Once upon a time on the Bowery
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
A porn star and de facto performance artist who goes by the name of Houston is laid out on a circular rotating table. The high-heeled shoes that are her sole article of clothing are propped up on a stranger’s shoulders. Unfortunately for her, the man on top of her, wearing only sneakers, a condom and a wristband that testifies to a lack of communicable disease, wants to be remembered, to stand out. He’s fucking her hard — the fronts of his thighs smacking the backs of hers. Miming ecstasy, she throws her head back and her platinum hair extensions almost hit the floor. The pair does not seem bothered by the 200 men watching or the boom camera above them. He pulls out, removes his condom and jerks himself off to finish, coming with professional aplomb within the sanctioned area between the top of her enhanced 36 DD breasts and her belly button. Houston is promptly handed a towel.
“That counts as six,” someone says with a laugh as the man walks off the set, which is decorated like a garage for a high-performance Indy car. At this point — some 100-odd men into “World’s Biggest Gangbang III: The Houston 500″ — no one is really watching the rolling counter behind the set. It occasionally rolls up by twos and fours and …
“Next!” shouts production coordinator Jim Malibu, whose Wayfarers and Hawaiian shirt give him the look of one of the uncool cops from “Miami Vice.” Houston means to have sex with 500 men before this day is out: “Next!” is really all that matters.
Tiger Bonesteel, a construction worker with creative facial hair, wears nothing underneath his paisley terrycloth bathrobe. When asked how he’s feeling, he promises he is “loving every second of it; every minute of it, but I don’t want to get too technical.” A morass of inscrutable optimism, he is “looking forward to the future” and believes, “you’ve got to be born ready in this life.” Of the 50-or-so men queued up near the “Gangbanger” entrance of the Canoga Park soundstage at 9 a.m., none seems as ready as Bonesteel. The men have come from all over North America, armed with $85 HIV test results in hand, to (as a Web promo on Houston500.com puts it) “sleep with” the adult actress named Houston.
There are three types of men here: the professional, the hopeless and the hopeful. In the last category is Bonesteel, who hopes his merciless manhood and reliable wood will serve as a springboard into the adult industry. Cameras crews are everywhere: shooting for Metro, the porn company with rights to the event; for the Playboy Channel; for French TV. One zooms in on Bonesteel. Yes, he has a girlfriend. Yes, she knows he’s here. He’s naked underneath his robe because … why let clothes get in the way? Flexing his biceps and flashing his bod, he gets what he came for — attention. This is something he shares with Houston.
Like the event that bears her (assumed) name, everything about Houston’s physique is excessive, blown up. A surgically enhanced cartoon bombshell, she projects to the darkest corner of whatever strip club she’s working. (She spends about 42 weeks a year on the road dancing). With her stressed-out silicon breasts, the store-bought tan, the lips hardened with lip liner, she looks like the love child of Jessica Rabbit and Bart Simpson.
Winner of a few California beauty pageants in her teens, Houston can’t remember when she decided that fame was important. But one thing is for sure: appearing on “Baywatch” a couple of times as she did in the ’94-’95 season wasn’t enough.
“I wasn’t getting known, recognized, or being paid what I wanted to be paid,” Houston tells me a few weeks before the event. “I knew in adult [the trade term for the porn industry] I could be very big very fast.”
Under contract with a company called Nitro, Houston was pegged as a blonde ice-princess in couples-oriented porn. (“I wasn’t doing anal like I’m doing now.”) With the porn market being taken over by amateur and gonzo do-it-yourself porn, Houston, once again, wasn’t getting big as fast as she wanted.
After taking 1997 off from videos to tour the country as a feature dancer, Houston began looking for a new contract. It was then that she met John Bowen, aka John T. Bone. In 1995, Bowen directed “World’s Biggest Gangbang I,” in which Annabelle Chong fucked 251 men. This was a lot, but it was 49 less than Chong’s stated goal. That target was hit in 1996 by Jasmin St. Claire for “World’s Biggest Gangbang II.” Manicures were mandatory — Annabelle was bothered by long or ragged nails in Gangbang I — and Jasmin ended up by icing down her genitals. For her trouble, Jasmin was voted “Worst Female” by “Adam Film World” readers.
According to Houston, Bowen told her, “Jasmin’s stepping down from her title. He looked at me and, ‘Houston, you want to come back with a bang?’”
