Thoughts on the Shit Show

Blake and Gene.

I don’t know if you would be willing to put this up, but I figured I’d send it and see. On August 3, underground writer Gene Gregorits was arrested for sexual assault on a 17 year old girl. You can read an article about his arrest here.

He’d posted about the young woman he was arrested for assaulting that night on his Facebook page. He put up a picture of her, under a Facebook status update that said, “The teenage porn star tourist cunt has arrived appx. 8 mins late. And I still fucking hate her. I am going to do things to this woman that Cletus from Moose Snout would not do to the family cow in the depths of a meth binge.” The picture and status update were removed from his page the next day, one assumes, by the Florida police, but many people took screen shots of it when he posted it.

I have promoted Gene’s work for years, always under the auspices that there is something very important about pushing boundaries when it comes to art. I wrote the attached essay about my feelings about his arrest, and the disillusionment I’d been feeling as someone who was such a big proponent of his work beforehand. The essay delves into persona, and the leeway we often give our favorite artists when it comes to their behavior.

***

Sick of being decent, he craves another
crash. What reaches him except disaster?
–Frank Bidart

Author Gene Gregorits recently did a small tour of New England with Lisa Carver, where he was promoting his newest book, Do You Love Me: The Gene Gregorits File. The first night of the tour, a naked Gregorits accidentally- on- purpose slashed open his forearm with a knife, the resulting wound requiring close to 50 stitches. Anybody who is friends with Gregorits on Facebook has seen pictures of the festering wound, above or below photos of his injured cat, posts pleading and bleating his friends for rent money, and a relentless barrage of diatribes against:

  1. Those who haven’t bought his books
  2. Those who have, but haven’t written reviews about them
  3. Women
  4. Other writers and artists who have taken a more conventional path to success, and been rewarded for it.

I haven’t seen the video of the show, as YouTube keeps flagging it, but from what I’ve been told, most of the attendees either ran off, horrified, or dipped their just-purchased copies of his books in his blood as a souvenir as Gene was taken to the hospital. On his Facebook page a few days later, a somberly reflective Gregorits seemed saddened by the audience’s reaction, which I found surprising. Connecting the dots on the Gregorits persona, one would have thought he’d be proud. People always take souvenirs of that which thrills them, and what else could Gregorits have been seeking when he’d disrobed and grabbed the knife? Police had to stop souvenir hunters from removing Clyde Barrows’ fingers after he’d been shot. There have always been rumors that a plaster cast was made of John Dillinger’s dick at the morgue. Surely in someone’s curio cabinet, there is a piece of 1990’s toilet paper with GG Allin’s fecal matter on it.

It’s like Bill Maher on the 9/11 hijackers. Say what you want, but self-mutilation–like commandeering a plane, then flying it into a building–takes guts, unless you have dead nerve endings. Cutting yourself fucking hurts. Gregorits’ cutting was the on- purpose, the depth of the wound was the accidental.

Though Gregorits has written 12 books of varying quality–some great, others slap dash and badly in need of editing–the book he was promoting with the tour is one that others, myself included, wrote about him. Do You Love Me? The Gene Gregorits File is in the tradition of Daphne Gottlieb’s Fucking Daphne, though Gregorits would probably claim it’s the first of its kind, because he does that: speaks in bold generalizations, in assumed hyperbole, about everything. This begs the question– just what is real about Gregorits’ persona, and what isn’t? There are some things that I hope aren’t.

***

I hope this isn’t too confusing. What you just read is the beginning of an essay I started three months ago, but never finished. If I had, it would have been the fifth time I’d written about “agitator author” Gene Gregorits. I know what I was considering writing; I still have my notes. That description, “agitator author,” would have been new, at least for me, but some of my other planned descriptions, like “mad man writer” would have been recycles. I was going to lineage Gregorits’ writing with Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and Nelson Algren, as Gregorits himself often did. I made a note to mention the psychic fluke of the double “G” initials: G(ene) G(regorits) and GG (Allin). I would have written something about “appreciation only after death, because we never reward the artists who really challenge us in life.” (In another essay I wrote about him, I called this “the ultimate straitjacket.”) I was becoming a broken record. I was writing Gene Gregorits Mad Libs. I didn’t finish the essay.

When I was twelve, I had a poster on my wall. It was a drawing of Sid Vicious, and in messy scrawl around his body, it said:

“Undermine their pompous authority. Reject their moral standards. Make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you alive.”

