Mark Simpson on how we’re all living in Nick Kamen’s Launderette now
Another fondly-remembered part of the 1980s finished its last cycle last week. Nick Kamen, real name Ivor Neville Kamen, the Essex-born much-gasped-over star of the famous 1985 Levi’s 501 male striptease ‘Launderette’ TV ad, checked out.
He was just 59. Sadly, this was more than a decade before his Biblically-allotted threescore years and ten was up. But, self-centred as ever, I couldn’t quite stop myself from thinking: ’59!! How did that doe-eyed young buck in his boxers get to be SO OLD??’ In other words, even older than me.
Ads nowadays are almost invisible rather than cultural moments, and young men taking their clothes off on TV is completely commonplace today, so it’s difficult to grasp now the sensation that this ad and the others in ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s (BBH) legendary 1980s Levi’s campaign caused at the time. Ironically, that’s because we are all living in Nick’s Launderette now – though it’s under new management and changed its name to ‘Instagram’. We’re utterly blasé about male tartiness. We’ve seen it all, dear.
I (over-)analysed the impact of these ads and Kamen’s exhibitionism in my 1994 book Male Impersonators, emphasising how they presented the young male body as a voyeuristic pleasure (for the audience) and a passive pleasure (for the male model) that had hitherto been mostly associated with male homosexuality – along with the way the product (the jeans) is carefully fetishised by association with the phallus. Softcore gay porn became a prime-time hard-sell. Commodified cock for the unwashed masses.
All to the plaintiff, pleading strains of a classic soul song about a man sexually competing with ‘another guy you loved before’ (‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’).
Just look at the way the button-fly of the 501, once the very symbol of it’s trad dadness, is turned into an unwrapping, fingering oh-so-modern tease. The male desire to be desired unleashed.
And let’s not forget, he’s doing his own washing. Where is the mum or the ‘little woman’ in his life that until then in ad land should be doing it for him?
Likewise, the young man working out in the 1986 follow-up Levi’s ad ‘Bath’, as the camera lovingly caresses his muscular body to the strains of an innocent 1950s love song about longing (‘Wonderful World’), stretching the seat of his jeans with squats, as the camera zooms in for an extreme close-up on his arse, is apparently living by himself – and flagrantly taking himself as his own love-object.
The photo of the young woman he looks at before slipping into the bath in his ‘shrink to fit jeans’ (with the camera zoomed in on his crotch) doesn’t straighten things out – it merely emphasises his horny availability to the predatory eye of the viewing public.
Not only are these mute, humpy young men and their packaged packets available for our queer viewing pleasure, they could also themselves be queer. Either way, BBH made it clear that they were definitely ‘TBH’.
BBH’s pimping of the male body was undoubtedly inspired by the great success of Calvin Klein’s first men’s underwear campaign in 1982-3, which saw handsome, smoothly-sculpted and oiled-up American pole vaulter Tom Hintnaus, snapped by manophile photographer Bruce Weber in Mr Klein’s pricey pants, towering over (the then gloriously seedy) Times Square – like a high-class, Olympian hustler. But BBH’s Levi’s ad campaign went one better – and brought Times Square into the living rooms of mid-1980s, prime-time Britain.
BBH didn’t invent male objectification, but they pretty much patented it in the UK. ‘Launderette’ is metrosexual Ground Zero – and clearly left an indelible impression on the 10-year-old David Beckham. Come to think of it, isn’t that him playing one of the kids closely observing Mr Kamen?
Levi’s, previously an ailing ‘dad brand’, was resurrected and remade uber cool by BBH’s male striptease. By 1987, Levi’s 501 sales figures had gone beyond firmed, or even tumescent, and grown to a whopping 8x what they had been before Kamen & Co. started wearing them – or rather, pulling them off. Sales of boxers also went through the roof.
Full, unsolicited disclosure: as a measure of my young impressionability, I myself wore boxers for years after being exposed to those ads – despite the fact they were not very sexy, or practical, especially in tight jeans: they had a way of strangling your baubles. Funnily enough, it transpires BBH only put Kamen & Co. in boxers because they weren’t allowed, by the guardians of televisual mores, to show them in their Y-fronts. In doing so, the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre sentenced millions of young men to CBT.
‘Launderette’ might have been a UK ad phenomenon, but its influence ‘went ballistic’. Top Gun, the definitive 80s movie that everyone likes to now regard as the ‘gayest movie eva’, was released the following year, directed by the British adman (and brother of Ridley) Tony Scott. The earth-bound sequences of the fantastically phallic movie had the same kind of overtly sexualised treatment of man-boyish Tom Cruise as man-boyish Nick Kamen in ‘Launderette’ – with the same warmly reassuring 1950s, Ray-Ban-ed, sepia-tinted, faux nostalgia aesthetic. But this time in an all-male launderette. With added steam.
It also succeeded in making even straight women “gay”… it encouraged women to look at the male body with the same critical, impossibly demanding, carnivorous eye that gay men had used for years. In fact, so much have all our expectations been inflated that Nick Kamen’s ‘fabulously hunky’ body as it was described back then by the tabs, today probably wouldn’t get past the audition stage – he’d be told to go back to the gym and inject some horse steroids.
