Before the sun rose on the morning of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse’s convention in Las Vegas last week, Jesus sat three booths before me at the Victorville McDonald’s (Roy Rogers Drive at La Paz), drinking coffee, reading the Bible, lips moving. His long, thick, Santa Claus silver-white beard was trimmed like a show dog, perfectly coordinated with the ornate silver JESUS type on the front of his black baseball cap. Yep — that’s Him. Should I try to talk with Him? At least move closer, to listen?
No time. Anyway, there’d be plenty of Jesus in the car. Whenever you hit open desert roads pointed at the Heartland — especially at dawn — bad ClearChannel music disappears as all channels, clear and otherwise, turn to discussions of Jesus and Danny Bonaduce.
When I got to my room on the ninth floor of the Gold Coast Hotel on Flamingo Road (“The Place Las Vegans Call Home”), I found I had a pristine view to the west of the criminally coherent blandness that is residential Las Vegas. Downstairs, the casino smelled just like the bowling alley on the other side of the building: a potent, concentrated mix of our own Mar Vista Bowl, Urbana’s Thunderbird Lanes and unbathed English Leather. It was a scent evolved from not less than 600 million cigarettes, 40 million shrimp cocktails, 60,000 puddles of vomit, hundreds of unreported rapes and a handful of murders. Infections and maladies of the lowest order hovered just below eye level, no matter where one placed one’s eyes.
Ten miles northwest of here, at the J.W. Marriott Resort Spa & Golf, “Abstinence Goes to Vegas” was in full swing, with its conventioneers singing the National Anthem at the Viva Las Vegas luncheon, its postluncheon Elvis-related entertainment and something called “breakout sessions” — some kind of a convention term, isn’t it? But here at the Gold Coast, somewhere between the elevator and the casino floor, an inebriated, three-way shrimping argument was underway. The gist of it was that the young woman didn’t drive all the way out here to suck on the two men’s toes, and that they were to drive her back to Apple Valley at once. One man walked off in embarrassment, the other remained. The woman called this man a piece of shit, then she, too, walked off. The remaining man bore the look and scent of every rural roadside mechanic who’s ever knifed a senior citizen’s hose to sell a radiator. Shrugged at me with one of those “Women — can’t live with ’em, can’t pay ’em to suck toes” looks in his eyes, even with the mirrored glasses.
I don’t drink much. Doesn’t mix well with some of the other drugs. Certainly not in the morning. But that wasn’t important anymore: I needed a two-dollar beer.
“Abstinence Clearinghouse is a non–faith–based organization,” said Kristin Scuderi, the National Abstinence Clearinghouse Media Director, who was More Than Happy to answer my questions about religion and masturbation. “However, most of our members do have faith.”
“Any particular kind of faith?”
“No. It doesn’t matter if you’re . . . [reading my name tag] . . . Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or whatever — anything at all. Our mission is to promote the practice of sexual abstinence until marriage.”
“So this is specifically about intercourse? Do you take issue with other forms of sex? Masturbation?”
“We basically don’t talk about masturbation. We don’t say anything against it, or for it. We just don’t talk about it.”
I’d rehearsed a handful of tasteful queries into anal sex, toys, pornography, gaiety, trisexuality and the like, but I sensed that these, too, were things that Scuderi didn’t talk about. She was kind and polite, personable, perhaps even reasonable. Who was I to make trouble?
So instead I sat quietly at the media-relations table in the media-relations room, drinking fine coffee as Scuderi ran down the score. I’d missed a panel discussion called Faces of Abstinence, which is a terrible name for a panel discussion, regardless of its degree of precision. One of the featured Faces of Abstinence speakers, Scuderi explained, was one Jackie Brewton, an accomplished 42-year-old virgin. “Forty-two,” Scuderi repeated, pointing out Brewton’s photograph and bio on page 12 of the conference guidebook. “I just think that’s so commendable.”
Members also included people Scuderi called “secondary virgins” — postadolescents, I gathered, former fuckers who’d experienced a kind of spiritual . . . something, and were now virgins again. But the Clearinghouse’s focus was clearly on devising ways — by whatever means necessary — to prevent teenagers from fucking until after a ritual in which rings of precious metal have been harpooned by their fingers, where God can see. “We have studies that prove that in parts of the country with monitored rates of teen abstinence, there are much lower incidences of STDs and teen pregnancy.”
I thanked Scuderi and hit the Exhibitor Showcase in the adjacent Marquis Ballroom, where, by my estimation, women outnumbered men by at least 3 to 1, though this does not take into account the likelihood of a well-funded cross-dressing coalition.
