In a genre crowded with self-styled mavericks and eccentrics, Larry Wessel manages to stand head and shoulders above other documentary filmmakers.
Figuratively and literally. An underground documentary filmmaker whose work has received accolades from such subcultural luminaries as Anton LaVey, Russ Kick, Adam Parfrey, Nick Bougas, and Peter Sotos; not to mention praise from publications such as Juxtapoz, Film Threat, Flipside, and Shock Cinema to name just a few. A member of the UNPOP ART movement, Wessel’s graphic UNPOP collages (which incorporate pornography, diseased flesh, and pastel abstraction), have appeared in publications such as Hustler, Answer Me!, Chic and Malefact and have been exhibited extensively throughout the U.S. over the last three decades. Larry’s controversial “performance art” has proven to be so ‘provocative’ that it once resulted in the director of a major arts organization losing his job and having his institution’s NEA funding revoked.
As engaging in conversation as he is jovial, Larry Wessel is a big guy who knows how to have big fun, and is, naturally, an avid drinker. Brian Clark caught up with Wessel at Denver’s Lion’s Lair Lounge while he was in town filming a documentary about fellow UNPOP Artist, Boyd Rice.
Modern Drunkard Magazine: While you were making your bullfighting documentary, Taurobolium, you spent a lot of time in Tijuana, Mexico—and I understand that you eventually ended up getting very caught-up in the whole culture around bullfighting—any good Mexican drinking stories to share?
Larry Wessel: Drinking when you’re in Mexico just comes second nature to you. You have to drink when you’re in Mexico; that’s where the tequila is, that’s where the Mexican beer is, it’s a great vacation for booze, in Tijuana. The best place to drink, I’ve found, is the red light district that they have. The red light district has all these different names, it’s called the Colonia Cuahuila, as a lot of locals call it, but it’s also known as the Zona Norte. It’s a place that’s off the beaten path, where the tourists don’t go—they’re afraid to go there—and it’s really a shame, because there was a time in history when Tijuana was nothing but one big whorehouse, basically; the first building ever built there was a whorehouse-cantina. It was a place where you could go to drink and fuck, and basically the whole town became synonymous with drinking and fucking, and then a bullring was introduced, and a church eventually. So you could go to church in the morning, go to a bullfight in the afternoon, and then in the evening drink, and then fuck. So it was this wonderful place where all of this stuff came together—and really cheaply too.
So, the best places that I’ve found to drink are these cantinas, which are a combination of whorehouses and bars—you can’t beat it. I haven’t found anything like this in America. Supposedly, there are these dime-a-dance places, I’ve heard about in downtown L.A., that I’ve never been to, and places like that—but in Tijuana, there’s this whole district, and it’s so incredible because every single clubhouse or cantina is like a whorehouse-bar. They’re just wonderful, because you walk in, they’re blasting Mexican music, and you immediately go to the bar and get a can of ice cold Tecate beer, and there are big bowls of limes, and the deal is you basically go there, you get some limes, you get your tequila shots and your beers and you sit back and drink and look around and choose who your sex-partner is going to be that night. And it’s just so enjoyable because you’re drinking, you’ve probably already had dinner—a really nice dinner—you’re relaxing, drinking, just soaking-up the atmosphere of all these beautiful women basically parading in front of you, waiting for you to make eye contact with them, to have them come to your table. All the time they’re constantly trying to sit down with you and have a drink, and you can just reject them, and there’s no hurt feelings; it’s just that she’s not the one for you. So it’s basically pussy that comes to you with very little effort on your part. It’s just a wonderful setup. The whole Mexican cantina thing in Tijuana is, to me, a drinker’s paradise. That’s the life. The most enjoyable way to have a drink is in one of these kinds of places.
MDM: You do make it sound very appealing.
LW: Yeah, in fact, when I was shooting the bull-fighting documentary and stuff, I didn’t even think about stuff like this. I was so obsessed with bulls and that aspect of Mexican culture, that I didn’t really think too much about fucking prostitutes or visiting these cantinas. It was only after I had an assignment from Hustler magazine to do an illustration for an article about these bordellos—these cantinas—that I found out about it. So I read the article that I was supposed to illustrate and that’s how I realized that these places existed. I actually felt kind of stupid, ‘cause I could have been doing this all along, and really been having a good time!
People make such a big deal about screwing whores, but to me, if you have a condom on your cock, it’s just a piece of cake, there’s no worries. I never worried. I’m a very proud whorefucker. I really am. With whores, I like the honesty of the whole thing, the whole arrangement—it’s pure. You’re paying for a service, and she does the professional job, and you end-up with a happy ending, and chances are—if she’s a good one—she’ll have a smoke with you afterwards, and you’ll exchange pleasantries, and that’s it. You’re feeling pretty chipper, you might go to the cantina, have another drink, relax a bit more. So it all just works out so well. You just feel like John Huston or Ernest Hemingway or Sam Peckinpah—all these whoremongers who just loved Mexico and henhouses and fucking whores all the time. I’m really in love with that stuff, Mexican culture in general, actually. I love the music and the women and the booze and the whole trip, the bullfighting, everything. It’s a great place to drink, really drink.
MDM: What’s your favorite drink?
LW: My favorite drink is the Castaway.* This cocktail was actually invented by a friend of mine who calls himself Beach Bum Barry—he wrote a really good cocktail book called Beach Bum Barry’s Grog Log, which I highly recommend to connoisseurs of fine drink—it’s like a grimoire—it’s like a magical textbook into a world of incredible intoxication. Every recipe—most every recipe in it—is a tightly-guarded secret that Barry was able to unveil, through his own research and love of old books, and also through connections who would talk to old bartenders; talk them out of really old recipes that were top-secret. Anyway, he basically put his spin on some of these recipes, he’d change them up a little bit, give them a new name, and then dedicate them to the original, as well as tell you what the original name of the drink was, and where it was served, ‘cause it was usually served at a particular bar, in a particular part of the world. I think the Castaway was originally served at this restaurant called Dorian’s Red Hand in New York, and was originally called the Jamaican Dust.
MDM: Is it like a tropical, rum-based Tiki-drink?
LW: Yeah, it is. They’re so delicious—but the thing with mixed drinks in general, rum drinks especially, is that they kind of creep up on you. You have to be a little careful, sip them slow, because they will do their work. Before you know it you’re just seeing double and you’re worried about how you’re going to drive home and that kind of shit. Actually, that’s not really much of an issue for me, as bars are a thing that I don’t really do hardly anymore, unless it’s like tonight; I’m with a group of friends and it’s the thing to do. But normally I drink at home. A thing that Charles Bukowski would always say is that even though he writes about all the bars and everything, when he got older, it was just like “Fuck all that shit, I’ll just drink at home.” So that’s basically what he did in the end, the last 20 years or so.
MDM: It’s cheaper.
LW: It’s cheaper, it’s easier, and you don’t have to deal with people (laughs).
MDM: So, what got you started drinking?
LW: Well, my father was always a drinker, for one thing, and my grandfather once told me as a child to never trust anybody who doesn’t drink, smoke, and cuss… (laughs) these are all elements of somebody who at least has the beginnings of being a ‘good’ person!
MDM: How old were you when you had your first drink?
LW: Probably 11 or 12, something like that. I remember not really liking it initially, but just kind of accepting it just because my dad did it all the time, so I had to try it. I don’t remember really taking too much of a liking to drinking until high school. That’s when the real shit hit the fan, in high school. I remember one time when I was a teenager, I went to a wedding, and I was underage, but they served me drinks, and this girl had this beautiful-looking, light, pure white drink that looked like snow. It was beautiful and I asked her for a sip, and I loved the taste of it. I said, “What’s this called?” and she said “It’s called a Chi-Chi.” It was coconut milk and pineapple juice and vodka, all blended with ice, I guess the equivalent of a Slurpee at 7-11, or the way they make margaritas sometimes when they’ll blend them up so they’re really, really thick.
MDM: Like fluffy, or whipped, almost.
LW: Yeah, but man, it would knock you out with all the vodka they put in it though. It was like a killer drink. So I had a couple of those and I was feeling pretty groovy for a 16-year-old, I was really in heaven. So I said, “Man, when I turn 21, the first bar I walk into I’m gonna ask for a Chi-Chi.” So, when I turned 21, I walked into a bar and I ordered a Chi-Chi and I didn’t realize it but I was walking into this cop bar in Hermosa Beach, it’s now called The Hermosa Saloon; it was where all the cops went. I had no idea it was this kind of roughneck bar and I asked the bartender for a Chi-Chi, and he looks at me like I had just shit on his shoe or something. He gave me this really mad look and he repeated “A Chi-Chi?” He says, “We don’t serve foo-foo drinks!” and I thought, “Oh my god, I just ordered a foo-foo drink—Jesus Christ!” I was really upset. “You know,” I said, “Actually, I’ll just have a scotch on the rocks,” I think that was what I ordered. I knew they’d have that, so I just drank that, I was content with it.
MDM: Tell me about the first time you got really drunk.
