Bright Lights Film Journal

Keep on Truckin’ An Interview with Joe Gage

A gay-porn pioneer speaks

Gay porn, like every other artform, has its canon, and the films of Joe Gage belong in that rareified realm of early, pioneering porn also occupied by the likes of Wakefield Poole and Jack Deveau. Poole’s work (Bijou) is lyrical and arty, Deveau’s harshly urban and experimental (Drive). Gage could be called the porn poet of the queer working class.

The “Gage Men,” as they were known during the heyday of the 70s, appeared more sexy Average Joe than Abercrombie & Fitch. They tended toward the hairy and the hunky, the opposite of the sleek, pimple-free gym-bunny trash of modern porn.

Gage’s most famous work was the trilogy that comprised Kansas City Trucking Company (1976), El Paso Wrecking Corp. (1977), and L.A. Tool and Die (1979). These were road movies with a loose narrative and loads of raunchy sex (including golden showers and plenty of group gropes) featuring some of the legendary sex stars of the day like Richard Locke, Fred Halsted, Will Seagers, Clay Russell, and many others. The films’ status as pre-condom works — the early equivalent of today’s barebacking subgenre in porn — makes them particularly intriguing and, well, sexy.

There are identifiable characters and plots in the films, but the real attraction are the sexy, sweaty vignettes set in bars, desert shacks with convenient glory holes, and of course the hypermasculine backdrops indicated by the titles.

I interviewed Gage in connection with a mini-fest (two of the films from the trilogy) at the gay film festival in Portland, Oregon, and he proved an engaging subject.

Bright Lights: Can you say something about the circumstances of production for El Paso Wrecking Corp and L.A. Tool & Die? How did you find the guys? How easy were they to work with? How scripted were the films, and how improvised?

Joe Gage: The films were completely scripted, down to the last detail, including all sexual situations and dialogue. There were only a few “professional models” around in the early days, but my producer Sam Gage and I sorted through those who were available, and also sent word out into the community that we were looking for performers. The sexual revolution was well underway and the majority of men who applied wanted to appear in the films for political reasons as much as anything else.

Any juicy anecdotes from those films? Romances, fights?

As with any other kind of moviemaking, cast and crew flings often took place, and were almost always extinguished the moment principal photography was completed. No fights I can remember — diva attitude was and is strictly off-limits. I had no reason to fire anybody for being an asshole until after I started working again last year: legend-in-their-own-mind behavior seems to be a recent development.

How do you see your early films in terms of today’s porn?

The early films were made to mirror mainstream movies, with stories, characters, dramatic conflict and resolution. For the most part, today’s hardcore features play more like living stroke magazine layouts. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I prefer something with a little more substantial to chew on, so to speak.

How was it working with legendary stars like Richard Locke, Fred Halsted, Jack Wrangler, Will Seagers, Clay Russell, etc.? Any stories you can share? Did you stay acquainted with them after the films? What happened to all those guys?

Richard Locke appeared in all three parts of the trilogy, and was a blast to collaborate with. A real wild child — lived in a shack out in the desert, the last of the true live-and-let-live hippies. Halsted was a major filmmaker in his own right — some of his films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. A great combination of the butch and the sensitive, he required special handling on set to get the results I was looking for. Seagers left a lasting impression on celluloid, but I didn’t get to know him well. Clay Russell was easygoing and cooperative. Locke and Halsted have gone on to their reward. Don’t know what’s become of Seagers, but I understand Russell is still around. And may I add that Jack Wrangler was a pussycat.

Any thoughts on how AIDS changed porn? Your own work, or generally?

Wakefield Poole (Boys in the Sand) declared on his great DVD interview last year that he would never work again until there was a cure; the introduction of condoms killed it for him. I was eroticizing rubbers before AIDS, and continue to do so. It’s sad to put barebacking off-limits, but it’s more important to play safe and to encourage others to do so.

Some fans have spoken fondly of your featuring more butch, everyday guys rather than hairless gym bunnies. Any thoughts on this?

I never went out of my way to emphasize the butch or straight attributes of my guys — I always sought to portray them as representatives of the average, ordinary — for the most part — working-class citizen. On the other hand, I have no interest in documenting the by-the-numbers sexual routines of West Hollywood escort boys. There’s no passion there, and the meter’s always running.

What did you do after your porn heyday, and what are you doing now in this area?

I took a long hiatus, made or developed some mainstream films, wrote a couple of books, raised a family, and then decided to start up again. I’ve made some movies for MSR and Odyssey, and will start something for another company sometime after the first of the year. What else is there to say but Keep on truckin’…