Even a weekend’s odyssey at the Erotica L.A. Convention couldn’t adequately prepare me for this: hundreds of low-key, fully clothed citizens of classic Midwestern proportions, standing, sitting, strolling and chatting unremarkably. An indoor church picnic of Polite Americans bettering the world with selfless Goodness and sloganed mugs, T-shirts, posters, buttons, petitions, pens and stickers: Save It For Later; Not Givin’ In; I’m Worth Waiting For; Virginity Rules; Everybody’s NOT Doing It!; Marry Me First; God, Mom & Me Tea; Control Your Stuff! Table after table, neat and clean, laden with wholesome subversions and gospels.
I found at Booth 412 a friendly, rotund, freckly father of two, with a table full of near-life-size photographs of the front of his head. Above the head, in 48-point, nicely kerned type, were the words “I didn’t want to be this way.” Beside the head, a poem: “These feelings were something I didn’t ask for/And didn’t want/I came to feel hopeless in my personal struggle/With homosexuality and sexual addiction . . .”
And below the head, a big black cross and the words, “Metanoia Ministries: Redeeming pasts and changing futures through Christ.”
“Will you be coming with us to pass out Good Girl Cards?” Deanna Grimm, an Abstinence Clearinghouse official is, like all the Abstinence Clearinghouse officials, what’s known in certain circles as a Total Knockout Babe, dressed, incidentally (or perhaps not), in a tight black dress. And she smelled really good, too. It was having an effect.
“To pass out . . . ?”
“Good Girl Cards. At 8 o’clock, everyone’s taking shuttles to the Strip to pass out Good Girl Cards. You’re more than welcome to join us.”
Grimm summoned Scuderi, who provided me with an actual card. On the front: six extremely blurry virgins and Ellsworth Kelly reproductions on a gray background; between pictures, the words Good Girl in gentle, 18-point italics, followed by the word Cards in thick, black, otherworldly bold. On the back: “Why choose abstinence?”
“May I keep this?”
“Eight o’clock on the Strip?”
“The shuttles leave at 8. We’ll be there at 8:30.”
“Where on the Strip?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“I’ll be there.” Seven hundred forty–plus clean, decent citizens passing out blurry virgin cards. The Strip’s only a mile or two long; shouldn’t be hard to spot.
I returned to my hotel room to get a bit more food, beer, marijuana and sleep before the big pass-out.
By 8 p.m. it had cooled down to 103 as I headed east on foot up Flamingo Road, over the freeway and into Stripland. Friday night traffic jam. Flashbacks to childhood fevers. Taxis covered in ads. Hummer limousines decked out in Christmas lights and white-boy hip-hop. But where were the 740-plus abstinents? You’d think there’d be commotion, hooker protests, tear gas, something . . .
Nothing. No one. Nowhere.
What a tease.
Rev. Al Rocks the House
It’s a quarter past eight on Sunday morning, already 85 degrees in the shade, and the long Fourth of July weekend has done nothing to thin the crowd of worshippers at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. The pews are full, the balcony is full, the folding chairs for the overflow crowd in the front row are full, the doorways are full. At First AME they are always full. But today there is even more electricity in the ‰ air, because the special guest preacher from the East Coast, now walking to the pulpit in a borrowed robe, is running for president.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the assistant pastor announces — to the exulting, church-rocking Sunday-morning cheer — “please receive the prophet himself: the Reverend Al Sharpton.”
This is “the prophet himself”? Al Sharpton? The guy we used to see in red jogging suits and medallions? The one who led incendiary marches through Jewish neighborhoods in New York, the man who championed Tawana Brawley even after a grand jury rejected the black teenager’s claim that she was gang-raped by white men? The guy who made Democratic leaders wince last year when he announced his presidential bid?
Of course that Al Sharpton. The former road manager for James Brown has spent a decade re-crafting his image and is now in full campaign mode. This morning, the preacher has already appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation, has another guest sermon scheduled later, a few miles to the east, at Second Baptist, and has a soul-food fund-raiser this evening.
Any Democrat courting the nomination is foolish to pass up a chance to appear at First AME, the congregation of black L.A.’s elite. A nod from the Rev. Dr. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray means hundreds of thousands of dollars in support and crucial votes from a key Democratic constituency. But Sharpton does something from the pulpit here that Al Gore never did. He preaches. Thundering out the Gospel since age 4, ordained a minister at 10, Sharpton is the first White House seeker since Jesse Jackson who can wear the robe, stand side by side with Murray and deliver a sermon.
