With four tours that got canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Justin Pearson has had a lot of extra time on his hands.
"When there is a cure or vaccine for the virus, I'll be ready to go with like three new albums," the San Diego musician and record label owner—whose prolific career includes (but isn't limited to) bands The Locust, Swing Kids, Retox, Holy Molar, and Head Wound City—told VICE.
He's been nothing if not productive; he's currently wrapping up records from Satanic Planet, his new industrial/doom project with Slayer's Dave Lombardo; Dead Cross, his hardcore punk supergroup with Lombardo and Faith No More's Mike Patton; and hardcore outfit Deaf Club—all while working on new music for The Locust and acid punk hip-hop project Planet B. The first week of September, he has two singles out with the latter group: "Release Me," a synthy goth collaboration with ADULT., and "Intimate Terrorism," a harsh noise experiment that's part of Reigning Cement, a collaborative A/V project by visual artist and musician Jesse Draxler.
It's been a brutal year for musicians, but Pearson is looking at the bright side: The pandemic allowed for Lombardo, who was initially only going to play on one track on the Satanic Planet album, to join the band in full. "I'll just focus on that and not be like, oh tours are canceled and I have no idea when we'll play live again in what capacity," he said. "[There are] way worse things that happen on this planet to people."
Pearson has always been the resourceful type, one who finds creative opportunities lurking around every corner even in moments of boredom. With all of the down time during quarantine, the pandemic has also seen Pearson reflecting on his long career in music—and, in particular, on one notorious moment more than two decades ago that put The Locust on the map and went down in the annals of gonzo music history. I'm referring, of course, to the Jerry Springer incident.
For 28 years, The Jerry Springer Show ruled the daytime airwaves, introducing Americans—along with viewers in about a dozen other countries—to cheating spouses, Klansmen with dwarfism, a man who married his horse, and hundreds of the strangest dirtbags this country has to offer. With its on-stage brawls and stories of bizarre sexual escapades, the talk show became the barometer for 90s trash television at its most unhinged, notorious for its lack of restraint and conscience.
Then, along came some broke punk kids from San Diego—one of whom happened to be the vocalist and bassist for an up-and-coming grindcore band called The Locust. In a now-notorious segment titled "Secrets Come Out!," which originally aired on March 29, 1999, Pearson and his friends decided to con the show's producers with a tale of jilted lovers and bisexual affairs. The episode soon became legendary within the punk scene: Here were these snarling, sardonic pranksters—friends with whom they often shared the pit—that infiltrated the airwaves of national television just for the hell of it. And the story behind the scam is just as absurd as the antics that played out on stage.
Twenty years later, Pearson and two of his cohorts in the escapade, Allysia Edwards and Scott Beibin, spoke to VICE about the bizarre talk show hoax that brought them (and The Locust) infamy in the San Diego punk scene and beyond.
It Started With a Prank Call
In 1998, Beibin was running Bloodlink Records in Philadelphia. Over the holidays, he went to San Diego to visit Pearson, who at the time ran his label Three One G Records with his then-girlfriend Edwards. Beibin and Pearson had known each other for years; both were deeply involved in the 90s DIY punk scene. A few days after New Years, while they were hanging out at Pearson and Edwards' house, Beibin got some bad news.
"I got a call from my neighbor on my answering machine, saying that my house had been robbed," Beibin, now 49, told VICE. "I was really upset about this, so in order to cheer myself up, I did some prank phone calls."
Back in the 90s, The Jerry Springer Show would air call-outs at the top of commercial breaks, encouraging viewers with salacious or unconventional personal circumstances to air them out on national television. When one of those calls to action flashed on the screen in Pearson and Edwards' living room, Beibin decided to leave a message on the call-in line.
Off the cuff, he concocted a tale for the show's producers, detailing Pearson's affair with a woman named Christine Hollander, who lived with Pearson and Edwards. Then, Beibin dropped another bombshell: He, too, was sleeping with Hollander—but also with Pearson. And, he claimed, there was also a hookup with Edwards. It was a four-way love rectangle, and Beibin told producers he wanted to "blow the lid off the whole thing"—the exact kind of mess the Springer show clamored for.
"It was just really stupid," said Beibin."I think I called Jenny Jones also."
Looking back, the ethics of these shows were often questionable at best. While Jerry Springer presented guests' stories of penis dismemberment and mother/daughter dominatrix tag-teaming as fact, it could be hard to determine the authenticity of these segments—and producers often framed episodes in ways that were flagrantly transphobic, homophobic, sexist, or otherwise "cancellable" by today's standards. The potential real-life dangers of this proto-reality-TV format had already come under the microscope years before Beibin made that fateful call, when Jonathan Tyler Schmitz, a guest on Jenny Jones, was convicted for murdering his friend Scott Amedure. According to Schmitz, then 24, the producers invited him on the show because someone wanted to confess a secret crush; after finding out that the person was Amedure, he killed him, later telling Michigan police that the segment had "eaten away" at him.
With the dubious morality of the program in mind, Beibin did his best to sell his falsified tale of lovers' entanglement. He got a call back from a producer, and on January 4, Beibin, Pearson, Edwards, and Hollander flew to Chicago, anticipating the chants of "Jerry! Jerry!"
In truth, it wasn't the first time the troublemakers had attempted to get on the show. A few months prior, Edwards and Pearson had called the Jerry Springer hotline with a different cheating story and successfully convinced producers to fly them out. Edwards had thought of it as a way of promoting Three One G to a wider television viewership. "The internet didn't exist [the way it does now], and also we were just crazy punk kids," Edwards said. "We just wanted to do crazy shit."
Except they never made it onto the stage. The guests that went on before them got into a massive fight, derailing production. "We sat in the greenroom for a few hours and then they just were like, 'Hey, sorry it didn't work out—here's your flight home,'" Pearson said.
"I didn't expect to ever go back," said Edward.
But they did.
Jerry, This Time for Real
On January 5, Edwards and Pearson found themselves backstage in the Jerry Springer greenroom for a second time—this time with Beibin and Hollander, though the producers separated each participant. Pearson and Edwards had matching Chelsea-esque haircuts with riot grrrl bangs (now unfortunately known as "TERF bangs"); they say that producers requested that they look as "punk" as possible.
"A bit of time had passed, enough time that [the producers] kind of didn't recognize us," Pearson said. "At one point, this one woman—I think it was one of their makeup or hair people—was like, 'Were you on the show before?' I mean, technically we weren't on it, so we were just like, 'No.' We probably stuck out a bit—the way we looked and stuff."
As they were waiting to go onstage, a producer had them sign a waiver to appear on the show; according to Pearson, Edwards, and Beibin, the producer warned them that if they were caught fabricating a scenario to get on the show, production would fine each person involved $10,000. For the trio, that meant sticking to the story. (NBCUniversal did not respond to VICE's request for comment for this story as of press time.)
"They really do try and scare you that they're gonna, like, sue you for the production fees if they find out it's fake—even though it's all fucking fake," said Edwards. "I just got so fucking scared that I think I convinced myself it was real just so I could get through it."
While the prospect of a $10,000 fine freaked Pearson out, he now thinks it was just a formality and scare tactic. "They don't give a shit," he said. "You know they were just churning it out. Like, get on stage, act like an asshole, and then they would just send you home right away. I don't think they really cared."
In the segment, which has been preserved on Three One G's YouTube page, Pearson sits on stage wearing a Locust T-shirt, mugging for the audience with scumbag punk swagger. When Springer asks about the affair, Pearson nonchalantly dismisses his infidelity as being part of "the rock 'n' roll lifestyle"—"Stuff happens, you know?" After Edwards joins him on stage, he tells her he's been rocking the tour van with other women, including Hollander. When Hollander walks out, Edwards lunges at her and Pearson. In the scuffle; her breast becomes exposed; eventually Hollander rips her tank top off leaving Edwards shirtless on stage until a kind audience member tosses her the shirt off their back.
According to Pearson and Edwards, the group hadn't set any clear rules for themselves on how to behave once they got on stage. But they had all made one promise: no punching in the face—a rule which Edwards immediately broke. "Allysia cruises out there and literally punches everyone in the face and it's, like, What the fuck," said Pearson.
