Jumbo’s Clown Room is a fine destination if you’re into drinking Bud Lite and ogling pretty young women in their underwear. But the legendary Hollywood topless bar has never quite gotten its due as an underground literary hangout, a place where you once might’ve spotted Charles Bukowski dispensing slurry epiphanies.
So when Rob Cohen and David Wollock threw a May 10 coming-out party at Jumbo’s for their new book, “Etiquette for Outlaws,” they were pleasantly stunned at the turnout. Three hundred people showed up, including several exotic dancers and a Channel 9 TV crew.
“It was a madhouse,” says Cohen. “We weren’t even able to get drunk at our own party,” Wollock laments. Talk about a faux pas.
Correcting such heinous lapses in social protocol is part of the raison d’tre behind “Etiquette for Outlaws” (HarperCollins), a 302-page illustrated tome that one month ago hit No. 4 on The Times’ Southern California Bestseller List for paperback nonfiction.
In their book, the Valley-bred authors try to set down some basic do’s and don’ts for these behaviorally troubled times. Their advice, however, has little to do with arranging salad forks or picking the right gift for your second cousin’s third marriage.
A how-to catalog of verboten pleasures, the book charts a course that roughly proceeds from peccadilloes to misdemeanors to felonies. Broken into bite-size copy blocks and sidebars, it covers tattoos, graffiti tagging, motorcycles, low riders, alternative sex, strip clubs and jailhouse fighting, among other NC-17-rated topics.
Attending your first rave? “Be a sport and share your water with anyone who asks,” the authors counsel, “unless they have visible mouth sores.” Planning a fetish party complete with 6-inch stiletto heels, leather corsets and riding crops? “S/M is risky business, and we don’t recommend you try this stuff at home without the supervision of an expert or without inviting us over to watch.”
Written in a breezy but authoritative tone, in elevated, mock-Emily Post language, “Etiquette for Outlaws” isn’t for the irony-challenged. Neither is it simply a gag book. Instead, Cohen and Wollock say, they wanted to write a well-researched and thought-out manual of correct conduct across a wide range of subcultures and lifestyles that are rapidly moving from the margins to the mainstream.
By neither condoning nor condemning the activities they describe, the authors hope to offer sound practical advice on gambling, cigar smoking, choosing a good dominatrix, and negotiating Havana sex bazaars and Amsterdam hash houses.
Additional chapters abound in helpful hints such as how to survive when a mosh pit turns ugly and how to avoid getting killed in prison (“Never steal anyone’s drugs”). Chapter headings quote Friedrich Nietzsche, the Old Testament, Woody Allen and Gene Simmons of KISS.
“You could boil our book down to three basic rules,” says Wollock, 35, kicking back with Cohen, 31, over cocktails at Jumbo’s last week. “Don’t be a [jerk]--show respect; don’t be a poseur, don’t come into a subculture and pretend you know about something you don’t; and the third thing is: Tip. Buy people things, and they love you.”
OK, so it’s not the Ten Commandments. But their book has a conscience, the authors say. It belongs to a new class of uncensored self-help books, Internet oracles and explicit sex-advice columnists like Dan Savage (“Savage Love”), a primer for an age with few moral absolutes. “Dude, if I had this book when I was 14, I would’ve solved, like, four anxieties a month,” Cohen says. “Send it to my Hebrew Studies teacher.”
Journalists and ad men by trade, Cohen and Wollock began scoping out their book four years ago after they met while working for retail giant Wherehouse Music. Their field research involved many long hours of interviewing rappers, taggers, bookies, adult film actors, bikers, rock groupies, fetish club owners and the occasional celebrity such as Ice-T or--better sit down for this one--Pat Boone.
To promote their wayward opus, the men cold-called magazines and radio stations, arm-twisted journalist friends, wrote press releases, set up a Web site (https://www.etiquetteforoutlaws.com) and created 20,000 promotional matchbooks imprinted with the philosophical teaser, “Do You Tip a Hooker?”
(The answer, according to Wollock, is “yes, based on the quality and duration of the service, especially if you plan to be a repeat customer.”) Gonzo cultural arbiters “Kevin & Bean” of KROQ have praised the book on air, and Playboy and a few alternative weeklies also have given it thumbs up.
“We both come from a very indie background, a very do-it-yourself background,” says Cohen, a UC Santa Barbara religious studies major who previously created and published the alternative arts journal Caffeine and now works as Wherehouse’s art director.
Wollock’s resume includes founding and editing the hip-hop magazine Rap Sheet, freelancing gigs with the Hollywood Reporter, Daily Variety and L.A. New Times and his current job writing “trite yet award-winning ad copy.”
Despite their impeccable middle-class credentials, the duo insist their book is a sincere appreciation not intended solely to titillate yuppie voyeurs. “We try to be genuine,” Cohen says. “Whether we’re part of that subculture or not, we’re not there to exploit them.”
Sure, they acknowledge, the book is very frat-boy-and WWF-friendly. Every generation gets the “Animal House” it deserves. But with hip-hop-generation readers conditioned by Howard Stern, “The Simpsons” and the Spice Channel, sense and satirical sensibility have become joined at the hip.
“We’re two nerdy guys from the Valley,” Wollock says. “We’re not kids. I don’t feel like we need to be hardcore street. I have a job. I drive a Saab. We’re so not outlaws. We don’t want to be outlaws, but we like hanging with outlaws.”
Not that there weren’t some sticky moments. Take the time Wollock went to research a swinger party as a nonparticipant. “It was in the Valley, in a quiet suburban block. Very normal looking. Did you see ‘Eyes Wide Shut’? It was like that. In the whole process it was the only time I felt uncomfortable. I felt ridiculous watching this going on, and I felt rude.” Eventually he compromised by jumping in a hot tub. (His date didn’t join him.)
To their surprise, the men also found the experience of practicing shooting guns (as research for their unfazed but cautiously worded chapter on weapons use) “strangely exhilarating” in a Libertarian kind of way. “I really felt I got the sense of the juice people feel when they hold guns,” Wollock says. “And the power.”
Ultimately, the book suggests that tolerance, open-mindedness and common decency can make up for all but the most egregious indiscretions. Some reviewers have even criticized it for not including in-depth chapters on drug-use rules of thumb.
“We would’ve really liked a whole section on, ‘When you’re chopping up your blow [cocaine], who gets the first line?”’ Wollock says. The men had to pick their battles carefully with wary editors, they say, though they later sneaked back in some of the more extreme material.
“This is the most PC book of sin and vice you’ll ever find,” Wollock says with a laugh. “I would love to think some of these people, entering these dens of iniquity, they’ll do so with a little more grace and decorum.”