Screwed Into The Ground: Al Goldstein’s Death Magazine

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The notorious Screw Magazine publisher’s ill-fated attempt to do for death what he’d done for sex.

In 1968, Al Goldstein and Jim Buckley each invested $175 to launch Screw, a weekly New York sex tabloid that seems almost forgotten now, but was arguably the most important adult publication since Playboy. Featuring news, movie reviews, massage parlour ads and – most significantly – hardcore pictures, Screw was years ahead of its time. The magazine and Goldstein were busted on obscenity charges nineteen times, eventually winning a major test case in 1974. To celebrate, Goldstein flew the entire jury out to the legendary swingers club Plato’s Retreat. What they made of it is not on record.

At its peak, Screw was selling 140,000 a week, and over the years employed several writers who would go on to bigger things, amongst them David Aaron Clark. The general attitude to Goldstein amongst his employees and friends was that he was a not-always loveable rogue, a proud pervert and a man who could offend the most depraved pornographers – but they still admired him, perhaps because of his lack of good taste and decorum. Hugh Hefner he wasn’t. Linda Lovelace – who he had exposed as the star of Dog Fucker after a falling out – described him as “crude, rude, infantile, obnoxious, and dirty.” All of which he probably took as a compliment. He was, in essence, the dirty old man’s dirty old man.

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Goldstein would become both a free speech flag-waver and a thorn in the side of an adult industry that was aiming for mainstream acceptability. Larry Flynt, who was a friend of Goldstein’s, would take both the explicit imagery and the attitude into Hustler, and create an empire where Goldstein failed – for all his huckster attitude, Al was not a very good businessman.

Several magazines came and went from Screw‘s Milky Way Publications, and the most outrageous was Death, launched in 1979 and cancelled after just four issues. Death made some sense, especially to a publisher who revelled in his image as a sleazy, tasteless pig – if sex was no longer as outrageous as it had been a decade earlier, then why not explore the final taboo in much the same irreverent manner? But while Screw served a purpose as both an advertising platform for the New York sex industry and something for punters to jack off to, Death was a harder sell – just who was going to be the advertisers? Funeral homes? And who was going to buy a tasteless, sleazy magazine about death anyway? In the end, death already felt grubby without having the Screw style imposed on it, and the magazine folded as quickly as it had started.

In fact, Death was probably just ahead of its time. It’s a concept that might have worked in the transgressive early Nineties, where fanzines like Murder Can Be Fun took a similar approach, and where an underground of nihilists would have eaten it up. As it was, copies even then were rarer than hen’s teeth and the newspaper was only spoken of as legend. Good luck finding one of those four issues today.

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Things turned sour for Goldstein at the start of the 2000s, when he was briefly imprisoned for publishing an ex-employee’s phone number and encouraging readers to call up and tell her “to stop being a cunt”. Goldstein had long used the paper to unthinkingly air personal grievances, but this was a step too far. The case was overturned and he apologised, but it was the beginning of the end. Of all the porn publications, Screw and the other sex newspapers were the most vulnerable to the internet, and in 2003, the paper folded, unable to pay its staff. The final issue sold just six hundred copies. Goldstein lost everything, and went from owning a Florida mansion to living in a homeless shelter. After a series of dead-end jobs that he couldn’t hold onto, he ended his days financially supported by friend Penn Jillette. His last residence was a nursing home in Brooklyn, where he died in 2013, aged 77.

DAVID FLINT

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