By Mike McPadden
New York City's Times Square/42nd Street entertainment district in its scumatorium heyday.
Cosmically heavy 1970s rock music.
Larger-than-lust vixens with deadly appetites, lethal ambitions, and the killer physiques to carry them out.
That is the shit.
Arising from these fertile milieus are countless works of hard art and high inspiration. Thank whatever gods oversee such lurid pleasures, as a passionate, responsible, and uniquely gifted documentarian has arisen to chronicle their masters in the form of Jimmy McDonough.
Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film is McDonough's most recently issued missive from the realms of wildman genius. It is also his third consecutive exercise in perfection.
Although he downplays it somewhat now, McDonough's initial forays into writing came via Sleazoid Express, a legendary Xeroxed-and-stapled screed sheet published from 1980 to 1986 by the spectacularly ornery (and brilliant) Bill Landis. Sleazoid was an electrifying, ground-zero account of midtown Manhattan's horror-porno-narco era from the point-of-view of real-life participants, and no one sank deeper or more fascinatingly into the fray than Landis.
The final issue of Sleazoid, an epic summation of Landis's life and various careers as an underground publisher, hipster provocateur, trash-film curator, porn-theater projectionist, junkie, and adult-film performer (among others) stands among the finest writing on films, drugs, the sex trade, and the dizzying cost of cheap thrills that has ever seen print. No fooling. It is also the only edition of Sleazoid that Landis disowns wholesale--no doubt because it is so heavily the work of McDonough. That swan song also figures as the advent of McDonough's subsequent role as the premier chronicler of visionary crackpots.
No biography is more important to me than The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan and it may be that no biography exists that is better. Anywhere.
McDonough's 2002 masterpiece is the product of his decades-spanning friendship with the titular anti-hero, one of the founders of Off-Broadway theater in New York and writer-director of the most insanely unwatchable horror films ever made by anyone, anywhere (and he did this mostly in the underdog NYC borough Staten Island, to boot). Milligan was also a sexual sadist whose off-the-set peccadilloes resulted in his contracting AIDS. Toward the end of Andy's life, McDonough cared for the ailing filmmaker full-time. "Not many biographers can claim to have wiped their subject's ass," Jimmy writes in The Ghastly One. "I can."
The Ghastly One is an endlessly compelling, one-of-a-kind chronicle of a one-of-a-kind talent (if that's the word). It deserved to be a bestseller, and it was hoped that a huge, rave review by Richard Corliss in Time magazine would turn Ghastly into the next Nightmare of Ecstasy. Alas, we're still waiting for that to happen. Here's hoping that Feral House will republish The Ghastly One and promote the book directly to the audience that missed it the first time (as Feral is suitably equipped to do like no other imprint).
Fortunately, Jimmy McDonough's follow-up, Shakey: Neil Young's Biography made an impact commercially in keeping with its artistic success.
As with Andy Milligan, Jimmy literally spent years in the company of Young while working on this sprawling account of the rock icon. The end result apparently hit too close to Neil's nerve center, as he sued to suppress the book and locked it in a legal limbo that took agonizingly long to unravel. Shakey, which commenced in the late 1980s, finally arrived in bookstores in 2002, shortly after The Ghastly One.
And now McDonough has trained his scope on superhuman boobmeister and adult-film visionary Russ Meyer, director of The Immoral Mr. Teas, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Mondo Topless, Vixen!, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Supervixens, Up!, and other titanically tit-heavy titles that bear his unmistakable stamp.
The book lives up to its subject--and that's saying two mouthfuls.
I am grateful that Jimmy took the time to discuss his life and work with MrSkin.com, and you'll be grateful when you read his books. So go to it.
Please give us a little background on your personal life. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? What were your formative years like?
I grew up in New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and Indiana. I barely graduated high school. I was on fire during the younger years of my life and no doubt caused others a lot of misery.
To be frank, I don't remember much of my childhood. Recently I was amazed to learn that as a young lad I had somehow managed to commandeer--along with a buddy or two--a raft miles down the grimy Passaic River and wound up miles from home somewhere near Newark. I had no memory of it. I think the fact that I don't remember my own life plays into being so curious about the lives of others.
Please give us a quick overview of your career. When did you begin writing professionally? How did you get into it? What have you written?
I started doing profiles for the Village Voice in the mid-to-late-'80s, which, outside a random thing or two, is where my writing career really began.
The first one was on a honky-tonk singer by the name of Gary Stewart, and it only happened because an editor there by the name of Kit Rachlis happened to be a fan.
