A little more than a year ago, singer-songwriter, author and occasional Dallas Observer contributor Josh Alan Friedman was asked to do the unthinkable, far as he was concerned: write a book about his old boss, the (in)famous pornographer Al Goldstein, founder of Screw magazine and, until about two years ago, a homeless bum living in the back of the Second Avenue Deli in Manhattan. Friedman worked for Goldstein for two years, as Screw's senior editor from 1980 until '82, when Friedman wound up as managing editor of High Times for two more years. (The latter, he insists, was more screwed than Screw: "That was a sick place to work. There were coke-induced nervous breakdowns left and right.") Friedman had already written about his old boss in his 2005 book When Sex Was Dirty, in the chapter titled "The Rise and Fall of Al Goldstein." That, he figured, was more than enough--13 pages, the ol' in-and-out done to satisfaction.
"I felt like I put it to bed, wrapped it up with a bow and finished the subject," says Friedman, son of the great novelist Bruce Jay Friedman and brother of illustrator Drew Friedman. But his wife Peggy disagreed. She told him to nut up one more time and give Goldstein the full-body treatment; besides, she told him, "You've already written the book in your head." Now all he had to do was get with Al and put the damned thing on paper. Which Friedman attempted to do: After he wrote a proposal, which took months, Goldstein agreed to give his old employee a week's worth of time for interviews, which Friedman would bring back to Dallas to transcribe and make sense of. Only Goldstein wound up stiffing Friedman, who flew to New York City and found the old man had filled his week with MRIs and trips to the mental hospital. Three hours is all Goldstein gave Friedman. And from that, he was supposed to write an entire book.
Which is precisely what Friedman did: This week, Thunder's Mouth Press published I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life, an autobiography that really isn't. (It's due for publication in two weeks, but copies have already been spotted in book stores. The publishing world's calendar is nothing if not fluid.) Though Goldstein's name is first in the credits, it's Friedman who did the entirety of the writing, save for excerpts of Goldstein's interviews and editorials that have appeared in Screw over the last three decades. With three hours of tapes--which ain't much for an Observer cover story, much less an autobio--Friedman assembled an engaging, breezy and entirely sordid story about the life of one of the perviest and nerviest publishers in the history of skin mags. Everything's there: from Goldstein's multi-million-dollar court battles over indecent content to his Linda Lovelace blowjob ("I never fucked a woman in the mouth like that. It seemed hostile.") to his time in Rikers Island in 2002 (he was convicted of harassing a Screw secretary) to his bout with homelessness not long ago.
At the moment, Goldstein's scheduled to come to Dallas at the beginning of November for a shindig in his honor at The Lodge; Friedman says owner Dawn Rizos has invited Goldstein to come sign books at her swanky topless joint, and I am sure yer all invited. Friedman is still trying to finish the book he's writing with Jerry Leiber (who, with Mike Stoller, is among the most influential songwriters in the history of early rock and roll); it's been "torturously" slow going. After the jump, Friedman talks about what it was like to become "the monster" in order to write his book that should have been titled I, Friedman: My Screwed Gig.
How did you write the book with nothing but three hours of interviews to go on?
There were some phone conversations, but, yeah, I wrote the rest myself. Little did I know I had a whole file on Screw and thousands of clippings. I was able to do the whole book. It's obviously a lot of his writing with the excerpts from Screw. Otherwise, I became him.
That sounds terribly unpleasant.
It wasn't so bad, because I was able to come back to myself at the end of every day--to my life, to my home. There's something about turning into a monster. It's like becoming an actor. I entered his mind.
And what did you find there, besides soiled sheets?
I found that Al Goldstein the symbol I love. I love him for what he represents. He did some good things. He changed the laws and the culture, and he went to jail for it. There's no doubt about it. He did a lot--a lot more than Larry Flynt. There wouldn't be a Larry Flynt without Al Goldstein. No question. Larry Flynt is like a junior disciple. But Al Goldstein the man is a fat, disgusting buffoon. Al Goldstein the symbol is a hero.
