[29 May 2009]
“How much money are you looking for?” I asked the man with the high nasal voice.
“Well, Rodger, that’s the thing,” he began, words escaping his throat with the trembling unease of bad notes from a rusty accordion. “I’m really in a bad place right now. I had to have surgery to remove a bullet that’s been lodged near the base of my spine for a long time.”
“How did that happen?” I cradled the telephone receiver between my left shoulder and ear, carefully pouring a shot of rum into a white coffee mug permanently stained by acidic instant coffee.
“Someone shot me five times the day after I got out of the Federal witness protection program in 1990; I turned state’s evidence against Eddie Nash for the L.A. District Attorney.”
As co-writer and principal interviewer for the award-winning feature documentary Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes, I knew more than I ever wanted to know about the man reputed to be L.A.’s most dangerous underworld figure.
Eddie Nash, aka Adel Gharib Nasrallah, was a Palestinian immigrant who built a small but formidable empire in the drug-fueled ‘80s, a vast, interconnected network of trendy Los Angeles nightclubs and hotspots: the Starwood Club and Soul’d Out in West Hollywood, the Paradise Ballroom, the Seven Seas, Ali Baba’s and the Kit Kat strip club, to name a few. Nash ran narcotics out of his clubs and he was reputed to be a major player in the lucrative arson-for-profit racket.
Since 1981, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office had been trying in vain to nail Nash for the notorious, high-profile Wonderland murders, the bloody bludgeoning deaths of four mid-level cocaine dealers, the possible result of the robbery of Nash’s home two days before the slayings at 8763 Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon. A key player in the incident, porn icon John Holmes, was acquitted of the murders, and the well-connected Eddie Nash also eluded prosecution.
In 1990, Eddie Nash was tried in California state court for planning the Wonderland murders; emerging as a pivotal witness in the state prosecution of Nash was Scott Thorson, the one-time boy toy of flamboyant entertainer Liberace. Thorson became an instant tabloid and mainstream press celebrity in 1982 when he filed a $133 million palimony suit against his former lover and companion of five years.
Thorson and Liberace settled out of court in 1986 for $95,000, two cars, and two pet dogs, reflecting a common trajectory in Thorson’s life: Selling dirty laundry for a quick buck or anything else he can get out of the deal; this should not, however, imply that Scott Thorson is a shakedown artist. He is a survivalist, living, as the old Arabic saying goes, “close to the ground”, getting by the only way he knows how without punching a time clock.
The former Las Vegas veterinary assistant entered adulthood earlier than most, accepting a job in 1976 as companion and personal assistant to one of the world’s most popular and wealthiest entertainers. Scott was just 16-years-old, plucked from obscurity into a lavish world of Lear jets, Rolls-Royces, multi-million dollar mansions, and ostentatious jewelry.
The sloth of a hedonistic, jet-setting lifestyle soon extracted a toll on the young blonde Adonis. He put on weight. His features sagged. Liberace had the perfect solution to return the spring to Scott’s stride: Thorson would undergo facial reconstruction surgery to resemble the son that Liberace never had. But the surgeries proved to be a nightmare. (The doctor was a chronic alcoholic who would later shoot himself to death.)
After the botched facial alterations were complete, the surgeon placed Scott on the so-called Hollywood Diet: cocaine, Quaaludes, Biphetamine, and Demerol, leaving Scott not only hopelessly hooked on painkillers for the duration of his life, but also with a chronic case of Hepatitis C, the result of a series of blood transfusions required for the facial reconstruction.
In 1987 Thorson wrote a book, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, about his life with Liberace. Shortly before the book was released, just as he was about to embark on a nationwide publicity jaunt, the FBI appeared and whisked Thorson away into the witness protection program for his testimony against Eddie Nash in the state’s prosecution of the mobster for the Wonderland murders. The book’s publisher, in the interim, declared bankruptcy and Scott never laid his fingertips on a dime from the slim handful of units that sold.
And so here was Scott Thorson in the year 2004, calling yours truly from his home in Falmuth, Maine, flat broke and disabled, in chronic, horrendous pain from a botched murder attempt and an even more botched plastic surgery mandated by a demented and narcissistic celebrity, hoping that I would serve as his conduit for another lucrative laundry airing.
“Our mutual friend tells me that you’re the man,” Thorson said. “He said that if you can’t sell this story, no one can.”
