Al Goldstein, publisher of pornography, lifelong crank, and gleeful tester of free-speech boundaries, died at age 77 on Wednesday.
Al Goldstein, publisher of pornography, lifelong crank, and gleeful tester of free-speech boundaries, died at age 77 of renal failure on Wednesday, in a nursing home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. It was surprising to learn that he was that young. During Goldstein’s heyday, when he reveled in his underground cultural sway as the editor and publisher of the weekly sex tabloid Screw, and the producer and host of the Manhattan Cable after- hours public access smut-variety and chat show Midnight Blue, his persona (if one can call it that) was that of a pretty hip, not entirely intellectually incurious, horny guy.
Interspersed with the cheesily squalid commercials for escort services, off-putting interviews with porn stars, and chintzily produced but riotously funny parodies of mainstream culture were Al’s “Fuck You”s, raspy dyspeptic monologues whose targets could range from the Supreme Court to someone who made his coffee wrong that morning. They all ended the same way, with Goldstein defiantly raising two middle fingers and yelling “Fuuuuuuck Yoooouuuuu!”
In stoking his resentments, which were legion, Goldstein formed a community of sorts (you didn’t have to read Screw to love Midnight Blue), which recognized that Goldstein’s interests were more eclectic than his schlubby-pervert persona suggested. When word of Prince’s so-called “Black Album” came to light, Goldstein expressed a salacious curiosity about it, and asked his public if he could be provided with a copy; Gary Lucas—the longtime guitarist for Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band—stepped in, and a week later Goldstein was on the air previewing (naturally) the most explicit cuts. It’s no exaggeration to say that Howard Stern could not have even started becoming Howard Stern without the example of Al Goldstein. (Goldstein knew this, and wasn’t delighted by it; he devoted at least one “Fuck You” monologue to Stern.)
He started Screw in 1968 with Jim Buckley, a partner he picked up at a leftie rag. The tabloid instigated an unholy contextual alliance between the East Village counterculture and the fleshpots of Times Square. Goldstein had met Buckley during an unprofitable foray into investigative journalism, and while Screw’s grubby insistence on unprettified explicit photos and graphics broke ground for an erotics-of-ugly aesthetic (subsequently mined by artists such as Richard Kern and Nan Goldin), Goldstein also operated the journal with a muckraker’s passion. (And a sybarite’s exhaustiveness: for the first years of its publication Goldstein made a point of reviewing every “massage parlor” that advertised in Screw, consumer reporting of a distinctively indulgent sort.) It was not for nothing that Serbian film director Dusan Makavejev, when cinematically limning the ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼borders of sexual and political liberation in his 1971 picture WR: Mysteries of The Organism, took his cameras to Screw’s offices, and shot Buckley getting his junk slathered by artist Cynthia Plastercaster.
It wasn’t long until the broadsheet got bigger, and Goldstein got rich from it. It wasn’t uncommon to see Goldstein catching a Fellini picture in repertory at New York’s Film Forum, where he invariably had his own driver dropping him off and picking him up. But in his editorials and on his show, he made no bones about the fact that he couldn’t be satisfied. Never mind how many porn starlets would eagerly drop to their knees to fellate him, just because; he’d never be happy with his cock size, he’d never accept that anyone wanted to be with him just to be with him, he’d always hate his weight, yet remain powerless to change it and make the change stick, and so on.
Goldstein was a less respectable Portnoy, and never without a complaint. His outrageousness, while frequently diving headfirst into the realm of the objectively reprehensible (his free-speech absolutism—and no doubt some other, less benign forces —drove him to heedlessly and even gleefully pepper his rants with foul sexual, racial, and homophobic slurs), at least won him celebrity status/curiosity (one DVD volume of select Midnight Blue episodes is devoted to the sometimes surprising big names who dropped by, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Buck Henry to Debbie Harry and beyond), as well as the respect of other media and artistic renegades, including Penn And Teller (Penn Gillette, who reportedly paid rent for the man during tough times, called Goldstein a “friend” in a tweet he posted to commemorate the latter’s passing).
"Sixty-two and obese and white-bearded and crazy-haired” is how David Foster Wallace described Goldstein as he accepted a Special Achievement Award at the 1998 Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas. “He’s been a First Amendment ninja. He drinks in the applause and loves it and is hard not to sort of almost actually like. He’s clearly an avatar of contemporary porn’s unabashedness.” The unabashedness was part of what made him an effective First Amendment crusader, as the aforementioned heyday wasn’t all porn stars and pastrami; there was a period when he had to swat at obscenity suits like so many swarms of gnats. But ’98 was the beginning of the end.
As the Internet changed the way the erotic was commoditized, Goldstein got fatter and crankier. In the early 2000s he was faced with a harassment lawsuit he couldn’t swat away, he spent a few nights in jail, and he suffered substantial business losses. Midnight Blue stopped running in 2003, Screw stopped the presses around the same time (it was revived by former staffers in 2005). “Unabashed” seemed to give way to unhinged, and Goldstein, who’d had to sell his Florida mansion and other assets, was at one point rumored to be practically homeless. In 2006, collaborating with his former staffer Josh Alan Friedman, Goldstein published a frank and cogent memoir, I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life. In his gonzo prime he never looked like the sort of person who’d end up in a nursing home, and truth to tell, the irony of his situation is probably not one the once demonic mischief-maker would have found at all funny.