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.”
Only in America can a citizen’s psychic essence loom as big as a cartoon balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Look! Here comes the Bill and Monica balloon, with Hillary racing behind! Next is the Arnold Schwarzenegger balloon, groping for clouds as if they were fat tits! And atop that floating wheelchair — it’s Larry Flynt, who has transcended the sewer of pornography to become our greatest protector of free speech!
It all began when Citizen Flynt was born in Magoffin County, Ky., in 1942, to poor white trash parents. Pop Flynt was a drunk, and young Larry and his mom soon fled without him to Indiana when the lad was just 10. When Larry turned 15, he fibbed his way into the Army. The kid’s age was discovered and he was discharged after a year. Larry then joined the Navy. He served on the USS Enterprise when it was an aircraft carrier and even met JFK when the president was inspecting America’s armada.
Larry split the Navy in 1964. He teamed up with his kid brother, Jimmy, to become Buckeye State burlesque entrepreneurs, opening eight strip joints in Ohio. In the early 1970s, the boys decided to publish a skin mag. The Flynts were not Hugh Hefner wannabes, wearing lounging pajamas and surrounded by beauties wearing bunny ears. The Flynts were salt of the earth. They weren’t ashamed to fart in public. They knew how to palm off food stamps for near beer. They could recite truck driver citizen’s band poetry of the pussy. The Flynts would call their magazine Hustler and stuff it with cartoons about poop along with photos of big-haired girls, legs akimbo, their vaginas presented like slices of sushi. The magazine was a hit. The boys became millionaires.
Then in 1975, the August issue of Hustler ran black-and-white photos of Jackie Kennedy Onassis strolling on a private beach as naked as if she thought she was Marilyn Monroe. Before these paparazzi photographs, Americans used to ask, “Where were you when you heard JFK had been shot?” Now some began asking, “Where were you when you first saw Jackie’s mound of Venus?”
The pages of Hustler were so regularly outrageous that Flynt was always being hauled or hauling himself into court. His first notable adversary was the notorious Catholic/Republican Charles H. Keating, who pulled strings to get Flynt tried on obscenity charges in Cincinnati in 1976. Flynt was found guilty, but the verdict was overturned. (Four years later Keating was convicted of fraud in the great savings and loan scandal of 1989.)
In 1976 Flynt married his fourth wife, Althea — an eccentric woman who two decades later would be portrayed by Courtney Love in the Milos Forman movie about the hustler’s eventful life, “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” (His beloved Althea would go to her reward in 1987, after drowning in a bathtub of a possible heroin overdose.) In 1977, under the ecclesiastical influence of President Jimmy Carter’s sister Ruth Carter Stapleton, Flynt became “born again,” asking the Lamb of God to stable in his pornographer’s heart. Flynt even made plans to transform Hustler into a Christian magazine of sorts. But Flynt was gunned down a year later by a notorious white supremacist, Joseph Paul Franklin, who was outraged over a photo shoot in Hustler of a black man enjoying sex with a white woman. Flynt was left permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
Our citizen was no Job. Flynt renounced Jesus. Next, he abandoned the plaintive state of Ohio to move with his dear Althea to the American Babylon of California, installing themselves inside a Mansion of Sin in Bel Air.
In 1983, Flynt was in federal court once again because he refused to disclose his source of surveillance tapes that showed the feds suckering automotive playboy John DeLorean into the cocaine deal that sent him to jail. Flynt was so outraged at the judge’s pro-FBI stance, that he appeared in court, in his wheelchair, wearing only a flag as a diaper, his belly flopping over the stars and stripes. Flynt also threw a Sunkist orange at the judge. The same year, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione’s girlfriend Kathy Keeton sued Flynt for libel over a cartoon that suggested her paramour gave her the clap. The case dragged on until it reached the Supreme Court in 1983. Many legal arguments of great weight have been made before that mighty bench, but not even Clarence Darrow ever dared to yell, “Fuck this court! You’re nothing but eight assholes and a token cunt!”
Citizen Flynt did.
Flynt also found time to run for president against Ronald Reagan and to be sued by Jerry Falwell, the high priest of the Moral Majority. Falwell was enraged by a cartoon that claimed he lost his virginity as a boy with Mother Falwell inside an outhouse. This case also went to the Supreme Court, and in 1988, the “eight assholes and a token cunt” overlooked Flynt’s previous insult, to declare that public figures cannot recover damages of “emotional distress” based on satires. Flynt won.
