Becoming Billy Eye

By Billy Ingram (Greensboro,NC)

When Saul Sufron toddled into Leonard Roth and Company in July 1980 it was a fairly unusual circumstance; he didn’t travel much for business outside his cavernous printing, advertising and publication domain in West Hollywood. Saul wasn’t just effeminate he was conspicuous, almost perfectly round, dressed in a peach stretch shirt and pastel Sansabelts. Square cut diamond-encrusted rings lit up every finger, a dozen thick gold necklaces underscored his deceptively cherubic face.

After Saul conducted his business and climbed back into his 1980 white on white Cadillac Seville for the ride over the hill I pulled one of his invoices. “Data-Boy… 7512 Santa Monica Boulevard.” I’d seen their biweekly black and white pulp magazines stacked by the front doors and along the windows of all the gay bars. I was intrigued. Having moved to Los Angeles from Greensboro a year earlier I was tentatively exploring gay life, nocturnally anyway, over the previous nine months.

I’d never met someone openly homosexual in business before Saul. Other than a couple of actors I worked with from New York no one I had ever known self identified as gay. Before packing my 1972 Dodge Dart Swinger (slant six) for the trip cross country to Los Angeles in 1978 I had been working as an actor in dinner theater musicals down in Birmingham, Alabama. That’s where I lost my virginity to a mostly straight high school gymnast in the back of his girlfriend’s 1973 Mustang GT.

While we were going over Saul Sufron’s work order someone in the office spoke disparagingly about him being a faggot, that wasn’t uncommon, didn’t faze me. But if there was one thing my boss admired it was a money maker and he spoke glowingly of Saul’s ink and paper empire. Located on the eastern edge of West Hollywood between Gardner and Sierra Bonita, Data-Boy was a full service ad agency, magazine publication and printing operation. By chance Saul was soliciting for an advertising designer that week, the direction I wanted to move professionally. I pulled together a portfolio, took a day off, and applied for the job. Saul himself interviewed me then excused himself, returning after being given a sterling recommendation by my employer. The next day I gave my notice to a very puzzled Leonard Roth. Without realizing it, I’d positioned myself at the center of gay life in Los Angeles. I’d only kissed a guy for the first time a few months earlier.

Except for my writing partner Judy Zee, Data-Boy was 100% gay. There wasn’t a straight person in the building unless the phones conked out. As you entered the glass storefront from the street four printing presses rattled and clapped behind a long counter where walk-in clients sat with the person taking orders, usually David Hodgson, Saul Sufron’s right-hand man. Past the presses the darkroom where photostats and negatives were shot was occupied by Bruce, a personable, attractive guy in his twenties who’d had the job for a few years. Behind Bruce’s darkened abyss was a spacious warehouse area opening up on the back alley, a shipping center populated by a transient collection of sketchy individuals likely hired after a night of sex with someone in the building.

The second floor housed executive and sales offices along with a large bullpen where two typesetters and four artists tables were set up to handle production. As the Art Director of Data-Boy Advertising my clients consisted of dance palaces Odyssey 1 and Studio One in West Hollywood, fern bar The Blue Parrot, pick up joints like Detour and Jungle in Silver Lake, Apache Territory and Oil Can Harry’s in the Valley, Ripples in Long Beach, and half a dozen sex clubs around Southern California. And then there were other, less respectable businesses.

I worked directly for and with Saul. We really clicked. He liked my work, crude as it was, and I enjoyed the challenge. His clients expected sexually provocative imagery coupled with a middle school mind set. Perfect for me. Saul’s considerable weight didn’t seem to impede his movement or his enjoyment of life. He loved to laugh and trade insults, was quick-witted, and never sleazy or inappropriate with me. He enjoyed sharing stories from his life; the name of the magazine he launched in 1968 came from his Yiddish mother encouraging him with, “Dat a boy.”

That was a year after The Advocate began as a newsletter following the brutally violent 1967 New Year’s Eve police raid on the Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake, sparking a subsequent melee that poured out onto Sunset Boulevard. That event pre-dated New York’s Stonewall Riots by some two years. The two guys arrested and convicted as sex offenders for kissing in the back of the bar took their case all the way to the Supreme Court where the justices refused to rule on whether two men—or by extension two women—had a constitutional right to kiss in public. Ipso facto, they didn’t. The authorities were well within their rights to destroy a person’s life merely because he or she was sharing an intimate moment in a darkened nightclub.