At the pulpit, he’s not coy about his presidential ambitions. And he doesn’t hesitate to question President Bush’s plans to involve the U.S. in West Africa. “We don’t know if he’s going to do in Liberia what he did in Iraq,” Sharpton tells worshippers, reminding them that the U.S. government failed to get involved with slavery in Sudan or genocide in Rwanda. “I don’t know if we’re going after wrong,” he calls out, “or if we’re going after rubber and oil.” As for Bush’s “Bring it on” remark about Iraqi attacks on U.S. troops: “Sounds more like some gang leaders in L.A. than the leader of the free world.”
Sharpton moves to his biblical text — the portion where Joseph has learned that Mary, his fiancée, is pregnant. The angel tells Joseph that the child is from the Holy Spirit and that the wedding can go on. The theme fits a long-shot candidate who must get followers to Believe When It Doesn’t Make Sense. It took bravery for Joseph to depend on the word of God and move forward with his wedding, Sharpton preaches.
“Imagine walking into the barbershop and telling them that ‘she has conceived by the Holy Spirit,’” he quips. The crowd roars with laughter, breaking into appreciative applause for a preacher who honed his craft in front of black congregations his entire life. Just let Howard Dean try this. Here, at least, Sharpton is a front-runner.
How to Be a Talking Head
For a brief spell, back in 1990 and 1991, I’d cross paths with Courtney Love. At the time she and her tough little garage band called Hole would play the Gaslight and Raji’s and other east–of–
La Brea joints. We didn’t talk much, except for one long gabfest at the Roxy, as Pigface, the Blind Faith of Industrial, jammed away. We bonded over our hatred for pseudo-funk rock, also known at the time as “asshole rock.” After that, I didn’t see her much, except when she was onstage. And after Hole rocked the Palladium at the bottom of a Dinosaur Jr./Nirvana triple bill, she began her ascent and I haven’t had contact with her since.
That sums up our relationship completely. But recently, Court TV asked me to offer myself up as a talking head on the subject of Ms. Love’s litigious nature and colorful career. My qualifications? As I am a musician/writer, the show’s producers thought I could offer unique insight into her life, and as a Hollywood insider, be privy to some awesome dirt. Plus, I have acquired a rep as someone who’ll say anything and back it up bluntly. The producers had seen me as a snarling punk rocker playing guitar in the group Thrills all the way back in 1978, so they assumed that I would bring the same attitude to the interview. I’d also done one of these “profiles” before, on Papa John Phillips, so I knew the drill — they ask the question, you re-state it and answer it, with lots of semi-“insiderishness” — if you’ve seen Entertainment Tonight or Behind the Music, it’s the same feel. Mostly, though, I come cheap and have that proverbial New England working person’s attitude to any job offered — you do it.
Schlepping up four stories to the Highlands, a restaurant/ballroom in the new glitz-o-rama mall on Hollywood and Highland, I found a minimalist setup: one cameraman, a sound guy and an interviewer, the former A Current Affair/Inside Edition star Steve McPartlin. No green room, no perks, nada. Just us and the restaurant’s cleanup crew and barbacks, who had to be shushed every time they walked near — those mikes pick up everything.
McPartlin chucked out several softballs: Is Courtney a Yoko Ono type? (No, the Beatles were broken up by rancor not suicide.) Did Courtney ever threaten you? (No, and by the way, the late El Duce’s claims of a contract killing on Kurt Cobain were the ravings of an inebriate imbecile.) How exactly is Courtney perceived in the world of punk rock? (She isn’t really a punker icon or even a punk rocker at all, but a pop star who is famous for being famous, this era’s Zsa Zsa Gabor.)
The only slightly insightful bit of info that escaped my lips was that I thought that C.L. had basically stolen her act from the much lesser known Inger Lorre (formerly of the Nymphs), with a bit of L7 and Kim Gordon thrown in. (Will this provoke the kind of phone threat for which Courtney is notorious? “Oh well,” as her hubby once said, “whatever, nevermind.”) Also, I said that Courtney’s Winona Ryder–revealed connection to the ring of Hollywood M.D.’s, the ones who script Vicodins like they were Pez, was barely a surprise to anyone — the “quack-doctor trail” is an institution as old as Olvera Street. It was nearing 1 p.m. — the time we needed to clear out by or be evicted — so we wrapped things up. McPartlin told me I was a true natural at this talking head stuff. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted.