All-Singing, All-Dancing, All-Cardboard
SF culture lifelines, pt. two

The Cockettes
Sweet Pam
Photo © Clay Geerdes
So then, what sort of events make San Francisco so different, so appealing inna post-Richard Hamilton stylee? How's about waking one fine Saturday morning, on this past year's weekend of Halloween/Dia de Los Muertes - holidays much anticipated, and seriously celebrated, by certain subgroups of the City's populace - to discover in the post an invite to a open-house art salon and cabaret, in the Upper Market Street flat of an original member of the legendary, rabble-rousing local theatre troupe The Cockettes?

Although the recent, rightfully well-received documentary about them goes a long way towards covering their history and filling in details, it's still quite daunting to try and convey, to someone who wasn't there at the time, the impact the Cockettes had on this town and thus select parts of the world. How a ragtag bunch of "gay hippie, acid-freak drag queens" (the words of their East Coast comrade in outrageous amusement, John Waters) - their ranks complemented by a few genetic females and the odd (ooh-err) hetero male - managed to come together from the network of Utopian-minded communes that thrived in San Francisco during the late '60s, fueled by an aesthetic diet of late night movies (everything from '30s musicals to art and exploitation flicks), music running the gamut from early 20th Century pop and jazz to contemporary rock, their pick of charity-store fashion finery, and prodigious amounts of psychedelic drugs.

The Cockettes, as George Clinton might say, took their world view to the stage - namely the stage of Chinatown's Palace Theater, where over the early '70s they put on a series of increasingly elaborate, always uproarious and unapologetic, sexually anarchic musical-theater spectacles, with titles like GONE WITH THE SHOWBOAT TO OKLAHOMA, TINSEL TARTS IN A HOT COMA, THE CRABS OF URANUS, and their most successful show, the Orientalia-themed PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI (with costumes - to use the radical-chic lingo of the day - "liberated" from a Chinese opera company unsuspectingly sharing the performance space).

All told, the Cockettes were a gladly received, joyously gaudy and bawdy beacon in San Francisco's tentative and rather drab post-Haight Ashbury sub-cultural darkness. (Oh yes, and they also provided the first proving ground for a young, gardenia-sporting Billie Holiday obsessive and future mighty real disco queen named Sylvester.) Those original members who've managed to survive the ravages of time, personal travail and viral trauma remain understandably proud of their achievements and, as the art salon proved, not shy about sharing them with those of us who have followed in their path.

What first greeted guests at the top of the stairs of this second-story walkup was a shock: on the opposite wall was separate pieces of a jacket, laid out like the clothing in a paper doll cutout book, done up like the American flag with overlaid newspaper front page clippings from September 11th 2001, complete with the expected lurid, horrific images. My initial emotions beyond simple shock when faced with this were disgust, even outrage, but once I saw the rest of the house and the visual occupants of its walls, I came to realize a possible implicit message behind its strategic placement. It's as if the collected artists were saying 'all right, maybe there is bad stuff in the world, downright evil even, but there is also this.'

And what this constituted was an amazing and colorful display of photos, paintings and assorted artwork by Cockettes both present and deceased, friends and comrades, all serving to honor, celebrate and perpetuate the kaleidoscopic legacy of this groundbreaking, path-finding, magical mob.

The art, the history, the energy fairly leaped off the walls at you: here, a huge portrait leaning against a fireplace dominating one room, done in bright Warhol/Smarties colors, of Cockettes founder Hibiscus in all his charismatic, Carmen Miranda-on-acid glory. There, a series of paintings inspired by the life and lit. of Jack Kerouac, done by the late great Tomata DuPlenty, a late-period Cockette who subsequently made his mark as frontman of the visionary art/punk/synth combo The Screamers. Throughout, a host of other paintings, photographs and objets d'art, documenting pop artists, porn and rock stars, fellow travellers...even politicians (the most timely photo exhibited being a portrait of Matt Gonzalez, the outspoken, Green Party-supporting City Supervisor who just ran a hotly contested campaign for Mayor. His run, while ultimately unsuccessful, heartwarmingly galvanized much of the left-of-center-thinking local element.)

There was also live entertainment to be had in the back garden of Cockette charter player Rumi Missabu's Victorian manse. There was holiday-themed cabaret chanteuserie by one Cara Vida, done up literally to the teeth as a Day of the Dead skeleton. There was a fashion show, with once-and-future Cockettes modeling jackets bedecked and appliqued with everything from toddler geegaws to vintage nudie pinups - the seriously post-Glam handiwork of veteran local designer Bill Bowers, also responsible for the aforementioned Sept 11th jacket.

A highlight among highlights of the day's festivities, though, had to be Sweet Pam - in her youth the endlessly photogenic, beestung-lipglossed, Betty Boop-sized bombshell of the Cockettes - reading from a forthcoming memoir some hilarious excerpts recalling the group's ill-fated attempt at taking New York City by storm in 1971, including run-ins with various Warhol superstars and visiting British rock dignitaries like Keith Moon and Ray Davies. Watch for it to be published in spring '04, provisionally titled either MIDNIGHT AT THE PALACE or I MARRIED A COCKETTE AND LIVED, by Alyson Press in the States.

So I was too young for Ginsberg at the Six Gallery, or seeing Cyril and the Groovies draw the ire of flash-resisting, lumpen Fillmore-going masses, or for even seeing these Cockette folk tearing it up in Chinatown - but I'm here now, and having spent some happy time in the latter's current state of presence, it was a becalming, inspiring experience and one hell of a fun way to spend an October afternoon.

So I did mention the Cockettes' self-titled documentary, and short of actual time travel, it succinctly conveys - with captivating recent interviews and vintage film clips, much of which was painstakingly salvaged during production and seen herein for the first - all that was daft and wild, and original, and ultimately vital about their lives and work, and by extension, living in San Francisco at that particular time. It was one of two films I saw in Year Three that helped to reclaim my artistic resolve, as it applies to living here in Fog City - made me feel it is still worth it being here, and worth sticking it out come what may. (If this lot managed to wring something beautiful out of the urban dregs holding sway back then, who's to say we living here now are incapable of similar art/life miracles in this post-dot-commie, Dubya-despotic world?) I'll be talking more about the movies in question, about the humble little shop I first found them in, and the vibrant neighborhood that sustains it, in my next installment.

© 2003/04 Michael Layne Heath.