Confessions of a smut reviewer 

I was on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. He'd show up at my door a few afternoons a week wearing that mud-brown uniform, looking like a sweaty soldier from some foreign army. He certainly didn't resemble any dude bearing gifts.

"Yo! It's U-P-S, you gotta box from Hustler," I'd hear from the other side of the door, which I'd often open dressed only in a towel, trying to summon a sense of gravity. I'd be suspicious and skittish, after going sleepless again, for a night or two, maybe three, and completely spun out of my mind on porn and speed.

But the UPS guy understood. There was some unspoken connection between us — he was too wrinkled and weathered for a guy in his "mid-30s." He'd seen some hard road, but looked just healthy enough to suggest that he was on a life upswing after a gnarly plummet into a toxic never-never land. He could smell the beer on my breath, hear the speed-porn jag in my rasp and was used to the noises that came out of me — the dry-mouthed words with a bonus "th" sound attached. "Uh, heyth, manth, signth here? Thankths," I'd say. He was gracious, didn't seem to judge; he'd only grin and nod hastily as if to say: You're on your way down, buddy. And fast. But I feel your pain, even though you don't yet."

He was inured to the company names affixed to the sizable boxes he was required to cart to my door: Big Top Video, Private Media, Vivid Video, Elegant Angel, Sin City, Hustler Video and so on.

The boxes arrived like clockwork, crammed with more porn than any person should ever have to consume. I'd get hundreds of videos and DVDs a month from the porn companies. Hundreds. The titles were seemly too: Anal Whores Vol. 5, Babes Ballin' Boys 3, Strap-On Soul Sisters, etc.

I never explained to the UPS guy what the hell I was up to, and I can only imagine what went through his head on those brassy delivery days. See, I was free-lance writing for survival coin that, then, was generated mostly from reviewing porn movies, using pseudonyms, for mostly horrible magazines. I had a songwriter publishing deal, but that money, the occasional royalty check notwithstanding, had all been spent. My band was doing OK, but you can't live on hope.

One of my outlets, POPsmear magazine, was the first American glossy to feature smut reviews alongside regular movie and music reviews and features, thereby advancing porn into the "mainstream." My porn content and cool editor made life for the magazine challenging; major Borders-type chains balked. After a good, if less-than-profitable run, the magazine went belly-up around 2000.

Sometimes the UPS man would peek inside my place and see a wood floor covered in malt liquor bottles, overflowing ashtrays, piles of CDs, books, porn video boxes and, sometimes, my half-dressed girlfriend.

She was a porn-loving nude dancer at the Alaskan Bush Company. She'd carry speed in her little wallet decorated with crimson-colored dancing bunnies, which said so much. That wallet always made me sad. She was a girl lost — from a long line of welfare recipients and molestation victims — and I was curious about her life, her girlhood, when I met her. She had real inner beauty and sadness, and had disappeared inside herself. She was tragically flawed like me; she had a constant halo of muted gray light — the precise hue of depression. One fascination: She introduced me to crystal meth. The drug was her toleration lubricant against the long nights of presenting her anatomy to ugly strangers.

And my life was half-romantic, a least in my head, anchored by adulation of my pet authors then, Denis Johnson, Harry Crews and John Fante. Maybe I subscribed to the idea that a debauched and booze-sodden existence defined the "writer," that it could define some basic idea of humility and humanity. Or maybe I was a just a chickenshit hack. But no amazing piece of work ever rose mysteriously from those horrible hours, weeks and months. The idea of some ever-dissolving world followed by inevitable renewal — this ultimate sense of moving up — was mythology.

My home was a little Mexican bungalow tucked away in the middle of one of the worst, most dilapidated neighborhoods in Phoenix, a barrio off Van Buren and 11th Street. But it was beautiful — fireplace, plaster walls, wood floors; and outside, plateau cholla and African palms, mesquite, palo verde and chaparral. The landlord had an eye for splendor. I found the place on a whim: I had nowhere to go after it was discovered that the drummer in my band, with whom I'd been living, had cancer and was dying. I had found a kind landlord who still believed in trust and didn't bother with credit checks. I feel pretty good that I never let him down.