Pre-1980s there wasn’t much gay lust in ads or, for that matter, Britain. I remember as a kid spending most of the 1970s watching an Old Spice ‘Mark of a Man’ commercial, which featured a surfer riding a vast, spuming wave in very long-shot, to the climactic strains of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The number of times I waited for that ad to come on as a kid, hoping, praying that this time the camera would move in closer.
In the 1980s, my prayers were answered, and the lens moved in, big time. Since then, it’s never moved back. It has zoomed ever closer, until now we’re looking at the mitochondria on the walls of men’s small intestines.
Maybe I’m an incurable romantic/masochist, but I sometimes find myself missing the aching, blurry, long-shot tease of 1970s’ Old Spice masculinity. Because it never quite delivers, it never disappoints.
(OK, I lied about missing 1970s Old Spice masculinity.)
By the way, on the subject of Kamen’s ‘hunky body’ not being buff enough by today’s standards – it turns out it nearly wasn’t at the time: Kamen was only given the role on the condition that he lose weight.
Madonna had no reservations however, and was famously so enamoured with what she saw she gave Kamen a breathy pop song, “Each Time You Break My Heart”, which went Top Ten in the UK. Further success in his home country eluded him, however. His teen girl fanbase were terribly fickle and cruel. According to the journalist and TV presenter Kate Thornton, a schoolgirl at the time:
“There wasn’t life for Nick Kamen after Levi’s because he broke the rule…he talked!… We just liked looking at him. It was as simple as that. He was a model and he just had these smouldering beautiful looks… but fundamentally he was to be looked at and lusted over, and never to be taken seriously…”
It’s lucky that 21st Century feminism has conclusively proved that only women can be objectified, because otherwise Nick would have been horribly objectified, way back in the 20th Century. (It’s also noteworthy that almost none of the media pieces on his death I saw included a photo of middle-aged Kamen.)
I have to say though that Nick, lovely and historic as he was, and definitely not someone I would have kicked out of my bedsit, was not my fave. If I was Madge, I would have sent my spare song to the lad in the second ad, ‘Bath’. Not only is he, with his home workouts, more proto sporno than proto metro (and has an arse), he’s also got the most incredibly romantico face; lit here like a proper homme fatale. But after his prime-time tease he seems to have faded back into obscurity without even a one hit wonder to his largely unremembered name (James Mardle).
Actually, I’m such a slut that even in Nick’s own ad I always found myself thinking about the young lonely Marine in uniform loitering outside the ‘Laundromat’ promising a ‘power wash’. And clearly, I’m meant to: he’s the curtain-raiser, the first person we see in the ad, as the camera pans tantalisingly past (Nick walks quickly behind him face turned away from the camera).
What or who is he waiting for? A ride? A sweetheart? A john?
By the time we see the street from inside the launderette he’s already gone. Perhaps the driver of cruising Buick in the opening shot has finally picked him up. Perhaps Bob Mizer was behind the wheel, whisking the jarhead to his Physique Pictorial photoshoot.
I recently watched a documentary on Netflix. Which is what I seem to mostly do, TV-wise, these days – being middle-aged and male. This one wasn’t about Hitler, or unsolved grisly murders, or steam trains, however. It was called Voyeur. So, I think you can probably understand what drew my dirty old eye.
Despite the lack of any actual visual filth, it was firmly fascinating. Voyeuristically. I’m not generally into the ‘older male’ – especially now I’m fast becoming one – but I found myself engrossed by the exposed intimate interplay of two elderly gentlemen endowed with unfeasibly large egos. Made in 2017, the doc tells the story of how a 85-year-old journalist and a 79-year-old voyeur sired a New Yorker article and then a book. And even more intriguingly, how they possibly try to fuck each other – in the Mametian sense of the expletive.
Gerald Foos, the voyeur, for three decades owned a 22 room Colorado motel which he bought in the 1960s for the specific purpose of secretly spying on guests in their room, and bathroom, from an ‘observation platform’ he had installed in the loft. Peering through 6 x 14 inch holes cut in the ceilings of his rooms, covered by specially-designed fake ceiling vents.
And when I say ‘spy’, I mean perve. Although Foos saw himself as a researcher into human behaviour, it was nakedness and sexual activity between the guests that mostly interested and aroused him and filled the many journals he kept, and which Gay Talese, the journalist in this coupling, used as the basis of his essay and book. Foos, who frequently refers to himself in his journals in the third person as ‘The Voyeur’, originally approached Talese after reading his 1981 exploration of the free love subculture, Thy Neighbour’s Wife – which Talese assiduously and selflessly prepared for by residing several months at a clothing-optional resort. Writers and voyeurs savour human nakedness like mosquitos.
Foos did also manage to do quite a bit of common-or-garden non-erotic spying – such as the time he waited in the loft to catch a couple’s pet dog crapping on the carpet in their room, and then dumbfounded them during check-out inspection by being able to immediately detect the mutt mishap, despite the fact they had hidden the stain behind a chair. Foos triumphantly withholding their $15 pet deposit he required against… pet deposits.