A brief survey of my bleak surroundings said to the casual observer that the business of selling stories had not been kind to me of late. Divorced for several years, my home and work quarters was a comfortable residential hotel in the L.A. bedroom community of Glendale; the kitchen was comprised of a microwave atop a dresser and a mini-fridge next to my cheap assemble-it-yourself desk. Dishes were washed in the bathroom sink and rinsed in the bath tub.
I had no tangible assets to speak of, no credit cards, no personal vehicle, no savings account, and maybe a hundred bucks in my checking account. As a freelance writer for over ten years, I had hit a bad stretch of road. The heyday of the freelancer was coming to an end—- the buck-a-word magazine assignments had become as fossilized as the prehistoric remains in the La Brea Tar Pits.
“This story is really, really hot, Rodger,” Thorson continued in his nasal whine. “But I need a lot of money. I’m totally tapped out after paying for the spinal surgery and the IRS has put a lien on my bank account. I’m really fucked.”
“How much money are you looking for, Scott?” I asked again, my irritation clearly palpable at this point. The mere idea of dodging into the ghetto of tabloids for a quick cash infusion represented a new personal low for me, but living “off the grid” often means making harsh ethical and moral decisions with little or no time to think, not with the landlord impatiently knocking at the door. “You have to set a price. How much do you want for the story?”
Thorson suggested a low four-figure sum and I laughed. “Scott, if your story checks out, that sum would be my finders fee. You would be getting three times that much, providing you pass a lie detector test.”
“Of course I would pass a lie detector test,” Thorson promised enthusiastically.
“I believe you.”
Songs of the Doomed
Long before November 2008, when a panicked U.S. Congress scrambled for emergency measures to bail out fiscally damaged automobile and financial services giants, those who toiled in the freelance sector of the arts and entertainment community knew that an apocalypse was at hand.
Even in a sunny economic climate the daily struggles of a freelance writer are far from easy and recommended only to those with a thick skin and an easy tolerance for overflowing ashtrays, spilled coffee, impossible deadlines, past due notices from landlords and bill collectors, and an eternally rumbling gut from hunger or an ulcer or both – not to mention the punishing hangovers in the early years before the doctors told you to quit drinking if you care to preserve your liver.
In Depression 2.0: Creative Strategies for Tough Economic Times, author Cletus Nelson accurately describes the plight of those who live off the nine-to-five grid:
Successful freelancing requires energy and dedication. Some work assignments, especially if you’re working under a deadline, may prove more exhausting than a regular full-time job, and working weekends is not uncommon. Along with the tension-filled weeks when you’re struggling with a deadline, there may be dry periods when you can’t seem to land work. Living in the present won’t be an option. Once you’ve completed a project, no matter how tired you might be, you will need to redouble your energies and start looking for new assignments. “The check is in the mail” will become a familiar refrain, as freelancers often aren’t paid on time and sometimes will wait weeks or even months before payment is received.
Economists tell us that the major recession we are currently weathering began in December 2007. But back in the year 2000, when Cletus Nelson and I were enjoying success as freelance feature contributors to Eye magazine (a now defunct fringe and pop culture journal) and Michel Berandi’s now-defunct underground newspaper, Panik, there were already signs of trouble on the horizon.
The Ingram Book Group, the world’s largest wholesale distributor of book products since 1964, placed impossible in-store sales demands on magazines like Eye, expecting small arts and culture rags to rack up impossible sales if they were to stay in mass circulation on news stands, book stores and other retail outlets. Unable to keep pace with the demands, magazines such as Eye were forced to close shop and cease operations; some took their magazines and content online, others simply vanished and gave up on publishing altogether.
When Eye magazine folded, my colleague Cletus was fortunate to have a day job to fall back on. I stayed independent, picking up a plush freelance job with E Commerce Business magazine, a subsidiary of the publishing behemoth Cahners Business Information. It was through my trade journalism work at E Commerce, poring over troubling business plans and even more disturbing public financial statements of upstart dot coms, that I realized the US economy had its neck in a hangman’s noose. If Silicon Valley was the face of the New Economy, as so many of us were led to believe, then we were whistling songs of the doomed.
Like the wild and speculative internet entrepreneurs that they lavished so much praise upon, E Commerce Business magazine abruptly went belly up in 2001. Over time, the freelance market became an ever-tightening coil with fewer and fewer jobs available, a dire situation that has become exacerbated in the last few years by severe editorial downsizing at major metropolitan dailies and magazines with national and international distribution.