Edwards told VICE that she chose not to follow the no-punching-in-the-face rule for a few reasons. "I think one, because I was just in the moment," she said. "Two, I just forgot everything else. It was like, This shit is real. And three, deep down, I [actually] fucking hated the bitch."
Eventually, mid-commotion, Pearson launches a snot rocket on the stage, eliciting boos from the audience and a look of disgust from Springer, who is prompted to cut to a commercial break. As Pearson tells it, he was just trying to see if his nose was bleeding. But according to the three accomplices, that was the moment when things got really crazy.
As soon as the cameras cut, Pearson said, it was clear that the producers were furious about his boogers.
"You could tell that Jerry was fucking pissed that he blew the snot rocket," said Edwards. Pearson said a producer called him over and directed him to follow them backstage. "As soon as I got backstage and the door closed, one security guy pinned me up against the wall, and there was a really short guy who was a producer of the show or something," said Pearson. “And he starts mouthing off at me. 'You fucking prick! You come here and disrespect our house!' He's looking up at me and yelling, and all the spit is flying out of his mouth."
Pearson said that after he shoved the producer away from him, he was rushed by security guards and dragged by the shoulders down a hallway. He was then taken to a green room, where he alleges that security continued to berate him, informing him that they were off-duty Chicago PD, and that, according to Pearson, he had "waived [his] rights by signing all the paperwork to be filmed."
"I was like, Dude, these guys are gonna kill me and shove me in a dumpster. It was pretty frightening," said Pearson. "It's not like I took a shit on the stage."
After another producer arrived on the scene, Pearson said, he started threatening to walk off the show unless he and the others got paid for their appearance. (Springer guests weren't typically paid to be on the show; the only compensation Pearson, Beibin, Hollander, and Edwards received came in the form of hotel and travel expenses and a $5 coupon for the hotel bar. Pearson recalls Beibin using his $5 on an orange juice.) According to Pearson, the producer said the show would put the group up at their hotel for a week if he went back on stage and really wowed the audience. Meanwhile, Hollander and Edwards were waiting onstage unaware of what was happening backstage with Pearson.
Eventually, Pearson was brought back out, and Beibin—the fourth member of the group's fictional love rectangle—was introduced. After Beibin revealed that he was not only sleeping with Hollander but also with Pearson—in what may be the most memorable moment of the whole incident—Beibin pulled Pearson in for a kiss.
It was a controversial move during an era of television when the LGBTQ community was still very underrepresented on screen. Though Ellen DeGeneres had come out on her sitcom Ellen in 1997 and Will and Grace had become a huge hit following its premiere in 1998, this was still an America where same-sex marriage was illegal, and where just one year prior, a young man named Matthew Shepard had been brutally tortured and murdered in Laramie, Wyoming because he was gay.
Though the kiss made for great TV, Pearson said, he and Beibin ended up being hit with homophobic slurs by an audience member, whom he then tried to fight, though Pearson said that was edited out. Beibin believed it was the first gay kiss on network television, though I had to inform him that actually, the first same-sex kiss happened on the drama L.A. Law in 1991, between C.J. Lamb (Amanda Donohoe) and lawyer Abby Perkins (Michele Greene), two women characters. Still, seeing a kiss between two men was a major rarity in entertainment at the time. The only well-publicized time a kiss between men had been seen on screen prior to this escapade was when The Real World: San Francisco's Pedro Zamora kissed his partner during their commitment ceremony in 1994. To put it lightly, the on-air kiss on Springer took the audience in the studio by surprise (their audible screams serving as proof of its shock value).
And Now They Wait
After filming, the group was immediately escorted out of the studio and onto the freezing cold streets. Pearson said he once again demanded compensation—along with an apology from the security guards who beat him up. A producer arranged an apology, but shepherded them into a limo without any payment. Pearson said the group didn't know where they were being taken until the driver told them they were being dropped off at the airport. "We were all in the limo trying to piece it together, figuring out," he said. "Was it a success? Was that fun? Was that just insane?"