With sex, lies and Republican hypocrisy in the air, Flynt returned to the spotlight during the Clinton impeachment wars. After Salon exposed the adulterous past of House impeachment czar Henry Hyde, Citizen Flynt offered a million-dollar reward for evidence documenting the sexual indiscretions of any other Washington lawmakers trying to crucify Bill Clinton over trysts with Monica Lewinsky.
Citizens lined up to squeal. The adulterer politician that Flynt nailed was the self-righteous House speaker, Republican Bob Livingston — heir apparent to Newt Gingrich. Rather than wear a scarlet letter, Livingston resigned and effectively stopped the momentum for Clinton’s public hanging.
That same year, Flynt’s eldest daughter, Tonya Flynt-Vega, published a memoir to counter her father’s new social standing as a First Amendment gladiator, claiming that as a child she’d been sexually abused by Flynt. (Flynt denied this.) Flynt’s feminist nemesis Gloria Steinem blurbed Tonya’s book: “The power of a father over a child is enormous, and [Tonya] tells us what happens when a daughter is born to a father whose business and obsession is the control and humiliation of women.” In her book, Tonya also claimed that she recently came upon Jesus freshly hanging from a cross up in the Catskills. Gloria Steinem had no comment.
Now, in the summer of 2004, Larry Flynt has a memoir in the bookstores called “Sex, Lies & Politics: The Naked Truth.” The book begins with several American soldiers selling him topless pictures of Jessica Lynch (taken at Fort Bliss, Texas) for an undisclosed amount of money. Flynt tells how he paid them their 30 pieces of silver, and then put Jessica’s photographs away in his drawer forever.
I talked to wheelchair-bound Citizen Flynt by phone. I was not prepared to hear how unintentionally chilling his voice is. It is a raspy, struggling-to-breathe gargle from hell; a drawl that emits from the furthest edge of humanity.
The first thing in your book that everyone is going to jump on is your claim that young George W. Bush paid for his girlfriend’s illegal abortion.
You can’t stay with a story this long and not believe in it. In 2000, I got a call from a lawyer in Houston. He told me that his client, “Susan,” could prove that George W. Bush arranged for his girlfriend to have an abortion back in the early 1970s. Her boyfriend at the time, “Clyde,” was pals with Bush and set up the procedure. We checked up and found that indeed “Clyde” was responsible for keeping Bush out of trouble. Bush had knocked up a girl named “Rayette.” We talked to the doctor that performed the abortion. We felt we really had a blockbuster story, but about two months before we were going to break the story, “Susan” disappeared. We finally found her. She was living in a half-million-dollar home in Corpus Christi, Texas. Before that she was living in a small apartment working for $13,000 a year as a cocktail waitress. I’m not saying Bush bought her off, but I’m confident that one or more of his cronies did. The only thing that interested me in this story is — I’m pro-choice, but to have a guy who is running on a pro-life platform … and this procedure was committed in 1971, two years before Roe vs. Wade, which would have made it a crime.
I went to two members of the national press (during the 2000 presidential campaign) and said, “Look. I don’t have anyone out on the stump. You guys do. At least ask Bush the question.” You know what? They refused to. One of them had the nerve to tell me that the election was too close. “We don’t want to be the ones to tip it in any direction.” I thought, that gives you a really great feeling about the press.
Ann Coulter once told me, “Liberals have turned hypocrisy into the only sin.” Maybe Christian Americans have sympathy for hypocrites because everyone but the pope in Rome and Jimmy Carter are guilty of minor, if not major, sins.
I’ll put it in a non-biblical context by simply saying anytime you take a public position contrary to the way you live your personal life, that’s hypocrisy, and you’re fair game.
You ran against Reagan in 1983. How do you feel now that he’s dead?
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
He’s been so sanctified in the press — it’s like Ollie North and “ketchup as a vegetable” never happened.
You know all the coverage they gave him [during the funeral] — they didn’t talk about the “arms for hostages,” they didn’t talk about Nicaragua. They didn’t talk about Panama. They didn’t talk about Grenada. It was just amazing. Everything that was positive about Reagan they aired on television. Anything that wasn’t, they didn’t.
Do we still have a free press?
I don’t think we have a free press by any means. Maybe the journalists on the beat think they are part of a free press, but we know the guys that sit in the ivory tower that call the shots, go to the White House for dinner, they’re doing the bidding of the elite. It’s getting worse. If they leave that idiot Michael Powell in charge of the FCC it’s going to get worse even faster.
