When the editors of Butt magazine asked me to write a foreword to their Book of Butt, I was flattered, even though, according to one reader, whose letter was published in the latest issue. their magazine is “… boring, shitty and elitist… [and] just reinforces the ultra-commodified faux-culture … [with its] elitist celebrity fashion fodder which impressionable gays absorb like a fucking sponge.” Touchy. As a Marxist sympathizer, I had to think about that one for a minute. Is Butt just another commodity fetish item promoting privileged gay icons in the guise of a modest and unprepossessing, albeit pink, package? The bitter (and no doubt avid) reader does make his point, but ultimately his analysis falls short. You can consider the musings that follow my re-Butt-al.Full disclosure: I hadn’t read them all. Not all of them at all. If you’re anything like me, and God help you if you are, my reaction to receiving the latest issue of Butt in the mail would vary, depending on how far and in which direction the mood had swung that week, month, or year, from fever pitched excitement to world-weary indifference. In the latter case, after briefly skimming the publication for any mention of my name, I would ceremoniously toss it into the corner where it would languish for weeks, months, or years amongst unread copies of Artforum (a gift subscription) or, and especially, Vice. So, in order to make an honest and thorough ass-essment, I’ve just now had to plough through all sixteen Butts at one go, which, handily enough, nicely approximated the experience of reading, cover to cover, the book you now hold in your hands. For me, the exercise was more than a little illuminating.
What I discovered is that Butt actually matters, and I’ll tell you why. Butt fills a hole, as tautologous as that may sound. I’m tempted to say that Butt fills the vacuum left by the sad and lamented loss of such historically important magazines as the original Andy Warhol’s Interview, After Dark and the first five years of index (under the editorship of Bob Nichas), but since none of those magazines were explicitly and overtly, capital G gay, I guess it’s more accurate to say that Butt has single-handedly pioneered the notion of a smart, literate and fashionable, conversational gay magazine that isn’t interested in propping up some ideologically proper or even terribly consistent image of what it means to be a homosexual, and that also manages to be dirty. The closest antecedent I can think of is In Touch (the gay jerk off mag of the eighties, edited by the late, great Jim Yousling, not the current egregious entertainment rag of the same name), and Straight To Hell, which both, blessedly, erred more strictly on the pornographic side of things. But truly, in terms of a magazine defining and articulating a particular, unapologetic, quasi-old school gay consciousness, with all the snobbery. self-loathing, narcissism, foppery, peacockery and debauchery that that entails, Butt has, without question, torn us a new one.
What is old school? Butt toys with the concept throughout its sixteen issues by including three basic types of interviewees: those who were around when the old school was still in session, or who even may have had a hand in implementing the curriculum (Peter Berlin, John Waters, AA Bronson, Walter Pfeiffer, Gus Van Sant); those who have purposefully revived the old school as a form of insurrection against the reactionary hoards of bland assimilationists who now control the gay agenda (Rufus Wainwright, Justin Bond, Casey Spooner, Jason Sellards, Christophe Chemin); and those who are too young or too self-obsessed and sexy to know what old school means, but who nonetheless carry on, through some strange process of homosexual osmosis, the tradition of evil queeniness, arch imperiousness and rugged Nellie-ism that is our unnatural birthright (Marcelo Krasilcic, Thomas Engel Hart, Jonny Wooster, Xevi Muntane, Dominic Vine). I don’t have room here for a manifesto on the old school, but the following key words that I noticed obsessively cropping up in the back issues of Butt may point you in the right direction: auto-fellatio, horsehung, gerontophilia, poppers, darkroom, damask, cottaging, dinge queen, rimming, Crisco, cockstrap, jersey, glory hole, terrazzo, amphetamine, hand model, politic, and power bottom. You don’t have to be AA Bronson to get the General Idea. Aside from the profligate and sometimes involuntary misuse of the feminine pronoun, the basic tenets of old school consciousness amount to an appreciation of individual and personal style (Bernhard Willhelm, in the very first interview of the very first issue, speaks of “steering clear of clichéd notions of glamour and beauty”) and the conviction of one’s outsider status, be it the drama of exile (self-imposed or otherwise), the flamboyance of fashion, or a particularly dogged dedication to degeneracy. If this is what you want to call “elitist,” then go ahead. I prefer to think of it as faggotry, pure and simple.
I know what some of you are thinking. What about the advent of the clone, the ascent of the gay skinhead, the onslaught of the bear? How can you achieve personal style in a roomful of men who are dressed and acting identically to you? Look no further than Butt Issue #16 for a critique of the bear phenomenon. (Butt always has a soft spot for the contrarian.) The Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, interviewed by Slava Mogutin, addresses the issue directly: “I’m so sick of these “cute and cuddly” types of gays performing a kind of “masculine” appearance that is obedient to everybody’s super-standardized expectations of gay men.” And further: “I think it’s just an excuse for being fat.” Well somebody had to say it. The question of “performative masculinity” is beyond the scope of this modest introduction, but honey, as Dr. Vaginal Davis would say, you could do your PhD dissertation on the mad issues surrounding gender and identity that crop up in your back issues of Butt. Perhaps Butt co-editor Gert, in Issue 7, gets closest to the heart of the matter when he confesses, in the Marc Jacobs interview, “…for some weird reason a lot of faggots we’ve talked to in Butt started out ballet dancing.” Exactly.
