All three parts of "The Provocateur," my series on artist and filmmaker Robert Attanasio, are now posted on Erotic Review.
In the 1970s, I worked with Attanasio on Observation Post, the radical student newspaper at the City College of New York. We published a lot of controversial material, much of it having to do with pornography and religion. Working on OP changed the course of our lives, but we drifted apart after graduation and eventually lost touch. I hadn’t heard from Attanasio in 30 years. Then, in February 2015, he contacted me and we reunited. By November he was dead—from cancer.
“The Provocateur,” adapted from a book I’m working on about the moment in the 1970s when the student left gave way to punk, is a retrospective of my relationship with Attanasio, and a journey through his art and film.
Click here to read Part I, Part II, and now Part III.
Attanasio appears at the beginning of this episode of The Madness of Art.
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Far From Flatbush
All three parts of "The Provocateur," my series on artist and filmmaker Robert Attanasio, are now posted on Erotic Review.
As I contine to immerse myself in the 1970s, reconstructing that time for a book I've been writing, I'm continually reminded of how much I forgot.
Fortunately, I have an archive of Observation Post, a student newspaper at the City College of New York. I joined OP in 1971, as a sophomore; became editor in chief as a senior; remained a contributor as a grad student; and in 1978 and '79, while living with the then editor in chief, I acted as surrogate editor.
OP was a radical, political, pornographic embodiment of First Amendment freedom of expression, underwritten by City College, and produced by both students and former students turned professionals. Its readership extended beyond the campus. By the end of its 32-year run, OP had become a record of the staff and contributors’ emotional turmoil, and nowhere is this more apparent than in a Christmas issue, dated December 20, 1978.
The memory-jogging front-page reminded me how far out of our fucking minds we were.
“OP Editor dies of drugs after being forced to resign” was fake news. The editor in question, the one I was living with, did not die. (As far as I know, she’s still alive.) But in December 1978, her life had descended into a state of chaos and despair. The coup de grâce came when the school forced her to give up her beloved editorship because she wasn’t registered as a student. To share her feelings with the administration (and the world), she died a metaphorical death in the pages of OP.
My book focuses on the moment in history when the student left gave way to punk, and it was in this issue of OP that punk won. The fake-news death of the editor foreshadowed both the real heroin-overdose death of Sid Vicious, of the Sex Pistols, little more than a month later, and the symbolic punk-suicide of OP itself the following year.
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For the past few years I've been immersing myself in the 1970s, trying to reconstruct what it was like to live and go to school in New York City at that chaotic time, as the student left was giving way to punk. Lately (in an effort to think about something other than Trump), I've been re-reading old newspapers that were published at City College, like The Campus, The Paper, and Observation Post (OP), which I edited.
In 1975, when I was in grad school, the Pentagon invited me to be a speechwriter for Air Force secretary John McLucas. Despite strong anti-war and anti-military sentiments, I accepted the offer. It was a paid writing gig, an “internship,” the Pentagon called it—the Air Force hoped that upon completing my degree, I’d make the military my career. Gerald Ford was president, the Vietnam War had just ended, and I was an ambitious, rebellious 22-year-old, hungry for experience.
Upon returning to City College for the fall semester, I sat down with three OP editors—Herb Fox, Mark Lipitz, and Fred Seaman—to discuss my stint at the Pentagon. They published their interview with me in the November 5, 1975, issue. Reading it now, more than 40 years later, my unguarded anger and the way I shot off my mouth startles me. I’d apparently not yet developed a filter and did not fully understand the effect my words might have on a wider audience, especially my former Pentagon coworkers. The interview, however, does serve as a window into my unruly consciousness and the mindset of the military in the immediate aftermath of having lost a war for the first time since 1812.
Here are some excerpts from the interview, with the names of my former coworkers redacted.
OP: What was your first day at the Pentagon like?
Bob Rosen: I couldn’t sleep the night before. I didn’t know what I was getting into. In the morning I had to wait at the main information desk with about 20 other interns. After an hour, some Air Force people took us to be “processed in,” which was filling out tax forms, taking loyalty oaths, and having your arms checked for needle marks. Then I went up to the speechwriting office and met the people I was going to be working with. I was terrified. It was the first time I ever came in contact with the military. There were three lieutenant colonels and a captain. Lieutenant Colonel A_____, the chief, asked me to come into his office and said: “Well, Bob, you’ve got to hang loose. This is a very loose place.”
OP: What did he mean by that?
