The Ghastly One a decade earlier but got tied up with Shakey instead. I remember the day Rudolph Grey, author of the Ed Wood bio Nightmare of Ecstasy, came over. This was before the book was published and he had a mile-high, moth-eaten manuscript. I was knocked out, by Rudolph as a person and by his research. To say I recognized a bit of myself in his approach would be an understatement. I helped him find a publisher. We all know what happened there. Great, great book, then a movie, etc. I thought, ‘Well, there goes the Andy book. Nobody will want another book on a crackpot exploitation director.’
A decade later I was in the midst of a lawsuit over Shakey, not knowing if that book would ever come out or if I had any career left as a writer. I was hiding out on a farm and trying to invent a new life. Meanwhile, the Milligan research, hidden out back in a broken-down shed overrun with rats, was gathering dust and spider webs. I was at the end of my rope, searching for things to do so I wouldn’t go crazy, and I started thinking about the Milligan book. Why not, I thought, I’ve got nothing else to do. I’d had a long time to think about Andy’s story, which made it very easy to put down on paper. I think it was done in nine months. Luckily Yuval Taylor, an old friend of mine, wanted the book for Chicago Review Press. How he talked them into it I’ll never know. Yuval did a phenomenal job with that book. When it was done it looked just the way it had in my head, a rare occurance. A very gratifying experience, that book. The Ghastly One remains my favorite creation. I’ll never top it, and so what if 17 people have read it–that makes it even better, like a little secret fortune cookie. Everything just lined up right and it came out effortlessly. And after the utter hell of Shakey I felt a certain personal vindication. Just like Gloria Gaynor, I had SURVIVED.
BS: The attention to detail in your work is astounding. With The Ghastly One, did you have to apply that same arduous research style, or did your pre-existing relationships and personal involvement make the process easier?
JM: I loved researching Andy’s life. Nobody could believe I was doing it. “Why do you want to know about HIM?” It was a different reaction than the one you might get researching, say, Churchill’s life. By the time I actually started hanging out with Andy I knew so much about him. I could predict what he’d do in most situations and I could predict most situations he was going to create. It made working on Monstrosity a lot of fun, I’ll tell you. What I found exciting was the guy was still DOING it. He wasn’t a museum piece and this wasn’t the distant past. Here was Andy, scuttling about right before my eyes, barking orders, ripping film takes apart with his teeth and waving a nailgun. How exhilarating.
BS: It’s pretty obvious those were some hedonistic times. Any stories from those glory days that you find particularly shocking?
JM: Well, the Metropolitan Theater on 14th street was a pretty shocking place. A cavernous old vaudeville theater with dark passageways behind the screen and customers in the balcony depositing their DNA on the hapless fellow patrons below…it was like an ant sex farm. And the Variety, the octogenarian sex palace around the corner. You know, the homeless have to have sex, too. And at the Variety, they did, for only $1.99 all-day admission, if I remember correctly. They’d show all sorts of unadvertised exploitation crap there–you either had to call the theater and ask the guy in the box office (who was usually Spanish and didn’t always understand your inquiry), or walk by the theater to physically see the poster, which sometimes was just a title magic-markered on the back of a porno poster. I recall telling Dave Friedman one of his pictures was playing there, which he obviously didn’t know about. A certain New York subdistributor who shall remain nameless was slipping Friedman’s product into the theater without reporting (or paying) him. Dave was off to make an angry phone call, hahaha. The exploitation film biz. It lived up to the title.
It was such a weird time, the mid to late 80s in those areas of NYC. Particularly with the advent of crack, 42nd Street and 14th Street seemed like the end of the world. Now, from the safety of my throne, I just turn on the TV and what I see seems much, much grimmer than anything I witnessed on The Deuce, heh heh. Spooky, as Dame Edna would say.
The absolute worst theater I have ever been to, though, was the Cameo in downtown LA. A huge, smoky grindhouse for denizens of street, the Cameo. That place was like Calcutta, but with corn dogs in the lobby. Moaning was frequently audible in the audience and I don’t think it was because they were unhappy with the mis en scene up on the screen. A muscular Puerto Rican gentlemen employed there used to wander the aisles and poke people with a stick to see if they were awake–no, ALIVE. Not exactly Youtube, the Cameo.
