May 8, 1991
returns to the world of sex, drugs and rock n' roll.
Remember the 70's? Mood rings, Earl Butz jokes, Gerry Ford, bath-house sex, The Village People, Harvey Milk;, fierce gay rights rallies, bodies "to die for"? Some people would just as soon forget that decade ever occurred.
But not writer Jack Fritscher. For him it was a golden age; a time of sex, drugs, rock and roll.
Fritscher is one of my heroes -- a passionate, mystical egotist who writes like he talks, every syllable chiseling out stark chiaroscuro patterns from the urban California maze he's claimed, til recently, as home (he was a denizen of San Francisco throughout the 70s and early 80s). His novel of that decade, a lengthy book entitled Some Dance to Remember, recently rolled through its third printing (unusual for a small press). "A lot of Some Dance to Remember was written as journal notes in the 70s," the author claims, adding, "I didn't know what the plot would be or how it would end -- much like Pirandello's characters in search of an author."
The book has a choppy, craggy, crazy, patchwork, quilt-like quality which many will find annoying. It's long, uneven, and at times silly -- but so was the decade it tries to portray. Its charm lies in its honesty at looking at a period in history nobody to date seems to have made much sense of, or perhaps ever will. Does anybody care that its hero/narrator has fallen head over heels in love with a drop-dead blond muscle god who also works hard at being a con artist? I think many folks will, cause the 70s pullulated with people just like that.
Interestingly, one of this book's readers while in manuscript form was the late Robert Mapplethorpe, a friend, sex partner and professional colleague whom Fritscher helped bring to prominence when he was editor of Drummer (Fritscher is completing a memoir of his friendship with Mapplethorpe titled Mapplethorpe: Assault with a Deadly Camera). If they share a vision, it's one of urbane, urban life lived in extremis -- and it's that quality which makes Fritscher's writing, like Mapplethorpe's photography, a stark commodity in gay literature.
Fritscher today concentrates a lot of his creative energy on the production of gay male pornography for a company he owns called Palm Drive Video. He's long gone from the San Francisco scene, and today lives quietly in a rural California town.
When I caught up with him. I had the feeling I was about to hear a confession from a very kinky Jesuitical heretic. Perhaps I did. Here's how it went.
There are 12 words in the gay vernacular now which I introduced during the 70s. The word "mutualist" is a word I originated for somebody who is neither a top nor a bottom -- or who can do both.
Finding words for behaviors is not a fascistic way for sorting things out, but frees people up from being "homosexual" which connotes genitalia. These words go beyond that into a way of being.
Can you be "homomasculine" and still pick daisies and sing along to Judy Garland records on an afternoon? Can men do that? I get the impression from your work that "homomasculine" is really John Wayne gone gay.
No! Remember, you're confusing thoughts my characters express in a book with my own ideas, so my character Ryan's "Masculine Manifesto" simply responds to militant, separatist forms of feminism being thrown in his face.
If Ryan O'Neal or John Wayne were to go gay or "homomasculine," would you find that appealing?
No. While I find Ryan O'Neal appealing, I don't find John Wayne seductive -- he's a very plastic, stick figure who never showed any type of human emotions, let alone gender-identified ones. "Homomasculine" men can romp quite romantically during a buckskin rendezvous weekend. There are hetero-masculine men as well; heterosexual but manly acting, just as there are very straight guys sexually who are the biggest queens in the world. You don't have to be gay to be a queen! Most of the biggest queens I know are straight.
Twenty years ago, when I worked at Kaiser Engineers and was introduced to their art department. I thought to myself. What a bunch of screaming, flaming faggots. They were all straight and would have been an embarrassment to anyone on Castro Street.
I'm working here with terminology to give us more words. Words like "consensual" for S&M -- that's a phrase I introduced by joining the words consent plus sensual. Even though there is a word "consensual," that's how it became a portmanteau word.
Let me throw a word at you made famous from the lexicon of the personals: "brainfuck." If the best sex occurs in the brain, then why is there this obsession with muscularity and the way the body looks?
That's because of what the body's senses see. There is always a platonic ideal the mind works with, be it the perfect pot a potter crafts, or the hunky chest a horny dude craves. The physical is the only sign of the continuum we live in -- Catholicism itself follows the principle that grace builds upon nature; the more perfect your nature, the more healthy your body, the more capacity for grace you have. For sick people (as part of Catholic moral theology), since their body is a vessel impaired and unable to receive grace in the normal way, it has to be imparted in a special one.
Everyone from advertising to religion looks at the body. During the period covered by Some Dance to Remember, everybody was going to a gym, idealizing the muscular body. Literally, if you didn't have pecs, you were dead on a Friday night.