It seemed all the older guys had an alter ego, or more likely a drag persona. It was a defiant act in the sixties and seventies, when a man dressing as a woman in L.A. could be prosecuted for the crime of Impersonation, basically a charge of Identity Theft with no intended victim. Saul’s campy Fat Shirley persona was known far and wide as a seemingly prim, proper dowager armed with a wicked acid tongue. You had to tread carefully when Saul was in one of his “Fat Shirley moods” at work, his normally comical taunts would take on a truly vicious tone. His venomous barbs were primarily aimed at the magazine’s competition whenever they dared cross the threshold for a Papal visit. He absolutely despised upstart Buck Rogers, publisher of an attractive pocket-sized monthly calendar of events that arrived on the scene in 1980. Saul and a character named Nasty Nan, aka Jerry Cass from Compass magazine, would inevitably catfight, in a somewhat good-natured way, before settling down to business. There was an edge of bitterness to it all. Saul saw every other local gay publication as jumping his train, although he was making good money preparing client ads for them.

Every few months, it seemed, poor Saul found himself on the wrong end of a handgun in his own home or betrayed by someone close for the filthy lucre he flashed. By afternoon he’d laugh it off, re-enveloped in ostentatious gold, new chunky glittering nuggets on his fingers. He was getting more sex than I was, but it was costing him a fortune.

The indispensable point person for the entire operation was David Hodgson, a jovial, highly competent, hail-fellow-well-met. In his mid-thirties, David was sternly gregarious, loyal to Saul, and forward thinking. He also shared Saul’s passion for flashy jewelry. What David really loved was regaling the art room with hair raising tales of his latest sexual conquests. A story stuck with me. One morning after a night of wild promiscuity David noticed his diamond signet ring was missing. Later, at work, he received a phone call. The guy he had sex with observed something shining in his morning dump. It was David’s ring.

As he related his grotesquely lurid sexcapades David relished the look on my face, knowing full well I would be startled by the concept of fisting or defecating on someone’s face for sexual gratification. I came from a conservative Southern background, where there was virtually no gay life. I wasn’t a virgin, having been involved in a couple of short term sexual relationships with straight guys, my smooth moves were talking about pussy and opening beers.

On the very last moment of the seventh day Our Heavenly Father stitched the words ‘nellie’ and ‘queen’ together, crafting the mold for Gus, the company comptroller. Middle aged, rod up the ass, persnickety—think Clifton Webb as Mr. Belvedere—Gus always greeted me with a lewd comment in the mornings, coupled with a fixed stare downward. In return he got a snide remark about the ill-fitting wig that lay precariously atop his full head of hair. One morning I brought him a can of Love My Carpet shampoo, I thought Saul and David would bust a gut.

Gus was an ordained minister, the mail order kind, with a wayward flock parading up and down the boulevard just outside the front door. In 1980 Santa Monica Boulevard from Highland to La Cienega was a pageant of boys cross-purposing their cocks as a primitive ATM card—inserted into the proper slot, out came the cash. Dozens of young guys and older men wandered the blocks, leaning against light poles, most for money, some just for kicks. For twenty dollars or less you could spend time with the latest in a long lineage of mostly straight guys who washed in and out of L.A. via the Greyhound bus station on Vine near Sunset. A guitar was the first thing they pawned, their cock was the last.

Walking down the boulevard to lunch cars would slow and pull over in front of me, wide-eyed drivers leering with the most disturbing looks. It was very confusing for someone who thought of himself as too skinny and unattractive. Truth to tell my move to L.A. was an act of suicide, I wanted to be done with this world. So why not throw everything to the wind, do something that offered life a chance? I could always kill myself later if things got worse so I drove as far away as possible. Hollywood sounded like fun so I ended up there.

Life opened like a flower. Between the clubs and the boulevard outside I was treated like the last rock salt shrimp on a Chinese buffet. West Hollywood was bristling with sexual energy. That was true long before I arrived in 1979 but, as the older guys informed me, it was only a few years earlier when L.A. Sheriffs routinely raided gay bars, beating and arresting faggots just for congregating. If you put your hand anywhere on another man in a suspected gay bar you could be hauled off to jail by one of the numerous undercover cops trolling the nightclubs. The LAPD eagerly participated in the 1976 Christopher Street West Parade, no doubt those beaten and detained for no good reason wished they hadn’t. That wanton violence and suppression by law enforcement didn’t cease after gays gained a greater visibility, it just moved further east where law abiding Punk rockers were rousted out of the clubs into a nightstick swinging blue gauntlet.

I occupied one of four drafting tables in the back of a large room on the second floor of Data-Boy, home to two busy typesetters and a row of file photos with two decades of clip art books that arrived monthly containing illustrations of everyday people engaged in ordinary activities. I had an endless need for photos of young, smooth chested guys with no shirts and ripped jeans so clip art was largely useless.

Michael Panknin, positioned directly ahead of my desk, became my best friend. He could barely contain his glee at how unknowing I was about the gay scene and life on the fringes. We never hooked up or even danced around it, you don’t shit where you eat, but I was experiencing things for the first time that he’d encountered a decade earlier hanging out on Sunset Boulevard at age fifteen, rolling with the glam rock star groupies. Their little skinny gay friend was no threat so Michael found himself partying at the Chateau Marmount with Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, all the hot bands when they were in Los Angeles, getting way too fucked up way too early in life.