Nobody spoke English in the neighborhood, really; it was populated with lots of illegals and day laborers with large families, whores on the corner. They'd whoop it up on weekends; Bud Light and blaring Tejano until the wee hours. It was pure innocence and charm, and the waltz-time beat of the music became the soundtrack to my existence. Also, you could buy drugs from a Latino guy who drove the neighborhood ice cream truck.

I'd already lived through sour marriages, booze addiction, homelessness, near-stardom, failure, redemption and had seen the suicides and ODs of close friends. But it was the porn, or too much of it, that really kick-started this particular downward spiral, one of three big ones so far in my life. The crystal only magnified it. I just figured that I loved living life without purpose. I wasn't creating, I just was. I'd write — songs, stories, reviews, whatever — when I felt like it.

Life became linear and hollow, a suspended sex rodeo of uninhibited detachment — stuff of deviant masturbatory dreams, with no visible end. Halcyon days in a drug and booze haze spent in the inglorious pursuit of the orgasm became the Vietnam War, a never-ending cranial gang rape. I'd go weeks without reading a book or listening to a record or watching the sun set. There was no way I could.

Meth blows into the brainpan with guns blazing, wreaking untold havoc. No internal organ goes unharmed. Its effect is like the slow current of orgasms lasting hours, with an attendant sex drive that erupts in the skull like a thousand desert monsoons. It can last as long as your physical condition can hold out. If you keep going, if you are of robust stock, it can last a week. It's no wonder the drug is so popular in gay bathhouses, and with sex addicts, nude dancers, street whores. But it felt like sand was direct-deposited into every joint in my body, my teeth hurt, my hair ached, my eyeballs squeaked. At one point you feel yourself dying, each rushed heartbeat a tick toward the headstone, each hurried breath an exasperation of the existence that you're madly trying to stay one step ahead of, because it's all about escaping some gross litter of time. Porn eliminates time. It's insanity.

The movies became singular and narrow pieces of vision. And the meth jacks up the brain's dopamine receptors — your "pleasure system." It kicks the part of the brain that controls sexual arousal into mad overdrive. Porn becomes sex. Meth becomes porn becomes sex. It's an unholy trio, one whose ritual I'd hoped would be enacted for the last time. But there was no last time. It went on and on.

I don't think I ever made a deadline with the porn reviews because I was too fucked up. The actual writing went like this: You catalogue the scenes and prop them up on adjective support. Then you assess the physical traits and mannerisms of the women and men. But good porn involves sex scenes shot with a kind of narrative: the buildup, the tension and tease. And it's like tantrism; it hits slowly and aches on levels that you can't imagine existing. Those were the videos worth writing about.

Worthy subject matter or not, I'd have to feel my way in the darkness or, rather, some deep twilight, instead of turning on a light; consider incalculable hours in the flicker of porn. To leave the house was a chore in itself, to be put off until the last possible moment, usually when the beer was gone. Too, the porn imagery was so etched into the brain that when I did walk out — shaky, fearful and sunglasses-indoors paranoia — I'd half-expect nearly all the women I'd see, from the checkout chick selling beer to the Latina handing over the burrito, to suddenly disrobe and bend over. That too was insanity.

One morning I stepped outside after an all-night "work session" — a glorified speed and porn binge — and just beyond the chain-link fence in front of the cinderblock house across the street, six or seven little Mexican girls were standing in a line. Their faces were lovely and alight; hopeful, filled with excitement and promise in all this poverty. They were dressed in lovely white and crimson-tinged quinceañera dresses with waist bows and lace sleeves. Shoes were perfectly polished black, with white anklets. Some had flowers in their hair. It was First Communion day.