Liberace & Thorson
The Man with Liberace’s Face
The story that Scott Thorson offered for sale that April afternoon in 2004 was, as expected, a sordid tale, this one involving his ongoing love affair in the ‘80s with a pop music superstar long-rumored to be gay. I briefly flirted with the notion of writing the article myself, weaving the True Confessions element into a profile of Thorson and his peripatetic outlaw lifestyle that I would title The Man with Liberace’s Face.
“Just sell the damn story to the National Enquirer,” a colleague suggested. “It’s a quicker sale and the money will be better.”
I was provided by another colleague, a brand name internet gossip columnist, with a solid and reliable contact at American Media, the parent company of supermarket tabloid the National Enquirer. (Thorson, I would later learn, had brokered a $30,000 deal with the Enquirer in 1988 for a tell-all about his five year affair with Liberace, who died at the age of 67 in 1987 due to complications from AIDS).
In the interest of brevity, let it be said that I have negotiated apartment leases that were more complicated than the deal with American Media for Scott Thorson’s celebrity mud slinging. I was offered a rate to carry back for Scott’s approval and the finder’s fee that American Media offered me, for bringing them the tawdry story was more than enough to compensate for my recent financial losses in the freelance sector.
American Media dispatched a polygraph expert to Falmuth, Maine, within days of my initial phone call to their reporter. Scott passed not one but three polygraph tests, more than enough for the publishing company to trust the veracity of his story, which ran a few short weeks later as a front page banner headline.
“I lost all the money, Rodger,” Scott wept into the telephone one morning just days after his Enquirer confession hit supermarket news stands. He had recently filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, he explained, and the government seized his proceeds from the Enquirer sale mere moments after he deposited the check into his personal account – this is what happens when the chemicals that fuel greed, bad luck, and stupidity are mixed in the same test tube.
Thorson was feral. He had no resources to fall back on after his brief windfall crumbled to dust. He began phoning me several times a day, often under the influence of God- knows-what narcotics that slurred his speech so badly he sounded like a drunken drag queen doing a bad impression of Liberace. Scott offered me more mud to sell about forgotten Las Vegas entertainers and yesterday’s movie and TV stars, most of the stories involving sexual scandal of one shape or form, trivia I never wanted to know, trivia I carry in my head to this day like a lingering hangover five years after the party that, in retrospect, didn’t seem like a good idea at the time anyway.
The windfall that I had enjoyed from the Enquirer sale was a mirage, a brief stalling of an inevitable looming disaster, not unlike governments bailing out ailing financial institutions doomed to fail.
From William Wellman’s Heroes for Sale
A Deep Sense of Regret
Depression 2.0 is the fourth book in Process Media’s Self-Reliance series, “created to help urbanites make smart choices to live sustainably in the twenty-first century.” From the introduction by Cletus Nelson:
It’s hard not to look back on the last few years without a deep sense of regret. As both a nation and a people, we’ve maxed out our credit cards, mortgaged ourselves to the hilt, and never quite gotten around to saving any money. And there was no shortage of willing enablers. When our mailboxes weren’t stuffed with credit card offers, shady mortgage brokers were cold-calling us at dinner time, offering us six-figure loans with no money down, or a tantalizing home equity line of credit. In this gilded, get-it-now atmosphere, recessions were never an option; Wall Street bankers could always count on the Federal Reserve to open up the money spigots and keep the party going … In short, we’ve been living beyond our means far too long, and now the bubble has burst. This book concerns itself with how we can cope with the painful national hangover that we can call Depression 2.0.
At first blush, a book on “creative strategies for tough economic times” seems like an odd choice for an L.A.-based journalist as iconoclastic as Nelson; he has written extensively for the political journal LewRockwell.com, which supports an “anti-state, anti-war, pro-market” school of thought. Disinfo.com and DrugWar.com are also frequent depositories of Nelson’s free-thinking journalism, and in 2004 he wrote (with Michael Simmons) the book, The Future is Now, a short illustrated history of the trailblazing Detroit rock firebrands, the MC5.
At its core, however, Depression 2.0—with chapters on everything from the perils of bankruptcy to home energy solutions to tips for living on the street when you have no shelter—is consistent with his unshakeable belief that government is not our friend, especially in these trying times.
“I hope Depression 2.0 provides readers with the knowledge and the inspiration to become more creative and self-reliant,” Nelson tells me. “The current financial crisis, Hurricane Katrina, and other recent events show that we can’t always depend on large government agencies and financial institutions to ensure our safety or to safeguard our wealth. Yet we can each develop the survival skills and build the vital social networks that allowed previous generations to surmount periods of economic uncertainty.”