(Actually, in the re-telling, this anecdote does seem to be mostly about anality.)
The celebrated – as much as any scribbler can hope to be – and devastatingly dapper Gay Talese essentially created the New Journalism with his Esquire profile ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’: an extraordinary literary tour de force of 15,000 glistening words, and only a handful of them surly Sinatra’s. Bearded, burly Foos, until now a much more obscure figure, is rather less dapper and distinguished (in fact Talese insists that he wear a shirt and tie when on camera with him, instead of Foos’ favoured loungewear). Hilariously, Talese’s fastidiousness nearly gave the game away when he joined Foos on his viewing platform one evening to confirm the set-up. Foos had to suddenly yank him away from the vent: his silk tie was dangling into the room, just above the love-making couple he was peering at – fortunately, they were too engrossed in one another to notice the pendulous necktie trying to join in.
Foos was rather glamorous and devastating back in his 1950s US Navy diver days, as an old photo we glimpse of him in his trunks attests: I would certainly have perved. Though perhaps not gone to the trouble of building a viewing platform.
The documentary is not however just about Foos and Talese. It’s a foursome. It’s about the relationship between the two of them and their agendas and also their relationship to the documentary makers, Josh Koury and Myles Kane – and their agenda. Towards the end of the doc, from behind the camera, one of them asks Foos, with Talese sitting next to him, if he has any regrets about the collaboration – having already asked him this question earlier without Talese there. Talese is nobody’s fool and immediately and loudly denounces the directors for trying to trick Foos into contradicting himself and warns him that they’re trying to discredit him. He’s absolutely right, but it’s also perhaps his way of preventing that issue being aired.
Another point of drama is Talese’s incandescent rage on discovering that Foos had misled him: the journals begin a few years before he even owned the motel (something discovered by Washington Post fact-checkers – not by Talese). Talese rages on camera, in the bunker-esque basement of his palatial Manhattan Brownstone, that he is going to cancel the launch and publicly disavow the book, complaining that Foos has trashed his reputation. He later relents and re-avows the book, arguing that some factual inaccuracies don’t detract from its importance. Talese is certainly media-savvy enough to know the value of this kind of outburst on film, but his anger seemed very convincing to me. It was as if he’d suddenly realised that Foos had fucked him. Or been spying on him in his bathroom.
(An excellent write-up of the documentary with some input from the makers can be found here.)
Eager for more, I read the New Yorker article. Then I downloaded the Kindle version of the book. Which I devoured, but it was, in truth, slightly anti-climactic. After all that build-up, all that edging, the book seems a bit thin, considering Foos journals supposedly cover thirty years of nightly viewings. Talese fillets what I imagine are the best bits of Foos’ journals and writes connecting synopses, which attempt to distance himself somewhat from his subject/source. I’m sure that Foos like most fetishists (and narcissists) was extremely repetitive. I certainly I am. And Talese probably had a difficult job working through three decades of ‘observations’. But I can’t help but wonder if a less Talesed version of his journals might not have been more interesting, or at least more useful – as a case study.
Many of Foos’ entries suggest his voyeurism was bound up with a sadistic need to a prove his own superiority and smarts. When he is talking/bragging about the lengths and expense he has gone to design and manufacture ceiling vents that will allow him to observe his guests without himself being observed, and the problems he’s having with the manufacturers, he repeatedly sneers at them for their stupidity in asking entirely sensible questions about the design of his vents:
Nov. 21, 1966 – These idiots working for this sheet metal shop are dumb as radishes. They never think on a level higher than cigarettes or beer. “This vent will never function properly,” they say. If I told them what purpose it was going to serve they probably wouldn’t comprehend.
[Talese, Gay, The Voyeur’s Motel, Atlantic Press; Kindle edition 2017]
The fetishist often entertains a sense of superiority over those that don’t share their fetish (see also homosexuality). Voyeurism is a kind of omniscience, or a hankering after it. And the voyeur of course imagines that he (or she – but usually he) controls what he sees. And in a sense, he does, because in this case, he is unseen – while his subjects are seen by him. They exist for him. For his pleasure, and for his abuse. His curiosity is a desire to see what is supposed to be hidden and in that knowledge there is power.
But woe-betide the guest who has sex with the lights off – or under the sheets. At least one guest who preferred darkness – turning off the lights and the TV – for the performance of his conjugal duties prompted an immediate, creative and somewhat aggressive response from Foos:
‘I won’t stand for this at all. I return to the ground level and get in my car, and then drive it and park it directly in front of the #4 unit, parking it and leaving it there with the bright lights beaming on their window. Returning to the observation platform, he is standing up peeking through the curtains, complaining that “some son-of-a-bitch has left his lights on.”’
Unfortunately for Foos, his valiant efforts to lighten their sexual darkness come to nothing: the couple and the action then retreat to the Christian safety of beneath the bed covers, and he has to satisfy himself with observing the ‘animal-like thrusting under the covers’ that lasts for ‘three minutes’.
‘I finally get to see her body when she uncovers to wipe the semen away on my bedspread. She is very beautifully proportioned, but probably equally stupid and dumb. He comes back from the bathroom and notes that the lights outside are still on. He says, “I wonder what the situation is with this car with the lights on.” Stupid bastard, he’ll never know what my situation is, but I am well informed as to his unfortunate position in life.’
