Greetings, Brothers and Sisters of the Psychotronic Video World! As some of you may recall me mentioning in the past, I’m a historian by training. It’s what I love, it’s what I have my degree in, and in a perfect world, I would be puttering around in the back rooms of a museum, inhaling the dust of centuries for the next forty or fifty years, or until I get a fatal case of Gray Lung, whichever comes first. I would most likely have a slightly easier time finding work in my chosen field if I was willing to get a teaching certification and go teach social studies, but quite frankly, I’m not.
I take great issue with the way history is taught these days. Boiled down to the lowest common denominator, simplified to a list of dates and events, and carefully presented to be as inoffensive as possible. This robs the past — our past, our story as a tool-using species — of its blood and thunder, its virtues and vices. It’s depersonalized in a way I’m uncomfortable with; history is, first and foremost, the story of human beings, with all their strengths and frailties, their idiosyncrasies, beliefs and fears. Remove that human element, and what is there left behind? We forget, to a great extent, that history is not just wars and discoveries, pyramids and Martin Luther at the Wittenburg door. Everything has its history, its story to deliver.
This is rarely more clearly demonstrated than in Robert Rosen’s book, Beaver Street: A History of Modern Pornography. Rosen, whose previous book Nowhere Man dealt with the life and legacy of John Lennon, spent sixteen years up to his neck in the sticky trenches of adult entertainment, serving primarily as editor to a variety of “Men’s Magazines” including Swank, High Society and D-Cup. For some of our younger readers, a word of explanation: there was once a time when you couldn’t see every possible depraved act with the click of a computer mouse, a time even before the invention of the Almighty VHS, when the primary source of smut was the printed page. While Playboy, Hustler and Penthouse are perhaps the most famous of these “Men’s Magazines,” they were by no means the only ones out there. There were, at times, hundreds, if not thousands of titles, in the early days combining photos of bare breasts with lurid stories sporting titles like “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” or “I Was a Love-Slave for the Third Reich.” In time, the flesh-ripping weasels gave way to more nudity and more daring, explicit photographs, eventually culminating in hardcore porn as we know it today. Though titles like Playboy totter on (I have my suspicions that that particular magazine won’t outlive its founder, Hugh Hefner, by long), in large part the Men’s Magazine is a dying industry, supplanted by the Internet’s unimaginably vast collection of exhibitionists.
Anyway, back to the book. Yeesh. Smack me next time I do that, alright?
Beaver Street opens with Rosen’s fond memories of working in his father’s drug store, where he had his first encounters with pornography — the salacious novels kept on a hidden rack, available by request. The clientele requesting these titles, most often friends of his father, would gather around and read passages from the book to each other, engendering in Rosen an early curiosity towards the subject matter and a recognition of the power of transgressive material. From there, he launches into his own early experiments with obscenity, while editor of college newspaper Observation Post, which was largely “a blunt instrument primarily used to test the limits of the First Amendment.”
The real meat and potatoes of Beaver Street, however, arrives once 1982 rolls around, and with it the invention of 976-number phone sex lines, a creation of Carl Ruderman, “Porn’s Invisible Man” and at the time head of High Society magazine (no, it wasn’t a stoner mag). Not long thereafter, Rosen responded to a help-wanted ad in the New York Times looking for a managing editor for High Society, “college newspaper experience OK.”
Rosen’s portfolio of Observation Postwork impressed the editor in chief, and before long Rosen found himself writing copy-text to
accompany dirty photos, forging letters to the editor detailing perverse “true stories” and navigating the twisted maze of Canadian censorship laws. His strong work ethic and ability to get things done on short notice gain the attention of the higher-ups, and keeps him gainfully employed, going from one magazine to another, for the next decade and a half. During this time, Rosen rubbed shoulders with the creme-de-la-creampie of the porn industry (including such luminaries as performer Ron Jeremy, sex-goddess Annie Sprinkle and director Gregory Dark, who more recently has been directing Britney Spears’ music videos…no great surprise there), rode out the long national nightmare that was Traci Lords’ 18th birthday “surprise” to the industry, and shocked his colleagues with what we’ll just call the Five Dollar Blowjob Incident. If you’re curious about that last one, you’ll just have to read the book, won’t you?
Rosen left the industry in the mid-1990s, as the newborn Internet immediately became a haven for porn of every flavor, leaving the men’s magazine industry with sales that were spiraling rapidly downwards.
Throughout it all, Rosen tells his story with easy charisma and charm — even as he narrates his nausea towards quite a bit of what he saw and experienced, he never ceases to entertain. It seems to me like it would be very easy for a tell-all exposé of the porn industry to fall into a bludgeoning of the audience with a laundry list of venereal horror, but Beaver Street never does. Neither, however, does it glamorize the industry; to Rosen, it was never more than a job that paid a living wage, and he recounts the highs and the lows of the job with the same dignity and frankness, including the physical illness he felt from the smell emanating from the Hellfire Club and the difficulty he had meeting his own eyes in the mirror at times.
In all honesty, Beaver Street was actually an eye-opener to me. Porn of the 21st century always feels less friendly, more heartless and cold and aggressive than the 1980s-era stuff I grew up watching on old VHS tapes smuggled out of my father’s collection in the dead of night. Maybe it is; but Rosen demonstrates that the 1980s had its own fair share of nastiness (and not sexy-nasty, nasty-nasty), ill-will and spiteful performers. Especially eye-opening was the chapter on Traci Lords; I’d known vaguely about her story, but Rosen paints her in an especially unflattering light, contrasting his memories of the era with the account she gives in her autobiography.
As an added treat (in my eyes at least), Rosen never fails to connect what was going on in the porn industry to the larger backdrop of what was going on in America at the time, including Presidents Johnson and Nixon’s anti-pornographic crusades, the connection between Watergate and DEEP THROAT, and later the Lords Ordeal with the crusading righteousness of the Reagan Administration. It really helps ground and explain much of what was going on in the seedy sub-culture of the men’s magazine back offices.
The closest thing I have to a quibble with Beaver Street is, honestly, a personal one; after discussing writing incestuous fantasies, Annie Sprinkle’s urine, and organizing on-camera gangbangs without batting an eye, Rosen seems to describe the twilight of his porn-editing career, during which he was editing the “plumper” mag Plump and Pink, in terms that make it seem as if he views this as a particular low-point of his career. If so, I pass no judgement on Rosen’s tastes; it’s really only been in recent years that heavy women who pose nude have been viewed by the industry as even human, and everyone is entitled to their own tastes in beauty. It is also entirely possible that this is just me (an avowed chubby chaser) reading subtext into it that is not necessarily there; I invite you to read the book yourself and make up your own mind.
Rosen dedicated sixteen years to editing porno mags, and another 10 to researching and writing Beaver Street. Don’t wait 26 years to read it. It really is an incredibly thoughtful, engaging and entertaining look at the dark underbelly of the magazines under the counter.