Tales of Bessman: The Al Goldstein Memorial

Al's memorabilia
Al’s memorabilia

I know Al Goldstein would have loved that I had to leave early from an event for contemporary Christian/country artist and American Idol finalist Danny Gokey to go to his memorial at the Museum of Sex–but I wasn’t sure that Gokey would have appreciated the irony, so I didn’t tell him.

I got to the museum in time to hang outside with the motorcycle club “honor guard,” then went inside for a loose hang with Al’s long-suffering and ever-loyal staffers at Screw (I used to regularly attend staff meetings) and Midnight Blue (I appeared with Tammy Faye Starlite to the show): his secretary Tere Gerber, Screw editor Chip Maloney and art director Kevin Hein, and Midnight Blue producer Lenny Aaron.

There were some 175 people there in all, mostly men, as Judith Regan observed, and including old friends John Holmstrom, founder/publisher of Punk, and Kinky Friedman’s Village Irregulars Mike McGovern and Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who was the night’s emcee.

It was fun seeing Judith: I met her several years ago, now, when she published the brilliant Toni Bentley’s anal sex memoir The Surrender—in which I was thanked, though my name was misspelled. She just started up a new publishing house, Regan Arts, and it made perfect sense that she would love Al, having herself become so notoriously successful and groundbreaking in her world.

Controversial photographer Terry Richardson was there, too.

Penn Jillette, who quietly paid for Al’s apartment in the three years prior to his final hospitalizations, couldn’t make it. But he wept openly in a video tribute as he spoke of how inspired he had been by the complete honesty of a man whom—with profound respect and affection—he described as an all-encompassing “asshole.” And invoking Al’s most famous two-word dismissal (one that he used twice on me on Midnight Blue), he movingly concluded, “For being dead, Al Goldstein…FUCK YOU!”

Also missing in action but present by video was Ron Jeremy, “the Manatee of Porn,” as Al used to call him. He reminisced on their long and close friendship, and also saluted Al for his honesty and his continual fight for the little guy against the corporations.

But Al’s “spiritual leader and rabbi,” Gilbert Gottfried, was in the house, and brought it down with a eulogy to rival his climactic monologue in Penn’s movie The Aristocrats.

“Fuck you, you fat, ugly piece of shit!” Gilbert shrieked, already warm to the subject.

“I hope you’re in hell sucking the cocks of the entire Third Reich! I hope for eternity [that] Hitler is fucking you in the asshole! That the only oral sex you get in hell is sucking off Goebbels and Josef Mengele! That your fat, tiny dick is smaller than the average clit!”

This was all in a room displaying, among other things, Keith Haring’s Bad Boys paintings, a female urinal and the centerpiece Fuck Bike #001. There was also a table of Al memorabilia—including a Screw paper cube that I used to have and a Midnight Blue watch that I still do–and a table of Al t-shirts for sale to help cover expenses, including six boxes of cheeseburgers, each holding 100.

Al’s endless litigation was remembered almost nostalgically by Herald Price Fahringer, his renowned defense attorney, who said that for Al’s sentencing in 2002 for his conviction of harassing a former secretary, he instructed Al to wear a conservative suit and tie. Instead, Al arrived in and black-and-white prison uniform and bellowed to the court, “Jail means nothing to me, because freedom means so much to me.”

He was promptly sentenced to 60 days, and even after he posted $25,000 bail, he was jailed in Rikers Island for six days because of “paperwork.”

But Fahringer, who is now confined to a wheelchair, also cited Al’s great kindness and generosity, as well as his indefatigable fight for his cherished First Amendment rights, and as a subtext, its guarantee of Al’s much-exercised freedom to criticize the government.

Then Fahringer attorney Erica Dubno testified how, just out of college, she was sent to Rikers to spring Al at 5:30 a.m.—a public bus being the only transportation available. The bus pulled up, and there she was, with a man dressed as a convict. Thrilled, the bus driver exclaimed, “Al Goldstein!”—which is how it always was whenever I went out with Al, who, by the way, ultimately won his appeal based on prosecutorial misconduct.

“Whenever I see injustice,” said Dubno, recalling the freed Al’s predictable gesture toward Rikers, “I see Al’s middle finger rising high.”

Al’s last lawyer, Charles DeStefano, was the final speaker.

“He made me grow a part of my anatomy that I didn’t think grew past puberty!” he said, remembering how he called “Grandpa” Al Lewis as a character witness at a trial for which Al faxed to the judge a caricature of the judge and district attorney engaging in anal sex.

“He was filled with honesty to a fault, maybe, but that was their tough luck because it was an honesty that comes from the heart.”

Ratso, by the way, deserves so much credit for all he did for Al in his final years. And he rightly recognized all that circus performer Viveca Gardiner did for Al, acting, as Ratso put it, sort of as a cross between Florence Nightingale and Annie Sprinkle.

And it must be noted that Al’s ex-wife Gena and son Jordan were there, both having endured persecution far beyond the pale—though neither, after all this time and the perpetrator’s demise, seemed any the worse for it, and were both most pleasant.

It was only fitting that as I walked past a gentlemen’s club on 8th Avenue on my way home, that I was handed a complimentary ticket.

“No thanks,” I said. “Not tonight.”

Al Goldstein shirts
Al Goldstein shirts

The Great (Al) Goldstein

I’m not much for wishing anyone “RIP.”

Rest in peace? What the fuck is that supposed to mean? That no one robs your grave like some Egyptian pharaoh?

But I’m close to wishing a peaceful rest for my dear, dear friend Al Goldstein. Maybe the most restless mess of a man I ever knew, and surely, in spite of himself, high up among the most lovable.

You could easily shrug him off as one big id, but there was so much more to him than his voracious appetites for sex and food and maybe above all, freedom of expression.

