The first in a series of blog posts dedicated to the 1970's performance troupe, the Cockettes, and their archival collections at the San Francisco Public Library and New York Public Library
"Now your freak flag's flyin'! Let the freak-out begin!"-- Homer Simpson
Everything in real life happens on The Simpsons...
In "D'Oh-in' in the Wind" (The Simpsons S10 E6), our favorite corporate drudge Homer Simpson rediscovers his hippie roots. On a visit to Springfield's premier organic juice company at the Groovy Grove Natural Farm, Homer befriends Seth and Munchie, who despite their long hair and "personal" (read: psychedelic) vegetable patch, have become consummate business men. Declining Homer's invitation to wreak some hippie havoc, Seth and Munchie regretfully concede that while an "old-time freak-out sounds tempting" they've "got a big order to fill." Other than a vehicle for staging a mass peyote-induced freak-out ("The electric yellow has got me by the brain banana!"), "D'Oh-in' in the Wind" sheds light on a newer, but still persistent, dimension of "freak": the mid-sixties American-bohemian "Freak Scene."
"Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks"
Friday, September 17th, 1971 at San Francisco's Palace Theatre, the "freak" subculture went mainstream
Film critic Rex Reed and author-cultural icon Truman Capote took in a little late night theater, a campy musical called "Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma." Rex Reed's legendary review plummetted DIY-queer-psychedelic-communal theater troupe, The Cockettes, to subcultural stardom:
" Mostly they are hippie drag queens, but you have to be careful with the semantics, because although the group is largely composed of men in woment's clothes, it also includes women, married couples, even babies. They refer to themselves and their work as "Sexual Role Confusion," and they perform Friday nights at midnight between Dick Tracy serials, porno flicks, and revivals of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in a Chinese grind house called the Palace, in San Francisco's seedy North Beach. The Cockettes, named after the abominable Rockettes at Radio City Musical Hall, is not a revue or act; the only way I can describe it a nocturnal happening composed of equal parts of Mardi Gras at Bourbon Street, Harold Prince's Follies, old movie musicals, United Fruit Company, Kabuki, and the Yale varsity show, with a lot of angel dust thrown in to keep the audience good and stoned ... The audience broke down the exit doors and 300 more friends of the Cockettes stormed in free-- jamming the aisles and sitting on floors covered in chewing gum, pistachio nut shells, cigar butts, candy wrappers, and styrofoam cups-- a floating carnival of freaks in sequins, feathers, skirts, mesh hose, cowboy hats, bras, and panties."
The prehistory of the Cockettes visualizes the Weathermen Underground's cryptic assertion that "Freaks are Revolutionaries and Revolutionaries are Freaks." The Cockettes were the brainchild of Hibiscus, a member of Kaliflower, which was an ascetic commune committed to distributing free food and art headed by socialist wunderkind Irving Rosenthal. But before Hibiscus was Hibiscus, he was George Harris, a photographic (and photogenic) icon of mid-1960's countercultural activist movements who has been memorialized as the young man placing a flower in a National Guardsmen's gun. A consummate performer with a love for Isadora Duncan and vintage dresses, Harris soon ditched the “plaid shirts” of Kaliflower for the “sequins” of the Cockettes’ communes. Hibiscus came to be through a drowsy performance of Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave” from the treetops of Golden Gate Park that Cockette Sweet Pam Tent relates as having lured her out of a nap to see a “stunning apparition—half child, half temptress” looking like a “cross between Marlene Dietrich and Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream" (Midnight at the Palace.)
Beyond their commitments to free theater, the Cockettes did not necessarily consider their performances to be political even though countercultural news outlets singled them out as radical firebrands. Bemoaning the apathetic disintegration of the Gay Liberation in the face of police violence, the Gay Sunshine printed as its January 25th 1971 cover photograph, Cockette/Angel of Light Tahara bedecked with a flower crown and face painted with music notes detained by one of the police officers who aggressively stopped an impromptu performance at Grace Cathedral. Sister Cocaine, reporting from the field, deemed the acid-freak drag theatrics at midnight mass such “a complete mind fuck” (in a good way) that the Cockettes’ and Angels of Light’s queer aesthetics became informal and political acts designed to threaten normal understandings gender, sexuality, and kinship.
The Cockettes intersected with civil rights, anti-Vietnam, and Black Power movements that participated in highly visible political and social protests. During the Cockettes’ 1969-1972 heydey, various subcultures, unsatisfied with mass cultural complacency, struggled to articulate their positions relative to mainstream culture. Now-recognizable counterculture bywords such as “Hippie,” “Freak,” or “Glam,” had not necessarily been codified into archetypes we are familiar with today. This unsteadiness betrays itself in attempts to distill the Cockettes’ esprit, which has resulted in delightfully strange lexical morasses such as a “hippie-glitter-drag-genderfuck performance troupe,” “equal parts Aubrey Beardsley drawing and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” and “transvestite-glitter-fairie-theatric masques.” Their love of freewheeling love, Eastern mysticism, and hallucinogens paired well with the period’s Flower Child archetypes. But by the early 1970s, Haight-Ashbury began to sweep up the Summer of Love’s straggling leftovers and the city’s younger, more politically astute and well-educated populations began to disidentify with these hippies.
The Cockettes’ junk glamour style also linked them to the “Freak Scene.” As is the case with the word "freak," this "scene" was notoriously difficult to define (although, as the quote above illustrates, Zappa does a damn good job.) . And as is still the case with the word "freak," discernible etymological roots are elusive although the "freak scene" may have started in mid-1960's Laurel Canyon-area Los Angeles with marathon dancer Vito Paulekas, his wife Szou, and friend Carl ("Captain Fuck") Franzoni who became infamous for their freeform sex and dancing, which became known as "freaking out." Freak Scene daddy, Frank Zappa described Vito and Szou's far out theatrics: "As soon as they arrived they would make things happen, because they were dancing in a way nobody had seen before, screaming and yelling out on the floor and doing all kinds of weird things. They were dressed in a way that nobody could believe, and they gave life to everything that was going on." Musicians like Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper, the Stooges and Captain Beefheart who dragged in aggressive opposition to Hippies and other unhip individuals allied themselves with the freak scene, resonances of which carried into glam rock and punk The Cockettes even struck up friendships with some these musicians, as they celebrated Alice Cooper's 21st birthday at Shakey's Pizza in Berkeley, CA and worked the room at Mick Jagger's birthday.
However, the Cockettes were not everyone's Freak Darlings. Some Freak Scene gossip circulates around an ill-fated encounter between Captain Beefheart and the Cockettes in which the two were supposed to co-headline a show at the Berkeley Community Theatre. Staging a mock orgy to welcome Beefheart proved to be a misguided idea, since the Captain promptly ditched the group at the either first sign of some steamy theatrics or Cockette Daniel Ware’s invitation to join. (see Pam Tent, Midnight at the Palace, 100). If this did in fact happen, it poses an far out conundrum: what happens when you out-freak the freak?
Next installment: Meet the Cockettes, a behind-the-scenes look at their San Francisco Art Institute photo shoot.
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c19 scholar interested in all things freakish