Why would anyone want a video of “The Houston 500″? “It’s history,” says Houston. We are in a small dressing room at Cityscapes, a strip club in Long Island City months before the event.
“Records are all made to be broken,” says Charly Frye, her dance manager. He wears ostrich-skin cowboy boots and has a habit of brushing his palms together, as if washing his hands of the whole affair. Charly and Houston begin a conversational relay race, with every sentence a fragment to be completed or cheered on by the other.
“This is … a day — ” Charly begins.
” — an event!”
“This is Woodstock — “
“You watch the Discovery Channel. And you watch volcanoes erupting,” says Frye. “It’s really not the most exciting thing … but it’s so monumental.”
“What happens is we get fascinated with excess,” says Ted McIllvenna, president of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. “It’s like the guy who watches 47 football games on the weekend. The fact that it’s sexual doesn’t have very much to do with anything.”
“No, no. It’s not about sex,” Houston says to me. “[The guys are] in and out. It’s an event. It’s a world record. It’s just a freak show, basically. It’s for fucking freaks. I mean, I wouldn’t watch it. I have Jasmin’s video and I still haven’t watched it.”
“I think the mood of this,” says Charly, chiming in calmly, “is more of a documentary.”
Houston took the concept to Metro. “It wasn’t like I was out hunting for someone to do the world’s biggest gangbang,” says Greg Alves, vice president of Metro, who owns the rights to Gangbangs I and II. “Somebody came to me and said, ‘Look, I’d love to do this.’”
Metro printed up glossy “banger applications” distributed wherever Houston was dancing, took out ads coast-to-coast and, most importantly, got her on Howard Stern three times.
One of those segments aired on Stern’s CBS late-night program, where Houston was seen by Ed Goldstone of Visionary Entertainment, a mainstream personal manager with clients including David Boreanaz, from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He’s hoping to add Houston to his roster.
“She’s a comedienne. And I honestly think that she’s got such a potential that I’m ready to test it,” said Goldstone from his Sunset Blvd. offices. The plan is to start Houston in acting lessons and begin grooming her for auditions.
“They think they can get me on a TV program within a year,” Houston says. “I mean, [it's] just a sure fact that I got called from a mainstream agent that thinks I’m this diamond in the rough, you know what I mean? That’s what they literally said to me.” And what did she say when Goldstone told her that dreams do come true, and she really is that special? “I’m like, gee, maybe I really do have something that I just don’t realize,” says Houston. “You know?”
“It’s not that easy,” says Ron Jeremy, with a knowing shake of his head. With over two decades in porn, the paunchy Jeremy has something approaching mainstream fame — cameos on “News Radio,” a small part in “Killing Zoe” — but he also knows the texture of the cutting-room floor. He was edited out of “Ronin,” and NBC passed on a pilot called “Odd-Jobs,” where he was to have a recurring role. But he’s in the film “Boondock Saints” with Sean Patrick Flannery and Willem Dafoe. “I have a major role in that. I play Vincenzo the gangster,” he says. I move to turn off my tape recorder, but Jeremy will have none of it. “No, no, no, you want to get this …” he says. Everyone, it seems, is looking to go mainstream; from the unscratchable but cold hardcore to the fluid, effortless mainstream.
In the weeks leading up to the event, I do phone interviews with Houston at 1 a.m. This is the best time for her, after she has come home from court-mandated alcohol counseling (following a DUI) and has tucked her daughter in.
The more I get to know and like her, the more heatedly and earnestly I pursue a “why” beyond her stock answer: “I’m just riding the wave.”
I search for tribal analogies, ritual evidence, primate precedents, biological imperatives. I cold-call cultural anthropologists and sex experts to help me make sense of “Gangbang III.” I find that the wooly spider monkeys of South America are gangbangers of sorts, with males lining up patiently to mate an estrous female. At the Dionysian orgies of the Hellenistic era, ecstasy was a way to prepare oneself for enthusiasm, infusion by God. And the Menihaku of the Amazon would gang-rape any woman who trespassed in the men’s lodge. (The last reported occurrence of this was in 1944.)
Not seen as sexual act, this gang rape was a group response to a challenge to the patriarchy. And look at the set of the Houston 500 — a soundstage made up to look like a garage. A place where women shouldn’t be. Future gangbangs will be held in a frat house, a cracker bar. And further on into Gangbang 1000: The grassy knoll, the bell tower, Auschwitz.