Rosen: He meant speechwriting was a very frustrating job. It takes about ten days to write a speech. It’s a very long process, involving a lot of research and interviewing. You spend entire days talking to people on the phone, running around the Pentagon tracking down “experts,” going through microfilm files, and reading up on relevant material. Then you write a rough draft and finally hand in a polished speech. But McLucas is a callous pig. He looks at a lot of speeches and says: “I don't like this. Do it over!” Then you’d have to do the whole fucking thing over. When he actually gives a speech, he usually reads the first paragraph, throws the rest away, and spins off on his own. It killed everyone in office. It wouldn’t have bothered me if he was a good impromptu speaker, but he was terrible at it. He’d go off on all kinds of boring tangents that put people to sleep. He did it to gratify his ego, to prove to himself he was more witty and more articulate than his speechwriters. He treated us like garbage. A couple of times he said things that got him in trouble. For instance, during a speech to a group of scientists in San Francisco he started to ad-lib and called the Vietnam War a “debacle.” That made banner headlines in the San Francisco Chronicle. It got people in the Pentagon really pissed at him.
OP: You said that at first you tried to be as “truthful” as possible [when writing a speech]. What do you mean by that?
Rosen: Okay. Let me use my first major speech as an example. McLucas had to speak to a group of ROTC cadets who were graduating from college this year and expected to join the Air Force right away. Now these cadets had entered college during the Vietnam War, when the ROTC program was going full force. However, since the end of the war, the size of the Air Force has been reduced by about 30 percent, and there’s going to be no room for these cadets. McLucas had to explain to them they had to wait up to two years before they could join the Air Force, and he had to come up with something to tell them to do during these two years. So I wrote a speech suggesting these cadets should run off and become hippies, and then when the time came they would be able to go into the Air Force with a completely new perspective on life.
OP: I suppose they killed the speech right away.
Rosen: No, they didn’t kill it that fast, which surprised me. Each speech, before it gets to the Secretary, has to go through a chain of about 15 experts. My supervisor, Lieutenant Colonel A_____, actually liked it, so I figured that there really was a chance it might get through. It passed three people before someone realized I was subtly suggesting these cadets go off and become hippies. I got an angry memo from the Pentagon Commandant of ROTC saying: “I don’t think the Secretary of the Air Force should suggest our future pilots become hippies.”
Another weird thing happened to me with that speech. After I had finished writing it, I typed a separate paragraph they wanted to include, mentioning there had been a 69 percent increase of women in the Air Force since 1969. I showed the paragraph to one of the officers there, Lieutenant Colonel B_____, and he said: “You can't use this 69 percent.”
“Why not?” I asked. “I triple-checked it. There’s a 69 percent increase.”
“Well, you see,” he said, “you’re going to be speaking to a group of ROTC cadets and they’re all males. Here you are talking about women. You just can’t use 69 percent when you’re talking about women to an all-male group. Some of their minds might not be in the right place. You have to change that.”
I thought he was joking and started to laugh. When I looked around I saw nobody else was laughing. It wasn’t a joke. I had to change the 69 percent to something else.
OP: Are there many religious people at the Pentagon?
Rosen: That’s another incredibly weird aspect of the Pentagon—the way people there are into religion. This one speechwriter, Captain G_____, tried to convert me to Christianity. He was a Charismatic Christian. He’d tell me how he talks to Jesus every night when he drives home in his car. There’s something very frightening about an officer in a high government position telling you how he talks to Jesus every day. He also gave me religious books to read that painted horrible fire and brimstone visions of hell. These passages would always be followed by a paragraph that said, “But, if you accept Christ you don’t have to go there.”
He told me I was in the Pentagon because God wanted me there.
“Why would God possibly want me in the Pentagon?” I asked, and he said: “Well, when the Messiah comes maybe He’ll want you to be His speechwriter. He has you here to learn about speechwriting and to learn about Him.”
OP: Tell us about your trip to Florida.
Rosen: I’d written a speech for a graduation exercise at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, and I got to fly down there with McLucas, his military aide, and Lieutenant Colonel A_____. [In Florida, A_____ and I shared a hotel room. It] was the first time I’d ever roomed with a lieutenant colonel.
He liked to talk to me about my politics and drugs. A_____ had been in the military for 19 years and he only came into contact with other people in the military. I’d say, “I take drugs and opposed the war.” He’d say, “Gee, I never met anybody who admitted he took drugs. I don’t know people who opposed the war.”
