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Written by Emma Morris.
In 2012 I contacted Mike Edison for advice.
I’d attended his presentation of Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!: Of Playboys, Pigs, and Penthouse Paupers—An American Tale of Sex and Wonder at the contrastingly staid University of Chicago the year before. I bought the book. He signed it. I liked it so much I bought his first memoir, I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World, which resonated even more.
Anyway, what I wanted from Edison in 2012 was a bit of guidance on writing erotica. Or, maybe not erotica per se, but anything creative, freaky, subversive, whatever. “Gotta get out of the cubicle ASAP,” I told him.
Edison began writing porn-for-hire under pseudonyms the year I was born. We’re both Leos, Jews and erstwhile college dropouts. Though I knew that there wasn’t much going on money-making-wise in the conventional sense of erotica publishing, his books and performance and general career path made me feel like I’d found a kindred spirit of sorts. Edison wrote back to me that he’d “see what pearls of wisdom I can dredge up from a career that is more like a crime scene than anything a reasonable person would ever want to emulate.” I replied that reason had done little for me thus far.
It took me a few more years to get out of that cubicle and into a better one, but my mad dash for some kind of subversive outlet in 2012 is exactly what drew me to volunteering for Jewrotica.
So, Edison is at least partially credited/to blame for that. But here I go making this all about me, and my perceived cosmic connection to a man I admire for telling it like it is. Yes, he’s got it all covered: Sex (editor-in-chief of Screw magazine, Hustler correspondent, penner of Penthouse letters and 28 cocaine and dick-laden “adult” novels; Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! – (the “lovechild of Screw Magazine and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States”); Drugs (publisher of High Times, author of I Have Fun Everywhere I Go), and Rock-N-Roll (certified punk rocker, doctorer of rock memoirs, writer of liner notes. Oh, hell, just read his books already). He’s an “advocate of the id’s needs”, free speech, American counterculture, and theremins. He’s a high-minded perv, and a fucking mensch to boot.
Edison’s most recent book You Are A Complete Disappointment: A Triumphant Memoir of Failed Expectations does not disappoint. It has made notorious punk rockers and other grown men cry. It has inspired people to quit their jobs. It’s a frank, scars-and-all account of his relationship with his parents, suburban dysfunction, Jewish guilt and gentile anxiety, and, above all, needing the love of a parent who resents him, and he makes no effort to keep that under wraps.
It’s about wresting control over your life’s narrative and getting down to the source of the pain. It’s forgiveness as a means of living your life for yourself. It’s acknowledging that anger only gives others power. It’s being the person you want to be, not who others want you to be – even in the face of humiliation, neglect, and other forms of emotional abuse. Like the harrowing, eponymous deathbed rant.
When we first started cooking up a Jewrotica-Disappointment alliance, Edison wrote me that You Are A Complete Disappointment is “by far the Jewiest thing I have ever written” and he ain’t lying. From Shabbos candles to sitting shiva, from atoning on Yom Kippur, to suburban anti-Semitism, to his DIY punk rock bar mitzvah, where he learned that the Jewish rite of passage is an “initiation. It wasn’t the end of something, it was a beginning— the celebration of the next phase of life,” Edison’s Jewish fucked-up upbringing in an emphatically Jewish household charges through every page.
Like many families, his elders never spoke of the “heavy times in Europe,” which hung over them like tachrichim. Most harsh, but in keeping with his father’s hatred of all things “low”, Edison’s father expressed disdain for Yiddishisms and anything smacking of Old Country:
“‘We don’t go to shul. We go to temple,’ he corrected me, and with far more anger in his voice than should ever have been indicated. It took me years to figure out why that was exactly –didn’t suburban Jews have enough problems without having to kayfabe where they went to worship? But shul was old-school Yiddish, and Yiddish was low. It was ethnic, and not the kind of monkey-talk that hyper-assimilated society Jews in Boston liked to bandy about.”
Identity crises notwithstanding, in Judaism, there is no obligation to forgive your abuser. Though there is no ethos of cheek-turning, Edison writes, “the greatest act of forgiveness is to achieve a pure type of empathy, to embrace the person who has hurt you and take them into your heart.”
But if you hit him on one cheek, he will fucking clock you on the other. And yet, despite the anger, trauma, confusion and frustration, Edison’s book is filled with so much love for the father determined to destroy his firstborn son, who resented his son’s freedom, who blamed his son for the “deficits in [his] own life.” Though his father basically gave up on Edison when he was nine, he’s still somehow able to find the font of empathy. He now sees his father as a tragic character, someone who may have prized status and social aspirations above all else, but who harbored his own demons and longings for affection as much as anyone else – and shut that part of himself off for one reason or another.
Both Edison’s parents, “suburban nihilists,” lived in fear of losing control, and his father explicitly resented his son for having more fun than he did. The strain of jealousy and contempt runs through – “I hate that you get to live your dreams before I get to live mine.” To his father, Edison represented a loss of this control, the lowbrow “agent of chaos” whose success outside the “accepted” channels, and despite having dropped out of college, was threat personified to his rigid worldview. In his father’s mind, Edison was a failure, a disappointment, a broken person in need of fixing. His father was hellbent on neutering his son, betting against him, wanting him to fail. A competitive, a narcissistic saboteur who pitted him against his mother and brothers (who were all more and less on the straight and narrow, replete with Jewish guilt but ultimately an expression of “Love without shpilkes.”) Edison worked through it creatively and with a therapist, who concurred that his father “gaslit you into thinking you were a failure” even though, even as a kid, he’d had high expectations for himself.