A couple of months younger than I was, he referred to himself as my “Big Sister.” Michael counseled me on who to trust, what things really meant, in general cautioning me from travelling down some slippery slopes he’d found himself at the bottom of. I was feeling my way blindly before I met Michael. I’d never had a drink until just a few months before, hanging out in bars kinda required it. I would order a “Bacardi and Coke light on the rum” and the bartenders at The Blue Parrot or The Lodge in the Valley would load the glass with liquor.

In 1980 I took pretty much any drug offered—LSD, Black Beauties, mushrooms, but especially Quaaludes and MDA. On occasion my date and I would buy cocaine in the parking lot at Chasen’s, the world-famous West Hollywood eatery that dated back to the 1930s when Walt Disney, Marilyn Monroe, W.C. Fields, James Cagney and Clark Gable commanded the primo booths. By 1981 the joint had lost some of its luster but was still host to luminaries like Warren Beatty, Jimmy Stewart and Ronald and Nancy Reagan (who got engaged there). This was not the preferred way to buy blow, you had to pay full price, what the movie stars paid, and it wasn’t very pure. But it was quick and easy. We also copped from the home of a famous TV actor in Beverly Hills, James Farentino, who starred in a few high profile network TV series in the 1970s.

I sorely missed Quaaludes after they were phased out in 1982, myriad insecurities and a lifetime of self-loathing melted away in a fingertip tingling whoosh. I went home with a couple of guys in the Valley after they passed over a Rorer 714 at the In Touch Lounge, while we frolicked in bed they tossed around twenty-five bundles of hundred dollar bills stacked $10,000 each. They told me the cash came from selling a house, even I wasn’t that fucking naive, but having sex with $250,000 in bed is almost as fun as Amyl Nitrate. In the morning the guys showed me a cache of Quaaludes, thousands of them, hoarded for the impending prohibition. Into the 1990s I heard anecdotes about someone still possessing a stash of Quaaludes but never met the mythological sons of bitches.

Michael Panknin’s Quaalude usage was much more extreme than mine. Likely related to the acne scars he felt sapped his potential, Michael developed a bad habit of downing a handful of ‘ludes and losing himself somewhere public, passed out at the mercy of whomever dragged him home or discovered him slumped in a corner. With Valley of the Dolls as his primer, Michael’s pill-popping performance art could be annoying, like at Magic Mountain when he planked the park’s concrete floor fifteen minutes after we got there. More than once, fucked up on the way home from the bars late at night, he would send his VW Bug careening like a launched pinball into a half dozen cars lined along Kester Avenue in North Hollywood. Thankfully Michael beat back those demons, for the most part, a year later. Or maybe he just ran out of Quaaludes like the rest of us.

 

Covering the Punk Scene

 

Data-Boy magazine was unique in that it had two front covers, both sold as advertisements. There was Southern California (L.A., Orange County, San Diego, and Palm Springs) on one side and, when you flipped the mag around and upside down, you had the San Francisco section. The Northern California end was about a third of the magazine reaching into places like The Century Theater, PS Restaurant, Hotel Casa Loma, Cabaret, Queen Mary’s, and the Back Lot and After Dark in Monterey. Lee Hartgrave was the SF editor.

I was happy to pitch in late on Tuesday nights when the magazine went to bed, eventually designing the covers for most issues. It was a great crew. Although the masthead listed contributors like Midnight Cowboy, Jim Edmunds, Marc Kessler, Len Richmond and Bo Tagg by the spring of 1980 the only regular column on the So Cal side in the fall of 1980 was Rob Steven’s superlative theater reviews. He hosted a yearly best-of awards that was popular in those circles. Other than that, no thought at all was going into the reading matter on the L.A. side. That seemed like such a waste to me, so why not pollute the pages with my own nonsense? I’d always wanted to try writing but I didn’t know much about anything other than science fiction and comic books. Hardly hot topics at the bathhouses.

With a passionately eclectic musical taste and penchant for the bizarre our typesetter Judy Zander engaged everyone in the room in spirited conversations about new music, we shared a passion for the Punk and New Wave sounds. Judy was familiar with many of the high energy live bands banging away in dozens of disparate watering holes all over Los Angeles County and beyond, something I knew very little about. I hung around the ragtag Downtown/East L.A. music scene, the evolving post-punk underground sound from dives like The Brave Dog and Al’s Bar downtown, Hollywood’s Troubadour, and the Central on Sunset where the Viper Room is today. Even the Improv on Melrose was booking bands in 1980, they were a bigger draw than Jay Leno.