Aren’t the people in the “ivory tower” the same people who were up there during Watergate?
It’s obvious that the L.A. Times and the Washington Post are trying to keep their ships afloat, and maintain a certain degree of independence and integrity.
But would the Washington Post have the balls to break the White House plumbers story if Watergate happened today?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. It’s frightening to think that they would not. But I can’t be sure that they would.
The press release for your new book claims that you are responsible for Clinton surviving the impeachment hearings. I thought that was just hyperbole until I remembered that you brought down Bob Livingston.
That really changed the whole tenor of the trial in the Senate. The guy who came out with “American Rhapsody” [Joe Eszterhas] — he was the one who said that I saved the presidency. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think Clinton would have survived just the same, but there were a lot of people asking for censure, wanting his head on a platter. You know, as soon as we started exposing Republicans one right after another, everybody accused us of going after Republicans. We weren’t. It’s just Republicans are always the ones with something in the closet. Livingston had been doing it with a judge in Louisiana and a lobbyist on Capitol Hill and a girl in his office.
Did you feel like a patriot when Bob Livingston threw in the towel before Congress? Did you yell, “I’m responsible for that!”
Livingston did an interview with the New York Times the following day and referred to me as a “bottom feeder.” The Times called me for a comment. I said, “Yeah, that’s right. I’m a bottom feeder. But look what I found when I got down there.”
Have any of Clinton’s cronies thanked you?
Oh yes. I think Clinton would really like to get together with me, but the media buzz would not be in his best interest … or mine for that matter.
You going to read his book?
I’m going to read it.
I’m imagining you’re privy to 30 years’ worth of inside information. I remember during Bush the elder’s term there was a story going around that he was having a discreet affair with a wealthy woman in Washington. Do you remember that?
Now I think of poor old Bush exiled up in the wilderness of Maine with Mrs. Bush. As the song goes, I don’t think he gets around much anymore.
[Dry laugh.] I don’t have any information on that.
Oh, come on. You’re Larry Flynt. You sure you don’t know the true story?
No. I’ve just heard the true story. I know the Bush family denied it. Beyond that, I don’t know anything.
You mention Ann Coulter several times in your book. Did she really have an affair with Bob Guccione?
Bob Guccione Jr., who was the publisher of Spin magazine. And she was dating him. I find it hard to believe that any man could screw Ann Coulter, but they were having an affair.
I had the vibe when I was talking with her that she was in the closet, fulfilling some sort of Republican sexual irony.
You know, I call her a fag hag. She does like to hang out with gay guys a lot.
Both you and John Kerry were in the armed forces. Bush and Cheney got rich-kid deferments from active duty. How on earth did John Kerry allow himself to be put on the defensive as if he was the one who was a slacker?
Well, you know, I think Bush spent about $100 million on that attack, and caught Kerry off guard. But it didn’t seem to hurt Kerry that much. Kerry seemed to come back. Hey, I’m for anybody but Bush. Kerry wasn’t my choice, but you know we got a candidate we gotta get behind, and do what we can for him.
They stole the first election and got away with it. Think how powerful they are now.
My big worry this coming election is there are a lot of states with new voting machines. They’re the touch-type rather than the punch cards, and there could be some real screw-ups this time around. But if it doesn’t happen, I think Kerry is destined to win.
Well, the dirt on Bush and Cheney and Halliburton has been falling from the sky for more than a year, but no one seems to care. A special prosecutor has not been appointed to investigate the lies and corruption involving the Iraq war. There are no committee hearings. No riled-up citizens are storming the White House. That’s why I started the interview with the abortion question. America is the kind of place where the president’s secret abortion will fire people up. It’s a terrible thing that a guy paying for his girlfriend’s abortion would be a big deal, but this is America. You were born-again for a year — doesn’t every Christian feels like a sinner?
Unfortunately, I think most of the country is manic-depressive from time to time. That’s when a lot of these “born-again” experiences are brought about. If someone has a religious epiphany, he can’t go to a family member or a neighbor, he goes to the local church, and he winds up being caught up in the system rather than get counseling and good medication for his problem. I know what it’s like. I’ve been there. I’ve seen the visions. Heard the voices. I can understand why people are so dogmatic about their religion. Hey, if it helps ‘em get through the day, more power to ‘em. I just don’t want them imposing it on me.