But humanity came through the cracks, as it does – whether his father breaking kayfabe by losing control in the hospital, to finding raunchy books among his parents’ collection, which was his “first clue that it was all a charade – everyone had dark secrets and dirty thoughts, stuff they couldn’t or wouldn’t do in public, but incubated in their heads.” Realizing that so much of the surface or constructs are an illusion, Edison found his voice and stuck with it, even in the face of dealing with the heartbreak of not only not being accepted, but being derided and constantly thwarted on your path.
As the former Jewcy horoscope writer, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Leos, ruled by the heart, are renowned for loyalty, creativity, expansiveness, dynamism, a flair for drama and speaking truth to power. Sometimes you’ve got to fuel your own fire.
You Are A Complete Disappointment resounds on a deeply human level. With journalistic aplomb, what comes through is Edison’s humor within the horror, tsuris sans schadenfreude and, above all, that cringing-and-crying-on-the-train empathy. Edison’s latest book is a mitzvah unto itself. We all want guidance or connection from our parents (if not approval – which Edison continues to seek in dreams, and possibly from beyond the grave), to feel safe being ourselves without snarky remarks, competition, vicious undermining or outright neglect from the people who are supposed to take care of us – and if not nurture our weirdness, at least not leave this world with deathbed rants about what fuck-ups we turned out to be.
Edison found forgiveness and catharsis, in part, through writing. If the formula for comedy is tragedy plus time, then Edison’s struck a fine balance between all three, finding compassion while calling bullshit, and telling the world about it – which is, of course, its own sacred power. Edison makes for a great role model for anyone finding their way – a mensch with both a strong code of ethics and a healthily ironclad sense of the “Fuck You.” If being your truest, most authentic self in a world that wants to shape you into something you’re not isn’t some powerful juju, I don’t know what is.
Forthwith, a discussion with the man himself:
In You Are A Complete Disappointment, you mention having been more influenced in your worldview by George Carlin and Bob Dylan than your parents. What did you learn from them? Who else shaped your impressionable young mind?
George Carlin was the first guy I ever heard who had this rock-hard bullshit detector – he called out any hypocrites, puritans, politicians, authority figures… and he did it by being funny. Later I’d get that a lot of it came from Lenny Bruce, but here was this guy that knew how to throw a punch with WORDS. He knew words were subversive. He knew how to be clever and smart and charming at the same time. He was from the 1960s, but always seemed to be a man of his times. He was very tuned in. And Bob Dylan? I think I say in YOU ARE A COMPLETE DISAPPPOINTMENT that he taught me that everything didn’t have to make sense. He was a rebel absurdist – like Duchamp with an acoustic guitar. Later punk rock came in, and I loved it, but Dylan was surreal – he didn’t have to scream FUCK YOU to get the message across. His voice, his snarl, his images put it over. He is a true individualist, but loyal to a tradition of outlaw musicians. He just turned 75 and it hasn’t really changed. He’s lost some heat on the fastball, but he isn’t making a lot of concessions. He is very true to himself.
I’ve read two of your memoirs and Dirty! Dirty! Dirty! which is a history of porno mags and free speech. How does your writing process change depending on the genre? And where can I find your porn???
Writing is getting up every day and putting your head down and working. It’s like having homework every day for a year. DIRTY! DIRTY! DIRTY! required a lot of research. I had to behave like a journalist and a historian for a while, haha… I was actually a writer in residence at the New York Public Library for a while, they got on board and helped me with my research, and I interviewed a lot of people. The sexy part of my book about sex, to me, is the bibliography! Over 100 sources listed – I think that’s kind of hot. Makes me legit haha. Writing a memoir is also hard work, and YOU ARE A COMPLETE DISAPPOINTMENT is especially tough, it is very naked and raw, extremely personal. If I weren’t honest I would have been wasting everyone’s time. But each project you can sort of feel what it is going to take when you get started – like when I was writing porn. That was its own hot zone. Good luck finding it now – but I promise to put some stuff up, reissue some of the old books. People keep asking, but I find it distracting from what I do these days. Honestly, it is incredibly filthy, but not that good. I have been filthier and better since then.
You’ve mentioned before that your work isn’t necessarily a reaction against your parents or the values of The Silent Generation. But in part rebelling against the rancid strain of American Puritanism seems to move through your career. Do you think that growing up in a Jewish household, albeit a “Silent” one, influenced your rock’n’roll spirit?
Rock’n’roll just spoke to me. I suppose it made a difference that I grew up in a square household of uptight people screaming all the time and was probably looking for something, anything, a beacon I could follow, but there it was. Rock’n’roll is freedom. It is fighting back. It may seem trite now, but back then it was a political statement. If you were a rocker, you were embracing something dangerous. It was no pose – ask anyone of my generation who got it. The Ramones weren’t just another band, they were warrior poets. As far as the Jewish thing, there are a lot of outspoken Jews – Dylan and Lenny Bruce, we just talked about. People write books about it. I don’t know. We are some smart motherfuckers, and tired of being pushed around. It is a dangerous combination. I am very proud of where it got us.
On a related note, what with your time working at both Heeb and Screw, as well as your chronicling of Jews in smut’s history (in Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!),you definitely fit the bill as a Jewrotica champion. What does “Jewish erotica” mean to you?
There is nothing hotter than smart and funny.