---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 29 May 2002 12:26:11 -0700
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: Party time [Cockettes]
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
"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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