Getting Dirty With Mike Edison

Thursday, 05 April 2012

Sex. As W.C. Fields once said, “Some things are better than sex and some are worse, but there's nothing exactly like it.” It's true – sex has tremendous power; after that fateful first time, the perpetual desire common to every person on Earth is to find ways of getting more first, and then getting as much as possible after that. Sex has toppled entire empires and led to complete societal ruin (some of the biggest stories which exemplify that fact revolve around Queen Cleopatra and Mary Magdalene), and that's really only for starters; the plot gets deeper from there. In addition to occasionally perpetuating the species, sex has also played a key roll in perpetuating the arts (both the terms “rock n' roll” and “jazz” began as slang terms for bumping uglies before they became musical genres – to say nothing of what sex has done for film) and padding a fantastic number of bank accounts.

On that point, without meaning to be coy, it could easily be contended that money doesn't make the world go 'round, sex and the human pursuit of it does; in fact, that pursuit has been responsible for generating a tremendous amount of money for a lot of people.

The business of sex may have been historically quite lucrative but, without question, it has been responsible for placing four men among the biggest, richest cultural icons the world has ever known. Those four men are Hugh Hefner, Bob Guccione, Al Goldstein and Larry Flynt – the publishers of Playboy, Penthouse, Screw and Hustler respectively – and theirs are the stories which have combined to produce Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!: Of Playboys, Pigs, and Penthouse Paupers, An American Tale of Sex and Wonder – the newest novel by former High Times publisher and once-Editor-In-Chief at Screw, Mike Edison.

Of course, even in reading the brief description above, there's no way that a few minds aren't beginning to spin. No matter how much the world may have changed since Hugh Hefner first sent Playboy to press in 1953, sex still sells and even the mention of it both piques interest and tweaks imagination; a phenomenon that Edison plainly admits he is not immune to, but laments the recession of in the twenty-first century. “I consider this book high speed American history for adults,” explains Edison with an unmissable glimmer of glee in his voice. “It's a pretty epic story; it covers sixty years of girlie magazines – of men's magazines – and it's American popular culture as told from the dark side of the newsstand. It begins in the 1950s with Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine, rolls through the Sixties and Screw Magazine – Al Goldstein was the lesser-known of my protagonists, but very famous in New York and started Screw in 1968. After that, Penthouse came to North America the following year thanks to Bob Guccione and it started very clearly as a Playboy knock-off but was very successful on the newsstand right away, and Larry Flynt followed up a few years later with Hustler which was very much in the same vein again.

“The book revolves around those four guys with some special appearances from John Lennon, Jayne Mansfield,” the author continues as he begins naming the names of a very, very well-known supporting cast. “Lenny Bruce is one of the heroes of this book, as is Harvey Kurtzman – the great comic book artist who helps connect the dots between Playboy and Mad Magazine – and runs a timeline from Eisenhower to Bill Clinton.”

Some readers are skeptical, and how could they not be? The idea that bare, heaving female chests, vaseline-smeared camera lenses and millions of dollars thrown at the tawdry results of their combination could play a formative roll in anything – let alone such things playing an important roll in the institution of free speech for all – is certainly an abhorrent one to many of even the most liberal minds in the United States of America (a country which regularly finds its own puritanical roots to be an inconvenient truth, especially when they rear up again to make themselves known), and the notion of basing a book on such a premise would have many wondering how long and how valid that book could possibly be but, when questioned on it, Edison happily articulates just exactly how the book develops and where the turns in it are. “It starts in a period of sexual innocence in America, and goes to the point where everybody's flipping through the newspaper to get the story and see if the president really did get sucked off by that intern,” Edison explains in an uncharacteristically solemn tone. “It was after that when the 'porning of America' started.

“After the Monica Lewinsky business and the Starr Report – which was just very tawdry, lurid, graphic and served no purpose except to embarrass the president – really got everything rolling, the popularity of the internet proved to be the last nail in the coffin for the concept of a girl in the centerfold being even sort of exciting,” continues the author. “The problem is – and this is what I uphold in the book – that we lost a sense of sexual wonder; of a boy discovering a girl in the centerfold and beginning to grow up. It was a wonderful process of self-discovery which has been diminished now when all you have to do is click a button on the internet and find a proliferation of some of the most disgusting shit ever foisted on the American public by the internet.”

As simultaneously ominous and brimming with possibility as that last sentiment may be, there's no arguing that it sits in direct contrast to the tenor of Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!'s narrative. From top to bottom, the 'Wonder' angle in this “American Tale of Sex and Wonder” is very much in evidence as Mike Edison's prose glows with language both evocative (scan passages like “Vietnam was on fire with napalm. Closer to home, another battle was being fought, over burning bushes on the newsstand.”) and provocative (scan and giggle along with the author at passages like, “Art director Bob Flora outdid himself with the iconic cover of Hustler's “Super Bicentennial Issue” – an American-flag G-string worn by a deliciously tan woman, and her curly pubes bubbling over the top of the flag. …along came Flynt with the colonies' most patriotic pussy, front and center.”), and will have readers lining up to follow on his tour of journalism's red light district. Beginning with Hugh Hefner's foundation of Playboy in 1953, Edison begins to gleefully tip a few sacred cows – but some of the observations he makes are pretty hard to deny when they're worded as they are here. Right off the bat, for example, Edison paints Hefner – the ultimate name in twentieth century porn – as a closet queen in his fey, tepid refusal to be the cock-swinging, smut-peddling god he could very easily have been, and his insistence on becoming the pajama-ed caricature he is.

