[sixties-l] Party time [Cockettes] (fwd)

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Date: Thu Jun 06 2002 - 19:34:22 EDT

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    Date: Wed, 29 May 2002 12:26:11 -0700
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Party time [Cockettes]

    Party time


    The Cockettes - stoned, outrageous, and dressed to kill understood the
    importance of having fun.

    By J.H. Tompkins
    May 08, 2002

    'SEX AND DEBAUCHERY ," says Sweet Pam, describing work and play as a member
    of the Cockettes. "You could say what we did was all about the art of sex
    and debauchery."
    It's been three decades since the legendary drag pioneers called it quits
    and longer since Pam left Detroit and headed for the coast.
    "The night before I first came to San Francisco," she remembers, "I slept
    in a drainpipe in Colorado, alone. I woke up and then hitched to California."
    She pauses to laugh, adding, "I suppose you couldn't do that these days."
    The landscape has seen a change or two over the years, although the real
    differences are below the surface. What's important to understand about the
    Cockettes is that in an unruly era when law and order wanted a
    clampdown they defied convention and did exactly what they wanted to do.
    While they were as indulgent as they were defiant, they stood up for what
    they believed in. Welcome aboard if you can make that claim today in
    another lifetime you could have been a Cockette.
                                    Local heroes
    Park City, Utah, was neck-deep in former Cockettes members last January,
    visiting dignitaries at the Sundance Film Festival in town for the premiere
    of David Weissman and Bill Weber's documentary The Cockettes. Now, with the
    film's local opening and two Cockettes-related museum exhibits going up, an
    even larger posse is making the rounds. San Francisco is more than
    interested, as if we've been waiting for years to look back and cheer.
    Here's hoping that everyone gets a fix and that it includes a taste of
    daily life circa 1970, when the Cockettes were born in a world marked by
    frantic bursts of energy that blurred the line between ecstasy and terror.
    Life was fierce and fun after years of war, violence, and paranoia, you
    knew a party when you saw one. By the time the Cockettes debuted at the
    Palace Theatre in North Beach on New Year's Eve 1969, it took some doing to
    stand out in the crowd. The Cockettes, for whom too much was business as
    usual, had found a home.
    They were overnight sensations, like rock stars, but in drag and with less
    attitude and no money. Lots of people even those whose minds were baked by
    hard living have a fond memory or two of the Cockettes. Even me, despite
    residual damage, although given the chance I'd remix my first encounter,
    which was much too close for an innocent 20-year-old. The evening was
    shaped first and foremost by an unexpected three-tab appetizer so powerful
    that on the bus ride from Oak Street to North Beach I spent 10 minutes
    embracing the Muni coin-drop while kneeling at the side of a horrified driver.
    When we arrived, I moved with the crowd into a room so thick with
    anticipation that I could feel it brush my face featherlike. Laughter was
    like rich music or maybe it was the reverse and I steadied myself on the
    arm of a beautiful woman with glittering blue eyebrows, pulsating neon
    yellow buttons running up a bright red silk dress, and my god, the soft
    skin of her arm, her gentle smile, and those jewels glistening, glowing, in
    what I realized before taking a frightening, ball-grabbing spiral into
    hallucinatory confusion, was a beard. My friend Chris "C'mon," he said,
    "the Cockettes are great" hadn't mentioned boys with dresses or girls with
    beards earlier in the evening, and it was too late now. Just another
    mind-blowing night on the last frontier.
                                    History lesson
    At the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, several Cockettes have put the past
    in perspective, offering thoughts that hang on the walls next to photos and
    memorabilia. Fayette Hauser, an original Cockette featured prominently in
    the film, provides this observation: "We were living in a parallel universe
    of myth, fantasy, self-exploration, and high drag. What mattered was
    enlightenment. A new idea was valued like currency."
    The truth is, hindsight comes a lot easier than on-the-spot insight and who
    was straight enough to pay attention? Still, the part about ideas as the
    currency of the times sounds good, a postgrad spin on the '60s, la vida
    loca wrapped up like a gift and ready for history. Besides, it raises the
    possibility that maybe, if you were there, you actually knew what you were
    I try to coax a long look from any Cockette who'll talk (and several who
    won't), a list that includes Pam, Rumi, and Scrumbly, as well as Fayette.
    But they prefer remembering the old days to analyzing them, and I can't say
    I blame them living out two years onstage with the Cockettes must have
    been a tough act to follow, and who wants to compare life at 50 to being 20
    in 1970? Sweet Pam, in thoroughly convincing accountant's drag, laughs at
    the prospect of being outed on film by reminiscences like this: "We almost