There was a little stamp on a corner of the poster that said it was “a Sid product,” authorized by “kind permission of Sids Mum, Mrs. Anne Beverley.” I think, I knew, even then, that Sid didn’t say the words attributed to him on that poster. I did an internet search, just to be safe, and can find no video commemorating the moment, or interview transcript connecting those words to Sid’s mouth. Sid Vicious was 21 years old when he died, and it’s not unfair to say that he was not particularly articulate (though the murdered and maligned Nancy was, and in Nancy’s mom’s book, she included a very coherent letter and poem sent to her by Sid after Nancy’s murder). It’s a pretty safe bet that the words on that poster were crafted either by Malcolm McLaren, or some suit and tie guy who knew that their anti-authoritarian sentiment would appeal to a certain kind of disaffected youth, of which I was, and I know Gene Gregorits also was. I wrote the quote from that poster all over my school books, like voluble, long-winded graffiti. I slept under the poster for close to three years. I opened my eyes to those words in the mornings, and dreamed next to them at night. But that’s who a shit show should appeal to: the innocent, or the ignorant. Those are the two groups who can get away with it, without much excuse, or justification. They get a pass.

I should identify here exactly what I mean when I say “a shit show.” The other description I will be using is “pet savage” but I’ll explain what I mean by that later.

What is a shit show? A shit show is, at its barest bones, the five point plan outlined on that Sid poster. A shit show is no rules. A shit show is a wad of spit, a rich, frothy, tubercular loogie, in the face of cooperative morality, and by “cooperative,” I mean the morality that says, you don’t fuck with me, and I won’t fuck with you: the most basic of all ‘you must have neighbors in this world’ moralities. A shit show is nothing is sacred, no woman and children first, no special provisions for the elderly, it is the killing of all sacred cows, even the vegan ones. A shit show is chaos as religion, because “God is dead.” (Nietzsche is often popular with pet savages because his writings can be twisted ever so slightly to back up their chaos theories.) A shit show all by itself is usually a crime. A shit show when put on paper or to music, is no longer whirling, twirling chaos. Then it’s art. We can take it on the road, and we can travel with it. Have shit show, will travel. Somewhere in all of this, as a token gesture, is the idea that the ugliness of a shit show is supposed to tell us something about the beauty of the world. Like the idea of a lone daisy sprouting from the ruins of a nuclear holocaust.

I’m not the only person no longer innocent nor ignorant to still carry a torch for a shit show, there are many like me, and I’ve come up with a profile of those of us who continue to do so, well past our sell-by dates. We hold back, when we wish we didn’t. We fantasize probably a million times a day about telling different people to fuck off–from the top, down: a big “fuck you” to our spouses and partners, our bosses, our children (remember, no one is safe), our parents, that person in front of us at the supermarket, the police (duh), anybody who infringes upon us, but we don’t. If we are artists ourselves, we fantasize about the comeuppance of our fan base for not acknowledging our work–at least in a way that actually benefits us–and artistic institutions for not acknowledging our genius, or for not acknowledging us at all. We have an innate disdain for any authority over us, yet we grudgingly comply. If we do have an outburst, we work to smooth things over, often at the expense of our feelings of self-worth and dignity. We hate the high personal cost of doing business in this world. To quote the band Alice Donut, we have “revenge fantasies of the impotent.”

The shit-shower, who, from here on, I will refer to as the “pet savage,” we believe makes none of these concessions. And as a reward for his not conceding, we in turn, relax our own expectations of his behavior. He is our “pet” because we would never tolerate his kind of behavior from just anyone, we’ve given him a pass— usually, there has to be some kind of artistic, or philosophical ideology attached to him, as part of his package. In a sense, he is an avatar for the rage inside of us, bubbling just below the surface. “He’s mad as hell,” but the difference between him and us is he’sactively doing something about not taking it anymore. When Hollywood shows him, he is usually represented by a man having an extreme “break”: William Foster in “Falling Down” or Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” He is usually shown alone, because no one else has the guts, and how could he partner with anyone anyway? When nothing and no one is sacred, he has no one to answer to. While we are rooting him on for slipping the ties that so effectively keep us in our places, that keep us conceding– our fear of consequences, and often, our conscience— we forget (or ignore) that these things also do much to keep us human.

Those of us who venerate a shit show also have a low threshold for boredom, and if there is one thing a shit show is, it’s never boring. In the weeks before Gregorits’ arrest for alleged sexual assault on August 3, we were no longer friends on Facebook, but I still read his page every day.

We who venerate a shit show romanticize the ruffian. In the same way that we say “out of the mouths of babes” we want to think that people who have lived outside the boundaries of cooperative society have something to teach us, are enlightened. “Out of the mouths of ruffians.” And often, they do. People will ask me why I devote so much of my writing to the period of my life when I was a drug addict, and the short answer is, the duress of those situations will often lead people to drop their masks and show who they really are. And if not who they really are, then parts of themselves that they normally try hard to conceal. I know I learned much over the period of time when I was drug-addicted and desperate. The Jean Genets, the Herbert Hunckes: they are the enlightened fringe dwellers. But the pet savage takes it one step further with his disregard.