I was drowned in Catholic guilt and sorrow, the sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance, my speed and porn-deadened conscience — my Divine Grace. I thought of my grandmother, my gentle father, my mom. My life was over.

Six months earlier I was in L.A. with my band doing a show with Supergrass at the Viper Room. Another writer and I had pitched a porn story to Details, which was to focus on 22-year-old Matt Zane, then the youngest director in porn, the "Gen X" guy fit to make smut suitable for the under-25 set. The magazine was game.

Zane videos included the hackneyed signposts: ersatz-Goth, kung fu, skateboarding, dirt bikes and rock star mooks slumming it with porn "sluts." I later saw Zane as blatant marketing manipulation to get the rock 'n' roll kids' attention. Regrettably, I'd given Zane's stuff favorable reviews in the past and had gotten to know him in L.A. over a few months.

I was to shadow him on one of his workdays, taking notes, whatever. In the morning I stepped into his San Fernando Valley house for a porn shoot; a vignette for Zane's Cherry Popper series, a tacky, low-rent show that features a girl getting it up the ass for the first time, supposedly. The place was like the other porn homes I'd been to in L.A. — suburban and artless, basically empty aside from a dominating big-screen TV and ugly couches. There was a swimming pool in the back, matching hot tub, etc. The catering was McDonald's, a fitting metaphor for Zane's "movies" — fast, greasy and inedible.

I interviewed male star Dave Hardman, a guy defined by the rise and fall of his boner. Even without Viagra, he was a pro. He could pop wood on command, and later shoot on command. He came twice in one two-hour session.

The girl losing her anal cherry was a zaftig San Diego stripper in L.A. for the gig. This was her porn debut. When she walked out from the bathroom to the living room "set" for her scene, it was obvious she was terrified; it was all over her 19-year-old, lily-white face. The set consisted of some lighting rigs, a russet faux-suede couch, a set photographer, a tubby crew guy, a few bored onlookers, and another San Diego girl standing around in pumps and g-string ready for her close-up.

Zane moved in with his hand-held and barked directions. The scene started with some head and other boring, male-defined power images. Soon the anal scene began. This girl was obviously unaccustomed to the rush of pain associated with the act, and she didn't know how to do it. Hardman eased his cock in, gently. Zane, inches away from the insertion, was impatient, kept forcing Hardman in deeper and telling the girl to "push out" and "relax." Her ruddy face showed sweat and agony; she was ordered to smile. Hardman began pumping hard. I could see tears, which would no doubt be left on the cutting room floor. Zane's contempt for this girl was barely concealed. My thought: How can you be allowed to direct porn if you don't adore women? Zane could only order her to feign joy. When it was over he ignored her.

This was mass-produced porn, sure. But it was bad porn; worse, barely consensual. Just ugliness. No sexuality at all. I could only think of this girl. Her face stayed with me for days.

I was to accompany Zane to his Backstage Pass shoot, which was to feature interviews with, I think, Limp Bizkit, Coal Chamber, Papa Roach and others. There'd be girls perhaps getting sodomized on a tour bus, band roadies getting head, all with mind-sets similar to Zane's; no cliché would go unearthed. The girls, of course, would get passed around like the last hankie in a room full of snotty noses.

There was no way I was hanging with Zane, story or not. I felt too queasy. This wasn't the porn I wanted.

His wasn't challenging; nothing about it delved into the nether regions of the libido to find what really makes a person's sexuality swing. It was barely consensual, and Zane was a complete poser. And the Cherry Popper girl; I could only imagine what her ride back to San Diego was like. What lay ahead for her?

So the Details thing didn't happen. Some other writer did it a year or so later. That piece helped launched Matt Zane into the mainstream for his 15 minutes. He developed an ill-advised habit of wearing too much makeup at functions like the porn section of the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, and soon stopped shooting porn to be a "rock star." He was last seen on the island of never-wases.