    brushed our teeth with [LSD]. I mean LSD was a mainstay. LSD was what freed
    me up to do what I did."
    Rumi star of the hilarious Elevator Girls in Bondage, now the owner of a
    successful housecleaning business deadpans this after a moment's
    reflection: "I don't think I ever performed off drugs."
    LSD came with the territory, and for some people, so did heroin. A pair of
    Cockettes O.D.'d, but when I ask if anyone had problems later on, the
    answer is "No way," and what can I say but "Same here, what a coincidence."
    Everyone has battle scars, but no Cockette I speak with offers apologies or
    "There's just nothing that can compare to the freedom and exhilaration of
    living the way we lived," Pam says, offering another take on the long road
    between then and now. "And I have never hid a thing about myself."
                                    The pleasure principle
    Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Pleasure is Nature's test, her sign of approval,"
    an uptown version of a familiar '60s truism, "If it feels good, do it." The
    latter worked as a song lyric or the punch line to a story about last
    night's party but was a one-way ticket to trouble buy now, pay later as
    words to live by. Overkill and impulse were too easy to justify when the
    competition served up words of wisdom like these, from the mouth of
    then-FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover: "I regret to say that we in the FBI are
    powerless to act in case of oral-genital intimacy, unless it has in some
    way obstructed interstate commerce."
    There was plenty of oral-genital intimacy, all the time, in the garden of
    delights growing right here at ground zero. Each time a menacing finger was
    pointed toward the Haight, a new wave of fugitive pilgrims would pack up
    and head West.
    "Frankly," another Cockette original, Scrumbly, says in the film, "What
    brought me here was the knowledge that there were so many queers in San
    His remarks in a recent conversation indicate he didn't make the trip in
    vain. "Having sex," he says with a grin, "was like a handshake back then.
    And it wasn't anonymous sex; it was with friends. Friends and lovers were
    almost the same thing."
    Indulgence was a weapon in the hands or whatever of the Cockettes, who, San
    Francisco style, combined life and work to create acts of glorious, stoned
    defiance that blasted away rules, regulations, codes of conduct, decorum,
    and any authority that got in the way. As Marshall, the group's straight
    white male, says in The Cockettes, "We all thought the revolution was going
    to happen tomorrow."
                                    Curtain call
    The end began on an ill-fated run in New York; cultures clashed, but Lower
    Manhattan was not the problem. Just round up the usual suspects time,
    change, success, not enough success, you name it. Pam and Fayette performed
    in New York; Scrumbly, who has a long résumé as a musical director, never
    left the theater. Rumi has been a Cockettes activist since the mid '90s,
    archiving material and working with a young Cockettes fan named Moon Trent
    on a Cockettes Web site
    Retrospective exhibits and an after-the-fact documentary would be nothing
    without a lesson or two, but the Cockettes touched a lot of people if
    you've got something to say, get in line. Looking back, it's easy to see
    them as pioneers in a then-young gay liberation movement that exploded
    later in the decade. And perhaps, as all-consuming identity politics become
    just another important part of the political landscape, the gender
    confusion and sexual ambiguity that in their day most accurately described
    the Cockettes will be seen in a new light.
    But ask a Cockette, any of them, what they say to people who want to know
    what it was like back then, and when they're being honest, they'll tell you
    that you had to be there.
    "I feel so sorry for the kids today," Sweet Pam explains, "because it will
    never be like that again, what with AIDS and everything. They can't
    possibly know the freedom that we knew."
    The documentary provides a precious glimpse of the past, and if nothing
    else, audiences should leave knowing this: the Cockettes were true
    believers. They were, onstage and off, sexual extremists at a time when
    that was new, exciting, and important. In the long run, though, it's not
    the rules they broke but the act of breaking them that matters most.
    "It was a very special time," Scrumbly observes, "but I wish I knew how to
    make it happen again. It needs to happen every 5 or 10 years; everything
    needs to be shaken up."
                                    Real value
    "Some days," a friend of mine told me recently, "I just need to be around
    people who talk dirty. This world is just too fucking conservative for
    words." I think I know what she means. America is experiencing a moral
    lockdown. We are being held hostage by family values, traditional values,
    American values, homeland security, flags, George Bush, and all his
    friends. The Cockettes, in their day, were sexy and outrageous, and they
    knew how to have fun. They created something new and put it up onstage, and
    30 years later people are still talking about it. And that's worth

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