I loved the quote in The New York Times obit, from “the manifesto” in Screw’s debut issue in 1968. “We will apologize for nothing.” And it rightly pointed out how he ‘lived to shock and offend.” But to my mind, at least, those he sought to shock and offend had it coming, way more often than not—on two occasions, myself included.

But really Al, am I so bad because I’m such a huge Burt Bacharach-Hal David fan that I told you how much I loved the 2003 Broadway production of their musical revue The Look of Love, which was so soundly thrashed by the critics that it closed after only 48 performances—one of which you went to, on my recommendation, and hated, so much so that you did the first of two golden Al Goldstein Midnight Blue “Fuck You”’s to me?

Obviously, yes.

But was I really so bad that in the middle of another “Fuck You” the following week, you lost your train of thought, then reverted back a week and went after me again?

“Jim Bessman. You visited me in two hospitals. You took me to concerts. You got me CDs. This is the thanks you get: FUCK YOU!”

If you never watched Midnight Blue, Al’s legendary cable access program that came on Friday nights at midnight and mixed hardcore porn footage with Al’s fever-pitched rants against ex-wives, lawyers, restaurants, movies, the government and good friends, well, you missed out on the LOL genius of Al Goldstein.

One year I turned him onto Tammy Faye Starlite. Real name Tammy Lang, Tammy Faye most recently has won acclaim for her portrayals of the late German rock chanteuse Nico, of 1967’s legendary Velvet Underground & Nico “Banana Album” fame. But the former yeshiva student first found her own fame—make that infamy—in her Tammy Faye Starlite guise as an overwhelmingly obscene and biased evangelical Christian country rock ‘n’ roll act that is either blasphemous or hysterically blasphemous depending on your sense of humor.

In other words, she was right up Al’s alley. Sight unseen, he asked her on the show, and asked me to sit there while he interviewed her, in character, going back and forth between asking her questions and hurling insults my way. And he liked her so much that he kept there long, so her segment would appear in two parts.

I had to leave after the first part, unfortunately before Penn Jillette showed up. An atheist saint for standing up for and caring for Al in his final years of dire need, an uncomfortably put-off Penn sat in on the second part of Al’s Tammy Faye interview, not realizing it was all brilliant born-again shtick. He challenged her religiosity at all turns, yet failed to dent Tammy Faye’s facsimile of impenetrable piety. Al just lapped it up until nearing the end of the interview, Penn finally got the joke.

Of course not even Tammy Faye Starlite could be as utterly repellant Al Goldstein, but there was always something somehow adorable about Al, even cuddly. And most of Midnight Blue was his producers making fun of him: I still crack up thinking of the bit where they liften the scene in Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen’s Willard is being instructed to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Brando’s Kurtz.

“He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct,” Willard is told.

“Al Goldstein?” he asks, thanks to the magic of Midnight Blue voiceover. Cut to footage of Al sitting at his desk, gleefully thumbing his nose at the camera.

That was Al.

And then there were the “Fuck You”’s.

I was there on several occasions when they’d set up a video camera to tape the segments. Al would have a sheet of paper with half a dozen or so topics, then go through them extemporaneously and rapid-fire, climaxing at the end of each one with both hands outstretched, middle fingers angrily thrusting upwards along with the most disdainful “Fuck you!” deliverable. It was truly breathtaking to behold.

When he died yesterday after spending the last few years in hospitals and nursing homes and deteriorating from numerous physical ailments, Penn Jillette tweeted, “My friend, and hero, Al Goldstein is dead. I will miss him and the world will be a little less free and honest.”

He was my hero, too, and in 1999 I somehow managed to squeeze in an article in Billboard about how record companies were advertising on both The Howard Stern Radio Show and Midnight Blue—though I can’t for the life of me remember which label used the latter. But Al was thrilled to get noticed by such a respected publication, and from that point on I was invited to every Screw/Midnight Blue staff meeting, which always was well stocked with pizza.

He’d invite me to his frequent dinner parties, too, where he’d pick up the tab for 10-20 friends at his favorite delis, Korean or Chinese joints. Gilbert Gottfried was a regular, so was “Uncle” Al Lewis and author Larry Ratso Sloman—another deeply caring friend of Al’s.

His kindness and generosity knew no bounds: I brought a couple girlfriends over the years, and he told them how beautiful they were–though he did question their soundness of mind for being with me. And I took him everywhere: to Joey Reynolds’ radio show, to see Sandra Bernhard and the Oak Ridge Boys; Al loved country music, and the Oaks were thrilled to meet him.

Then again, everyone was thrilled to meet Al Goldstein. His outgoing personality was as big as his obese girth, and even after he had his stomach stapled, lost a ton of weight, and actually looked great, that personality was no less big.

And big as he was, Al always stood up for the little guy and those, like him, who were maligned and misunderstood. Like Phil Spector. He loved Phil, and was ecstatic when I had Phil send me an autographed Spector box set to give him. They had a lot of good in common, unbeknownst to the general public.

“Yes, Al. You are missed. So missed,” tweeted Penn, calling him “one of the greatest proponents of free speech of my generation.” Yes, he was that, and so much more.

My biggest regret is that I was unable to make his voice heard again after he went bankrupt. I failed in attempts to interest people in putting new “Fuck You”’s up on their websites, and could never figure out how to do it myself. With his passing, a thunderous voice shouting out in the wilderness has been silenced.

I’m just lucky to have known him, and glad that he made it to 77—when he could have given up long before. Besides all that weight, he’d lost his home and all his possessions (what I wouldn’t give for DVD copies of Midnight Blue!)—but never his fighting spirit and sense of humor.

Bedridden and deathly ill, Al Goldstein was still a joy to be around. He went out the giant that he was.