So, Big Al is dead. I was not a close friend of Al Goldstein, but I knew him for several years.
I liked him.
[Somewhere around here, I have a pad of Screw/Milky Way Productions note paper. When I run across it, I’ll scan a page and add it here. The border has a daisy chain of cartoon folk doing various sex acts with and to each other. That is a parody of the Mad Magazine borders, which in turn is a parody of the classic Greek art of satyrs and such.]
I feel I am plainspoken enough that my three sons know or have at least been exposed to my life. My mother didn’t talk about herself, in contrast, and I recall after her memorial service, in which I held forth for 90 minutes or so that her many friends and even my sister and niece approached me to say, “I never knew all that about her.” Yet, even with my perceived openness, when Al’s obit appeared recently (do read the NYT version linked above), middle son was surprised when I said I knew Al and that I had worked for him.
It was slightly more sordid and deeper than having met the pron maestro. I did some free-lance writing and photography for the likes of his not-too-subtly named tabloids, Screw, Smut, Gay and Bitch. I was a bit player there on payroll. I covered some nudie plays, some gay nightclub strip shows, and some Continental Baths shows like with Bette Midler.
Instead, deepening the relationship, a woman I lived with, Maggie to Al, worked as his assistant. So I would stop by to chat with her or him or both. I’d see porn stars and hear about Linda Lovelace in-depth (pun intended) interviews and such. I’d see his multitudinous file cabinets, filled with porn pix, labeled by the players (3-men/1-woman and so forth), which he said they bought from poor photogs by the pound to illustrate plotless stories and articles. I chatted up absurdly named managing editor Heidi Handman, who became a successful pediatrician and author, dying four years ago. In light of her contextually risible name, Al said several times he’d like me to join the staff so he could have someone with the last name of Ball on the masthead.
In the late 60s, when Al started his tabs, his version of porn was shocking and innovative. It’s so-so today.
I remember Al more as a charming lunch and dinner companion. Sure he loved food and drink (sometimes ballooning in weight to prove that, but that was bolstered by ex-wives suing him and other stresses. He knew a lot and had highly developed social skills. He was not like Larry Flynt, whom I got to know casually when I edited a grocery mag that covered dirty mags, a big seller in convenience stores. Flynt was and likely still is scatological and vulgar, ever speaking of twin crappers in his house, crap itself and the delights of tasting women’s urine. Al, in contrast was fun and funny, as long as you accepted that over the course of an evening he’d rant a bit about a bad parent or wife or lawsuit.
A bond between us was mechanical and electronic gear, as well as the food we both enjoyed eating and preparing. More than vulvae, gadgets fascinate him. For a few years, he wrote and published his true love, the Gadget newsletter. He adored geek gear and had many examples in his office and home. I thought of him many times when I edited the Smart Machines newsletter, with publisher Ted Blank. That was a real link.
Al was out there. To the public, that meant showing public hair when it was a scandal, penises and labia when they were shocking, and being several decades ahead of even the boring mainstream men’s books like Playboy and Penthouse. Likewise, he was out there personally. He never shied from admitting he was often fat, that he had fucked up one marriage after another, that he squandered fortunes through arrogance and inattention.
In other words, he was deliciously human.
I liked the man. I am sure he made positive contributions to free speech and personal liberties, but that’s not what he was really about.