Note the God-like omniscience of the voyeur again: Stupid bastard, he’ll never know what my situation is, but I am well informed as to his unfortunate position in life.
In fairness, Foos is also angry with the ‘stupid bastard’ because of his lack of tenderness towards and communication with his wife (he often takes this gallant position, from his lofty eyrie). But it is mostly about him frustrating Foos’ perving – and anyway, she is dismissed as ‘probably equally stupid and dumb’. Perhaps because she wiped ‘the semen away on my bedspread’.
And then we have Foos’ pronounced tendency to despair of human nature and his general lack of trust in people – based on his ‘research’. That’s to say, he becomes bitter at the human failures and shortcomings of his paying customers, who wipe their KFC-covered hands (and semen spills) on the bed clothes. That he witnesses while spying on them for cheap thrills.
People can’t be trusted, is his sad conclusion about the human race. So true.
He even organises a test, a kind of Satanic temptation which involves a small, padlocked suitcase left in a cupboard in the room. He arranges for his wife to call him when guests check in, pretending to be a guest who has left her suitcase in the room with $1,000 in cash, making sure they overhear him. He then takes his position on the observation platform to witness human weakness in action.
The human race fails this test, dismally. A result which, I suspect, gave Foos a semi. He claims almost everyone forced the lock, and when they discover that instead of money, it’s full of old clothes, they then try to smuggle it out of their rooms to dispose of the evidence. Out of fifteen guests, only one, a middle class woman, returned the suitcase to the office without trying to open it: ‘And so of the fifteen test cases, only the woman was not tempted by greed. The Voyeur rests his case.’
Much as I enjoy the description Foos gives of a light-fingered minister frantically heaving the burglarized (as they say in the US) suitcase out of the bathroom window and throwing it into the hedge – and, in my imagination, sweating coldly for decades after at the thought of it being discovered and connected to him – this ‘test’ seems to me to be another manifestation of sadism, mixed with god-like ambitions. Foos would have made an excellent reality TV producer. (In fact, a 2002 reality TV show called Swag, produced by Madonna’s then-husband Guy Ritchie, seems to have been based on the same premise as Foos’ 1960s test.)
Foos put me oddly in mind of the bored prison guard in Jean Genet’s classic 1950s porn flicUn Chant d’Amour, who peers through spy-holes at various even more bored prisoners masturbating in different fashions. And after all, Foos’ motel, like many motels back then was a place that existed in part because of repression. Many of his guest were de facto criminals, sentenced to the limbo-land of roadside lodgings – and his ‘observations’ – by American mores. Much of what they were getting up to was taboo and illegal in 1960s America: adultery (sex with someone other than your marital partner) fornication (any sex outside marriage) and ‘sodomy’. Defined in Colorado law as oral and anal sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual, and carried a maximum penalty of 15 years, sodomy was only removed from the state’s statute books in 1971. (In 2019, many US states still had adultery and fornication laws on their statute books, though rarely used.)
He does though claim to have witnessed the strangling of a young woman in one of his rooms. (In the documentary, Talese fails to find any mention of the murder in local police files.) Foos doesn’t appear to have any particular rage or hatred towards women – quite the opposite. He was married (twice), and both his wives seem to have been devoted and completely accepting and in fact supportive of his unusual hobby – that would often, he says, occupy him all night. His second, younger, wife, taken after the untimely death of his first, apparently often joined in with his voyeurism, and is there in the documentary, endlessly tenderly patient, protective, and caring of him in his cantankerous dotage. (Women’s interest in men is an eternal mystery to me – precisely because I appear to share it, but only on the surface. After all, when it comes to men, I’m a voyeur too.)
Most of the couples he spies on seem, by his account, to hate one another, be agonisingly mis-matched, or simply deeply uninterested in one another, and – most pitiful of all for Foos – hopelessly bad in bed. Foos’ misanthropy and pessimism about human relations (other than his own) is magically suspended for lesbian couples. He waxes lyrical about the mutuality and tenderness of sapphic love-making, in comparison to the selfishness of men:
‘Unfortunately, the majority of men I’ve observed are concerned with their own pleasure rather than the women’s. There is far less emotional love than just physical love. Lesbians, on the other hand, are better lovers to each other; they know what their partner wants and most of all there is an emotional closeness that can never be matched by a man. More tenderness, more consideration and understanding of feelings, etc.’
Foos is quite ‘liberated’ for his era. Not just in terms of his attitude towards lesbianism and women in general. He describes the attractiveness of the male partners as well the female ones, if generally in less detail – but he doesn’t pretend to be uninterested in or blind to the appearance of the males. In fact, when a single ‘handsome male’ checks in he makes sure he is assigned to a room with a viewing vent, in the expectation/hope that he will be joined by a girl later. He also records dispassionately instances of male on male activity, including one where a younger male dressed as a sheep and made loud baaa-ing noises while being chased around the room on his hands and knees by a ‘rotund’ older male. Foos, unlike me, refuses to judge:
Conclusion: This condition could perhaps be classified as a perversity, but it should not be condemned because both individuals are willing participants, and therefore the Voyeur will remain nondiscriminatory in its interpretation.
