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?
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.