A point Nelson relentlessly brings home in the book is that America’s most valuable resource is our creativity.
“We have an almost inborn tendency to tinker and innovate when we grow dissatisfied with outdated systems,” Nelson explains. “I have to say that Adam (Parfrey) and Jodi (Wille) at Process Media have been really out front on this issue. The Self-Reliance series of books is a great resource for people interested in becoming more resilient and moving towards a more sustainable way of living.”
Nelson completed his book in March 2009, a mere four months after it was acknowledged by leading economists that the U.S. and much of the world were in the grip of a crippling recession. I asked Nelson what makes him so prescient, what were the economic indicators he was observing that told him a book such as Depression 2.0 was sorely needed right now? Nelson shifts the credit for “Nostradamus-like powers” to publisher Adam Parfrey, whose Apocalypse Culture anthologies for Feral House and Amok Press have enjoyed popular fringe success.
“Believe it or not,” Nelson says with a laugh, “Adam suggested the book to me in December of 2007. The Northern Rock fiasco (a British bank taken into state ownership in 2008) really shook his faith in the global financial system, and his assumption that the U.S. was on the brink of a serious meltdown proved eerily correct.”
“I’d like to tell you that there was one single revelatory moment when I said ‘That’s it, we’re screwed’ but it was more of a cumulative process,” Nelson continues. “Reading a great deal of world history did provide some insights. Empires that launch costly wars, go deeply into debt, and debase the currency generally don’t have a very long shelf life.”
In terms of Depression 2.0 finding a niche in the marketplace, Nelson points out that the vast majority of books that deal with surviving a financial crisis are often fixated on how the reader can “cash in” by following some “crash-proof” investment strategy.
“While these titles are certainly helpful,” Nelson says, “they often neglect to address the day-to-day crises that the average consumer might face. Going long on Canadian Natural Gas isn’t exactly pertinent to someone who has just been laid off and can’t pay his or her rent. We really wanted to try a new approach that addresses some of these more realistic challenges. While we do discuss investment possibilities, it’s not the focus of the book. I like to think that people of all income levels will run across some useful information in the book.”
Photo (partial) by Chafin found on Panoramio.com
Sunday in Kerouac Alley
It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon in San Francisco in May 2007, sweater weather but not cold. Scott Thorson was long in my past by then; although I had secured a signed Consent and Release form for the rights to his life story in May of 2004, the ineluctable workings of economic law prevented me from turning it into a payday or a worthwhile project.
In the middle of 2006, I was forced to give up a freelance trade magazine gig when the magazine converted from a “payment upon acceptance” policy to payment deferred until one month after publication. The rock began rolling downhill and when it came to a rest I found myself far from Los Angeles, ensconced in a cramped residential hotel on Columbus Avenue, rumored to have once been a bordello at some point in its long history, above Molinari’s Delicatessen in the bohemian enclave of North Beach. The room had no cooking facilities, faulty electricity and heating, communal bathrooms and showers down the hall, and overlooked Kenneth Rexroth Alley, a notorious breeding ground for rats.
Unable to face day-to-day life in an 11x11 room with unreliable electricity, I found myself a home for the long mornings and afternoons: the world-famous Vesuvio bar, just across Jack Kerouac Alley from the equally famed City Lights Book Store. I integrated well into the community of writers and poets and artists and musicians, each and every one of them with one foot in the gutter and the other on a banana peel.
An interesting thing happens to people forced into abject poverty, when one is no longer living day-to-day but often literally hour-to-hour: You learn to live not just by your wits but by a sense of ethics you never knew you had. Your empathy meter reads very high. If you can afford to buy a beer or a glass of wine for the broke, depressed, melancholic artist sitting next to you at the bar, you do it without flinching and next time he or she is in the black they will remember the kindness and do the same for you.
In the lower depths you meet people you are bound to never forget, people who would truly take a bullet for you, all they ask in return is that you do the same for them. It’s an unwritten policy that one learns fairly fast.
On that Sunday afternoon in May I slipped from my usual perch at the bar and stepped outside and into Jack Kerouac Alley for a smoke. Along comes a group of tourists down Columbus Avenue past City Lights, three plump and matronly women in their late 50s accompanied by an adorable ten-year-old little girl.
“Oh, look,” one of the matrons exclaimed, “this is Vesuvio, the bar I was telling you about, the one that Jack Kerouac used to go to in the Fifties.”