Concerning the bear affair, I position myself squarely on both sides of the fence. I can understand and appreciate Butt’s predisposition to support the cause of the hirsute and zaftig members of the gay community. After all, the editors have, from the very outset, championed the acceptance, particularly in a sexual context, of a variety of body types, eschewing the fascist corporeal regime of the slim and hairless or the muscular and shaved that dominates the tired porn world. On the other hand, isn’t it a case of another conformist clone movement, with its strict codes of conduct and appearance, constituting a new orthodoxy that is both hierarchic and exclusionary, marginalizing in particular, and once again, the “masculinely-challenged”? (Will being a fairy never become fashionable?) Doubtless, the debate will rage on (at Rage, anyway) for years to come, or at least until the next clone image (Roosters? Gay robots?) asserts itself. But in the mean time, in the pages of Butt, a publication whose motto might be “Fats and Femmes, please”, it’s nice to know the chub is always welcome. While we’re on the subject of bears (or is he a wolf?), a brief note on Wolfgang Tillmans. Wolfgang has become the signature photographer for Butt, and it’s easy to see why. His informal and sincere style, dosed with a heavy sprinkling of Teutonic irony, dovetails perfectly with the editorial agenda of Gert and Jop, whose Dutch spirit of empathy mixed with a vague, residually colonialist superiority is kindred. The delicate balance of sincerity and sarcasm evinced by Butt is served well by Wolfgang, who demonstrates the same sensibility in his occasional role as interviewer. Two examples. First, his question (sort of) to Michael Stipe in Butt #9 (after admitting that he’s “never been a declared R.E.M. fan”), to wit: “I’m sure you were really sad to see the Concorde go.” (Stipe: “I was really sad.”) Second, in Butt #13, the Bad Sex Issue, confessed to John Waters, his sexual aversion to people who own CD racks, those “…awful CD shelves that were these freestanding towers made of metal shapes.” Wow. How discriminating can you get? But wait a minute. We’re talking about Butt here, so even their go-to photog isn’t let off the hook. Dissenter Bjarne Melgaard takes Wolfgang to task in Issue #16 for his infamous Attitude cover shot of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, opining, “I mean, when Wofgang Tillmans ends up taking a picture of Tony Blair, there’s just something constitutionally wrong. With all due respect for Tillmans, but what does it mean when gay men so easily portray figures of power and end up giving interviews about how “nice” they were?” Ouch. I for one would pay to read an “interview” of Wolfgang by Bjarne in a future issue of Butt. Or Bjarne by Wolfgang.
Which brings me to another important aspect of the Butt phenomenon: networking. In the tradition of Andy Warhol’s Interview, and later, index, Butt has taken up the idea of pairing up well-known or famous or infamous people with each other for interviews, subverting the long since played out scenario of the obedient entertainment journalist lobbing softball questions to guarded, programmed celebrities. In Butt, intriguing homos are assigned to peers to engage in meaningful conversation in depth, a somewhat revolutionary approach to the modern magazine. Call it meetings with remarkable fags. You get the impression that Gert and Jop started the magazine for the very purpose of meeting somewhat like-minded, iconoclastic and opinionated gay souls who are about to take, or have already taken, their rightful place in the pansy pantheon. What started out as a more fashion fag-based magazine has branched out to include all sorts of sordid sissies: a toilet cleaner who takes home the turds of jocks to put on his spaghetti; a macho cow farmer who loves udders and deals fireworks on the side; a random, boring fag. Now, after sixteen issues of Butt, Butt parties, Butt personals (The Buttheads), and other Butt-happenings have expanded to a variety of cities and countries, creating a whole network of homos who might never have otherwise connected. It’s not a gay mafia, exactly, because mafias are bad and boring. More like a gay trade union, in which everyone has really paid their dues. Going through the issues, it kind of shocked me how many of the people featured in Butt I’ve crossed paths with, and not just the obvious celebs. I mean, I knew Phiiliip before he had four I’s. I knew Louis Crespo when he was still the secretary at Honcho. I knew Terrence Koh when he was asianpunkboy; Slava Mogutin before he ditched poetry and picked up a camera; Ryan McGinley before he was Ryan McGinley. I knew McGinley and Casey Spooner when they were both aspiring male models. I knew AA Bronson when he was still in General Idea; Bruce Benderson before he met The Romanian; Marc Jacobs when he was 18 and I was in a play in New York (allegedly). Wolfgang Tillmans before he was more famous than me; Billy Miller before he relaunched STH; Terry and Andrew Richardson (the honourary fags of Butt) before Narcotics Anonymous. I knew Mark Simpson before his self-imposed exile. I even knew Jason Bond before Kiki met Herb. But now I’m just bragging. Or dating myself. Gert and Jop do claim that J.D.s, the homo punk fanzine I co-edited in the eighties, was one of their influences, but whatever you do, don’t call Butt a fanzine. The ‘zine thing, a specifically North American network of alternative publications that eventually got co-opted by the literati, has little in common with the fashion forward European sensibility of Butt. But J.D.s and Butt do have one thing in common: bringing together disgruntled and non-conformist fags, fetishists, and freaks who avoid fitting into the cookie-cutter mould of the gay orthodoxy by distributing a modest, self-published rag that should ideally be read while sitting on the john. Jeremy Scott asks Gert in Issue #3, “Wouldn’t you want to be able to have that gorgeous, shiny, glossy, full-coloured paper for Butt?” Gert’s terse response: “No.”