This behavior worked for me because philosophically they were following the naturalists at the start of the century; they wound up being New Age at the end of it. The bottom line body that stopped traffic was the kind my bodybuilder hero Kick had.
Kick's body was a kind of whitened sepulcher -- impaired because it was created through the use of chemicals. Steroids were the most abused drug in San Francisco -- it was one drug people didn't discuss because they wanted everybody to think the nice pump they were getting at the gym was all natural.
The dealers would come up from LA, or people would fly there to a certain doctor who would administer the shots and monitor their liver functions. There were famous parties at the time where the bodies would stand on one side and the checkbooks would stand on the other. On those Sunday afternoons, the two would meet.
I think the best sex occurs in the brain, too, and it's important not to obsess on what the other person's body looks like. I possess no desire to seduce the reincarnation of Orson Welles, but on the other hand, to be totally keyed into only hypermasculinity is so limiting. Having sex with really muscularly defined people who lack a mind is boring.
I've enjoyed musclegods like my character Kick, but I also cruise for people who are very offbeat types. I look for something that's off balance in somebody, that hasn't been buffed in a while, some hunger, some appetite. In making videos for my video company, Palm Drive Video, I shoot for what that kink is, and I iron it out for em.
What I enjoy during sex with someone is being able to talk -- and that's what I find refreshing about Palm Drive Video. Unlike other porn, it talks.
Talking during sex is certainly the norm with me. My mouth has gotten me laid more often than any other part of my body.
Why do people like to talk during sex? Why do other folks flip out if there isn't a funeral silence during it?
Words are like terribly important for good sex. Words key our brain. We figure we can access another person's brain by keying words, because speech, as well as movement and appearance, are ways to ignite the blaze in the brain.
I don't think I have ever come across somebody that didn't like to be talked to sexually, although I do have an affinity for people who are hearing and speech impaired -- I have always had great sex with people like that.
Why? Because they listen better?
No, because they more so well. God gave them extra grace in body and soul. It gives me a break in that I don't have to talk at all.
Most people walk around like silent movies. They can't articulate what they're about, who they are, or what they want. So for them, get the visuals all together; that's why they stand in the bar and the music is so loud, because who knows what to share besides trivial small talk?
But if you can provide a soundtrack, once finding out where the person's fantasy lies, then you can build very erotic things -- just as a logician can build the most wonderful logic on the most illogical of premises.
Is that what you were trying to achieve when you wrote the porn short story "The Corporal in Charge of Taking Care of Captain O'Malley?"
You could never shoot a porn video from the lines of that story -- which were intended as a shooting script -- but in your head you can. I tried to create a movie on the page for people who like talking during sex. I wanted to take the military scene and see if I could up the ante by a quantum leap of dialogue to make it take on meaning solely through conversation without having to describe where the Marine Corps sergeant and corporal were. The reader has that in his head in his own special way; how he envisions the barracks, their uniforms, etc.
You've crafted a typically abusive Marine Corps interaction into a virulently sexual encounter, and heightened it through some surprising twists.
That shows you the power of homomasculinity. Homomasculine men relate to women as persons whereas homosexual men relate to women as movie stars. I'm not trying to put anybody down who behaves like that. I just wanted to write one gay short story that did not have a queen at the center. Some people probably find Captain O'Malley a raving queen for all I know.
That sign on San Francisco's Falstaff Brewery mentioned in my book is historical: "Queens Against Gays." Given all the groups out there that pay homage to the feminist gay male and separatist lesbians, why couldn't there be room in Some Dance to Remember for the kind of people I wanted to write about?
In addition to writing about sex, you also video it.
I don't feel attracted to many guys I work with -- like the people you meet in a bar, you think, well, if only they talked, moved or acted differently. When I direct, I get to manipulate their motions, take their fantasies, intensify both, and work it out in spades. I lay out masks and hoods and toys and see what turns them on, slap them around and see what works for them.
I shelve my book collection with titles similar to one other. Some Dance to Remember sits next to Dancer from the Dance because it narrates all Andrew Holleran left out.
People send me manuscripts all the time. It seems like nobody else has written about the 70s fictionally, yet. In an essay for Harper's entitled "Stalking the Billion Footed Beast," Tom Wolfe asks, Where are all the great novels of the 60s, except Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test -- but how great is that? Where are the great novels summarizing the decades of the 70s and 80s?
It's very difficult for a writer of fiction to dream up new stuff. If you had imagined terrorists blowing up an airlines, it would have seemed very extreme at one point. The news today outstrips reality.
When I wrote the book (1982) I had the character Queenie sing a song called "Wind Beneath My Wings." A number of years later, of course, Better Midler won awards for her rendition, I should be a songwriter-manager!
Please don't hate me when I say I prefer Perry Como's version. I have terrible news for Tom Wolfe and other scribes: no one reads anymore, so no matter what one novelizes regarding the 60s, 70s or 80s, it ultimately doesn't matter.