I had already written a big chunk of it. Due to the utter chaos that was Gary's life, the story kept changing week by week. Kit stuck with it and it led to other profiles. I was working in the film business long hours and writing at night ... it was nuts.
My profiles were always longer than the Bible and the paper was always trying to get me to cut.
I seem to recall ripping a phone out of the wall. I was a real hothead back then. My position was that if the people I was writing about were gracious enough to let me stick a scalpel in, I was obliged to do the complete autopsy. Yes, even though they still had a pulse.
I don't know where you'd do stories like that today. Unfortunate, because I'd like to write more of them now. Not one magazine would publish my obituary for Gary, a piece of writing of which I'm quite proud (available here through Furious.com).
The Voice profiles led to Shakey. I interviewed Young for the paper, he called me up a few months later, and this led to a desire on both our parts to work on a biography. That was 1990; the book came out in 2002. A lot of time was wasted spent standing around waiting, which was unfortunate as I could've been doing so many other things.
I'm pretty single-minded and don't like to start a project until whatever I'm working on is done, which certainly wasn't an asset in this particular case.
Even though it saw publication first, The Ghastly One was actually written after Shakey, during some very despairing times when I didn't know if that book would ever see light of day.
How did Big Bosoms and Square Jaws come about?
I had always wanted to write about Meyer. One night in Hawaii, of all places, I wrote the bit that wound up towards the end of the intro concerning my personal feelings about Meyer and his films. Everybody hated it, so I knew I was onto something. It just felt right.
This book was written in a fever--such a fever, in fact, there's a few egregious flubadubs to be corrected in future editions that I hope the all-knowing out there will forgive me for.
Ever see Jerry Lee Lewis sing "Jackson" with his sister, Linda Gail? Lacquered, luxurious black hair ... pounding piano ... odd, heretofore unseen rhythms of the female flesh ... Mack truck vocal delivery ... a knowing, unsavory wink between relations ... that's the sort of place this book was written in. I'm goin' to Jackson, I'm gonna mess around ...
I had a lot of fun doing this book, which is somewhat unusual for me. The women of Meyer's films are such fantastic creatures.
You present as fair a picture as possible of the individuals currently controlling Meyer's estate and, more importantly for us fans, his movies. What do you hope will happen there? Do you think anyone will be able to take better care of Meyer's legacy?
I certainly hope that new transfers are done of the films, that the negatives are being preserved, and that any unreleased materials are released. I don't think I'm alone in feeling underwhelmed by what's been done thus far.
Meyer left rather specific instructions in his will. One hopes they will be honored.
You have written three books about one-of-a-kind purveyors of powerful, incendiary art that is uniquely their own. What has attracted you to each of your subjects? What do they share in common?
A willingness to go for broke pursuing what the rest of the world might consider crackpot dreams. Uncontrollable desires, an inescapable bleakness, a certain glint in the eye.
Milligan, Young, and Meyer, it could be said, were driven both publicly and in private by their obsessions. What are some of Jimmy McDonough's driving obsessions?
I get completely involved with people's stories. I wanted to tell the world about these fabulous individuals because their creations had done so much for me. Sometimes I get so into it, I risk not being able to get out of it [laughs].
As far as personal obsessions, that is a subject best kept to the novel-in-progress that I keep under lock and key in a rickety wooden construction way out in the back forty we here on the farm like to call "The Punishment Barn".
What were you surprised to learn about Russ Meyer as you worked on the book?
Nothing really surprised me, especially after I realized he sort of fit in with others I've written about. The fact that he was so disapproving of certain activities I found funny. That Meyer was such a lonely guy saddened me, but it seems to come with the territory.
RM was just out there in space doing his thing, a thing that wasn't really accepted by the world at large, and he was involved in it to such a degree it exhausted those around him. There are some odd parallels between Meyer and Andy Milligan. And Meyer and Neil Young. Control freaks. Crazy mothers. Mental ... disturbances. What to make of it exactly, I don't know.
What were your early experiences with exploitation films? Did you grow up seeing them in theaters and/or drive-ins? Were you a fan early on?
Yes, I was a fan early on. Little Jimmy and the Creature Features. Then came the drive-ins and grindhouses. All of it entranced me--the posters, the movies, the people. A glittery cesspool that I, too, could swim in.
You spent years in the company of both Andy Milligan and Neil Young. Did you ever meet Russ Meyer? Did you have any kind of personal relationship with him? What were the challenges in writing about a figure with whom you had not had as much contact as you'd had with your previous subjects?
