Hello again, Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World! You remember the other week when we ran a review of Robert Rosen’s memoir of a 16-year stint as a porn editor, right? At least, my frail and tender ego hopes you do. Well, Wes and I were very impressed with Beaver Street, and author Bob Rosen was very pleased with our review, so we reached out and Bob agreed to answer a few of our dirty, smutty questions about his time in the moist trenches of the nudie-mags.
First off, Bob, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by us here at the Bloodsprayer. Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?
The main thing that’s worth knowing about me is that I’m a writer and that I take writing as seriously as I’ve ever taken anything. This is probably not the most rational choice a person can make in 21st century America, but it’s a choice I made a long time ago. Writing is what I do all day, and it’s what I’ve been doing full-time for the past 13 years, since I left the porn biz. Somehow, I’ve been managing to (barely) keep one nostril above the water. As far as my background: I was born in Brooklyn and I’ve lived in New York City pretty much my entire life. I’m married to a writer/editor/singer, Mary Lyn Maiscott.
My typical workday: Get up around 6:30, feed the cat, write in my journal, read the paper (print edition), get breakfast going, get the wife off to work—she’s a copy editor at Vanity Fair. Then I do all the promotional stuff a writer’s supposed to do these days: blog, tweet, Facebook. Finally, I write for 3 to 5 hours, and when I’m finished, I take a long walk to unwind. I’m kind of a solitary guy.
Your first book, Nowhere Man, dealt with John Lennon and the final years of the Beatles. What drew you to Lennon and this era in the Beatles’ history?
This is the story I tell in the first chapter of Nowhere Man, and the short answer is: happenstance. A close friend from college, somebody I’d worked with on the school newspaper Observation Post, was hired, in February 1979, through family connections, to be John Lennon’s personal assistant. This was when Lennon was in the middle of his so-called “househusband” period, when he was out of the public eye, wasn’t recording, and wasn’t talking to the media. My friend—his name is Fred Seaman—knew from day one that he wanted to write a book about Lennon and he asked me to help him. Of course, I said yes, and for the next two years, he fed me information about what was going on with Lennon, Yoko Ono, and their son, Sean. Then, on December 8, 1980, Lennon was murdered, and the project shifted into high gear. Seaman told me that when he was with Lennon in Bermuda that summer, when Lennon was putting together the demo tape for his last album, Double Fantasy, Lennon had told him that he’d had a premonition of his own death and if something should happen to him, he wanted Seaman to tell the true story of his final years and to use any “research material” he needed. In May 1981, Seaman gave me Lennon’s personal diaries, from 1975 to 1980, to use as the basis for the book. So, that’s what drew me to this particular era. But, I’d also been a Beatles fan since 1964 and I was thoroughly steeped in their music and their lore—you know, who’s-the-Walrus-is-Paul-dead-what-does-the-record-say-if-you-play-it-backwards. I knew that stuff inside out, and if I hadn’t, I couldn’t have written a book like Nowhere Man.
You detail in the first chapter of Beaver Street your experiences with the college newspaper Observation Post. Beyond being obscene enough to get your foot in the door with High Society, did you feel your experiences at OP helped you face the demands of the porn industry in any way?
OP acclimated me to the idea of publishing sexually explicit material, but other than that, no, not at all. The difference between working on OP and working on a porn magazine is the difference between being in a punk band like the Sex Pistols and working on an assembly line in a Chinese dildo factory.
OP was one of the major transformative experiences of my life—I went from being a semi-straight kid from Brooklyn who thought he wanted to be a sportswriter to being a hardcore freak who wanted to write about everything and experience everything.