I would climb into my bed at 2 a.m., the sound of Houston’s laughter fresh in my head, and wrap myself in this research. “This makes sense,” I would say to myself. “This is natural. The wooly spider monkey does it, even.”
Back in the garage, the men get their HIV tests checked and are given white Houston 500 T-shirts and wrist bands confirming their place — pros get black wristbands, amateurs white. Tiger Bonesteel had the incorrect HIV test and was sidelined. Same goes for Skidmark, a fat man with a beard, who rode 57 hours on a bus from Chicago and got Houston’s signature tattooed on his back the night before at a Metro-hosted signing on Melrose. (“I’m so lucky, dude,” Houston would later say to a Metro publicist about Skidmark’s disqualification.) Metro promises to fly Skidmark out for Houston’s next film. Both he and Bonesteel stay for most of the day.
Five of the ten fluffers — women on hand to get the guys hard before reaching Houston — primp in an empty green room. Diamond sits on the floor, holding a dusty wall mirror horizontally for Kira and Coco to do their makeup. There is an easy, loud rapport among the fluffers. They talk about a girl they know who got a part on a Cinemax softcore movie, and cover strategies for the day. (Playing with one another is a much better way to keep a guy hard than actually touching him.) One woman invites critiques of her breasts, which have been augmented to Ds thanks to “that 64-year-old john from Mexico,” who dropped over six grand on them. She still has Band-Aids under her nipples. For protection, all of the fluffers get a pair of kneepads ($5.99 apiece) and a dose of antibiotics to block the transmission of STDs.
Houston finally appears in front of the gangbangers and the press around 10:30. With her waist-length hair extensions and red spandex unitard, she looks for all the world like Luge Barbie. There is a press conference, during which Houston answers questions like “Will there be any double penetrations?” No. It ends when she says, “I’m very ready. I’m ready to rock.”
“The press conference went awesome,” says Metro Vice President Greg Alves into a cell phone from Houston’s dressing room, where Houston is getting her pubic hair trimmed. One of the fluffers is John Holmes’ widow, Laurie, and Alves would like “to get some mileage out of that.”
A fluffer leaning in the doorway looks at Houston affectionately. “You look beautiful,” says the fluffer. “I wish it was me.”
Around 11:30, with daylight burning and cameras rolling, the fluffers ease her out of her spandex sheath, down to her checkered flag corset. Eventually, one — Coco or Kira — straps on a dildo (Sister Strap On, $39.95) and penetrates Houston. A very real hush falls over the attendees, for when a fluffer shouts, “Work it!” it rings out past this circle of lights to the corners of the black, field-sized warehouse.
The boom camera gets positioned overhead. Meanwhile, the professional, the hopeful, the hopeless, the media and the just-plain bored (“I had nothing better to do today,” someone named Adam tells me) all stare while a fluffer with a fake name drives a fake penis into a porn star with a fake name, both women on megadoses of antibiotics. Houston snarls for the camera. An Internet simulcast is available for $9.95, and 4,000 people trying to log on at once will crash the server. A rebroadcast of the event is scheduled for the following Saturday.
If Bonesteel is a hopeful, his hope is to be like Dave Hardman, one of the 60 or so professionals earning $200 each to ensure erections on the set and on the tape. Hardman, who has just directed “Snatch Adams,” tells me he is living out the American Dream — “owning a house and getting laid” — through porno. After grinding out his workaday money shot, he makes ready to leave — he’s being filmed having sex with a “300-pound black girl” later in the day. But like a lot of these pros, with their black wristbands and tree trunk erections, he goes through a second time. That many pros make a day of it interferes with the democratic promise of the gangbang: if you can get it up, you can get off. After all, the banger applications read, “I want you to ride me …” A challenge, an invitation. “Be a part of history,” they said over and over on Web sites, radio stations and in strip clubs. Be a part of something bigger then yourself. Come to sunny California from your dusty hamlets and have sex with a real live exotic XXX adult entertainer.
The amateurs stand sidelined in their underwear and promotional T-shirts watching another set of playground bullies get the girl. One of them is Gordon, who traveled from Alberta, Canada. With Coke-bottle glasses and wiry hair too short to lay flat, Gordon looks like an Asian version of Tweety Bird’s braniac nephew. It is with guys like Gordon in mind that Houston raises her target gangbang number to 600 men.