I told him there were a lot of people like me. He had only seen them on TV and read about them in the newspaper, and now he’s suddenly rooming with one. He used to ask me a lot of questions whose answers seemed obvious, like: “How come you didn’t like the war?” I’d give him a pretty standard answer about the United States having no right to destroy a country halfway around the world for its own selfish interests. Then I’d ask: “How come you did like the war?” He’d tell me he’s a patriot and the Communists were the aggressors, the usual story. He’d keep on saying we didn't bomb civilian targets. It was the most “surgical” bombing job in the history of the Air Force. He’d use expressions like, “We didn’t want to destroy the whole country, we just wanted to twist the Communists’ arms till they saw things our way.”
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So, aside from the book, what’s been happening since January 12? Here are a half-dozen highlights:
Like everybody else in the northeast, I’ve been getting through the winter, which can’t end soon enough, though I’ve not been letting the cold or the snow interfere with my daily walks by the Hudson River, which on some days might be mistaken for the Northwest Passage.
My wife and I spent a week in Florida, visiting my mother and being tourists in Miami. It was warmer there, I went swimming every day, and at no point was I forced to stand my ground.
For a brief moment, Beaver Street was the #1 porn book on Amazon Germany and Nowhere Man was the #1 Beatles book on Amazon Canada. Is it too soon to declare them both cult classics?
Quadrant, a conservative Australian literary journal, cited Nowhere Man in an essay comparing John Lennon to Russell Brand. The conservative media’s 15-year embrace of my work, using it to prove whatever point they’re trying to prove, continues to be a source of astonishment.
In my blog post about Charlie Hebdo, I wrote about the artist who, in the 1970s, had drawn a pornographic cartoon as a way of expressing his discontent with the Catholic Church. I’d published the drawing in Observation Post, the City College newspaper I was editing at the time. Major controversy ensued. Well, the artist read the post, and contacted me. We got together for the first time since 1974. He’s still an artist. And he’s still crazy after all these years. But so am I.
I woke up one morning to find that the porn star Stoya, whom the Village Voice had described on their cover as “The Prettiest Girl in New York,” had mentioned Beaver Street in a blog post. If I could have picked three people on planet Earth to read and appreciate Beaver Street, Stoya would have been among them, alongside Philip Roth and Joan Didion. So, I tweeted her a thank you and she tweeted back, “Thank you for writing it. Amazing glimpse into the adult industry.” Say what you will about Stoya, but I’ll say this much: The girl gives good blurb. Read More
Instead, I went to the City College of New York and joined Observation Post, or OP, as this student newspaper was known. Founded in 1947 by returning World War II veterans, OP by the 1960s had evolved into the "alternative" paper, a radical journal of anti-war politics and rock 'n' roll, kind of a Rolling Stone-like option for those who found the "responsible" New York Times-like Campus to be exceedingly dull.
By the time I’d joined the staff, in 1971, one year after Charlie Hebdo was founded, OP, as I describe it in Beaver Street, “had mutated into a blunt instrument primarily used to test the limits of the First Amendment…. a student-funded incubator for an emerging punk sensibility soon to burst into full flower; it was an anarchist commune whose members performed improvisational experiments with potent images and symbols designed to provoke, or to ‘shock the bourgeoisie.’”
In short, we could have flown our freak flag under the Charlie Hebdo slogan, journal irresponsible (irresponsible newspaper).
In 1974, the staff elected me editor-in-chief. Early in my tenure, an artist who was raised Roman Catholic submitted his latest drawing, a reaction, he said, to his primary school education at the hands of “sadistic nuns.” It was an artfully crude cartoon of a nun masturbating with a crucifix.
Obviously, it was intended to provoke, but I also thought it was a legitimate artistic statement. Though many on the staff were less than thrilled by the cartoon, the only people who voiced objections to its publication said that the image was self-indulgent and clichéd, a rip off of the crucifix-defiling scene in The Exorcist, a popular film at the time. The possibility that somebody might want to do us physical harm should we publish such a drawing was not even considered.
So I ran the nun as a stand-alone cartoon, my sole motivation being to allow an artist whose work I liked to express his well-earned anger towards The Church, which I had no strong feelings about one way or the other.
And of course we got a reaction, though it wasn’t the usual irate letters from radical feminists accusing OP of exploiting women, as had happened when, in an earlier issue, my predecessor published a cover photo of a couple copulating on the couch in the OP office. Rather, the masturbating nun cartoon provoked Senator James Buckley of New York to denounce it as “a vicious and incredibly offensive anti-religious drawing” and demand the expulsion of the students responsible for it, the censoring of every college newspaper in America, and a Justice Department investigation of OP to “protect the civil liberties of all students who are offended by pornography.” This, in turn, provoked the Times to run an editorial defending OP in the name of the First Amendment, which put an end to the crisis.
In other words, a religiously “offensive” cartoon did what it was intended to do: spark a passionate debate.