The other matrons joined their friend in peering through the windows. The momentarily unattended little girl began dancing and skipping on the faux marble plaque on the sidewalk that bears Jack Kerouac’s name. As she bounced and jumped, a small, neatly folded cache of one dollar bills fell out of the band of her ankle-length Mickey Mouse socks, landing neatly upon Kerouac’s name in gold lettering.
She didn’t notice.
The little girl continued skipping and jumping to her unknown financial loss. I eyed the money. Three or four bucks at best. In a few moments they would wander on down the sidewalk and I would just casually walk over and swoop up my new-found cash. Things were very tight, after all, and I wasn’t certain where money for dinner was coming from that night. I was certain that Kerouac would have taken the money.
But then it dawned on me that for a little girl, three or four bucks is a fortune. She would burst into tears the next time she proudly reached into her sock to pay for a tourist trinket only to discover that she lost her money. The matrons would probably scold her and only begrudgingly agree to pay for her toy after a lecture on responsibility.
Jesus. Some days a guy can’t win.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said to the nearest matron, “the little girl dropped her money on the sidewalk.”
She exclaimed profuse thanks and instructed the little girl – her name was Rachel – to pick up her money in a not-so-polite voice.
“And say thank you to the man, too,” she growled. “He could’ve just said nothing and swooped in and took your money as soon as you were down the street.”
Learning the Hard Way
In December 2008 Scott Thorson made a plea deal with the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office in California. He admitted to possessing methamphetamine and driving under the influence in August 2008, and possessing methamphetamine for sale in March of 2008. He also pled guilty to multiple theft charges: $827.60 in groceries from an Albertson’s Market in Palm Springs in April 2007; $171.21 in groceries from a Stater Brothers store in La Quinta in July 2007; and a theft from a La Quinta Target store in December 2006.
In exchange for his plea, the Riverside D.A.’s Office reduced the charges to meth possession with intent to sell and one charge of theft from a hardware store incident in California’s Coachella Valley. He will serve two years in California state prison.
Scott Thorson learned the hard way that some days a guy can’t win.
Life in prison will not be easy for Scott, not with a lifelong reputation as a seller of secrets, a man who trades intimacies for whatever he can get; that is Scott’s survival instinct, it’s all he knows. In the novel Snitch Jacket by L.A. Times reporter Christopher Goffard, the author points out that life in state prison for a known snitch can be measured with an egg timer.
“First they push you into a broom closet,” Goffard writes. “Then they bust out your teeth and take turns while you kneel. Then they cut out your tongue and say, ‘You won’t talk to pigs no more, not even in hell.’ Then they slip the shank, and by then, you’re glad to say: So long.”
In September 2001 Eddie Nash agreed to a plea bargain arrangement on Federal charges under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act for running a drug dealing and money laundering operation. Nash also admitted to jury tampering in the 1990 trial that had been bolstered by Thorson’s testimony against him, and to ordering his associates to retrieve his stolen property from the Wonderland drug den in 1981, but he denied planning the murders that occurred that night. He received a four and a half year prison sentence with credit for time already served and a $250,000 fine.
Eddie Nash was released in 2002 and today is a free man in Los Angeles.
One Last Question
Historically, I said to Cletus Nelson, freelancers and independent contractors are usually the first to feel the pinch of an economic decline. Wouldn’t it behoove the U.S. Labor Department, I wondered, as well as statisticians in other nations, to track trends within this labor sector as a harbinger of a looming economic crisis?
Nelson considered my proposition carefully before answering.
“I think that’s an excellent suggestion and a good way to detect outlying economic trends,” the author of Depression 2.0 said. “Unfortunately, as cynical as this may sound, I’ve really started to question whether the federal government is all that interested in maintaining statistics that accurately reflect the state of the economy.
“We simply don’t measure inflation or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) like we did in the past. Government statisticians use hedonic pricing formulas, geometric weighting, and other questionable methods to artificially lower the rate of inflation or pump up the GDP. The same goes for the Federal Reserve—it’s become an altogether political institution. Moreover, I also wonder if the IRS won’t be taking a more aggressive stance towards freelancers as tax revenues dry up. So long as there is a climate of suspicion towards the self-employed, I doubt this kind of information sharing will be feasible at this time.”
Rodger Jacobs has won multiple awards and grants for his work as a journalist, documentary writer and producer, screenwriter, playwright, magazine editor, true crime writer, book critic, columnist, and live event producer. He provided the preface and original inspiration for Jack London: San Francisco Stories (Sydney Samizdat Press) in 2010.