I hit puberty many years before the internet became the portal to unlimited porn that it is today. Back in those days, the best chance a horny young boy had to see a naked lady was in purloined copies of our dads' Playboy magazines. Those were the days when the sight of Farrah Fawcett's nipple, covered by a swimsuit, sold millions of posters and caused a pop-culture sensation. A Sports Illustrated pic of Cheryl Tiegs in a see-through mesh one-piece was downright scandalous.
And then there was Channel J.
For New Yorkers of a certain age, the mere mention of Channel J sparks a visceral, almost Pavlovian response. I discovered it at about age nine or so. I was staying over at my friend Herbie's home. He had cable TV in his room , which was a pretty big deal back then. My mom didn't get us cable until about 1983; before then, we could only get two channels clearly and reliably with our rabbit-ear antennas.
Anyway, it was late on a Friday night and we were flipping channels -- physically flipping, as remotes were pretty uncommon back then. And there weren't too many channels, either. Cable boxes back then got the standard channels 2-13, and then channels A-N, if I remember correctly, for all the oddball specialty and premium cable channels. Channel J was the public access channel. During the day and evening it was populated by preachers, two-bit entertainers, lecturers... you name it. But after midnight, the smutty stuff hit the air. And as soon as my friends and I got over the shock of discovering actual female boobs and butts, in the pixelated flesh, we were hooked.
There was Robin Byrd, who danced around in a thong bikini and showed very grainy silent stag films, usually accompanied by a disco song called "Forbidden Love," which I've never been able to track down. There was "Interludes After Midnight," a nude talk show where naked people sat around, well, talking -- about what I have no recollection, since it was the nudity more than the subject matter that I was interested in. There was Ugly George, who dressed a little like a perverted spaceman and went on the street wearing an enormous 70s era video rig on his back, somehow convincing attractive female passers-by to "flex into dimly lit hallways" where they'd strip and fool around with him on tape.
And then there was Midnight Blue.
Midnight Blue had everything, including lots of naked ladies. But mostly it had Al Goldstein. Midnight Blue was Al's baby. It wasn't his main source of income -- that would be Screw Magazine, which was kind of a Village Voice of sex for New York City back in the 60s and 70s. In fact, he claimed he lost over a million dollars producing the show over the 29 (!) years it aired. But it was a labor of love. He was all over the show. He conducted interviews with porn actresses (they usually dwelt on some variation of, "Would you fuck a fat Jew with a small cock?"). He performed in skits: in one, he played a pooper-scooper vigilante, forcing an effete dog-walker to eat the poop he hadn't cleaned up. In another, he was "Zambeer, Master of the Skin Flute," in which he "played" a huge rack of ribs, covering himself in barbecue sauce in the process. He reviewed porn films, and much to our delight, showed clips of them, complete with large black dots to obscure acts of oral sex or actual coitus, by orders of the FCC and Manhattan Cable.
The most shocking thing I remember from Midnight Blue is the video of Al, dressed like Jesus -- complete with crown of thorns -- smoking a huge cigar and attempting to carry a life-sized cross into St. Patrick's Cathedral. He was turned away at the door, of course, and given an unceremonial boot in the ass by whoever threw him out. Over the silent footage was played an overwrought version of "How Great Thou Art." Whatever the motivation, that took a real set of brass ones.
But my favorite part of the show, besides the naked ladies, of course, was Al's "Fuck You Department." Using deliciously obscene language, he'd rip anything or anybody who happened to be pissing him off that week, from restaurants to airlines to dry cleaners to Regis Philbin to a friend who welshed on a five thousand dollar bet. None were spared the wrath of Goldstein, who ended his editorials with middle finger upraised, snarling, "Go fuck yourself."
I started watching Midnight Blue as a titillated nine-year-old, and I'm not ashamed to say that I kept watching it into adulthood. Even after the thrill of seeing naked ladies on TV had (largely) worn off, there was still much pleasure to be had watching Al Goldstein rant and rave to the public access-watching masses. He was supremely entertaining, as much so as anything on TV, even after it had expanded to dozens and then hundreds of channels and Channel J had morphed into Channel 35 on our cable boxes.
At some point I abandoned Midnight Blue, my Friday nights at midnight by then being devoted to pursuing the company of real ladies, naked or otherwise. By the end of the show's run, in 2003, it seemed like everyone else had abandoned him too. The Internet and porn DVDs had overtaken Goldstein's kind of smut. He lost the Screw empire, he lost his house in Florida, he was estranged from his family. He was even homeless for a little while, and would have stayed that way were it not for the largesse of the great Penn Jillette. Jillette literally paid the debt that so many figuratively owed Goldstein, getting him set up with a small apartment and a job as a greeter at the 2nd Ave Deli.
The last few years of his life he was miserable, unable to satisfy his sexual appetite or his appetite for food, having undergone gastric bypass surgery. I wrote to him once, inviting him out to lunch simply so I could bask in his reflected glory. I never heard back from him; as John Updike once wrote, gods do not answer letters. He died last week at age 77. I wish I'd gotten the chance to meet him and say thanks for everything.
I wouldn't say Al Goldstein was a role model. I never yearned to be the neurotic, corpulent, loudmouthed sex fiend he so unapologetically was. But he was a hero of sorts -- proof that you could make your way in the world doing exactly what you want, without having to kiss anybody's ass in the process. Success was fleeting for Goldstein, and payback was a bitch. But his was a life well lived, and I hope he went out with no regrets.