We were on OP because we wanted to be on OP. Nobody was paying us (though we did get a lot of free record albums, books, and drugs). We wrote about what we wanted to write about out of love and passion. We didn’t use pornographic imagery to provide the student body with jerk-off material. We used it to provoke a dialogue about religion, sex, feminism, politics, free speech, whatever. And at least in the case of the masturbating nun cartoon, we succeeded beyond out wildest dreams. We didn’t pay a lot of attention to deadlines, either. We went to press when we had enough material to go to press, and that more or less happened every two weeks. In Beaver Street, I describe OP as an “anarchist commune,” a place where the remnants of the 60s antiwar movement had fused with “an emerging punk sensibility soon to reach full flower.” The administration financed this enterprise to the tune of $12,000 per term (in 1970s dollars). We used this money to put out the paper as we saw fit, with virtually no strings attached (though the Student Senate would occasional suspend us). And City College at the time was free tuition—58 bucks a term for a “bursar’s fee” plus the cost of books. There were people on OP who’d been at CCNY for eight years. Why leave? It was a fantasyland. OP was a glorious moment in time that can never be repeated.
Porn was transformative, too. I went from being Bob Rosen, starving freelance writer, to being Bobby Paradise, crown prince of the D-Cup boob fiefdom. But porn was a job—a job that paid pretty decently after a while—but still a stressful, demanding job that I had to get up and go to every day. Porn was about deadlines that became more and more intense as time went on. As I said in the book, porn wasn’t about sex. It was about using sex to separate people from their money. It was an exercise in cynicism. Which is not to say it wasn’t interesting. It was fascinating. It allowed me to hang around with porn stars, like Annie Sprinkle and Ron Jeremy, and to travel to Europe and California to direct shoots and find new models. This is what I write about in Beaver Street. But ultimately, on a day-to-day basis, porn was about sitting behind a desk and grinding out dirty magazines as fast as I could. Often, I was editing magazines that I found repugnant—like Buf, with its 700-pound models. Of the 16 years I was doing this, I’d say there were 5 good years and 3 or 4 tolerable ones. But beginning in 1995, when the business began to collapse, until 1999, when they fired me, it was a nightmare, and there was nothing I did on OP that prepared me for any of it.
At what point did you first say to yourself, “Oh God, what have I gotten myself into?”
I don’t think I ever put it to myself quite that way. I went into porn with my eyes wide open; I knew what I was getting into, especially after I left High Society and moved to Swank Publications. But there is a scene in Beaver Street, at the end of “The House of Swank” chapter, where I’ve been working at Swank for about three months. It’s just before Thanksgiving, the day’s winding down, I’m looking out my office window at the “normal” people in the hotel across the street, and I’m thinking that there has to be a way out of porn. But there isn’t. What I’m communicating here is the disturbing sense that I’m leaving behind anything resembling a “normal” life, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Any idea why Canadian censorship laws are so byzantine?
Are you familiar with any censorship laws that aren’t byzantine? Like all censorship laws, Canadian regulations are the result of a government trying to “define obscenity.” They needed to give the Canadian customs officials some kind of guidelines to keep the worst filth out of a country that does have a tradition of free expression. But when you try to define obscenity, the guidelines you come up with are always arbitrary—it’s the old “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.” Which creates a situation where Andrea Dworkin’s anti-porn polemic Pornography and a magazine called Bondage & Incest Illustrated (not a real title) will both be stopped at the border. Or a situation, which I describe in Beaver Street, where a customs official looks at a photo of a woman jacking off a man with her armpit, labels it “degrading,” and issues a ban on armpit fucking.
Ironically, if you were to publish a magazine like Bondage & Incest Illustrated in Canada, then you wouldn’t have a problem distributing it throughout the country. Which was what Swank publisher Lou Perretta recently decided to do. He began printing all his hardcore porn in Canada, and he no longer has a problem with customs—because they can’t stop stuff coming in over the Internet, which is how they send it to the printing plant.
So, apparently, Canadian censorship regulations are also there to protect Canadian pornographers and printers from a flood of cheap U.S. imports.
Despite the fact that politicians are still crusading (or at least claiming to crusade) against pornography, has the ubiquity of porn translated into an unspoken acceptance (at least of the “we know it’s there, and everyone around us is probably doing it, but we don’t discuss it” variety) of porn?