I think there are quite a few people who would read the sixties as a decade very important in breaking the American trance of denial that existed after World War II. We called it prosperity and encouraged women to do the Betty Crocker denial routine. The 60s still impact on us today. My niece, who is a gay woman and not a lesbian, refuses to accept what the previous generation has done for her. Those types of women wouldn't be where they are today if "lesbians" didn't parade about like truck drivers.
We should get off the issues of abortion and the death penalty and deal with the underlying principle of free choice. I may not like any of these "issues," but I will defend to the death anyone's right to make their own choice.
If people want to run around in dresses and scream, that's fine, except in how it impacts on the image which mainstream society has of gays. If we're supposed to get out of the closet, we should also get out of the ghetto and become part of the fabric of the mainstream. If we come out only to hang around West Hollywood, Castro or Christopher Streets, then we haven't gotten very far. That way straight society tells us, "That ghetto's where you get to go -- it's your turf."
I don't want straight society's permission to do anything. I have a right in this country to do what I want. At the same time, why do something purposefully alienating? Why do things to reinforce the negative stereotypes you're trying to fight?
Let's bring your ideas into a more personal context. Do you feel comfortable in the company of effeminate gay men and diesel dykes?
To answer your question, no, they don't offend me, and no, I don't seek them out. I wouldn't go to bed with one.
There are gay men who would feel uncomfortable --
It makes me uncomfortable on a sociopolitical level more than on a personal level, where I find them quite amusing. It's like having court jesters or mimes around, neither of which I like.
Are you amused, or do you condescend to such folks?
I hope I don't condescend to anybody. They have a free choice to do what they're doing. I believe they're undereducated and misguided if they prance that out in public, as that's not going to help our subculture gain entry into the main culture. I think the gay and lesbian temperament right now has been so diverted by the tragedy of AIDS that people have forgotten there is a world out there. That drive to go mainstream has been distracted by trying to get the money and attention to cure this terrible scourge.
I have the sense from reading Some Dance to Remember that the real reason you're uncomfortable dealing with mannish diesel dykes is that they "sully the purity of your homosexual masculinity" and your concept thereof.
Oftentimes diesel dykes act out the worst men can do rather than imitate the good things that normal heterosexual men do.
In sex, why does everybody start talking with a Southern accent? Because it's sexier. Why does everybody pick up on the image of male aggression as being that of the truck driver? The truck driver is one of the main icons of gay and lesbian fantasy; gay men want to find them in truck stops and lesbians what to be them.
That stereotype is unfair to truck drivers -- I know these people and they're not available to queens. If a queen walks into a bookstore, they would go with a masculine acting man and then go home to their wives and kids.
I'm going to ask you a question which my high school Irish-American English teacher would probably want to spank me for: Are you the character Ryan (from your book)?
No, no more that I am any of the other characters. I created them all out of my own head. Maybe I am a repressed cabaret chanteuse.
But you're not queeny.
I'd get up on the stage of a supper club and sing "The Wind Beneath My Wings."
But would you sound like Perry Como?
Well, I've starred in a few musicals in local theater, so maybe I could. Am I sufficiently "homomasculine" to play in local theater, or is that queeny?
It's certainly Irish.
But I'm only half Irish.
Do you every interpret your sexuality as being a function of your ethnicity? I regard Jack Fritscher as this Irish homomasculine icon who fuels his sexual fantasies from an obscure Hibernian clan leader of a millennium and a half ago.
You got it -- only it's pre-Druidic.
Would you like to have your own clan?
No, because I saw what it did to Anton LaVey (high priest of the Church of Satan). If you try to have a clan, your followers institutionalize you and whatever principles you espouse.
Is witchcraft your substitute for your fallen away Catholicism?
I didn't fall away from Catholics. When I began researching my book on witchcraft, Popular Witchcraft: Straight from the Witch's Mouth, they thought witches were something on Hallmark greeting cards. But the time of the Manson murders, the occult became the stuff of tabloid fame. I am a New Ageist who's into empathic transmissions. But that's what sex is, isn't it?
Do you think Dan White was a procrypto (gay) homosexual? Do you think that' way he murderously took out his rage on Harvey Milk?
Hhm-hmmmn. I think he was a victim of society's attitude on homosexuality. He was a good Irish boy who happened to be gay. The Catholicism had so brainwashed him into being the perfect altar boy that the only thing he could do was join first the firemen, then the police -- so he could continue being in groups of men, in his homosociality.
Dan White was a sexy man.
I thought so -- that's why I remembered, and described in my book, a prize fight I'd seen him in. Years later when I realized who he was I said, Oh my God, that was him!