Do you care about Bob Dylan?
I’ve always liked Bob Dylan.
Well, even Bob Dylan found Jesus for a while back in 1979.
Everybody in America finds Jesus, you know. [Laughs.] It’s no big deal. It’s figuring out why you found him that’s the problem.
Was there a single moment when the Holy Ghost touched you, and that was that?
Oh yes. It was with Jimmy Carter’s sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton. I just started seeing visions. And hearing voices. And talking in tongues. It was some weird experience. I knew that I wanted to hear from a good shrink what had happened. That’s who I sought out. I’ve been fine ever since.
So is “The People vs. Larry Flynt” — the movie of your life — the real thing?
Anytime they reduce your entire life to two hours on the silver screen, a lot gets left out. What is there is very accurate.
Did you feel any kind of affinity for Courtney Love?
I feel for Courtney. I think Courtney has a lot of problems. Has a lot to deal with. She doesn’t seem to be handling it very well. I’ve tried to help her, and haven’t had much success.
Do you still relish the moment you called the Supreme Court all assholes with “one token cunt”?
That was my finest hour.
Did you take in all their faces?
It was just an adrenaline rush. [Long pause. Raspy breathing.] I just wouldn’t recommend anyone else behave that way.
Has the Supreme Court done anything that you can respect in the last 25 years?
Yeah. My suit against Jerry Falwell — which has done more for free speech than anyone realizes. If you look at “Saturday Night Live” or Letterman, they’re on the cutting edge. When Carson was on back in the 1980s, if was very tame. It was funny and good, but it was tame. Now they can do the impersonations and say pretty much whatever they want to about anybody as long as it’s interpreted as a joke. That was the gray area that there was no case law to declare that jokes were protected speech.
But Jay Leno isn’t going to make a joke about George Bush getting an abortion for his girlfriend, is he?
No. Uh-uh. But it ain’t because of Jay. Jay would do it.
So let me ask a Jay Leno kind of question: After surgery, your dick works OK now, right?
Yes. My [sexual] positions are limited. But it works.
Do you keep track of Franklin [the white supremacist who shot him]?
He’s appealing his death sentence in Missouri.
He’ll never get out, will he?
No. They’ll electrocute him in the next four or five years, probably.
Do you still relive the moment he shot you?
No. I don’t even think about it. I don’t dwell on things I can’t do anything about.
Your children seem to remember everything about being raised by Larry Flynt.
I have five children, but only one child that I have a good relationship with — Teresa, my daughter. She runs my retail store chain. All the others spend their time complaining how I’ve fucked up all their lives.
Did you indeed fuck anyone’s life up?
I probably did. But you can’t go back and redo it, if you’re a bad father. You can’t go back 20 years later and correct it.
When you ran strip clubs in Ohio did you ever imagine you’d become an American icon?
No. When I started out I didn’t have two food stamps to rub together. I just wanted to make a buck. Hustler afforded me that. Everything mushroomed from that.
If you discovered that Hillary was sleeping with another person, would you follow it up or just let it go?
We would follow that.
Because she is living a life privately different than she is advocating publicly. I think when politicians do that you have to go after them.
I guess the real shocker would be if Hillary were still enjoying conjugal relations with her husband.
So in your heart of hearts, you feel Bush is going to be defeated.
Short of finding that Kerry is a transvestite, I think so. Iraq isn’t going to get any better. It’s only going to get worse.
What if they “find” bin Laden as an “October surprise”?
I don’t care if they drag him out of a hole the day before the election. I don’t think that it’s going to matter. The nation is polarized. I don’t know if you’ve been watching TV or not, but those bellwether states like Ohio and Michigan, they are solidly for Kerry. No one has ever won the presidency without them.
You’re older than me, but I can’t think of a worse four years than the ones we’ve been through.
You know, if you just had to pick out one thing that is so fucking disturbing you want to leave the country, it’s that goddamn PATRIOT Act that Bush and Ashcroft put through Congress. It goes against everything we stand for. We’re a beacon for democracy. If in order to fight terrorism we have to get down in the mud [and curb liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights], then we’re giving up everything that makes this nation great. Benjamin Franklin once said that “Those who would give up their civil liberties for security deserve neither.”
In the end, would you like to be remembered as an American patriot or “the sex guy”?
If I have any legacy at all to leave, I would like it to be that I fought to expand the perimeter of free speech. And I can’t think of any nobler goal than that.
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
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.