LW: The first time I really got drunk, was when I was 16 years old. I had joined the drama department, because the drama teacher really, really liked me and said that I should be involved in drama. So I joined the drama group not knowing that these guys were the most decadent people on campus. They’d have these cast parties that were just like drunken orgies, essentially, and at one of these, I got just completely drunk to the point of throwing up. I drank a whole lot, and I remember the sensation of walking to my car and being drunk, and just the whole conundrum of, “Am I going to be able to drive home?” And I remember having a real hard time even putting my key in the lock on the car door. Somehow, I made it home that night. Another, similar experience I had in high school was resultant from mixing Hawaiian punch with gin; I went to this party, and I was wearing sunglasses, and there was this loud music playing, and I just started dancing after drinking this big bottle of gin mixed with Hawaiian punch—and at a certain point I stopped dancing and the whole room just seemed to be tilting back and forth like a ship. It was exactly like being on a ship. And I very slowly, carefully, tried to make my way to the front door ‘cause I knew I was going to be violently ill. I opened the door and walked onto the front lawn of this person’s place that was having the party, and it was really cold and damp that night… and I just started vomiting, and I was vomiting this bright red Hawaiian Punch vomit. It looked like blood—it was coming out, hitting the green grass, and steam was rising up off the grass, and it just kept coming out. The steam kept rising, the barf just kept coming up, and I thought I was just going to die—it was just really, really bad. I think that was the first really, really bad drunk that I had. I was 16, maybe 17, I guess.
MDM: I suppose everybody has to experience that kind of stuff in high school.
LW: Yeah…but there was this one night—this is jumping ahead a few years—I would guess I was going to college, toward the later years. I was probably 19 and had started drinking Black Russians. That was my drink of choice: Black and White Russians. I just loved that taste of that Kahlua and the cream and the vodka in a white Russian. So this particular night I was out with my girlfriend and we had a fight—a really bad fight—and I just felt like, “I just have to get drunk.” So, I went to this bar. It wasn’t just a bar, it was a jazz club called The Lighthouse. I used to be a trumpet-player, and this guy Freddy Hubbard was playing trumpet; he just happened to be playing trumpet that night, I wasn’t a big fan of his or anything, but being a trumpet-player, I was interested. So I go there to get drunk and watch this guy play this hard bop on his trumpet. While I’m there, I’m ordering Black Russians—I was drinking them black that night—I just wanted one after the other. I was drinking them just like I was really thirsty; sucking them down, then ordering another one, immediately. I must have drank maybe ten or eleven of them, and the bartender didn’t stop me either, which is really weird, ‘cause I was getting really fucked-up. I was even buying drinks for Freddy when he took a break; I remember buying him a drink, and then I let him buy me a drink, because the only way he’d let me buy him a drink is if he bought me one in return. I remember that night I ended up waking-up and throwing-up in bed all over myself. I was so intoxicated I couldn’t even get out of bed and go to the bathroom. I just sprung up and started heaving. I was living with my folks at the time, and my mother remembers hearing me laughing and throwing up in my bed—I think she actually helped me clean up the mess and everything ‘cause it was just horrible.
LW: Yeah (laughs), and later, I remember one night I went to a punk rock show—I used to wear a priest collar and people would call me Father Larry cause I’d always wear a priest collar—and one night I was with all these punks in a car full of empty beer cans; everybody was drinking, and we get pulled over by the cops—this is in Hollywood, just before we got to the club—so, maybe half the people in the car were underage, and it was just a fucking nightmare. The cop looks in there, he can see all the beers and everything, and he says, “OK, empty them out,” and he got everybody to empty out the beer into the street and everything. And then, he looks at me with the priest collar—I was behind the wheel of the car—and he goes, “Does your Monseigneur know you’re out tonight?” I didn’t know if he was trying to crack a joke, so I said, “Oh, he knows.” And then he’s just shaking his head and frowning… but then he gets a call to go to some more serious crime or whatever, and he says, “OK, just knock off what you’re doing and I’ll let you all go tonight, I’ve got something more important to take care of,” and he just took off and let us go.
MDM: That’s great. I always heard you referred to as Father Larry and I never knew why that was.
LW: It was that, and one night I opened up a manila envelope sent to me from a P.O. Box in San Francisco and discovered that Anton Szandor LaVey had appointed me to the office of Priest of the Church of Satan, so that really legitimized the whole ‘father’ thing, which I thought was quite thrilling!
—Interview by Brian Clark
For more info on Larry Wessel, or to purchase his films, visit: www.unpopart.org
3 ounces unsweetened pineapple juice
3/4 ounce Kahlua
1 1/2 ounces gold Jamaican rum
Shake well with ice cubes. Strain into a 10 ounce Pilsner glass filled with crushed ice. Garnish with maraschino cherry and pineapple wedge stuck on rim of glass.