The men wait in line outside the pit, where the fluffers do their thing. Some men are naked, some keep their boxers on while waiting in line — a red pair with the words “Don’t Panic” on the waistband stands out. With every man wearing mandatory Metro/Houston 500 T-shirts, shoes are the only clue to a person’s identity on the outside. One man wears a Mexican wrestling mask, another a wig. Understandably, the day becomes a blur for Houston.
Houston is hot under the lights, but she says she feels comfortable. Her mind does not drift, she does not think about getting the cat declawed, or the house she wants to buy this year. Her friends from Metro are in the front lines cracking jokes, keeping it light, and she is laughing and smiling most of the day. At one point she is on her hands and knees, a man doing his best to make an impression behind her, a latex-wrapped penis in her hand, and a microphone in her face. “I’m having lobster tonight,” she says, or some variation on “I feel great,” or “Keep ‘em coming, guys.”
“I’m just riding the wave,” Houston has said in each of our conversations over two months. And now the wave is breaking. Another set of two or three men roll into her. This one originating from Providence, R.I., this one from San Diego, both crashing into Houston, breaking onto Houston. She’s made up her mind. She’s riding the wave all the way, hoping that this will be the one to wash her up somewhere in the mainstream.
Sometimes a fluffer will take a man to the edge of orgasm and he will rush up to jerk his own private miracle onto Houston. There’s the occasional anal bit and a guest appearance from Metro starlet Misty Rain, who used an Executive Double Dong Harness ($54) on Houston, but otherwise, the whole event settles into a numb pattern, broken by shouts of “Fluffer!” “Lube!” and “Next!” Always “Next!”
There are rules at the Houston 500, documented in a leaflet with seven commands: “NO FINGERS,” “BE CLEAN” and “WEAR YOUR METRO T-SHIRT.” An unwritten rule of the gangbang requires that money not be discussed. The fluffers won’t say how much they’re earning; production coordinator Jim Malibu doesn’t want to talk about it. Greg Alves will tell me that this event cost “well over $100,000″ to produce, but Houston shuts me down. “No one will ever know what I make,” she says. “That’s no one’s business what I make. Unless you’re paying me.” But money is why she is here: Her stripping rate after today will likely triple, her signing rate doubles and perhaps she will be able to retire in six years like she plans.
Also prohibited is unsanctioned sexual activities. A heavy girl in a sheer pink dress with faux fur trim is escorted out by security when she’s caught giving head to five men in a shadowy corner of the soundstage, 20 feet from the buffet. A freelance fluffer.
Ross has been up since 4 a.m. He was tossing and turning, deciding whether or not he was coming to the Houston 500. He ultimately decided to because “it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to miss it.” He rose at 5:45 and took two cabs to the location, a $5 mixed bouquet in his hand, bought the night before at the grocery store. “I wanted to get roses, but this is all they had,” he says frowning, at the cellophane-wrapped arrangement. He’s a little nervous because of “the crowds, and the pressure of satisfying a woman like her.”
Houston does not come once during the day. “Twice, I felt really good,” she says.
Number 407, Shane Johnston, late 20s, freckles, crew cut, also wants to satisfy Houston. He told me what he was thinking of saying: “‘Greetings, Goddess, I’m here to worship you today’ and then kissing her feet,” he says. “She doesn’t look 29 though,” he says of her age posted on the Web site.
Shane certainly adds something to the small but essential role in history as 407 in the Houston 500: he goes down on her — something few men do during the day. There are shouts, catcalls, groans. “Jesus,” says Jim Malibu, impenetrable behind his Wayfarers and baseball cap.
“Bring that guy back at 599,” says Greg Alves. “I want someone eating her at 599.”
When the counter hits 500, Houston is given a two-tiered, black-and-silver trophy. Something happens between 500 and 511, when she starts to feel “hot and sore,” and has to “go put ice up in there. I was on fire in there.”
“It was a little emotional for a minute,” Houston remembers ten days after the event. “I literally started crying and I needed off. I mean I hurt. And I was exhausted. And that was like the only thing throughout the whole day.”
But she “held on like a champ,” her phrase on the Tuesday following the event, when she said nothing of the tears, the pain or the hurt. During the 30 or 40 minutes she was backstage composing herself, a man in engineer boots jerked off, keeping it up, keeping it ready, ready to pop once she returned.