He also exhibits great sympathy for the plight of disabled young Vietnam vets, many of whom stayed at his motel with their wives. This helps turn him resolutely against the war, before mainstream public opinion did.
One particularly exciting tryst for him was witnessing his first threesome, back in 1966 when such things were still adventurous, involving a married couple and an attractive, hung (“at least 8-10 inches” – the lackadaisical two-inch margin of error being conclusive proof that Foos is not gay) younger man in the role of ‘stud’, while the husband directed and took photos.
‘…the husband got real close to the plunging penis and exclaimed, “You have such a nice big cock and I love to see it go in and out.” The husband was now more actively engaged in masturbation and reached orgasm at the same time as his wife and their companion. Then the husband said: “Hold it right there, and don’t withdraw your cock until I get my camera ready.” He took several pictures of the companion’s penis still embedded in his wife’s vagina, with the semen running down.’
‘…And so I have seen my first episode of “threesome sex,” which enables this husband to fulfil his voyeur’s drive. I could completely envision myself playing the husband’s role, and I would definitely like to explore the possibilities of seeing this transpire in my life. I would really like to participate, and it displeases me that, at present, I must remain an observer. Incidentally, this was the largest penis that I have seen so far.’
Much like ‘hardcore’ porn, voyeurism is related to the visibility of the phallus – both the one spied and the one in the male voyeur’s hand (and the missing one of the mother, according to the Freudian explanation of fetishism). Even if the point of it, from a hetero perspective, is to be seen disappearing in a female orifice. And then reappearing: I love to see it go in and out. Group sex, along with oral sex, interracial sex and sex outside of marriage, was to become much more common as American mores, post-1960s, softened, according to Foos’ later observations. But it’s unclear whether he ever got around to participating. Or, more importantly, whether he ever saw a larger penis.
Foos would also plant sexual paraphernalia in guest’s rooms, one dildo and one pornographic magazine ‘and then wait for an unsuspecting subject, and place her, or him, or a couple in that room, depending on what type of information was desired from the subject.’ He bought 50 of each. No one complained or returned any of the items.
‘Fifty percent of the women utilized the dildo or magazines, the other fifty percent either ignored the devices or discarded them.’
Whether men ever used the Gideon dildos isn’t recorded. It is mentioned however that one of the women who did was a nun.
In keeping with his image of himself as a latter-day Dr Kinsey, as well as The Voyeur, he compiled annual reports. In 1973, for example, he noted that of the 296 sexual acts he witnessed, 195 were heterosexual white people who generally favoured intercourse in the missionary position, and less frequently accompanied it with oral sex and masturbation. The annual total of orgasms was 184 male orgasms and thirty-three female orgasms (though he admits some of these may have been faked).
The remaining seventy-four guests broke down into:
Twenty-six sexually active black heterosexual guests, ‘their preferred positions and orgasmic ratio was similar to the whites’.
Ten white lesbian guests, all of whom took turns performing cunnilingus.
Seven white homosexual males exchanging oral and anal sex
There were ten guests who participated in interracial sex and who also engaged in oral and intercourse.
Fifteen guests whose sexual behaviour didn’t fit into any of these categories – and included a man who urinated secretly in his female partners bourbon, a cross-dressing single male and the aforementioned sheep-and-shepherd male couple.
Interesting as they are, I’m not entirely sure how much value these reports have. But then again, despite having repeatedly made fun of the notion myself, I don’t think we can completely dismiss the ‘research’ aspect of Foos perving. When it comes to sex, research is never entirely perve-free. Freud saw libido and curiosity as inextricably linked – ‘you show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ and ‘where do babies come from?’ being two sides of the same enquiry.
Although Foos’ repeatedly describes himself as ‘the World’s Greatest Voyeur’ this is clearly not true. The great Alfred Kinsey, or ‘Doctor Sex’ as he was dubbed by the press, would have to take that accolade: with his Sex Research Institute, he succeeded in constructing a gigantic panopticon of sex – or ‘viewing platform’ – in 1940s and 1950s America with him at the centre. Kinsey personally observed hundreds of acts of coitus and masturbation, and his Institute filed and photographed thousands more. Kinsey also famously conducted thousands of intimate interviews with people about their sex lives.
Granted his approach was rather more scientific than Foos’, not to mention consensual. But he wasn’t entirely ‘respectable’ or ‘perve-free’ either, thankfully. The ‘indecency’ of what he was doing was not lost on many at the time. The owner of a hotel where Kinsey was conducting interviews famously lost patience with the long line of young men waiting outside Kinsey’s room and threw him out, shouting:
‘I WILL NOT HAVE YOU UNDRESSING PEOPLE’S MINDS IN MY HOTEL!’
Foos, of course, wouldn’t have seen the lines. He’d have been too busy breathing heavily through his fake ceiling vents.