Does he know you're gonna be out pimping his book by calling him "a fat, disgusting buffoon"? And remind me never to have you write my autobiography.
Of course he does. He's proud to be called that. I've never met a man who feels all a warm and fuzzy the more he's insulted. You had to insult him in print when I worked for him 25 years ago. You had to call him a fat kike and make fun of him having a tiny dick even when he didn't. That way he was surrounded by a cocoon of insults, and no one on the outside could insult him. We had to compliment him behind his back. I admired him very much. You can't do a book on someone unless you like him.
It's weird to read the book now knowing that, well, you write it as Al Goldstein. A passage like this one--"In my worst corpulent Walter Mitty nightmare, I am at my fattest, over 350 pounds, a Macy's Day Parade float...I'm in bed with the hooker, wiping oily potato salad off my sausage-like fingers on the hooker's blouse, flinging leftovers against the wall like an infant"--now seems even more disturbing, considering it's something you imagined on his behalf.
Actually, there was an ad in the 1970s, a subscription ad for Screw, that had Al as a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float at his fattest. It showed him as a balloon in the air. I took that image and made it literal there, as his fantasy. The rest is me conjuring that up on his behalf. I also read a thousand of his editorials and picked up little ideas... It's like I am complimenting his thoughts. They originate from him. He can start a joke, and I can finish it. I feel like one of Bob Hope's comedy writers.
Only with more uses of the word "cock."
Yeah, Bob Hope with a cock. Or Mad magazine with a cock. That's how we looked at Screw. It's fun to get into his persona and think like him, and I agree with most of what he says. I feel like his philosophy is what I have embraced in many ways--at least, the best of his philosophy.
What does that mean?
Good question. Well, think of all of the things we take for granted. You yawn when you open Playboy or Penthouse or Hustler when you turn their hoary pages. Yet Al Goldstein went to jail so a picture of a vagina could be shown on a newsstand. It had never been done before. After he won in court, Penthouse started showing pubic hair, and a year later Playboy did. You take it for granted we were allowed to see it now. Well, 35 years ago, that was illegal. Is that a good thing? I don't know. Is the porn industry a good thing? I don't know, but it wouldn't exist without Al Goldstein. The fact your grandmother can buy a dildo at a Walgreen's counter...
I don't think Walgreen's sells 'em, actually. I think my grandmother tried getting one there once.
OK, at Eckerd's. Or anywhere. Probably not the supermarket. But in 1970, Goldstein was arrested for running dildo ads, because Manhattan Superior Court argued dildos could be used for criminal purposes. But Goldstein defeated it, and you could run ads for dildos and sell them. Is that a good thing? Probably. Ask your grandmother.
How did you even end up at Screw in the first place? Childhood dream come true?
Desperation. I needed a job. I couldn't get on Saturday Night Live. I had written for Screw , and a job opened up. Initially, I felt, "This is terrible, it's come to this. I have to work at Screw." I was 24, and within a month I loved it. Really loved it. It was even more fun than the Dallas Observer. You're 24, you're at your horniest, surrounded by a world of sex, and there's no AIDS yet. It's the very end of the sexual revolution. You felt like you were in the vanguard of something, just the wackiest people in New York, which attracts the wackiest people in the world. It was the eye of the hurricane. The whole pornography industry was kinda legal, not really. It was still dirty. And he let me vent my nightmares. It didn't have to be about sex. For a few months, till he put an end to it, we did stuff on the Three Stooges. Drew did one or two Stooges cover. Nightmares. You ever met Al?
Wanna meet him when he comes to town? Wanna have him over?
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To the house? Yeah, not so much. Why don't you let him stay at your place?
Hey, man, I don't want him inside my house either. That's just who you want as a houseguest: a guy who's old, lonely, impotent and broken.
He's not homeless anymore, though, right?
Penn Gillette pays his rent and has for two years. He was only homeless after he got fired from the Second Avenue Deli, when they caught him sleeping on the floor. That's not kosher. There are a lot of rules for keeping kosher, and one of them is not letting fat pornographers sleep on the floor. --Robert Wilonsky