Like me, Gene started off as a venerator of the shit show. A pretender. On his Facebook page, sometime this past July, Gene posted a letter he had sent as a teenager to Film Threat magazine editor Chris Gore, asking Gore if he wanted to see a video of Gene cutting himself. This was an early overture, Gene looking for an in. It was also one of the reasons that I thought that I could relate to Gene so much. I wrote about it in the essay I wrote for Do You Love Me. I had met Gene through the filmmaker Nick Zedd, when we all lived in New York City, in the late 1990’s. I knew Gene had met Nick through the fan letters he had written to him after watching his films. Gene and I are the same age, and I imagined him, like me, growing up feeling alienated and isolated in small town suburbia, dreaming about New York City as some kind of cradle of disaffected creativity. I wrote in the essay that Gene and I had the same teenage pin-ups of transgression, boy/ girl version: Nick Zedd for me, Lydia Lunch for him. I believed Gene and I had the same origins when it came to influence. I still do.

There is a clearly lineaged influence to an act like the one Gene’s life became–a shit show– cutting yourself for public consumption, berating and provoking your audience (usually verbally), attacking women (almost always physically)–Sid Vicious, GG Allin, Jim Goad: the next generation builds on the one before it, and with the pet savage it’s the same. When Gene decided to become a savage, instead of just writing about them and chronicling their bad acts as he’d done with his zine Sex and Guts, he decided that his paradigm would be part GG Allin, part Jim Goad: both of whom made misogyny a big part of their act (I’m conflicted as to whether or not I should use “act” or “art” here) and both of whom did jail time for crimes against women. Ugliness as lineage. It’s hard to imagine aping the uglier, if not the ugliest parts of people; it’s hard to imagine that you might be venerating ugliness when you stop to think about it, so we chalk it up to “persona.” It’s not real, it’s just provocative. It’s not real, it just makes you think. It’s more palatable. More refined. The shit show is an art form that requires its fan base to adopt a coping strategy.

I have always been a girl who was intrigued by ugliness. The more refined, the better. I don’t know why. Maybe it goes back to that profile, and my own feelings of powerlessness. Growing up poor, my parents not talking to each other for years, having to flee the house with my mother and siblings when my dad came home drunk, I’d tune myself out to those 1980’s Geraldo “Satanism in America” specials and read paperbacks from the spinner rack at the supermarket on Ted Bundy. But it was always ugliness from a distance, at arm’s length, and whenever I teased it closer, I would catch myself, and push it back. I wrote letters to notorious killers, like Richard Ramirez, but when he actually wrote me back, I snapped out of it, and didn’t respond. When I’d written to him, I sent him a picture of my chihuahua. I tried to play cute with a serial killer. There was a disconnect there. Some kind of delayed reaction. There still is.

If I’d gone to one of GG Allin’s shows, I’m sure I would have hidden in the back, which still would have been dangerous, because a woman at a shit show is almost always a target. As one pet savage builds on the bad acts of the savage before him, this is the hallmark that has remained non-negotiable. There is no place for women in a shit show. It’s a glass ceiling that has yet to be broken. It may be the distinguishing mark of the paradigm.

In Gene’s zine, Sex and Guts, he interviewed all the outsider art legends. He knew the history of the shit show, and knew that to be lineaged in the same context, he had to build upon their bad acts, or at least remain level with them. Bukowski is the “loving” woman- hater, the gross old man who slaps a girl on the ass when drunk, maybe calls her a “cunt”— but apologies, and maybe flowers and cheap chocolates, when he sobers up, the next day. You meld the bard misogyny of Bukowski, with the caustic anger and learned vocabulary of Jim Goad, with the lunkheaded punk and disorderly of Sid Vicious, with the egotistical, I owe nothing to no one of Nick Zedd, with the brute force “my body is paper” of GG Allin, and you have Gene Gregorits. It’s paint by numbers.

Gene’s medium was what was different. The internet. However I feel about Gene now, however he chose to live his life, however he chose to treat other people, especially women, however much of his real self he gave over to the shit show and to becoming a savage, Gene Gregorits is a good writer. He is such a good writer, that at times, I’ve been jealous of him. Gene’s shit show promulgated the idea that he was living and writing at the height of a mess, a mess so messy he couldn’t get a regular book out of it, only a book of mostly bitingly smart Facebook status updates. When I was at the height of my mess, I could never have written as well he did with so much going on, which led his behavior back to persona. In all of its ugliness, Gene’s talent as a writer is very real. The book of Facebook updates, Fishhook, attests to that. Even at his worst, the intelligence was still there, which just made everything that much more infuriating. Here is a person who had so much verbal articulate talent, but had somewhere along the way decided that his contribution to the shit show, his pet savage pet cause, was going to be his mistreatment of women.

