Ball of Fire: An Interview with Jimmy McDonough

By Jonathan PennerJune 24, 2011

Ball of Fire: An Interview with Jimmy McDonough

I'D NEVER HEARD OF HIM. Found his book, The Ghastly One, on sale at Skylight Books; a whole volume on Andy Milligan, the Staten Island schlockmeister usually referred to as the more prolific, "worse" Ed Wood. I knew enough about Milligan's awfulness to be intrigued and found Jimmy McDonough's paperback unforgettable, moving, and brilliantly put together. I sought out his other three books and they were all funny, compulsively readable, staggeringly well researched and ragingly well written. What kind of gutter-dwelling genius would write not only The Ghastly One, but Shakey: Neil Young's Biography, a vast, fevered journey through the life, times and music of the infuriating icon; Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, the tragicomic biography of sexploitation auteur Russ Meyer, soon to be a major motion picture from David O. Russell; and Tammy Wynette, Tragic Country Queen, a bittersweet, evenhanded appreciation of a singular talent most simply worship, deride or ignore? Who was this Jimmy McDonough, who had bushwhacked a course through the night traps and neon thickets of America's postwar counterculture? I had to know. I requested an interview and got a "yes." Learned he lives in Portland. Drives a Dodge Dart. Loves rayon shirts, Casino and Eyes Without a Face.

But he wouldn't or couldn't meet me. Or even talk on the phone. He agreed to field questions lobbed in over the internet and returned answers honed to an off-handed perfection.

Maybe it's that he's a reclusive crank; maybe he's just a control freak. Or maybe it's that Jimmy McDonough knows how to get a subject to come alive on the page; that getting prose to read like a person's talking, requires prose writing, and not just talk transcribing. "I'd like it to be accurate," he says. "Other than that, bombs away!"

 — Jonathan Penner


Jimmy McDonough: My first profile was on the honky-tonk singer Gary Stewart for The Village Voice in the mid-'80s. He was hiding out in a Florida trailer with the windows painted black. Much to Gary's surprise I conned my way into that trailer by finding an old 45 he'd been searching for. Gary was maybe the most talented person I ever met. He just didn't give a shit about fame. He was happier at home on the couch, watching Bronson in The White Buffalo for the 400th time. Gary had great country hits in the mid-'70s like "She's Actin' Single (And I'm Drinkin' Double)" before falling off the face of the earth. I wanted to find out what happened to him, tell the world how great he was.

That's really all there is to it: I write about people who move me. For the most part these are individuals I've spent a long time thinking about. There are just things I want to know... . Even as a little kid I'd get really interested in certain subjects. At one point it was Abe Lincoln. I recall a trip to Ford's Theatre. They had to get another tour guide to answer my questions. I was probably ten or eleven. What a little pain in the ass. I wish I could tell you what I asked. Curiously enough, I remember nothing from my own life - ask my wife, haha. Particularly my childhood. Maybe that's one reason other people interest me so.

There's a list of people in my head. I want to know what makes them tick, so I pick up the phone. One call leads to another and before you know it, the fat's in the fire. It's as simple as that. I'm a sucker for stories. Everybody's got one worth listening to. I think we all need a Boswell. It should be required by law. "OK, Wally, here's your biographer." "But Mom, I don't WANT a biographer." "Be nice to the man, son."

My dad used to take me to the corner newsstand when he'd get the paper. Wood floors, the smell of cigars, racks of candy, comic books and detective remember those places? Very old-timey, somewhat creepy? My first library, I guess. I picked up my firstVariety in a joint like that....endless cheap ads for movies you knew you'd never see. I was influenced by the snappy language of those old, pre-internet Varietys and true crime books by such authors as Brian Masters, Lowell Cauffiel, and Gordon Burn. Beyond that I'm self-taught. High school graduate, barely. Went to college for about three weeks, Indiana University. And I only went to chase after some woman. I learn by doing. The best education I got was being thrown into this "alternative" program in high school. It was run by a bunch of peace-and-love pretend do-gooders who were a lot phonier than the rednecks who had been attempting to teach me previously. I had to hightail it out of there, and fast.

I was a ball of fire, out of control. I used to draw a lot, won some useless awards. Then I put my arm through a glass table during an argument with my mother over a falsified report card... . I still drew, but something had changed. Boredom set in, a reoccurring problem. For a while I hung around a hippie commune in southern Indiana. Boy, was I a bad hippie. I got reprimanded for sneaking Cheetos into the joint. How was I to know orange food is rarely considered 'natural'? They played the same damn album every night in that shack, I think it was an 8-track: Live From the Mars Hotel by the Grateful Dead. You'd wake up in the fucking morning and 'Jerry' would still be warbling away. Just thinking about it turns me to stone. That music could prove useful at Guantanamo Bay.

The best thing about Bloomington was Hinkle's hamburgers. The Hinkleburger, since 1930. God, I'd love a Hinkleburger right now. If only there was a middle-of-the-night knock on the door and some broad was standing there wearing nothing but mink and high heels, a still-steaming bag of Hinkleburgers clutched in her pretty little nail-painted paw. But NO, I have to answer some goddamn questions instead. Homework! Oh death, where is thy sting?

Shortly after the Saturday Night Live performance, I interviewed Young. We met on the road, barreling down the highway in his '59 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz. I gave him shit for his eighties records and told him if he ever sang "Sugar Mountain" again, I was buying a gun. He laughed. It was the beginning of a strange and wondrous relationship.

 —from Shakey: Neil Young's Autobiography

I had interviewed Mr. Young for The Village Voice and never thought I'd see him again. He invited me back into his life. Imagine that, heh heh. I can remember returning that call - the little devil and the little angel were on each shoulder, with one going, "You already got the story, don't call back, don't get involved" and the other muttering "Ahahaha, do it, do it, DO it!" I had to listen to the devil. Mr. Young taught me a great deal about creativity, loathe though I am to admit it. What, exactly? That it's like being in the wind.

Long profiles that I have written that I'd like to be published in a book someday are: Little Jimmy Scott, the Ormonds, Link Wray, Gary Stewart, Hubert Selby. A few others shall remain a mystery for the time being. There's a book nobody wants to publish. The type of project I specialize in.

I am a voracious reader of biographies. How about the books on Jimmy Swaggart and Madalyn Murray O' Hare by Ann Seaman? She makes the rest of us look like monkeys.

I would've liked to have tried writing true crime. Or been a country singer circa 1962. Or Howard Hughes. Oh, how I love that guy. The ultimate obsessive. The guy designed planes and brassieres, collected women, Vegas hotels. Nixon and Hoover were afraid of him. Hughes tried to buy a network because he disapproved of a black contestant on The Dating Game. He was pushed around by greedy Mormons, flew planes in the nude and wore Kleenex boxes on his feet. What's not to like? The American Dream gone mad.

Joe absently stared at the yellowing posters on the wall as he grabbed a tie from the paper bag full of them on the floor. That fucking poster for Ecco. That pinched man with the goatee pushing a needle through his neck. Joe blinked and saw himself on the poster, pushing a needle into his arm instead. Ecco.

Joe heard the old song he liked, that one by the Unifics. Where was it coming from? Was it the radio? The radio didn't look on. Was it the radio?

Joe took off his shirt and sat in the chair. He lined up the cokes on the table. Then he disconnected the phone. There was a lot of work to do tonite. He wanted no interruptions.

After all, he deserved it. He was Joe Monday. He had been in thirty movies, and he came in everyone of them.

—from "ECCO: The Story of a Fake Man on 42nd Street" in Sleazoid Express #147, 1985

My paramour in Indiana wanted to be an actress. We moved to New York. She cut off my long flowing hair and wrapped me in a leather jacket. I was about as successful a punk as I was being a hippie. Got a job in the shipping room of a commercial editing house and worked my way up to the editing room. At the same time I started hanging out in Times Square with this joker Landis.

Bill Landis edited this little rag called Sleazoid Express. My first fully realized piece of writing (co-written with him) was published there: "Ecco: The Story of a Fake Man on 42nd Street." He taught me a lot about writing, Landis. That was the last issue of the original run. It was about him. Landis was taking all the subscription money and blowing it on drugs. Instead of writing about exploitation films he had become one. He was my pal and I thought he was going to kick the bucket, so I wrote about it, right there in his magazine. My little black valentine. He didn't appreciate it and that was the end of that. Funny how that happens.

A lot of tiny intrigue surrounded that rag, I'll tell you. But "Ecco" is one of the best things I've ever done. It fits in with all the rest of it, the missing piece. I designed the whole thing as well. I'd love to see that printed in a larger format.

Worked in film during the day, wrote at night, don't know how I did it. I actually wanted to make movies until I was exposed to the realities involved. Not to mention the amount of people required! I don't have that many handshakes in me.

630 Ninth Avenue. Many an exploitation filmmaker slithered through that building. Not to mention the pornographers. A lot of Phil Prince epics were cut there by a cohort of mine, Brian O' Hara. You'd walk in on some disgusting sex scene and there he'd be, laying in slowed-down animal noises on the soundtrack. O'Hara made a great little documentary about Phil that should be seen by more people, The Prince of Porn.

For a few years I worked for arty exploitation king Radley Metzger. That was an education. His distribution partner Ava Leighton is really one of the unsung heroes of the grindhouse racket. She was a salty old broad straight out of some flea-bitten noir. I wish I'd spent more time with her. I was Radley's editorial assistant on The Princess and The Call Girl and other invisible projects. This is the early '80s. Radley wore a scarf during my initial appointment for the gig. Something I never thought I'd experience, a job interview with a fancy scarf-wearing man. It was like a scene out of one of his movies, we should've had crumpets. I could've worn a monocle. He knew a great, great deal about old movies, Radley. Movies are life-and-death to him, like they are to Scorsese. And he knew everybody in the grindhouse biz. I wish I'd paid more attention.

"To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance," said Jean Genet. It's a pity he didn't see Andy's first Constitution film - the unbelievable Torture Dungeon...

Imagine a drug-induced riot taking place in one of those unbearable Ye Olde Renaissance Faires, throw in a bunch of thespians equal parts thug and fairy (plus a hyperactive hunchback that resembles Moe Howard's illegitimate offspring). Add sex with the mentally disadvantaged, not to mention nude romps through acrid, rust-colored ponds that look suspiciously like overflow from Staten Island's sewage centers, and then stick Andy in the middle of it all with his Tourette's Syndrome camera - Voila! Torture Dungeon!

—from The Ghastly One

The old-school exploitation business was fading away, although there was still money to be made. Crack had changed things, 42nd Street was falling apart. It really was The Twilight Zone. But nothing nefarious ever happened to me there. My friends used to worry, and the one time I listened and walked home via 41st Street, that's when I had a .45 stuck in my face.

Times Square was the greatest place on earth to see movies. Theater after theater. You'd bounce like a ping-pong ball from one end of the street to the other all night long. Nothing else compares. Except maybe the Cameo, which was in LA. That was an unbelievable dump, Calcutta with a movie screen. The horrors were next to you in the audience, not flickering up above. A muscular Spanish man with a bat used to go around the aisles prodding the less ambulatory customers. To make sure they were still alive.

Andy was ambivalent about his biography. "You can't get back at the writer once it's in writing. They have their ivory tower and they can't be touched," Andy hissed on the phone late one night. "Perfect example is the critic in All About Eve, the George Sanders role - he makes and breaks lives. Biographers really are on hallowed ground when they write about other people. And they can inflict whatever they want on anybody - it's a power."

Milligan gleefully encouraged me to come clean in print. "This is what they'll remember about Jimmy McDonough - the fact that he can look in the mirror and recognize what business he's in - peddling flesh."

"Andy! C'mon!" I sputtered.

"You are! Babe, what is a reporter but a flesh peddler? We're in an age of honesty now darlin', so admit it. 'I'm a flesh peddler for money, I'm a whore.' Everybody's a whore. We have to be. Say it at the end of he book, be honest. 'I've come to one conclusion - I'm a Flesh Peddling Whore!' Aha-hahahahaha!"

—from The Ghastly One

I first met Andy Milligan when he was running the Troupe Theatre near 42nd Street. He was putting on threadbare theatrical productions that no one was attending. Andy never had enough actors and often appeared in the shows himself. It was a grim scene. The theatre was a firetrap and so cold in the winter that you could see the actors' breath. The same wallpaper from his '60s horror picture The Ghastly Oneshad been slapped on the wall. Andy took your ticket at the door. He was dressed in worn jeans, a fairly dirty western shirt he'd made himself and a wool cap. He wasn't very friendly.

I just started calling him, asking him questions. Then one day he called me and said, "Hey, Babe, do you want to come to Hollywood and work on a movie?" It was an offer I couldn't resist. I'd just made the NYC "big time" working on pictures by the likes of Sidney Lumet and I left it all behind to go work for Andy. People thought I was nuts. It was a hell of a lot more fun than working a Hollywood assembly line. The best job I ever had, working for Andy. A hundred bucks a day. Cash!

Andy Milligan was a human being, just like you. When he was dying of AIDS he asked me to turn off the tape recorder. I did. Reluctantly. John Waters said something very funny about the book recently - that it asks the "the all-important question, 'Can a genius be untalented, too?'" Waters, there's a role model. Still dignified, stylish and funny as hell. What a badass. We should all grow old so gracefully.

Tanned, blonde, and gigantic, with a harsh, cubist kisser that sends some wags in search of an Adam's apple, Babbette Bardot is one of Russ Meyer's scariest superstars. It's definitely attack-of-the-fifty-foot-woman time with ol' Babette. "I'm the fourth-cousin of Brigitte Bardot," yaps our BB, who also modeled for Picasso at age fourteen before becoming a two-grand-a-week stripper. Everything about Babette is too much -- that slightly deranged hysterical femininity, an incomprehensible Swedish-French accent, a body so overripe that flies might be interested, and let's not forget the tongue-waggling/thumb-sucking monster red lips that look like the could swallow a Hummer. With flesh quivering in all directions, there is something abstract about Babette, something a little Paul Klee ... RM claimed to have enjoyed a dalliance with BB. A daunting task, if you ask me, like attempting to mount a float from the Macy's parade. But then Russell A. Meyer is not just any man.

—from Big Bosoms and Square Jaws

I only observed Russ Meyer from afar. By the time I started working on the book he was already mentally incapacitated and had been removed from public view. I have no doubt that had RM been cognizant, he would've tried to stop me. Stop me, hell - kill me. That book was a lot of laughs. For some reason I felt I could see directly into the Meyer mind. I have a whole other life as 3D photographer James Vapor so I could relate. One has to be a real artist to talk women into losing their laundry in front of the lens. A con artist!

The women were all very helpful. I wish Uschi would've talked. Erica Gavin was the toughest. She rarely gives interviews but spill the beans she did. I was surprised that "the estate" answered my questions. What they have to say is in the book. It speaks for itself.

Russ had a rather precise vision of female sexuality. And like many a man, this vision had little to do with reality, haha. If his stars expressed a thought or confessed a feeling it would irritate him. A Meyer film was boot camp, not a lot of fun. And yet the women in his films took this strange opportunity and turned it into something powerful and exhilarating, almost in spite of Russ and his undeniable genius. A very complex collaboration, RM and his women. For me they were the heroes of the story. And Russ?

He was a lot like Andy Milligan, oddly enough. A curmudgeon. And a prude.

She wanted life to whisk her off her high-heeled feet, to be as passionate as the feverish cover of some romance novel. Instead Tammy Wynette wound up dying in public an inch at a time, her emaciated, addicted, tormented face plastered across the cover of every grocery store tabloid. "Unfortunately the drama of her life overshadows her position as a performer," said Alanna Nash. "Her death is so painful to me I can hardly stand to think about it. It's almost like speaking about some kind of horrible murder. It couldn't get any more tabloid, really."

—from Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen

Tammy Wynette. I'll tell you this: Whenever I goofed off and didn't work on the Tammy book, strange things happened. Her picture would fall off the wall. She'd suddenly appear on the TV. I'd go to the store, her music would be playing.

Tammy was a very complex individual. I don't think there's any "clear understanding" at the end of that book. More like a fog of hairspray, rhinestones and sad steel guitars. All I want is for readers to feel the presence of the people I'm writing about. Feel them. That's it. You want to tick me off, call me a "music journalist." That's one of those air guitar occupations. And, contrary to what some people think, I've never read any of the "gonzo" authors. The Biography Police are always spanking me for "inserting" myself into the story. Don't do this, don't that - they drain the fun out of everything, the killjoys. Of course, it would be worse if they liked it. Needless to say, I don't see it that way. I want the reader to walk a mile in my shoes, smelly as they may be.

Although trivial in comparison to Andy's situation, I was in a bit of a fix myself at this point. In order to work on the Really Big Celebrity biography, I had walked away from my film editing career and abandoned everything else. This crazy cat and mouse game would prove endless, and I was already dead broke. Andy thought it was all crazy, but began slipping me a few bills every time I saw him. 

There I stood in Andy's homemade shirt and Wayne's boots. Who was hustling now? Very painfully, I expressed my embarrassment to Andy. "Just write a good obituary, babe," he said, handing me a wad of dough. It was some time later I found out he had been living off Wayne's disability checks.

—from The Ghastly One

The Ghastly One was actually my second book. Shakey had been finished but was trapped in legal limbo. I was deep in debt, had no career - and no clue if that book would ever see the light of day. I had to do something or I was going to start quacking like a duck. So I went out back of my country home to my dilapidated shed. And in that shed were piles of loose-leaf binders with handwritten transcriptions (this was back before I learned there was such a thing as a transcription machine!) that were literally covered in cobwebs, and all of it was about Andy Milligan. I started reading the dusty pages and started to laugh. Always a good sign.

I'd had a long, long time to think about that project. I'd spent years just rolling the details around in my mind. Just about everybody in the story was dead. And let's just say I was in just the right frame of mind to finally put it on paper. Raw and desperate! It came out pretty much in one shot, it only took about nine months or so if I remember right. Shakey suffered from so much interference that Milligan seemed like an oasis. Everything about it came out just the way it was in my mind, right down to the cover. A lot of the credit has to go to the book's editor, Yuval Taylor. It took guts to take that project on-the world wasn't exactly clamoring for an Andy Milligan biography! I mean, a BBC miniseries on the life and times of Billy Barty would've come first. It really saved my life, that book. It's my favorite and always will be, even if it has only sold 37 copies.

— Have you ever looked the Devil in the eye?

No. Don't do that.

— This is a phrase you use a lot in interviews.

Yeah... (looks in the author's eyes) Jimmy, level with me - heh heh. I gotta ask you - you're not him are ya?

Boy, I'd hate to write an autobiography, the more I think about it. 

— Maybe we should just give the fuckin' money back.

Heh heh. Why don't you just get as much money as you can, then bury the fuckin' thing? You can run to Panama. I'll cover ya - heh heh. And then when I die, everybody can read it. Waddya think? It's a good idea, but it involves me dying too fast.

— Or me.

Or you.

from Shakey

The book takes on the personality of the subject. The Ghastly One is a poison blow dart aimed at the heart. Shakey's more of a shotgun blast of buckshot fired by a blind man. With Tourette's. Take the word "fuck" out of that book and it would be 96 pages. My books really come together in the final weeks of copyediting - I change everything right until the last minute. I was unable to do really that withShakey because of constrictions, so it's way more of a sloppy rough sketch. Befitting of its subject, I guess. I'm glad people like that book, but I can't relate. Originally I had planned on rewriting Shakey every five years from a different point of view - the CSNY fanatic, the Springfield fanatic, etc. Well, THAT ain't gonna happen. (Coughs blood.) Among other things, that book is biography as mental illness. If you don't want to strangle the author with your bare hands by page 738 then I haven't done my job. As Mr. Young might say, "You can be too into it."

I got a book out of it. Listen, I had a great time with Neil and I wish him the best. Lotsa laughs, never a dull moment. It turned into a fucking nightmare, but that's life. In order for me to spill my guts on this subject, Jonathan, you would have to fly me to Brando's island. And once there provide unlimited amounts of Xanax, Coke in the green glass bottle and White Castle hamburgers - not to mention 10 showgirls carrying glittering gold letters that spell out my 3D alias "Jimmy Vapor." And as the sun set on our desert isle, we'd take the pills, guzzle the cola, and chow down on burgers. Fireworks blasting over the ocean, we'd ogle our scantily clad troupe of beauties as they perform a supercharged Busby Berkeley-inspired number in honor of Me. Then and only then could I tell you the story of Shakey. Afterwards, unfortunately, I'd have to plant an axe in your skull. David Briggs, his longtime producer, warned me Mr. Young would do exactly what he did. Nothing lasts forever, OK?

There's a certain innocence to those I write about. Nobody can tell them their dreams are crazy, impossible. A misanthropic dress designer making period horror pictures for no money, shot on the beer-can-strewn shores of Staten Island? A penniless and divorced mother of three desperate to become a country music star? An ex-combat photographer so obsessed by breasts he makes film after film completely centered on them?

Also - and I've only learned this in retrospect - I am drawn to people who are undone by their obsessions. What makes them great is usually what does them in, unfortunately. Hubert Selby, whom I have written about, has an epigraph in one of his books: "A man obsessed / is a man possessed / By a demon." Once upon a time I thought those words were corny, but now I know them to be absolutely true. I never thought I'd fall victim to the usual pitfalls. I knew better - after all, I'd been taught by masters. Youthful folly.

It's hard to talk about this stuff without it sounding like "The Steam From My Blowhole, Part 47." Even the word 'obsession'. It has three syllables, for Chrissakes. Two more than I'm used to. I'm purging my thoughts on the subject in a novel that I've been working on for years. I have no doubt it'll end my career, this book.

I feel like I've gone as far as I can in a certain direction. For once I'm not preoccupied by the life of another, and that's an unusual feeling. I just know I want to do something new, something more ... personal. It appears I have to in order to survive. And now that I'm older than wood there's a sense of urgency that wasn't present before. I keep thinking of lines from that Eddie & Ernie song: "I'm just an outcast / I don't know how long I'm gonna last." My epitaph, hahaha. My epitaph.

LARB Contributor

Jonathan Penner has written for movies, television, magazines, and blogs, and has worked extensively as an actor, screenwriter, and producer. His film credits include the cult classic The Last Supper, the Hamlet-inspired Let the Devil Wear Black and the short film for which he was Oscar-nominated, Down on the Waterfront. He is co-author with Steven J. Schneider of Horror Cinema (Taschen, 2008).



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