I got into porn because of a basic deep-seated fascination with the people, the setting, the milieu. I'm drawn to shiny bright things as well as examples of the human condition, exploring lives of others because, perhaps, of a need to learn who the fuck I am. I wanted honesty and plain-speak. I wanted to trumpet porn as a big, artful community of the dispossessed with a mission.

I went to the conventions, spent years watching the stuff, and had met and interviewed scores of porn stars, many of whom were thoughtful, intelligent and had their heads on straight — some of the kindest and most grounded people I'd ever met. Particularly Nina Hartley. She has a real kindness, intelligence and generosity of spirit. I still think she's great. And, now well into her 40s, she's pure sexual tension.

I loved those who understood their sexuality and knew how to dig deep into the alcoves of their psyches to touch on things that most people don't have the guts to attempt. But those women (and men), from what I learned, are rare. Other girls are drawn to the possibility of fame or wealth, and the Botox-enhanced chicks, the Jenna Jamesons, do a disservice. They make porn appear alluring, easy and sparkly. They get flown around the world, treated like rock stars, and earn a real living. But they must literally take it up the ass, often from a stranger, to get there.

Porn in a way is like pop music — you get Jessica Simpson jammed down your throat but you have to seek out Victoria Williams. The good stuff is an exploration by levelheaded women and men who are unafraid to reveal the outright joys of expression. Tristan Taormino's Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women series humanizes the sex and its stars. There's no shame; it's brilliant and fun. Angela D'Angelo's male-dominating movies are high in scuzzy sleaze and fantastic for ripping down sexual preconceptions of what's right and wrong. John Stagliano's trailblazing Buttman character was and is brilliant — not only did he define the vérité gonzo style of porn, but he showed that porn happens as much between the ears as anything. He sets the images in motion, to the ultimate payoff. It's not slop shots of gratuitous insertions, but a slowly unraveling sexual narrative. Actresses-turned-directors like Jewel D'Nyle, Francesca Lé and Vanessa Blue do great work. Joanna Angel's punk-porn is everything Matt Zane's wasn't. And David Aaron Clark films handily delve into concealed sexual netherworlds. There are entertaining writers like former Hustler Erotic Video Guide editor Mike Albo — the Richard Meltzer of porn writing — and Peter Stokes, both of whom are now at Adult Video News.

I came away sickened by a lot of it, mostly that intersection of male-defined power and sex. There's tragedy. Many of the porn girls I'd met, hung out with and interviewed had the classic molestation backgrounds, were lost, and would leave porn after a year, completely shattered. But my empathy was undying. Hence my loathing of such self-promoting women-hating dopes as Zane, and others, such as Max Hardcore and Rob Black. But in some aspects of porn, there's an us-against-them mind-set, oddballs trying to survive in a world that's designed for other people. I began to understand that.

I did pull slowly out the smut-and-drugs-sheathed existence, mainly through mainstream journalism, not rock 'n' roll. My first cover story? It was a piece in Phoenix New Times detailing the life of a married, working mother of two who lived quietly in the tiny town of Kingman, Ariz., a map-blip made famous by bomber Timothy McVeigh. What did this woman do for a living? She'd go to porn valley where she was Nikki Lynn, porn star and contract girl to the Sin City porn company.

The story ran and some network TV shows phoned, looking to do a piece on her. I won a journalism award. The paper and a few kind editors gave me a feature column outside of music writing and hired me as staff writer with, to me, a king's ransom in salary and benefits. I'd never known such things.

They lifted me out of the gutter, nominated me for a Pulitzer. Now I got the girl, and I'm alive in Detroit. No more brown-suited UPS guy hauling boxes of smut, and I've reacquainted myself to a life without crippling toxins.

Brian Smith is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to bsmith@metrotimes or call

More by Brian Smith

Best Things to Do In Detroit

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

© 2016 Detroit Metro Times

Website powered by Foundation