I don’t want to go off on too many tangents, but I will say that Lisa Carver has earnestly shown herself to be a proponent of outsider artists for years. She’s performed beside them, in her travelling punk opera Suckdog, and written about them in her popular zine Rollerderby. I’d be curious to hear how she would report on her experiences as one of the few female artists in a male dominated paradigm. We know what they’ve said about her: in the GG Allin story, she’s the contemporary of his that he wanted to rape and murder on film. In the Gene Gregorits story, she’s the Vice writer who put him on the map to a larger audience, become his friend, and vocal supporter, wrote a book with him, went on tour with him, and is commemorated for her help bringing his work to a larger audience in video tirades where he calls her things not worth repeating. In the Nick Zedd story, she’s two words, according to Nick: “an idiot.”

Even when I was still gawking at Gene’s Facebook page, and starting a new essay about him, I was messaging friends about how uncomfortable his posts on Facebook were making me feel. I even thought about reconciling the uncomfort with more writing about him: I thought about writing about the uncomfort itself, and the conflict I was starting to feel about promoting his work. I wanted so much to believe in the romantic and intellectual promises of the shit show that I saw myself becoming a borderline Gregorits apologist.

On May 29 I wrote to a mutual friend in a Facebook message:

I don’t want to meet up with him or see him again, ever. I don’t want much to do with him at all, but I can’t look away.

On June 4:

I want to delete him so badly, I see through all his persecution complex Lenny Bruce bullshit, but there is also a really gross side of me that wants to see what happens, and finds inspiration in how angry and disgusted he makes me feel. It makes me hate myself and feel like I need to get a fucking life.

It’s disturbing to think I was having conversations like this instead of just saying enough is enough. Instead of just saying, this isn’t fucking art anymore. This isn’t something that I’d accept from any man who didn’t put paint on a canvas, or words on a page, or lyrics to music. It had gone too fucking far. Gene Gregorits wasn’t some anger muse for me. Art had become the excuse.

On May 29th I sent this message to a friend:

My typing is a mess.
What I am trying to say is I hope he doesn’t hurt someone to become a footnote in some anthology about outsider artists in the early part of the 21 century.

In spite of Gene’s devil may fucking care attitude on his Facebook page, I think he cared very much. Much of what was on his Facebook page was contrived, with friends backing up the bullshit he posted behind the scenes. I think this made it easier for some of us to think that most of the ugliness he posted was also contrived. He’d never gone off on me before. His comments on my Facebook page, when he left them, could be a bit leery-eyed: I saw him he do this with other women writers, as if he thought by sexually talking down to us, it would look like he was putting us in “our places,” typical priapic he-man macho-man bullshit. But this was the public Gregorits. In private messages, at least with me, he was always on point. A few weeks before he was arrested, he’d heard that I was working on a list of Lydia Lunch’s ex boyfriends, and though I’d written about him so many other times, with his help and cooperation– this time, he demanded that I show him what I was writing. Ironically enough, there was nothing for me to show. I’d thought about putting him on the list, out of some misplaced sense of…I don’t know…loyalty? But in the end, I’d decided against it. He was demanding to see something from me that didn’t exist. And even more ironically, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and tell him that, so I lied. I lied and told him that he was on the list. Things snowballed from there, with him messaging me that “pissing him off was not a good idea.” The whole exchange was ridiculous, but it was time for a falling out. It was past time. I hadn’t cut the ties myself, and fate seemed to intervene.

Later, I posted this on Facebook:

One of the ugliest things about me is that I can still be seduced by a shit show when it comes to art, and I use “seduced” purposefully. I know better, but still I get sucked in, and I hate it about myself. I fool myself with canned justifications that there is something so, so, necessary about a lack of boundaries and a finger in the face to all societal norms, especially if the person’s words are put together well, or their musical accompaniment is catchy. It’s not a fair representation of who I am, or how I feel. It’s actually grossly hypocritical, and contrary to how I feel. A lack of boundaries does not equal art. Godard was wrong. The first edit is not the first lie. The first edit is often the concession we make for the protection of the human heart.

It’s so funny to me to think I’d lied to Gene to protect his feelings.

Fiona Helmsley’s writing has appeared online at The Rumpus, The Fix, Thought Catalog, xojane, The Hairpin, and Jezebel, and is forthcoming in the Best Sex Writing 2015.