Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Spectre of Bobby Spector

Bill Landis a.k.a. Bobby Spector a.k.a. Mr. Sleazoid, New York 2005. Photo © Carl A.

Growing up as I did in a very safe and highbrow environment, I naturally delved into unsafe lowbrow culture with a passion (vengeance?), basically as soon as I could spell i-n-e-r-t-i-a. One important part of that soul-searching process was exploring extreme expressions in cinematic form. Experimental films, avantgarde gems, surrealists, splatter pioneers and  gorehounds galore stirred up an intellectual but also existentially valuable knock-out cocktail that was truly dizzying – as desired.

As this was long before internet saturation, us gore- and sleazehounds had to work hard to secure our movie kicks (quite often just privately copied fuzzy-imaged VHS tapes) and magazines by real postal networking and trying to figure out who did what out there. A time consuming but utterly delightful experience!

On the grand source scale, there was Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (1983) and RE/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films (1986). But beyond those rather slick books were fanzines like Jack Stevenson’s Pandemonium, and even more primitive sheet-style fanzines like Rick Sullivan’s Gore Gazette and, of course, Sleazoid Express. The latter differed a lot, in that it not only chronicled the 42nd Street culture, with its bizarre films and trans-hygienic theatres etc, but it did so from the inside, so to speak. Main writer Bill Landis didn’t just write about sleaze culture and organize underground film screenings. He was part of it, as they now say, ”24/7”. Landis starred in many a skin-flick under the name ”Bobby Spector” – no relation to music producer Phil Spector, who packed a different kind of gun, entirely. This unique insider perspective, and the superb dead-pan writing style of his lowlife observations, made Landis a strange shapeshifter in the New York underworld.

Way back when, I only owned one copy of Sleazoid Express, and it was probably a photocopied bootleg. The other books, and even Gore Gazette, were relatively easy to get hold of. But already then, in the mid 1980s, Sleazoid Express was something else. Post-Sleazoid, Landis wrote for The Village Voice, various men's magazines, Screw, assembled a Sleazoid Express book and also penned the unofficial Kenneth Anger biography Anger (Harper Collins, 1995), which angered Anger to the point of cursing both Landis and Michelle Clifford, Landis’ partner in life and writing.

Curse or no curse, Bill Landis died in 2008, aged 49. Not that many people seemed to care or even take notice. When I got the news, I remembered a rainy but interesting spring New York evening in 2005, during which an enthusiastic Landis entertained me and my friend Peter Bisley in a mid-Manhattan hotel room. Landis was then totally willing to enthusiastically talk about his life and career in an underworld that simply doesn’t exist anymore. The following interview was conducted by me and Peter Bisley.

How did you get involved with what eventually became the foundations for Sleazoid Express?

I first saw 42nd Street when I came back to the US from England. I was about six years old. That was the Midnight Cowboy era, the Finley era. Everything seemed neon and black and white. It was just an amazing, sexually driven place. Occasionally I’d go to Broadway shows with my parents, but my eyes would be looking at other things. The Devil in Miss Jones and things like that. I went to college early. I was bored at school and started going to 42nd Street all the time. Sometimes it was nine movies a week, every kind of genre. Pornography, Kung-Fu, Horror, anything that wouldn’t play in a mainstream theatre. One day I saw Let me die a woman at the Anchor and I figured that it wasn’t going to be reviewed by anybody. It was not going to be recognized by anyone. It must be recorded, so it’d better be me, I thought. I printed a whole bunch of them and typed it all up on a manual typewriter at the George Washington Hotel. I gave it out at every place. How could you argue with something that was free?

Soon it was bi-weekly. I tied in with the hipster crowd at Club 57 and started a film series with it. I designed my own ads for the series. Kenneth Anger was a big fan of it. I got into trouble with censorship early too. There was something called the Sex, Sin and Sadism festival that I had. I made a nice flyer on heavy red stock with a picture of a girl who hung in a cage. A lot of people wouldn’t hang that up. That was an early resistance. We had showings at the Mudd Club and the Danceteria. In that minimalist way, it was hard to put out something with a lot of thought in just one piece of paper. A lot of movies were coming out then, so I got the bright idea to expand and have a feature story in the middle. It grew. And when I started working on Times Square, I wanted to document all of that too. Suddenly it got all the attention. Rolling Stone wrote about it. I later expanded that article for Screw Magazine. I also wrote some things for men's magazines. Later it became more of a kind of personal diary.