The Butt boys have a keen sense of their own position vis-à-vis the checkered (hound-toothed?) history of homosexuality, as evidenced by their smart editorial choices. Several issues are identified as “Faggot Magazine,” reduced to the pithier “Fagazine” for Issue #4. The subtitle of Issue #5 expresses the mission statement best, spelled out in bold capitals across the front cover: International Faggot Magazine For Interesting Homosexuals And The Men Who Love Them. Since the sad corruption of “queer,” the recuperation of the word “faggot” in a cultural context has been long overdue, and Butt wears it well. Combine that with its lurid, sometimes sensationalistic headlines, seemingly sprung from the imagination of a gay Weegee, and you have a return of homosexual identity to the dangerous, the criminal, the outré, and the impertinent. My two favourites: “Garbage Man Finds Bag Full of Flesh-coloured Dildos in Compactor Room” and “Horse Hung Former Singer of Sigue Sigue Sputnik Had His Fantastic Looks Nicked By Gaultier In The Eighties.” It doesn’t get any faggier than that. But finally it’s the editorial permissiveness of Butt, the willingness to take it all up the ass without a metaphorical condom, that distinguishes the magazine from other more demur publications. In what other magazine would you find the interviewee telling the interviewer that the interview is boring? In what other magazine would you find the interviewer succumbing to a butt massage courtesy of the interviewee, and loving it? In what other magazine would you find a Hegelian debate on the merits of ass-fucking in relation to cock size? In no other magazine, that’s what magazine. That’s why history will be kind to Butt.
One final note about gay history. You may notice that Butt is very post-AIDS, in a way, even though, as we all know too well, AIDS never really went away. Whoever kick-started AIDS in the first place – the CIA, God, the Pharmaceutical Industry, Patient Zero, Liberace – you have to admit they did a pretty good job of wrecking our party. Everything was going just swimmingly until the gay plague came along. It would be futile (fruitless?) to attempt to list the countless gay icons that have been lost to the disease since it appeared in the mid eighties, many of whom, in a kinder world, would have probably ended up gracing the pages of Butt. But it’s that very pre-AIDS history, gay interrupted, that Butt seeks to continue, an objective that includes taking some of the fear out of sex and trying to make it fun again. Many of the interviewees in Butt ruminate about the devastation that rampant promiscuity (let’s face it) and AIDS (exacerbated by the shameless disinclination of politicians and the medical establishment alike to find a cure) has reeked on the gay community. It almost makes you want to cry when Peter Berlin, in his interview in Issue #10, reveals that he talks to his friends who’ve died of AIDS as he walks down the streets of San Francisco. (When the interviewer, James Anderson, asks if he’s looked at strangely when he does it, Peter replies, “Well not really because people probably think I’m on the cell phone.”) In the same issue, the artist and performer Jonny Wooster, tells a harrowing story about years of unsafe sex at the Bijou in New York (been there) and subsequently coming down with a nasty case of stage two syphilis (done that), and then confesses to not having as much sex as he used to, “… because the sex I was having… Some of it was good. A lot of it was just messy. Most of it was all over the place, and I can’t fucking remember ninety percent of it.” I think a lot of us can relate. It’s gay men like Wooster and Matt Bernstein, the San Francisco Man Whore interviewed in Issue #8, whose stories I most gravitate to: old school fag survivors who’ve fucked their way through oblivion and are still looking for love. (I’d also like to see those two guys interview each other in a future issue of Butt: they both do wicked horror drag, performing tortured femininity as a form of gay empowerment – another post-grad thesis in the making.) Personally, I like to regard AIDS, and all the other assorted STD’s we’ve come to know and hate, as mere speed bumps. Every chance I get, and this will prove no exception, I like to quote Fran Leibowitz’s famous, chilling line: “AIDS killed all the cool people.” Butt, the new gay magazine of record, is here to remind us: not all of them. Not yet. Bruce LaBruce