Pearson said the producers never paid the group any compensation or even for the promised week at the hotel. And when the friends arrived at the airport, they discovered that the show seemingly hadn't even booked their tickets home. "We couldn't get a hold of [the producers], so we didn't even know how the fuck we were getting home," recalled Pearson. He says they eventually reached a producer, who booked their flights, and they left the Windy City and the entire debacle behind them.
When the segment finally aired in March of 1999, Pearson and Edwards happened to be back in Chicago for a show with another Pearson project, The Crimson Curse. When they arrived at the Fireside Bowl, where they were set to play a show, the episode was playing on TV screens. "Everything about it was pretty surreal," Pearson said.
The segment became the talk of the night—then the punk scene as a whole. Before long, the idea that a group of brazen DIY kids had managed to scam Jerry Springer became something of a pre-internet meme, one that spread beyond the confines of the scene itself. Pearson says that for months following their appearance, he'd get recognized everywhere he traveled on tour, from Mexico to Amsterdam to Tokyo.
"I remember being at Kmart [in San Diego] and this dude was chanting 'Jerry!'" he recalled. "It wasn't people that were at the shows, or punks or anything. It was just regular people on the street. "
Pearson said that even today, friends and acquaintances still bring up the appearance. He shares the clips on Facebook from time to time, leading to an onslaught of fresh comments from friends and fans. It's become a cult classic amongst punk kids of yore—but also among the trainwreck-loving spectators who devoured the Jerry Springer Show in its heyday. "I don't understand the reach of this TV show," Pearson said. The clip of the Springer appearance, as shared on Three One G's YouTube page, has nearly 62,000 views, but its virality is best measured not by online metrics, but by word-of-mouth legend.
Edwards, who now works as a jewelry maker, said her time on the show still comes back to haunt her every so often. "Any new job I get, somehow somebody gets wind of it, and then everybody gets wind of it," she said. "I'm not embarrassed by it. It's hard for me to watch sometimes—I don't even know why. But yeah, it never goes away."
For Beiben, the Springer appearance marked the beginning of his foray into working in film. He started a touring film and storytelling series called Lost Film Festival in 1999, and has shown the clip of the group’s moment in the daytime TV sun at shows around the world.
Though he now does strategy and curation for entertainment agency Evil Twin Booking, which he also co-founded, Beibin likes to think of the incident as a form of political performance art. "I'm really proud of it," he said. To this day, Beibin believes the kiss between him and Pearson confronted homophobia not just in punk, but across the country, just by doing it for the cameras and having no qualms about it. "The kissing went from this outrageous thing, to laughing about it, and then it just kind of desensitized people to same-sex relationships," Beibin said.
Pearson shares his conviction in the importance of combating homophobia in the punk scene, and said that he does hope that their Jerry Springer appearance helped normalize queerness in the scene as well. Still, he and Edwards think Beibin may be giving the prank too much credit.
"To me, it didn't have that much to it," he said. "It just seemed like a punk thing to do."
In hindsight, it's easy to see why a kiss by two straight men for the sake of causing mayhem on TV could be seen as offensive. Seen through a more culturally conscious 2020 lens, it could read as painting bisexuality as lascivious, or like they were using the sexual identity for laughs. But the stunt has stood the test of time more as a piece of absurdist theater than a radical form of sociopolitical commentary, with these spiky-haired troublemakers performing their hearts out mostly for themselves and for their fellow rabble rousers watching in their dingy punk houses back home. The appearance would bring a level of infamy to everyone involved—even though Pearson, Edwards, and Beibin all admit to doing far more outrageous stuff during shows or, you know, just while hanging out.
While it didn't break TV history, and certainly didn't cure homophobia in music and television, it continues to be a happy memory for all those involved—and several people I spoke to during the reporting of this story say that they still have VHS copies of the segment, recorded straight off the show. It may not be punk to assign too much meaning to a farcical scam pulled by a bunch of hellions, but Pearson and friends' Jerry Springer appearance serves as a reminder that even when you've aged out of your punk phase, there's something uniquely invigorating about causing a scene.
Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE. She’s on Twitter occasionally discussing punk kisses.