BS: When one speaks of Andy Milligan, it seems that it’s either at the expense of his filmmaking, ala Ed Wood, or he’s being villafied by those who’d crossed paths with him. You had a much different bond with him than most. Was he truly the monster he was made out to be or has his reputation been inflated over time?
JM: I thought he was a great guy, personally. Always a lot of laughs. He had a keen eye and a wicked sense of humor. You had to stand guard, though, because Andy knew your weak spots and probed them relentlessly. I think he would’ve been much harder on me if I wasn’t the guy writing his biography, hahaha. He knew he could draw a little blood with his guillotine, but chopping my head off completely was out of the question. And then I watched him disintegrate. That’ll sober you right up, Boswell or no. And his demise was particularly gruesome. Everybody I know is dead! Hardly anybody from that book is left at all. It’s a bit of a drag.
BS: From the time frame in which Andy Milligan made film, there were several guys who crossed over into a more commercial realm like John Waters, Scorcese, Andy Warhol. What held him back from this same success?
JM: He was an angry guy. That didn’t help. Milligan didn’t want to do the things others felt were necessary to ‘polish’ his talent. He was incapable, in fact. Andy was very manic, driven by forces beyond his control. He could only do things one way: his. And nobody appreciated it. People laughed at him. Thing is, Andy kept going. Always kept going. Milligan was forever churning out screenplays, theater plays, hatching ideas for another film. I had a lot of admiration for that.
BS: As hard as I’ve looked, I’ve only ever been able to find only a few Milligan films still in print. What do you know of as still being available and which of those should we be seeking out?
JM: I don’t keep up, so I can’t help. But I can give you a scoop: my Milligan collection is now in the hands of esteemed director Nicholas Winding Refn and he intends to put it out on DVD. This includes the barely-released Nightbirds, the unfinished House of Seven Belles, all sorts of things…He is the right man for the job and I’m so glad he’s got them. A great guy, and he loves all things Milligan.
BS: In The Ghastly One, you spoke to some folks that fans of horror and exploitation are familiar with (David E Friedman as an example). One name kept popping up: Mishkin. Putting any conflicting opinions aside, what was your experience with the Mishkins, particularly Lew?
JM: Oh, I liked Lew. He was always nice to me. He was a bit of a sad sack. I remember him tottering about in his spiffy track suit watching Milligan shoot Monstrosity. When Lew was about to speak to Andy, he’d sport that weary look of a hostage who knows the ransom hasn’t been paid and his captors are coming back in the room to dole out punishment for the 47th and perhaps last time. The mere mention of his name sent Andy through the roof–screaming, yelling, cursing. Poor Lew. I detected no love of the film business, which wasn’t the case with his dad, who had a begrudging if slight respect for Andy’s ability to churn the crap out. William was a tough guy to get to talk, and after much cajoling, it happened on two occasions, and then only by phone. He was a very charming, bright guy who was obviously proud of what he’d accomplished on 42nd Street. Lew was in it just for the money, which made his union with Milligan very self-destructive, if you ask me. That was a match made in hell. They both knew it, but it was the only game in town. Nobody was doing it their way anymore. The relationship between Mishkin senior and junior seemed even worse, if you can believe that.
BS: What’s your take on this new found obsession w/ the films from the grindhouse era?
JM: Inevitable. Everything has its moment if you wait long enough. I await Sleazoid Express: The Musical. I take it back–there isn’t enough Xanax in the world to make that endurable.
BS: You’ve had the writer’s dream job, getting to work with some of the best names rock and roll and cult film have had to offer the world. Who’s still left on your short list of people you’d love to work with?
JM: People who are dead:
Lon Chaney, Sr
BS: Do you have any plans to unleash a full on fiction novel on the world?
JM: Yes. Been working on it for years. And there is content that relates to what we’ve been talking about. It is one thing to perform an autopsy on others and another to turn the scalpel on yourself. We’ll see if I have the guts.
BS: Who are the artists that have inspired you to continue honing your craft?
JM: Helmut Newton, George Jones, Brian Masters, Little Walter.
BS: Lastly, because we are a horror-based site, I always ask the interviewee what their all time favorite horror film is. Considering all the different people you’ve worked with, though, I feel it’s appropriate to edit this question a bit. What is your favorite horror flick and favorite album ever made?
JM: Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage), the 1960 Franju picture.
Troubadour, by J.J. Cale.
and a song:
Beneath Still Waters, George Jones. May it be played at my wake.