Five years later, the cartoon inspired another OP editor to don a nun’s habit and have herself photographed masturbating with a crucifix as a tribute to the original drawing. Then, in a gratuitous act of pure punk provocation, she ran those photos in OP. In Beaver Street, I describe what happened next:
“[A] jeering mob of students affiliated with the Reverend Sun Myung Moon burned 10,000 copies of OP in a South Campus bonfire;… the City University chancellor publicly apologized to Cardinal Cooke for the photos; the Board of Higher Education demanded the criminal prosecution of OP’s editors on obscenity charges; the New York City Council threatened to gut the budget of the entire City University system unless something was done about OP; [and] the City College student body voted to kill off OP once and for all.”
The point I’m making here is that despite two attempts to provoke a reaction with crude and pornographic religious imagery—the second attempt more shocking and gratuitous than the first—there was no physical violence directed at the OP staff and there were no threats of physical violence. Though I’m sure many people wished those responsible for the cartoon and photos dead, the people who hated the images responded with words, political acts, and their own symbolism—burning the newspaper.
So, what does it mean that students in the 1970s could publish outrageous religious and political satire and not have to worry about being assassinated by a fundamentalist death squad? I suppose it means that I came of age as a writer and editor in a more tolerant and possibly more civilized time.
Unfortunately, there was no American equivalent of Charlie Hebdo for me to graduate to. Yet, in my books and other writings, I continue to nurture the spirit that OP infused in me, the spirit that very much lives on at Charlie.
I also do freelance work in the production department of a magazine that occasionally indulges in satire and has just moved into the gleaming 21st-century tower known as the World Trade Center. Though these things are certainly a matter of concern, I refuse to live in fear, and that’s the best tribute I can pay to the staff of Charlie. Read More
Last night I found two positive Beaver Street reviews. The first one, by Peter Landau, the writer who conducted the epic interview with me that ran last month on Fleshbot, describes me "as a Virgil to the reader's Dante on tour of a business that grew to define pop culture in America." In his thoughtful analysis, Landau calls the book "a fun and informative trek through a lost world," meaning that the profitable and dynamic magazine world that I depict in Beaver Street has long ago ceased to exist. He gives the book five out of five stars.
Thank you, Peter.
The other review, by Mike McPadden, is notable because the writer “vividly” remembers “the naked nun photo scandal of 1979,” which I describe in an early Beaver Street chapter about editing Observation Post, an underground newspaper at the City College of New York. (Actually, the “nun” went well beyond being naked, but I suspect that Goodreads is subject to censorship, and McPadden prudently restrained his language.) Overall, McPadden calls the book “breezy” and “funny” and recommends Beaver Street “skinthusiastically.”
Thank you, Mike. And keep those reviews coming. Read More
My books, on the other hand, are probably a fifteenth draft that I've been working on and thinking about for years. They've been critiqued by editors, vetted by lawyers, and subjected to professional copy-editing. I'd hope the difference is apparent to even the casual reader.
I think if blogs existed in the 1970s, I’d have been a more effective blogger than I am today. And by “effective,” I mean that my postings would have gotten more hits and more comments. Because blogging is a better medium for inexperienced amateurs than it is for polished professionals, especially those who put their best work into books.
In the 1970s, I thought writing was easy. Which is to say, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was unpolished, unguarded, I had nothing to lose, and I said all kinds of outrageous things (usually about sex) without understanding the impact it would have on the people who read it. I’d not yet developed a filter, and drew little distinction between what I thought, what I said, and what I wrote. I didn’t understand how easy it was to offend people. I put down on paper whatever was in my head, and then, with little editing, published it in Observation Post, the so-called alternative newspaper at City College. And, boy, did I ever get a reaction… and comments. (See Beaver Street, Chapter 1, “How I Became a Pornographer.”)
I’ve learned a lot in the ensuing decades. For example, I now know that writing well is hard; that it’s not a good idea to publish many of the things I say privately; and that it’s a terrible idea to publish everything that crosses my mind, no matter how many hits and comments it might provoke. There are certain people I’d prefer not to offend. In other words, I’ve learned the art of restraint, which is the opposite of what people are looking for on the Internet.
So, if you want total abandon—at least the kind of total abandon that’s not going to get me sued—then you’ll just have to read my books. In fact, I think I’ll work on one now. Read More
The lead story in this issue—“Buckley says kick out editors over ‘bigotry’”—from March 15, 1974, is about Senator James Buckley, arch-conservative of New York, and his reaction to a cartoon of a nun “using a cross as a sexual object” (as The New York Times delicately put it) that I’d run in OP. The students that he wanted to expel were the art editor who drew the cartoon as a response to his education at the hands of “sadistic nuns,” as he explained it, and me. Buckley called the cartoon “a vicious and incredibly offensive anti-religious drawing,” and demanded that the entire college press be censored because of it—in order to protect the civil rights of students who were offended by pornography.
