I met writer-curator Jack Stevenson more than ten years ago in San Francisco. He curated a screening at Other Cinema and my friend Stephen Parr threw an afterparty for him at his loft in the Mission District. We stayed in touch. Jack has been a tremendous inspiration for itinerant programmers, establishing a “circuit” of offbeat venues in Europe for screening underground films. (Before YouTube, you actually had to go to Munich to show films to Germans). I and many others toured in his wake, projecting 16mm films in countless smoke-filled clubs, squats, and basements around the continent.
Jack also may be our generation’s preeminent chronicler of the seamier side of cinema through books such as Addicted (drugs in film) and Scandinavian Blue (erotic film in Denmark). He just penned an unauthorized biography of über-sleazoid Al Goldstein so I thought the time was meet for a visit to Mr. Stevenson’s neighborhood…
You’ve screened underground films for a long time all around the world. What got you started and why are you still doing it?
I started “producing” film shows at a dive bar in Boston in 1985. It was called CHETS, an attic space over the PENALTY BOX LOUNGE in North Station across from the old Boston Garden. I would rent 16mm prints and show them in between punk bands that I booked to create a total night’s entertainment that went on far too long and always lost money but made for some great evenings. CHETS was a front for a heroin-selling operation and, unbeknownst to anyone, never even had a liquor license and it was shuttered by the cops in the late 80s. Films always look better in a dive bar, and when I moved to San Francisco, I continued by showing films at the Club Chameleon on Valencia and elsewhere.
I was never educated in film but always saw it as an escape into another world. I don’t see it as a social experience. I hate to see a theater full of families or couples, the ideal scenario is to have a big old dusty grindhouse with just a scattering of lone figures in dirty overcoats sitting as far away from each other as they can, and they don’t take off their coats ‘cause the place has no heat and the bathroom smells of industrial-strength Lysol and rotting plaster and the toilets don’t work. These people are serious.
I got off the subject here but that’s how I see it. I’m still at it because I have been a fit print collector since the 80s, so I have a lot of raw material, and I’ve inherited a small cinema in the center of Copenhagen where someone who doesn’t speak functionable Danish (after 17 years) can make some money. We have about 20 volunteers involved with the cinema and parties can go on until dawn, or so they tell me.
You’ve been based in Copenhagen since the early 1990s. How did you end up there?
I traveled around Europe throughout the late 80s and discovered this amazing off-cinema scene which does not exist in America in any comparable form. In 1993, I married a Danish woman I had met and moved here.
Tell us about your new book on Al Goldstein.
I wrote it a few years ago to take a break from my recent book SCANDINAVIAN BLUE which was driving me nuts. I wrote it at the cinema which at that point was being run as a commercial arthouse and I had many hours to kill in the cinema café. Writing about Goldstein was a way to reconnect with America. Nobody has ever heard of him over here.
A lot of people dismiss Goldstein as a buffoon. Why do you think he is important?
Goldstein is the most disrespected and dismissed figure in the world of porn. He is far beyond a mere buffoon. He is a true “untouchable” but, in glancing blows, he was brilliant and his story is fascinating. He was such a mixed bag it’s impossible to defend him and I don’t defend him. People ask me if I ever met him and I say “Lord no!” He’s anathema to anyone with a fiber of political-correctness — somewhat in the same fashion as Ike Turner.
Ike essentially invented rock-and-roll, and yet he was deeply vilified because he abused Tina and they wrote him out of the narrative and dismissed his accomplishments. Yeah, well, rock was an outlaw music and not all rock figures were good people or had control over their lives. That’s what we celebrate and what gives the music power yet we expect them to be “good” people.
Porn was also an outlaw form of expression and Goldstein was also out of control, mostly to his own detriment. As a person, he has been in a continuous state of spontaneous combustion for 70 years, exploding at the seams from all his inner-contradictions. It is impossible for Al Goldstein to exist, and yet he does. To answer this question more fully I would simply advise folks to read the book. It’s a small book with lots of pictures, so please just buy it and read it.
Your book implies that SCREW MAGAZINE (Al Goldstein’s publication) was not so much porn as a unique amalgam of underground culture, tabloid pulp, and lowbrow satire. Please elaborate.
The goal of porn is to arouse people and that was never SCREW’s mission. Its mission was to beat us over the head with the fears and guilt we have about sex and, by so doing, induce a form of shock therapy and maybe get us to lighten up. Your question puts it perfectly, and in this sense, Playboy was a much more pornographic publication in the technical sense. SCREW was never involved in the biggest con, the con of the tease. I think Al’s greatest achievement was to make Screw so mercilessly unromantic. He was a necessary counter balance. In the 70s, we had Olivia Newton-John and all the other plague-ridden harpies singing to us about how wonderful love was and then there was Al telling us love sucked.
SCREW published more than a thousand issues. Many of the covers were designed by pre-famous artists such as Joe Coleman and Drew Friedman. Tell us about your favorite cover.
My favorite covers are these two – SLIPPERY WHEN WET ‘cause it’s just great, and this other one (see below) because it was nicely old-school in a 60s R. Crumb kind of way, and because it was the issue where Screw first acknowledged my existence, reviewing issue #1 of my 80s magazine series, Pandemonium. It’s embarrassing now how much stock I put in that review, but it really made me proud: “Look Ma! I’m in SCREW!” I wanted to take copies back to my old high-school and show everybody.
Have you gotten any feedback from Al Goldstein about your new book?
No, I haven’t. Nobody even knows where he is. Reportedly he recently suffered another heart attack and lies in some NYC area VA hospital in a disoriented state, only able to mumble. If I had his address I would send him a copy, and knowing that somebody wrote a book about him without his permission and was making money on it (well he’d have the first part of that sentence right) would bring him back to his senses, and the sky would darken and, in the distance, thunder would boom. And I would stand ready to reap the whirlwind. Maybe I do have the power to bring him back to life…