For those who have been on the outside looking (and marveling) in over the years, such a start might seem backwards – it's never wise to begin a tour with the largest attraction – but the tour only gets more shocking and provocative form there.

Some of the landmarks and monuments that get pointed out on this Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! odyssey are pretty fantastic to behold. Readers will have to physically pick their jaws up off the floor when they read about Al Goldstein's remarkable rise literally from nothing on the streets of New York to his ownership of possibly one of the greatest and most respected cottage industry success stories (initially) in the form of Screw. Readers will marvel at the success of Penthouse beginning in the mid-1970s and publisher Bob Guccione's rabid spending habits; while he would assist his son in helping to found SPIN Magazine in in 1985 which didn't go badly at all, that was after Guccione put up 17.5 million dollars of his personal fortune to finance the making of the film Caligula in cash in 1976. He also built the Penthouse Boardwalk Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City which lost him about $160 million. The publisher's spending continued unchecked until he ultimately ended up dying of cancer in hospice in Texas at the age of seventy-nine. According to Edison's research, Guccione – who was worth about 400 million dollars in 1982 – died below the poverty line after spending at a superhuman rate for twenty-eight years. With heads left already spinning from those numbers, the Dirty journey runs to a fantastic close with the story of Larry Flynt – the only whore-monger of the lot with the cajones to not just admit to his filthy status, but revel in it. In that turn, Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! somehow ceases to be a trite examination of the decline in societal virtue as represented by the industrialization of sex in the media and becomes a perfect example of one of the greatest golden rules: “be who you are and make no excuses for it, and you'll come out on top.” In discussion, Edison shies away from such analyses, but he doesn't exactly deny them and he will absolutely sing the praises of at least seventy-five percent of his subjects in this book, and reveres their contributions to pop culture. “The thing is that, I really do feel that this story is one that needs to be told because it has never been told as a continuum in a straight line – from Hefner through Goldstein and Guccione in the Sixties and then Flynt – and show that none of this started in a vacuum,” says Edison with an edge in his voice that is undeniably serious. “These guys all knew each other and they all overlapped. Part of the book contends too that 'As America goes, so goes its pornography' which is to say that pornography is reflected in popular culture and vice versa; like, if you go back and look at some of the first issues of Playboy that were published in 1954, they're ridiculously tame and chauvinistic. There's a snide-ness to the way they write about women in Playboy, but Penthouse absolutely worshiped women; Penthouse really did put them on a pedestal and it was so sexy and so racy and it was such a great magazine which was one of the things that made it a joy to do this book – remembering how good a magazine Penthouse was in the Seventies and Eighties and how truly erotic Bob Guccione's photography was back then as he shot with Vaseline on the lens and stuff. That was innovative stuff! The stories and lore about Guccione are pretty incredible.  I cover the amount of money that has run through the four publications that I included in the book, but Bob's spending was incredible. He burned through about forty million dollars in today's dollars; he had one of the largest personal fortunes in the world, he owned the largest private residence in Manhattan, a famous and lauded art collection with Picassos and Degas and other such famous painters included but ended up losing it all, losing his house, losing the business and dying penniless – that is just an incredible story. Each of the stories in this book is an awesome one and I can't deny how important what they did was for freedom of speech; nor should anyone try to. I do so strongly believe in freedom of speech as a journalist, but I also recognize that what I do was made possible by the men that I just wrote about. I did an interview on the Howard Stern Show recently and I said that because of Larry Flynt and Al Goldstein, Bob Guccione and Hugh Hefner – the battles they fought and the ground they made – Howard is able to do what he does. In fact, the least responsible is Hefner, but he likes to take the greatest credit for it; he likes to trumpet how he was a sexual liberator and the civil rights movement was largely advanced and forwarded by the efforts made by Playboy combined with the fact that they hired a black comedian which was hard to do at the time and he deserves credit for changing the face of America which is complete bullshit. The truth is, Larry Flynt's got two bullets in him; Al Goldstein was arrested thirty fucking times – and they fought every single fucking time to win so that we can publicly ridicule political figures, so that we can satirize corporations, so that we can say pretty much whatever we want. The freedom of speech is pretty real thanks to these guys and they pushed it pretty hard.”

Those are potent and powerful words which there's no arguing that Edison believes when he says them, and they match the content of a book which could easily have become (in journalistic parlance) a “puff piece” but reads much like a societal history book, as its author intended. “It'd be easy to dismiss this book as some light puff piece if you haven't read it, but I defy anyone to call it anything other than a history book; a social history book when they get into it and really start reading,” says Edison with uncharacteristic solemnity. “I deliberately laid it out to run in a straight line as a narrative which does cite other events which occurred along the way for context including the Cold War and the gay hunting – the “lavender scare” it was called under McCarthy where they were chasing queers at the same time they were chasing communists – up through when they were back doing the exact same shit under Reagan thirty years later. Everybody was afraid of sex in the Fifties, they discovered it in the Sixties and the Seventies just sort of went along, but the Eighties saw the whole thing coming full circle again and people being scared of it again. It's not the obvious dialogue that anyone would use to connect all those matters, but I think that's what people will like about it and how I'll draw them in, then I'll hit 'em with the good stuff.”



Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!: Of Playboys, Pigs, and Penthouse Paupers-An American Tale of Sex and Wonder
is available now from Softskull Press. Buy it here on Amazon .

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