Nothing like a copy of Balling or Way-Out to pinpoint the straight public’s fascination with late ’60s hippie culture: It wasn’t love beads, long hair, peace signs or tie-dyed t-shirts, but that crazy indiscriminate sex, coupled with mind-altering drugs, resulting (presumably) in an ecstasy inconceivable to ordinary citizens. It made a decent man so mad, yet curious, so fearful, yet envious, and, let’s face it, so damn horny.
While most dared not express these complex and conflicting emotions, others dared, and exploited. Michael Thevis, dubbed the Scarface of Porn when he made the F.B.I’s 10 Most Wanted List, was publisher of the wildest psychedelic sex magazines ever made. Featuring exuberant nudes set into lurid hand painted layouts, his publications appeared crafted by real hippies. In fact, the henchman our notorious felon chose to feed America’s counter culture lust was actually Edw. D. Wood Jr., the angora-loving auteur of Plan 9 from Outer Space, Bride of the Monster and other films so bad they earned him top spot on the world’s worst filmmakers list. Wood’s meager movie glory had passed by the time he joined Thevis’ Pendulum, Calga and Gallery publishing companies, but his magazine work is just as entertaining. Thevis, for all his faults, wasn’t born bad.
He was worn down through the 1950s and early ’60s, struggling to raise three children on the slight earnings of a street corner newsstand in Atlanta, Georgia. Around the time he lost the family home he noticed he was making more money from Playboy than Newsweek. Desperate, he stocked the stand with explicit magazines obtained from local sex shop owner “Kenny the Jap” Hannah; by 1965 he was rich. When he and a new underworld associate, Roger Dean Underhill, invented the peepshow booth in 1967 he became richer still, and in 1970 it was estimated that he distributed 40% of America’s pornography through 500 sex shops and adult theaters.
Thevis began publishing his own magazines the same year he launched the peepshow, and what irony that the man who would kil l both Kenny Hannah in 1970 and Roger Underhill in 1978, as well as an employee who simply requested a raise in between, would choose peace and love as his publishing genre. Then again, hiring an alcoholic to write drug fantasies for Balling, Belly Button, Skin & Bones, Wild Couples and other hippie-themed titles has a certain irony as well. Amazingly, Edw. Wood came with a good resume. Of sorts. His widow said he previously worked at Bernel Associates, publisher of the psychedelic titles Nude Rebels and Cougar, and followed his boss Bernie Bloom to Thevis. Bloom admired Wood, calling him “A crazy genius. Way ahead of his time,” adding that, “Everybody was afraid to do the things that he would do,” which is saying a lot when you work for the Scarface of Porn. But maybe he was just referring to Wood’s office alcohol intake, tolerated because Bloom claimed that Wood could write better drunk than most could sober. It’s still funny to think that the stream of consciousness rambling through these psychedelic titles was fueled by nothing groovier than old fashioned booze.
Wood was 44 when he joined Pendulum, a World War II vet who’d famously worn women’s lingerie into combat. He was neither hippie nor straight, but his philosophical rants worked alongside the swirling patterns and splay-legged chicks in Wild Couples.
Most would argue that those chicks were the only reason men bought Thevis’ magazines, so why include text at all? The law demanded it. Even before the Miller test was established in 1973, determining that a work, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value to be judged obscene, it was known that redeeming social value kept sex magazines safe. Wood’s ellipsis-filled film reviews, fiction and editorials redeemed Balling. Wood was fired in 1974, as the psychedelic magazines died out, though his fiction ran in Pendulum titles until his death, at age 54, in 1978.
That same year Michael Thevis made the 10 Most Wanted List following his escape from the prison where he wa s serving time for conspiracy to commit arson. Roger Underhill had helped to convict him, and before the feds could catch Thevis he showed up at Underhill’s home and killed him with a shotgun, taking out a visiting friend as well. Thevis was quickly arrested and received a 28 years to life sentence. He died November 20th, 2013 at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater, aged 81. Edw. D. Wood Jr., meanwhile, was immortalized in the 1994 film Ed Wood, became a beloved cultural icon, and now serves as the supreme deity for the Internet religion Church of Ed Wood. His legacy in Way-Out, Wild Couples, Nude Rebels, Balling, et al. lives on in the TASCHEN title The Psychedelic Sex Book.