I always wanted to document what I experienced honestly. Between the lifestyle of living in vice constantly... It takes a toll on you, working in vice. I started as a projectionist, a manager, a ticket-taker, everything... Then I graduated into doing other stuff participationally. Michelle wrote to me after seeing the Rolling Stone piece and we decided to hook up. In a way I wanted to leave. People saw my image on cable TV. Movies are made and then released and re-released years later. I revalued myself. I was a young star for many years and did a diversity of things. The Eric Stanton wrestling tapes, which were heavy sadism. I was also working for Damiano, which was a lot of fun. I did all kinds of things. By the time I’d been in this for four years and living under an assumed name, living it, breathing it, working at the theaters, I got tired...

There are people who stay in it for life, like Jamie Gillis, and then there are the four-year-people like me. I left the city eventually, went to Florida for a while, came back, and then worked on the Anger book. With time, things change. I felt vulnerable at the time and was trying to integrate more into straight society. Michelle came along and I wanted to get away from all these people. We wanted to write and start collaborating. It took some time, but eventually she put out Metasex and we put out Sleazoid Express again. She encouraged me to have no shame in writing about all the things I wanted. Michelle and I collaborated more and more to the point where we finished each other’s thoughts. Then we did the Sleazoid Express book. That’s my story in a very small nutshell.

You said you felt vulnerable when being active in vice. Did you feel that writing about it and publishing those writings had any kind of cathartic effect?

When I did the Body For Rent story in Sleazoid Express... It was about someone who realises that the fantasy is not the real thing. I can’t think of any other piece that so clearly showed the motivation behind it. And then what the experience actually was, realistically.

That was published later on in The Village Voice...

That became more integrated in Metasex too. Drugs played a big part in everybody’s life too. It became like a perpetual motion, doing the movies to get drugs. You can’t be in the movies without self-medication. I think the people who do it without the self-medication are either tushed in the head or are doing it as some kind of hobby.

Do you think all the sunshine stories from the era, from people like Annie Sprinkle, are self-deluded? Or is she trying to delude us?

At first I had a lot of suspicion about Annie and that kind of feminist rhetoric that she was trying to promote. We did a story for Hustler on live show teams. There’s a much better version of that in Metasex. Mens’ magazines cut and paste everything. We talked to Annie about it. She wasn’t the greatest dancer so she did something else. I don’t know if she’s deluding herself or what’s going on up there with her. She’s been a hooker all of her life. Some people accept that as a way of life. It took me until middle age to lose any kind of guilt trip that I had. I wasn’t feeling guilty about it when I was young. Later on it became some kind of strange guilt trip. I was doing S&M-things with girls at an early age, and it cut into what I was doing later as an adult. Stanton had his own room for sessions. Stanton’s wife really knew how to hurt. She really knew the pressure points. You really needed some kind of medicine when she was through with you. It was very primitive, like in the Betty Page era with Klaw and his camera. It was well paid and ended up in a Taschen book, so I’m not ashamed about that.

Bill Landis, New York 2005. Photo © Carl A.

Did you get Sleazoid fan mail more or less immediately?

Of course. There were people who liked it and people who thought it was all about negativity. Jonas Mekas was really mad that I’d given it out during a screening of Chelsea Girls. He was really offended by that. I got some nerds writing me asking where to get this or that material. I used to write for Fangoria but they attacked me when I wrote about the Toby Ross movies. We xeroxed that letter from Fangoria and sent it to the subscribers. But of course, I didn’t advocate the movies I wrote about. I described them. Like Farewell Uncle Tom... It’s a vile fucking movie, but it’s remarkable. 

In terms of chronology, when did Michael Weldon’s ”Psychotronic” guide show up?

He started after we’d put out three issues. He thanked me in the first issue and we were friendly for a while. He hated typing. I learned to type in seventh grade. It was one of the most valuable things I was taught at school. I also experimented with speed reading, like skimming pages really quickly. I was really grateful to learn that. In High School I was on the High School newspaper. That was a lot of fun and I even had my own column.

The magazine started out dealing with offbeat movies. But later on the Forrest J Ackerman-crowd were really offended by the new direction and material... It was so completely different. It was addressing a lot of issues in a very straightforward manner.

The more sexually oriented I got, the more they would attack it. The more I’d attack the sacred cows of horror movies, the more pissed off they’d get. I got banned from Spring Street Books and from Forbidden Planet. This was because I had on the cover an image from Barbed Wire Girls. That was my first real ban. Fan mail was fun though. Michelle sent me a fan letter and I answered it. Anyway, when I and Michelle had gotten together we started talking about writing together. We talked about Ken Anger a lot. He hadn’t been written about and he was a celebrity. We focused on that book and didn’t put out the magazine for a while. As we were finishing that, she wanted to do a more sexually oriented magazine. That eventually became Metasex. Michelle suggested I write down stuff about all the movies I’d seen. Otherwise they’d be forgotten. They will never be shown again. 