“There were still guys waiting and I felt bad,” she says of why she upped her target to 600. “I mean a lot of guys had traveled a long time, and had paid $80 for a DNA test.”
“Some of these guys aren’t very pleasant to look at,” says Ross, surveying the sea of not-so-toned asses and abs. “That’s probably why they’re here. In real life they’d never get someone like her. Like me.”
No, real life is not such great place, it seems, sex-wise, for a guy like Ross. At 22, he has never had a girlfriend. Nor is it great for Gordon, who traveled 1500 miles, only, like many who came so far, to have trouble with his erection. Houston fellates him for a bit but he’s eventually moved over to make room for Kyle “5 years, 200 films” Phillips and his third money shot of the day — he’s going for five “pops” total. “She’s got the Houston 500, I got the Kyle 5,” he says.
Gordon is incoherent with rage — this wasn’t how it was supposed to be! “I wanted anal sex, I wanted to go down on her, I wanted to do a lot of shit,” he says walking away, his ass bare between his mandatory T-shirt and white Nike foot pillows. He is not pleased by Houston’s plan to raise the number to 620. “Now that I’m angry it’s just no good. I can’t get hard. That bites. That sucks,” he says flipping the bird at the locus of cocks and cameras, and perhaps at me.
I guess his age to be 21. “I’m 32, man,” he says, frustrated. Inside, he’s saying: … and there will be no orgies for me, and no blonde women with 36 DD breasts for me, and just for fucking once, I wanted to be the guy in the video! Now, instead of that, I’m the guy who can’t get laid at the World’s Biggest Gangbang. Then Gordon does what so few have done: He puts on his pants and leaves.
When Ross makes his way up to Houston around 4 p.m., the action stops. There are cheers as he hands off his flowers, a collective “Awww,” and some applause. Houston puts her arm around Ross and they pose for a picture together before she rolls over.
During the two minutes Ross was behind Houston, he cast only one sidelong glance at the cameras. The rest of the time his eyes were closed, the tip of his tongue sticking out the corner of this mouth, as he made “a connection to” his exploded dream girl.
“She was, like, gentle,” he says moments after. Even though he did not come, “It was worthwhile despite everything.” He means those “big guys, retarded, just out of jail, just out for sex, that kind of thing” who kept cutting in line. He didn’t really understand all the cheering. “Maybe ’cause I look like a loser and getting this woman that was so hot. Probably.”
Someone took the flowers into Houston’s dressing room, where an emptied Windex bottle cut in half served as a vase.
Ron Jeremy steps up as No. 620. (He batted cleanup in Gangbang I, waived this duty in II and swore he would only do it today if they really needed him — if they were one guy short of the record.) The crowd gets dense, packs in, stands on tiptoe just as before. But instead of the reverent silence during the fluffers’ opening salvo, they issue a raucous countdown. 10, 9 … The old order is passing … 6, 5 … Jasmin is stepping down … 3, 2 … A new world record! Ron blows his load on cue, as he has done countless times during the past 24 years.
And then it’s over. And no one knows quite what to do. Everyone is emptied out, but the enthusiasm, the breath of God has not come. No, God seems to have turned his back on this event, leaving a bunch of empties who don’t really know how to leave, how to walk out underneath that huge sky, which they have forgotten curves above them and now hosts a setting sun.
After slipping back into her red sheath, Houston takes one more round of press photos. She and Ron talk about Ed Goldstone — And he thinks he can get me on a TV sitcom within two years. Houston, the woman who wasn’t getting it fast enough, is talking to Ron Jeremy, less than 15 minutes after “this history-making event” has wrapped, about how maybe she really does have something special. Ron could see a zany bombshell-neighbor kind of role for her. Later in the evening, while Ron, Houston and the gang from Metro are eating at TGI Fridays, a plate of mozzarella sticks being passed around, I don’t doubt that Ed Goldstone’s name — and Houston’s future in show business with this world record behind her — came up again and again.
Kevin Bisch is a writer living in New York City.More Kevin Bisch.
Talking Heads, 1977
This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”
Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.
This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”
No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.
Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.
This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.
Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.
“The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.
Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.
Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.
Dictators, Bowery 1976
Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.
Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!
Bowery view, 1977
The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.
Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.
Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.
Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”
Legs McNeil, 1977
Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.
Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.
Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.
Tommy Ramone, 1977
Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.
Bowery 4am, 1977
End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.