Other than speaking to him briefly on the phone and watching him in action from afar during a period in which I worked for Radley Metzger, I had no personal contact with the West Coast RM whatsoever, which made this book a daunting proposition, to say the least.
For all my previous books and articles I have been involved with the subjects, perhaps to an unhealthy degree. Initially this stopped me, because I quickly discovered Meyer was in no shape to participate, in any way. His friends all say had he been cognizant of the project he would've somehow stopped it or had me killed. But these people also encouraged me to do the book.
I figure that RM had ample opportunity to tell his side of the story in his massive, three-volume, thousand-page-plus autobiography. So I hit the gas and didn't look back. I must admit this way of doing things was a big change, and it has sort of freed me to consider other projects. At least I hope so.
No doubt readers expecting the sort of fly-on-the-bloodstained-wall ambiance oozing out of The Ghastly One will be disappointed, but I can't let that get in my way.
I like to think of Big Bosoms as the Broadway show tunes version of Ghastly One, but that's just my perverse mind.
What aspects of Russ Meyer's worldview do you share--and which do you not? His taste in women? His politics? His distaste for hardcore pornography? What else?
Read the book and I guess one could come to the conclusion we share a certain taste in women--up to a point anyway [laughs].
I hope I share his somewhat maniacal lust for life.
Meyer's politics? What exactly were they, besides God Bless America? I guess I'm as patriotic as the next guy, although, to borrow from Lazy Lester, I'm a lover not a fighter [laughs].
Call me old-fashioned, even a romantic, Mr. McPadden, but hardcore doesn't really interest me one way or another. I certainly share RM's disdain for "The Ace", but that relates to a decades-long project I'd rather not discuss at the moment.
You have very early-on experience in the realm of self-published fanzines. As with the theatrical exploitation film, technology has effectively eliminated (or, at the very least, profoundly transformed) that medium. What was your "guerilla press" experience like? Did you have any favorite zines?
As far as Sleazoid Express, I don't have much to say, other than this: Mr. Landis seems to be bent on excising me (and just about anybody else other than himself) out of the history of Sleazoid. I find that a little pathetic. But I have no real axe to grind--it was a million years ago, we had a lot of laughs, and I wish Bill the best.
The only thing I have an attachment for from this period of my life is that last issue of the original run, "Ecco: The Story of a Fake Man on 42nd Street". That was a collaboration between us in every sense of the word. In many ways that one was my baby, and curiously enough it is the one issue Landis appears to despise. In my opinion, you can light a match to the rest of it. I think everything Sleazoid was said the best right then and there.
To be honest, I read no zines.
What are your picks for the three sexiest movies you've ever seen? Why?
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, Eyes Without a Face, Casino. Why? I find obsessions of any sort sexy. I love the scene in Vixen! between Erica Gavin and Vincene Wallace (Picture: 1). Love it. I could live there. In a way I sorta do. Don't ask [laughs].
Who are your three favorite female movie stars of all time? Why?
Here's four: Ava Gardner, Gene Tierney, Marie Windsor, Marlene Dietrich. Look at them! Listen to them talk! Watch them in action! Beads of sweat form on my brow just thinking about them.
Ever seen that Maximilian Schell documentary, Marlene? Priceless. Torturing her inquisitor one moment, weeping over the past the next. My kind of gal.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
My big influences were true crime and that old Variety-style of writing: "Hix Nix Pix in Stix." Contrary to popular belief, I have never had any interest in "gonzo" journalism, nor have I even read any of it. A few of my favorite biographies: The Don by William Brashler; Balthus by Nicholas Fox Weber; and Ray Charles: Man and Music by Michael Lydon.
Do you have plans to write anything outside the realm of non-fiction?
Yes, I have been working on something for years, but every time I look at it I throw up. One day I hope to eject it out of my system for long enough to allow critics the world over to throw up instead.
You had considerable experience with Times Square/42nd Street in its '70s-'80s trashpit heyday. Have you considered writing a book on this topic? What was your experience of that time and place like?
After The Ghastly One and Big Bosoms, I have no desire to write about either exploitation films or 42nd Street. Tapped out, I'm afraid. Finito.
What other unsung visionaries would you like to write about?
Forgive me, but I'm superstitious about answering this one.
What's next for you, Jimmy?
For the first time in a couple of decades, I don't know. I'm not in the grips of anything at the moment. It is a bit frightening.