This post originally appeared on Simpson’s Patreon
My (highly attenuated) attention was recently directed to an LWT doc from 1981 available on YouTube . It compares the pre-war, pre-gay world of ‘sisters’ (‘musical’ friends you didn’t want to fuck) and ‘trade’ (‘normal’ working class ‘real’ men you really did), with the post-Stonewall, butched-up, Marlborough Man world of gay-on-gay early 1980s love action.
I can’t remember seeing it before, and the pioneering gay-interest series Gay Life that it was part of was originally broadcast only in the London area – when I was revising for my O-Levels in Yorkshire. But perhaps I somehow did, and it shaped my entire worldview – and so I naturally repressed the memory of it to protect my fond image of myself as my own man.
Gifford Skinner, the delightful old quean in tweeds talking in the first half about his 1930s sex life, is very much his own man – though it’s difficult now not to see him in a Harry & Paul sketch. He is here a living and still very lively link with London’s vanished world of ‘trade’: otherwise ‘normal’ working class young men and soldiers and sailors who would sleep with (usually middle or upper class) queers, for a few bob, a few pints, or just a few laughs. Born in 1911, the son of a publican, he would have been in his twenties in the 1930s, and 70 when the documentary was made. (Today – I can’t find a date for his death online – he would be 110 years old.)
What strikes me about Gifford’s reminiscing, apart from his wonderfully mannered way of talking – ‘My DEAR!’ – is how this veteran from an era of supposed sexual repression and rampant homophobia, guilt and self-loathing, talks so frankly and fearlessly, so matter-of-factly about his adventurous youth, and his enthusiastic and very definite desires. The opposite of how things are today in our ‘liberated’ age – when everything has to be ideologically-filtered and pre-censored in order to avoid offence and cancellation.
There’s the fixation on his fellow infant school-chums’ bottoms:
‘We did an awful lot of marching in those days – and I always used to look at the boy in front, his bottom, the crease came from side to side, I found it was absolutely fascinating’.
Followed by his adult love for ‘real men’ and ‘rough types’. And his attitude towards his ‘sisters’, exemplified in a typical exchange he recounted with one of his ‘bits of trade’ – who found it difficult to understand why he didn’t want to sleep with his friends:
‘“Why do you like going with me? Why don’t you go with one of your friends, they’re so elegant and attractive – like Jeremy?”’
‘“Oh MY GOD! I couldn’t go to bed with HER!”’
‘They always thought it strange that we would run the risk of taking a stranger back home instead… It was absolutelyimpossible. I couldn’t consider such a thing. I really liked the real thing or nothing.’
The ‘real thing’ was particularly guardsmen, who could be found in large numbers in Hyde Park on any afternoon. Where you could ‘spot them a mile off’.
‘They had to wear their red tunics when they were out, no civilian clothes were worn, magnificent red tunics. They looked very, very smart indeed – they were magnificent really. You would tell them a mile off. The colour was gorgeous against the green in Hyde Park!’
But perhaps his recollection that stays with me the most is his memory of how many of the military men had a mate or ‘oppo’ that they were ‘inseparable from’ – especially sailors. And so, they would both come back to Gifford’s, one of them sleeping in the living room chair while the chosen one spent the night in bed with the welcoming host. His lonely, cold, creased up, best pal listening to the sounds of magnificent giggly sodomy next door.
Also fascinating is the testimony of the late Dudley Cave, as an example of the 1940s-50s new-wave of self-identified ‘invert’, speaking from the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard phone room, having been one of the founding members since it was launched in 1974. (And where he was still working, and still being eminently charming and helpful to everyone, when I volunteered in the late 1980s – back when I still had some milk of human kindness about me).
Joining the army in 1941, aged 20, and distressed about his ‘abnormal’ desires, a sympathetic army psychiatrist loaned Dudley a copy of Havelock Ellis’ Sexual Inversion in the Male, and he recognised himself within its pages immediately. Right down to the supposed preference for the colour blue and the ‘triangular’ pubes allegedly common to the ‘inborn’ invert or homosexual. Although some of Ellis’ notions seem laughable now – but perhaps no more so than some of the contemporary pseudo-science of congenital gay creationism – it helped Dudley be much more accepting of his sexuality. And in fact, set him on the road to become an advocate for gay equality after the war.
(Interestingly, according to this 2004 tribute by Peter Tatchell, Dudley who was a survivor of Japanese POW camps, found that homosexuality was ‘more or less accepted in the Army’, and contrary to the obsession that was to develop after the war, no one was disciplined for it – despite there being rather a lot of it going on – and the worst prejudice he ever experienced was being chided for ‘holding a broom like a woman’.)
The sexual historian Jeffrey Weeks also pops up in the second half of the doc. He isn’t quite as entertaining as Gifford – a very hard act to follow – but he is saying eminently sensible things about how the modern gay identity emerged out of the taxonomies of 19th sexologists, who ‘discovered’ a new species, ‘the homosexual’, making same-sexing a condition or essence rather than an act or sin. And how it is time to move beyond these rigid definitions that ‘don’t correspond to the range of desires of wishes or needs that they actually have’.
That, in other words, the pre-gay world of ‘so’ Gifford and his ‘rough’ chums had something going for it.
But the 1980s was to take no notice of Weeks, or Gifford. What actually happened was of course Aids and Thatcherism-Reaganism. Which largely succeeded in locking down the sexual openness and experimentation of the ‘gender bending’ early 80s and reaffirmed instead both the gay identity and its ‘pathology’. Quarantining queer desire in the queer body.
A lively tale of a charming bandit and proto-terrorist prompts Mark Simpson to wonder why we’re still thrilled by ruffians.
(Independent on Sunday, 5/1/2003)
Why, after so many years, are we still so hot for outlaws? As popular culture and news bulletins keep reminding us, Rebels, Robin Hoods, bandits, gangsters, serial killers and terrorists continue to exert a sweaty grip on our imaginations.
Is it because, to strike a Nietzschean pose (riding crop in hand), those who are not sadists are necessarily masochists? Are we all secretly itching to be held up, tied up and blown up? Is civilisation such a non-experience that we need a – preferably young, attractive and well-dressed – feral-eyed brute to slap us out of our dullard drowsiness?
Or is it because, having surrendered our own sadism to civilisation, we need someone who will rob and kill on our behalf? Someone who will, in other words, be “free” for us: an emotional lottery winner justifying our own pitiful, ticket-stamping repression – hence the need to make them very, very famous? Are “sociopath” and “psychopath” just names we like to call those who have more guts for life than us, but not enough education to know what we mean?
Jesse James, “last rebel of the American Civil War” and one of the first rebels of the modern age, didn’t have much of an education, but he certainly had an answer. “We are the boys that are hard to handle,” he declared in one of his many swaggering missives to the press, “and will make it hot for the party that ever tries to take us.”
Or, as Robert Pinkerton, the head of the famous Chicago-based detective agency humiliated by James after trying to “take” him, put it:
“His gang killed two of our detectives and I consider JJ the worst man, without any exception, in America. He is utterly devoid of fear and has no more compunction about cold-blooded murder than he has about eating his breakfast.”
High praise indeed from Mr. Pinkerton, whose men firebombed James’ mother in her home, maiming her and killing his young half-brother, and were to become the hired goons of strike-breaking US businessmen.
The passengers on the St Louis-Little Rock express flagged down and boarded at Gads Hill, Missouri, in January 1874 knew better than to try to take on Jesse, an irresistible mixture of sociopath and southern gent. “We do not want to rob workingmen or ladies,” declared the tall, handsome, finely dressed and feral-eyed outlaw to the stunned passengers on the express, “but the money and valuables of the plug-hat gentlemen are what we seek.”
Stunned not just at being held up at gunpoint, but that the gun in their face should belong to the famous Jesse James. As the celebrity outlaw walked down the passenger car, playfully exchanging hats with members of his captive audience, his elder brother Frank recited his favourite author, William Shakespeare, while their bandit buddies busied themselves unburdening the male passengers of their cash and valuables. When one man introduced himself as a minister, they promptly returned his money and asked him to pray for them, like the good Baptist boys they were. Likewise, after pocketing the conductor’s gold watch they returned it sheepishly when the baggage master protested: “For God’s sake, you won’t take it for it is a present.”
After courteously shaking the hand of the engineer and cheekily advising him always to stop at a red flag, the bandits departed on their horses in a cloud of dust and rebel yells. The crew then discovered the final and possibly most important act of the Jesse James Show: a prepared press release left behind with instructions that it be telegraphed to the St Louis Dispatch, a sympathetic Confederate-Democratic newspaper. “The most daring robbery on record!” it began modestly.
“The south bound train on the Iron Mountain railroad was robbed here this morning by five heavily armed men and robbed of dollars — There is a hell of excitement in this part of the country.”
The figure to be filled in the blank space would amount to $2,000 – not a vast sum of money, even back then, especially when divided five ways. However, as was often the case with Jesse’s performances, the hold-up was a priceless public relations coup.
Jesse and Frank were sons of a pro-slavery Baptist preacher who died in 1850 in the California Gold Rush when Jesse was just three, and a fiercely patriotic and dominating Southern mother, Zerelda, whom everyone seems to describe as “formidable”. Both brothers fought in the Civil War (1861- 1865), Jesse joining up at the stripling age of 16, serving with some of the most brutal and successful Confederate guerrillas, or “bushwhackers”. They conducted a war of annihilation against Unionists in Missouri, casually but systematically murdering their Federalist neighbours and freed or runaway blacks.
Missouri was a border state, and hence nowhere was the American Civil War more “civil” – that is to say, terrible. In the war of secession, civilisation lost to its malcontents and Jesse emerged a leader of these: despite the chivalry – and showbiz – of hold-ups like the one at Gads Hill, Pinkerton’s cold assessment of James was on the money.
As TJ Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War , billed as “the first major study of Jesse James in 40 years”, shows, James was both the product of this cataclysmic struggle and its legacy: after the South surrendered at Appomattox, ex-guerrilla banditry became a symbol of Confederate resistance to Reconstruction and the Radical money-men’s plans for emancipation in the South, as well as a political instrument of the Confederate wing of the Democratic Party. Without popular and political support, James’s criminal career would have been cut short much sooner; in fact he was only brought to account – a fellow bandit assassinated him to collect on the $20,000 reward posted by the railroads – long after his popular support and political usefulness had receded.