I tell the complete story in Beaver Street in the chapter called “How I Became a Pornographer,” and you can read it here. Read More
The chapter focuses on a pornographic cartoon published in OP in 1974, which the Times described as “a nun using a cross as a sexual object,” and a photo of an OP editor, dressed as a nun and using a cross as a sexual object—a tribute to the original cartoon—published in OP five years later. (You can read the chapter here.)
“How I Became a Pornographer” also discusses such things as OP’s “emerging punk sensibility” and a demand by a United States Senator to censor the college press because of the nun cartoon. These events both occurred in 1974, when I was editor of OP, and I had no trouble recreating them, as I was an eyewitness.
Since I wasn’t at City College for the publication of the 1979 photo, I couldn’t provide an eyewitness account of how a group of students burned OP to protest the publication of the photo. Still, I was able to rely on information in my diaries and some press accounts, and was able to recreate the events with a reasonably high degree of accuracy.
Then the other day I discovered an amazing digital archive that didn’t exist when I was writing the chapter, and which would have helped me enormously with my research: every issue of The Campus—OP’s competition at City College—published between 1907 and 1981.
The Campus often found itself in a position of having to cover OP every time OP made news by publishing something outrageous or pornographic. Looking back at their eyewitness coverage of the 1979 nun is fascinating. It also shows me that I got at least one detail wrong: I’d said that students had burned 10,000 OPs, which would have been the entire press run. According to The Campus only 4,000 were burned. (Another source puts the number at 8,000.) Whatever the exact number, it appears that there are at least 2,000 copies of this collector’s item floating around. And I will, of course, make this correction in any future editions of Beaver Street. Read More
Today, Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Jewish New Year, 5772, is one of the two Jewish holidays I acknowledge. My wife and I will go down to the Hudson River with some stale bread and, according to tradition, cast our sins upon the water. Usually the seagulls eat the bread. "What a relief," I'll then say. "They didn’t turn black." The birds, that is.
I like the Jewish New Year because I feel as if I’m getting a second chance to re-live the year designated in the last two digits—’72 in this case. Yes, it’s the ’70s again, and 1972 was an especially interesting year. The energy of the ’60s was still very much alive, and having recently transformed myself into a radical hippie, I’d become an editor on Observation Post, the “alternative” student newspaper at the City College of New York, where the remnants of the SDS and Weather Underground had fused with an emerging punk sensibility.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that kind of energy. But I felt it yesterday when I went down to Liberty Square, where the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have set up camp. Galvanized by both ridicule in the mainstream media and a cop’s unprovoked pepper-spray attack on a woman demonstrator the other day, the motley gathering veritably exuded the Spirit of 1968 (5729). “There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear…” is the way Buffalo Springfield put it in those electrifying days.
The demonstrators’ energy was focused around a tribal drum circle on the Broadway side of the park. People were pounding out an infectious rhythm on drums, cymbals, and garbage cans. They were playing tubas, trumpets, and washboards. And they were dancing, while a few yards away, on Broadway, a chorus line of demonstrators held up signs demanding economic and social justice. It was uplifting, hopeful, and magical in a way that’s difficult to quantify, but obvious to anybody who was there.
And take my word for it—these people aren’t going anywhere. Because most of them have nothing to lose and nowhere better to go. They’re serious, angry, unemployed, and dug in for the long haul. Ignore them at your peril.
Happy New Year, Wall Street. Read More
The reaction of my homeboys has been predictable.
“Anything less than a ‘Gonzo Filth Legend’ would have been an insult!” writes Paul Slimak, whom I call “Henry Dorfman” in the book. (Paul now plays unreconstructed Nazi Erich von Pauli in the Beaver Street promotional videos.)
“Seems you should print up some cards with that as your title,” writes a Facebook friend I know from junior high school, who prefers to remain anonymous.
“I hope I’m able to introduce you in those terms to some of my friends,” writes an editor who works with my wife, and whose name, as a matter of prudence, I shall not mention.
Former editor of For Adults Only, Izzy Singer, however, has pointed out an inaccuracy in the article. “As I recall,” he writes, “I commissioned ‘The $5 Blowjob,’ not you.”
Yes, Izzy, you are correct. And that’s exactly what it says in Beaver Street. Read More