Trips down memory lane are dangerous journeys. They can produce pleasures or regrets and often both. For many of us who were in their twenties or thirties during the 60s and 70s, Jack Stevenson’s biography of Al Goldstein should bring a very fond and nostalgic laugh.
Back in 1970, my then girlfriend and I were living in a rented flat in Earls Court – as you did. Pinned on one wall of our bathroom was a double page from Screw, the egregious and uproariously scatological newspaper founded by Al Goldstein. The photograph featured a pleasant looking young man with a smiling girl on either side of him. They were all naked and relaxed on some sort of couch, legs akimbo. Hands raised in salutation they endorsed the caption ‘Hi Mom’.
Whatever else he might have been Al was a bit of a hero to those of us bourgeois children of the 60s who had come across him. He had the rather threatening allure (including girth) of a sex industry version of Michael Moore – who was of course not yet invented. The English satire movement, ideologically respectable existential ideas about free love and the invention of the Pill had liberated but not fully subverted our tidy morality. But we did believe in sex. Al’s little newspaper endorsed and put it out there in its most raw and anti-sentimental form.
In truth, on the European side of the Atlantic, only those of us lucky enough to travel to America frequently or with a close interest in the exploitation of porn as social subversion gained any real insight into Al’s war on good taste. Screw was immutably American. Even more, it was the spawn of Scorsese’s Manhattan. Unlike our European and particularly English dissident or satirical magazines which retained an intellectual fastidiousness even at their most provocative, the rebelliousness was loud, incredibly vulgar and totally two-fisted. Not for Al the receipt of genteel establishment rebukes, politely disputed seizure orders from the court and calm appearances before bewigged High Court Judges. For Al there were handcuffs, torrents of abuse and incarceration on Rikers Island.
But then, Al Goldstein’s Screw was never intended to be a satirical and society-changing medium. It was only intended to use sex and its accompanying juices and leakages and grossness to make us laugh or throw up, or both. In retrospect both editorially and graphically we can see that it was as though Viz had been mated with the Sunday Sport and edited by Rabelais in a manic mood. That said, even at its most grotesque and rough-edged, the output was unmistakably from competent writers and artists.
Jack Stevenson’s absorbing book is a very thorough and dispassionate look at both a man and a slice of American cultural history. It deserves a place on the bookshelves of anyone who fancies themselves a student of contemporary culture. Personally, I was intrigued to see that one of the characters featured in the history was and still is an old friend. At least that acquaintance took root and thrived. Al Goldstein and his works disappeared from my radar by the end of the 70s. I was amazed to learn from Jack Stevenson’s narrative that Al and Screw somehow survived constant vicissitudes into the ‘noughties’; though both were much worn down and attenuated in reputation and relevance. Indeed, the author himself describes Al as ‘…a scarred and battered survivor of the fifties cultural wars’, during which to step out of line was to expose oneself to genuine personal risk both from society and the State.
Al Goldstein rose surprisingly high in (East Coast) American social consciousness before his fall as unrepentant anti-cultural warrior and last rebel standing. He himself would have had no truck with effete deconstruction of his social meaning. Nor, I think, would Mr Stevenson. So let me end with the author’s own words:
‘Goldstein, the great blowhard of our age became the patron saint of all oppressed souls who felt tyrannized by the creeping conformity of political correctness, by the paternalism of hypocritical vote seeking politicians on moral crusades and by the fascism of the ‘’family values’’ police who wanted to turn the whole country into a suburban theme park. New York City figured as the last wild kingdom, too big, too mean, too vice ridden to ever be conquered (or so people thought). And Screw reflected the spirit of the place more accurately than any other publication.’
Al, it is possible we still need you – for all sorts of reasons.
Jack Stevenson, Beneath Contempt and happy to be there. The fighting life of porn king Al Goldstein, Headpress, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1-900486-79-8, www.worldheadpress.com