In the early eighties, young people in Los Angeles were crowding makeshift clubs to see up and coming bands. Live original music that pushed the boundaries drew the crowds, not DJs, comedians or cover bands. I asked Judy, “Why don’t you write a music column for the magazine? They’re obviously starving for reading material.” Judy wasn’t particularly interested in taking on more responsibility for no pay, why would she? I convinced her to do it by promising to write half the column, that way if she didn’t feel like doing it she didn’t have to.

Everyone who contributed to the gay publications did so under an alias. It wasn’t safe professionally to be out in 1980, even in LA. I honestly don’t know if that was a consideration when Judy chose Judy Zee as her nom de plume but I became Billy Eye because it seemed to go perfectly with that. First order of business for my new career as a music critic—figure out the difference between the bass and the guitar.

Every other week, stoned on a Sunday afternoon, I’d put the headphones on with Ultravox, The Psychedelic Furs, Siouxsie and the Banshees or Brian Eno blaring, slide into my Billy Eye mind-set and aimed the pen wherever it wanted to go. It became apparent early on that we had readers; letters came addressed to the music column and this greatly impressed editor Dave Hodgson. I don’t think that had happened before. Record albums arrived along with press kits, EPs, guest passes and other perks. I met life long friends through the rock column that I never would have encountered otherwise, surrounded by vital, creative people that followed dark hallways in pursuit of love, art and music. I found myself covering the earliest gigs for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Minutemen, Social Distortion, Fishbone, Psi Con (Jane’s Addiction) and so many other seminal bands.

Billy Eye pay at the door? You had to be kidding! On the permanent guest list at the Starwood, comped by the bands I was reviewing at The Whisky a Go-Go, and Roxy, breezing past the lines at Probe where one late night I observed Wayland Flowers and Madame alone in a corner talking to themselves. About me. Liasoning with The Starwood allowed me to experience some amazing shows, not the least of which was when diva Grace Jones jumped into the crowd and assaulted an audience member in the middle of her first set. Of course we had to stay for the second show where another violent outburst occurred. The Starwood was the only major Hollywood club that regularly booked Punk shows in 1980 but neighbors petitioned the city fed up over mohawked patrons urinating, fighting, screwing and dealing drugs on their front lawns. That led to the raucous venue being shuttered not long after Billy Eye started writing.

That was the catalyst for Starwood owner Eddie Nash arriving in Saul’s office one afternoon. Of Middle Eastern decent, Nash black holed the room when he entered alongside his omnipresent colossal bodyguard. He was LA’s nightclub king with numerous businesses all around the county including gay establishments Odyssey 1 on Beverly and The Seven Seas on Hollywood Boulevard. The story I heard was that Eddie operated a hot dog cart outside of The Seven Seas, then one day, overnight, he owned the entire club. Wink wink nudge nudge. Whether that was true or not, unbeknownst to me Nash was the most notorious drug dealing gangster in the country. The way things worked in L.A. back then—he was untouchable by law enforcement.

Since The Starwood lost their cabaret license Eddie was there to discuss the possibility of a gay bar in the space. Saul didn’t think it would go, “The area is too saturated already, honey.” For whatever reason they asked what I thought. “There are no windows, perfect for what it is now, but too imposing for a gay place. Unless it’s a sex club.” The look on Eddie’s face told me to exit the room.

Nash’s m.o., I learned later, was to torch the place rather than just lock the doors but he was determined to fight the city on this, maybe because his office was in the building. The Starwood did reopen in spurts before he gave up, an empty anchor sat on Santa Monica and Crescent Heights for years before and after an unsuccessful relaunch as Club Hollywood. I always felt a pang when I attended music industry showcases there when it was rented by the day for record companies to debut an artist.

Twenty years later, watching the movie Wonderland, I was shocked to realize it was about our former client Eddie Nash. I don’t remember him referring to himself as “The Nash,” as he was depicted doing in the film, but it was just four months before his Data-Boy office visit that some drug addicts entered Nash’s home, he was humiliated and his bodyguard was left nursing a gunshot wound. The thieves took off with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cocaine, jewelry and cash but had precious little time to enjoy it all.

In retaliation (it was alleged) Nash, his bodyguard, and porn star John C. Holmes entered a hillside split level rental overlooking Wonderland Drive and bludgeoned four people to death with a threaded lead pipe. A fifth victim survived the attack, barely. Known as “The Wonderland Murders” or “The Four on the Floor” it remains one of the bloodiest crime scenes in the history of a city resplendent in blood and gore. Or so Los Angeles detectives and prosecutors contend; I wasn’t there, I couldn’t tell you. My confrontation with Eddie Nash came years later.

 

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Excerpted from the memoir PUNK. Billy Eye currently writes a monthly column for O.Henry magazine.
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