I think, for the most part, the people who say they hate porn—politicians of all stripes, “family values” types, Christians, feminists, whoever—really do hate porn and would like to outlaw it. Some of these people are total hypocrites, of course. They secretly watch porn or patronize prostitutes or are involved in some kind of criminal enterprise. But they see an anti-porn crusade (the last refuge of the doomed politician, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson) as a way to get votes or raise money for their cause or sell books. One of the themes of Beaver Street is “The biggest crooks cry ‘Ban pornography!’ the loudest.” The examples I give are the four great anti-porn warriors of the 20th century: Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Attorney General Edwin Meese, and banker Charles Keating. Three of them had to resign their offices in disgrace to avoid criminal prosecution and Keating actually went to jail for swindling a bunch of old people out of their life savings.
Crusades against porn have always been a lost cause, and with the advent of the Internet they’ve become more of a lost cause than ever before. To answer your question, I think the overwhelming majority of people quietly accept porn. If they don’t like it, they don’t watch it, and that’s all there is to it. But there will always be anti-porn crusaders, genuine and otherwise, and there will always be people arrested on obscenity charges, be it publishers like Al Goldstein, who were literally asking for it, or some poor schmuck who runs a convenience store in the Bible Belt and sells an especially noxious copy of Hustler to an undercover cop.
Your time in the industry seems like it was largely one bad experience after another. Did any of the magazines treat you well, or were you always just a warm body in the editor’s chair, to be disposed of when no longer useful?
First of all, working in porn was hardly one bad experience after another. Jetting off to England, Holland, Germany, and Scandinavia with a pocket full of cash to find new models and to direct shoots for D-Cup was not a bad experience, especially the first couple of times I did it. Working with talented editors, art directors, and photographers was not a bad experience. Some of these people are still my friends. Getting substantial raises every year, sometimes twice a year, was not a bad experience. The problem was with the men who owned the magazines I worked for.
There are two types of porno kings. The first type is the self-made man: Larry Flynt, Al Goldstein, Hugh Hefner, and Bob Guccione. They’re American icons who reveled in their sleaze, took pride in their product, and spared nothing in their quest to produce the best possible erotica and/or filth.
The other type of porno king is (or was) as rich as any of the aforementioned publishers—but these men are virtually unknown as pornographers outside the “adult entertainment” industry. They’re the anonymous porn mongers, and they have five things in common: They’re all men. They were all born to wealth. They all used their wealth to create pornography empires. They all increased their wealth immensely by producing pornography on an industrial scale. And they all went (or continue to go) to great lengths to publicly portray themselves as respectable businessmen, unconnected to XXX.
Their names are Carl Ruderman, Chip Goodman, and Lou Perretta, and I worked for all of them. I’m not saying that working for Larry Flynt, Al Goldstein, or any of the icons was a picnic. It wasn’t. But there’s a huge difference in atmosphere when the guy at the top takes pride in his magazines as opposed to when the guy at the top is ashamed of what he does and tries to hide it from the world. It creates a schizoid environment, which can get very ugly and very tense, as I describe in great detail in my chapter about High Society and Carl Ruderman, who didn’t permit the word “pornography” to be used in the office. At these magazines, the people who did the dirty work—the editors and art directors—were looked upon with contempt by the people who profited from that work. That’s not the case with Flynt et al., and that’s the big difference.
The best of the lot was Chip Goodman, who owned Swank Publications. He didn’t get weirded out about porn till after the Traci Lords scandal, which is when he stopped using his name in the masthead. And he did treat me well for about five years. But why shouldn’t he? Porn at the time was recession-proof, and business was booming, especially in the aftermath of Traci Lords. All my magazines were selling.
But, yes, ultimately we were all just warm bodies occupying editors’ chairs, who were all disposed of when no longer useful or too expensive to keep around. But that kind of treatment isn’t limited to porn. That’s business as usual these days. Though I’d imagine the contempt with which porn publishers treat their employees is especially pronounced, because in adult entertainment it’s so much easier to see human beings as pieces of meat—it doesn’t matter if they’re editors or porn stars.
That’s all for now, Brothers and Sisters! Stay tunes for Part 2, coming soon!