The Anger book and the Sleazoid book were books published by major publishers. How did that come about?

With the Ken Anger book, I had a proper agent and a really good editor. I originally wrote a very rough treatment of it, which included some rough stuff. Then I had to write about him as a proper artist too so that we could actually sell the book. I had a 40-page interview plus pictures too. I made some money from that book during the recession, but it did take four years to write. There was also a lot of pressure involved. We had a two day legal reading, so that he couldn’t sue us.

How much of an edition of Sleazoid Express was distributed by you to stores and how much of it was subscribers’ copies?

It varied. Michelle told me to re-issue the old ones and to make them sensational and throw all my fetishes into it and all those nice stills from Sadomania. Ilsa should be in there and the Finley movie too. She told me to go for what I really, really like. To make it kinkier than anything these other guys would ever have done. I had a lot of rare stills that I had accumulated over the years. This was the first time people got a chance to see that kind of material and read about these movies in detail. With age the old issues sold more and more. Material by Lasse Braun was in there too...

How did you come across that? Some of it is beyond belief...

Michelle knows him and worked for him on something. She got him to write that story on sado-masochism for Metasex. Some people wanted us to have some kind of disclaimer on the covers, but I don’t believe in that kind of bullshit. Some stores and companies have made huge amounts of money from the ads in our magazines but have still given us a hard time. Something Weird is the most legitimate of all these outfits.

With both Sleazoid and Metasex, we wanted to kink everything up. We had some competition, some imitators. We were trying to go into the unspeakable. The fourth Sleazoid had the sadism picture from Performance on the cover. There was a bit of Karin Schubert history. I believe that art and exploitation is the same thing. There’s no distinction between them for me. For me, an Ingmar Bergman movie is the same as an exploitation movie that’s sexually oriented. Every movie is a work of art. The distinctions have to be destroyed. The sixth issue was done in Florida. It was about sex and death, about movies I’d seen as a kid and re-seen.

Were there any notable or famous people among your subscribers?

Larry McMurtry, who gave me the quote on the back of the Sleazoid book. A guy from Los Angeles Times, and many other journalists. Ebert, the movie journalist, was a subscriber.

It’s never been disputed that Sleazoid Express was the magazine that defined that whole era. It’s simply the best document. All the others were lightweight in comparison.

A lot of those people wasted time in trying to attack me. Gore Gazette attacked me and called me different names. The guy couldn’t even write. One time, together with my ex-partner, we went to his house and creepy-crawled him and threw Sleazoids at his door. When I printed the Toby Ross pictures, he made remarks like ”Sleazoid Express is merging with Boy Magazine”. Anything that’s sexually ambiguous makes these nerds very nervous. 

Sleazoid mirrored your own development too. You wanted to leave that Forrest J Ackerman crowd behind you...

Yes. One even wrote me saying to remove him from my mailing list because I’d said that ”Forrest J Ackerman is an old queen”. Some of the nerds contacted me after a while about things like that. I guess many of them hoped I would come to a bad end. Sure, I’ve had rough time, but I’m still alive. 

Did it ever bug you that a lot of other people capitalised on that whole thing? 

There are very few that I get along with. But I usually don’t send out review copies to certain people anymore, because I know they will just rip off the ideas. Bill Lustig took me to lunch once. He was upset about the bad review of Maniac but wanted me to write some liner notes for another movie. He said, ”Think of the publicity...” But I wanted to hear about payment. I thought he was cheap, but then I heard he was actually working out of a trailer. He spends money on buying old prints. I get along a lot better with European people. We’re about documentarian work. That’s why I like to work with Michelle. It’s great to have a woman’s voice talking about that kind of stuff. Some people have said they think both magazines should merge together. But I don’t really see how that could work out. One is just sexually oriented, and one is movie oriented. Metasex is developing into more of weird stories about weird people. I think sado-masochism is an important part of the life force of this age. I don’t think people should feel guilty about it. When I was 17-18, I don’t think people knew about it as much as they do now. People seem less inhibited about it now.

Do you think it would be better if some things were actually forgotten, or do you think that everything should be dragged up and remembered?

Part of the fun many years ago was the actual struggle to find the material. It was like an adventure of sorts. It was great having actual rare prints too, and showing them at parties and things like that. Now, everything is just so available. 

Would you like to write about something that’s not related to this kind of scene?

I’ve also written extensively about the drug subculture. We’ve also written about different urban areas. The first cover story I did for The Village Voice was about the weird block where I lived on 14th and 3rd. That was the area where Taxi Driver was shot. I lived there for a while.

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