Stiles argues James was neither a Robin Hood (he didn’t always rob from the rich and certainly did not give to the poor), nor a Wild West figure (he was politically motivated), but instead a proto-terrorist:
“a transitional figure standing between the past and the industrial, violent, media-savvy future, representing the worst aspects of both”.
While this may be a convincing argument, it perhaps mistakes what a Robin Hood or an outlaw – or, for that matter, a terrorist – is. Mr. Hood was popular not because he actually stole from the rich and gave to the poor: rather, his popularity was expressed and excused in the myth of his stealing from the rich and giving to the poor; that is, the fantasy of him stealing and killing on our behalf.
Sure, Jesse James became a political symbol of resistance to Reconstruction, but more profoundly he also became a symbol, as all outlaws do, of resistance to civilisation and its repressions. The political resonance legitimised the enjoyment of his psychopathic freedom, at least to Confederates. Perhaps this is why his reputation of Southern courtliness was so important: courtesy and wisecracking from a man with a gun in his hand is perhaps the greatest expression of freedom, terror and, to ‘noble’ superiority.
Ironically, Jesse himself was anything but free. It was his ability to recognize and play the role assigned to him by society, history and family which guaranteed his lasting fame. Like other famous Good Bad Boy rebels that were to follow in his footsteps, from Elvis to Eminem, it was his momma he had to thank for that showbiz talent. The strength of Jesse’s narcissistic mother-son bond can be estimated by the fact that the woman he married was his first cousin and named “Zerelda” after his mother. As the Kansas City Times wrote of the original “Zee”:
“She is a woman of great dramatic power. The James family are nothing unless dramatic or tragic.”
A heart-warming clip of US Marines entertaining themselves aboard ship with a lucky pink jelly dildo has been doing the rounds on social media.
It appears to depict a deepthroating competition. One won, judging by the ecstatic response of his watching – and videoing – buddies, by a shirtless tached young jarhead, when he swallows the penis-shaped toy, attached by its sucker to a mirror on the mess bulkhead, to the silicone balls.
Here it is on Twitter – 16.9 million views and counting:
The banana curiousness I wrote about a decade ago looks like it has gone way beyond curious – and been shopping online for some proper gear.
Which is a good thing from a Health & Safety perspective. Bananas may be ever-so temptingly phallic, as well as nutritious, cheap, and widely available, but they have a nasty habit of breaking up in your windpipe. A quality sex toy won’t do that – no matter how greedily you throat it.
Although I have no idea about the sexuality of the Marine deepthroat champ in the clip, this is probably yet another manifestation of the shits, giggles, bondings, and possible arousals that bored mostly straight military men get from ‘acting gay’ on and off camera. But gagging here instead of Gaga.
A subject I so very selflessly researched myself some years back. Of many moments to cherish, I shall always remember especially fondly the way the paratroopers earnestly enquired as to which of them sucked my “uncut English cock” best.
Speaking of which, I would like to brag that, based on this clip, US paratroopers have way better technique. Those jarheads are far too excited and breathless over a disappeared seven inch (max) dildo.
How Marine mores change! ‘Rolf’, a seasoned veteran of the Californian gay porn industry who, in the 1960s and 1970s, facilitated introductions between comely Camp Pendleton jarheads and moneyed male Beverly Hills types (a subject he wrote about for Steve Zeeland’s Military Trade), told me by email:
That deep-throating antic might reveal the current Marine generation’s change in attitude toward the serious business of cock-sucking. I note that Steve Zeeland’s books captured echoes of a far older Marine generation’s scorn – scorn for what was doubly taboo. First, to take the role of fellator in cock-sucking was to reveal oneself either as a faggot or a sailor. By contrast, Marines were supposed to confine themselves to the ‘manly’ act of buggery.
But in the late-1990s – as you so vividly know – Dink Flamingo showed us that some U.S. paratroopers not only sucked cock but did so on camera, with obvious pride in their skills. And, with his hasty relocation to San Diego in the early 2000s, Dink showed us that a new generation of Marines seemed just as willing as the paratroopers. The old taboo had disappeared.
You’ll certainly have noticed that not a single Marine among the observers is frowning in disgust or disapproval. Instead, all the faces beam a mixture of amazement and absolute joy, like watching a member of one’s own FC score the most unexpected of goals. It’s a revelation.
To which I replied:
I do remember the quaint Marine taboo on faggoty fellatio – in contrast to the manly business of being buggered. Then there’s also the currency of the insult ‘cocksucker’ in the US – an insult that, like ‘motherfucker’ but more so, has always fascinated me with its positively pornographic detail. We don’t have an equivalent in the UK – except perhaps ‘wanker’, but it’s milder, less descriptive, and anyway describes all men.
What happened, in addition to the decline in sexual taboos in general, was probably porn – which also contributed heavily to the decline in sexual taboos. Straight porn sold cocksucking to straight men.
Perhaps it didn’t need much selling, but as you know, cocksucking is a very important staple of straight porn: essentially the beginning and the end of heterosexual coitus.
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