When you read Dancer from the Dance, you can come away with a halcyon view of that decade. I have a mental hangover from the 70s; it's not a period of my life I am exactly proud of, though I had a lot of fun. Do you think at that decade in your book, and that there are darker periods you could have explored more fully?
I thought I had. The only thing darker would be writing about Satanic scat rituals, but I thought that would be hard for people to admit to and identify with. We are in such a state of denial right now, people don't even want to read about the 70s.
Would you want to go back to the 70s and live through that all over again?
For sure. You bet. What we did back then didn't cause AIDS; a virus did. Going to the baths didn't cause AIDS then or now. I wouldn't change a thing in that decade; it was a wonderful time. It was probably the best of times.
What's going to happen to Jack Fritscher and his friends when they get older and the muscles sag? Have you reflected on Jack Fritscher, 20, 30 years from now?
I always live everyday as if I'm going to be 80, so I'll be in enough shape to do it if I wanted to. I think you draw a slightly unfocused picture; I don't just like guys with muscles; I like guys who are different. What I seek in a face is somebody who's offbeat. Using sex as the roost, get into their heads, and get off with them.
One time a guy from Minnesota showed up here and his fetish was rusty pieces of iron -- old farm implements -- he had constructed body harnesses made from these old rusted pieces of metal and wired together. It was primal sex and very warrior-like -- if you want to get back to the Celtic Druids. Our minds were able to conjure sexual images we could trip on.
Why do you find policemen so erotic?
They are people who put up a facade just as guys do who go out to a bar. They know that difference of a public and private person. I see what they're putting out as a private person. It's the penetration of that mask -- getting inside to see what the person is really like (that's so erotic).
During the 70s, rather than shoot the San Francisco gay pride parade, I went up to every police officer there and hot his face. Around their faces in closeup you see banners of gay liberation parading by. It's enough to make you die.
Your essay on Robert Mapplethorpe for Drummer a year ago was one of the most touching profiles I've ever read. In another interview, one of Andy Warhol's biographers, Bob Colacello, professed shock at meeting Mapplethorpe in the middle of the day while he walked someone around leashed to a dog collar.
When Robert came out to the West Coast, I was editor of Drummer; he wanted to get some pictures published for an interior layout. When I opened his portfolio I thought, Wow! But what I really wanted was a cover photo, which I described to him. The model turned out to be Elliot Siegal, who appeared on the cover of the first cigar issues of Drummer (#26) -- that was the first-ever Mapplethorpe cover shot.
What was Mapplethorpe like as a person?
He was very shy, quiet and retiring. The reason I'm writing about him is that I am trying to restore Robert as a person. He was a very loving, warm, kind, smart and funny guy.
Were he alive today, what would be his reaction to the controversy his photography has caused?
Nothing would make him happier than to realize he was the most controversial person in the world, because that would increase sales and for him, photography was the means to another end, namely money.
Was he a troubled person?
He was troubled by the fact he had more intellect than emotions. Intelligent people have intelligent sex. Having sex with Robert was a very rational act. It was a brain fuck, but it wasn't the Vulcan mind meld because he was just as analytical as I was, so we enjoyed great harmony sexually.
His problem was he was so cold emotionally. I don't think any of Mapplethorpe's pictures are erotic. Certainly, you can jerk off to them just as easily as you can to an image in the Sears catalogue.
Robert was a documentarian of eroticism. He liked me to find people who were into trips that would make interesting photographs. His shots are pictorialist, as he wanted a good picture. They are not pornography in the sense that you look and immediately get a hard-on -- they are intellectual and not erotic images. He like to locate people who where into rubber or leather or shit, and photograph them.
In the studio and the bedroom his constant refrain would be, "Not what if we did this?"
If Mapplethorpe were alive today, what kind of work would he be doing?
He'd shoot videos and movies. Like Cecil Beaton, he probably would have moved on to clothing, fashion and set design. He had made a video with Patti Smith in the 70s and even appeared in one around 1970, called Robert Getting His Nipple Pierced -- that tape still exists, and I used to kid him about it by calling him "Robert Nipplethorpe."
He lived the life of a rock star and lived a life out for writers. Most all of his friends were writers. We even worked on a book together, and I was dragged along on a lost of adventures just so I could chronicle them.
Whatever happened to that book?
It never materialized because he suddenly became internationally famous.
He was virtually dyslexic, as many graphics artists are. He could read, but writing was a very tedious task for him. He started out as a sculptor and went on to photography because it was more of an instant art. He had read parts of Some Dance to Remember, but he could shoot off three rolls of film and capture what my book might take 100 pages to describe because photography is a more accessible art than writing.
Final question: Is Jack Fritscher being happy as Jack Fritscher?
Rich Grzesiak is an award-winning editor and freelance journalist who lives in Philadelphia, but loves California.