Photography by Various COUNTERCULTURE / May 2014

THE COCKETTES, SAN FRANCISCO’S HIPPIE ACID FREAK DRAG QUEENS

Photography by Various Photographers
Text by Sophie Pinchetti

Born in San Francisco, The Cockettes were all at once a loosely formed commune and theatre troupe. They were early sexual revolutionaries, free-spirited dreamers, whose flamboyant style spoke poetically of life lived as Art. When hippie meets drag on LSD, you know you’re cooking a recipe for a creative explosion. Welcome to the magic of a sexual revolution on acid!

Bursting onto San Francisco’s countercultural scene in the late Sixties, The Cockettes embodied the fantasy and rebellious spirit of the West Coast to perfection. Coming together in 1969, The Cockettes were initially composed of ten young men, three women and an infant, original Cockette members included Hibiscus, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Link, Dusty Dawn, Fayette Hauser, Rumi Missabu and Wally. But non-exclusivity was a fundament – everyone could be a Cockette!

 

Hibiscus lives: Stills from The Cockettes (2002) A documentary film by David Weissman & Bill Webers.

Hibiscus lives: Stills from The Cockettes (2002) A documentary film by David Weissman & Bill Webers. Right: Hibiscus channelling Isadora Duncan.

 

THE COCKETTES’ STORY BEGINS WITH HIBISCUS

 

The Cockettes’ story begins with the flamboyant Hibiscus. Coming from a theatrical background, Hibiscus was also known as George Edgerly Harris III, Jr., immortalised forever in Bernie Boston’s iconic “Flower Power” photograph where he is seen placing a flower into a soldier’s gun at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration.

 

'Flower Power', October 21, 1967. Photographed by Bernie Boston. In this iconic photograph, George Edgerly Harris III, Jr. places a flower into a soldier's gun during a march to the Pentagon at an anti-Vietnam war protest.

‘Flower Power’, October 21, 1967. Photographed by Bernie Boston. In this iconic photograph, the man is said to be George Edgerly Harris III, Jr. (soon to become Hibiscus), placing a flower into a soldier’s gun during a march to the Pentagon at an anti-Vietnam war protest.

 

He could conjure magic out of anything”, says Pam Tent, also known as Sweet Pam, who wrote the first memoir book on the history of the group: Midnight at the Palace: My Life as a Fabulous Cockette (2004). “He came out of the closet wearing the entire closet”, says Nicky Nichols, a fellow Cockette. “He looked like Jesus Christ with lipstick”, asserts fellow Cockette Reggie. American filmmaker David Weissman, who co-directed the only Cockettes documentary film ever made, also adds: “He was a pied piper, a visionary, and had an extraordinary way with old kimonos, torn gowns, lace, glitter and wilting flora.”

Upon arriving in San Francisco, Harris began to bloom into Hibiscus. He first started living at Kaliflower, a commune whose structure was inspired by the writings of American utopian socialist John Humphrey Noyes. Communes were at the height of countercultural fashion – the Bay area alone had around 300 communes. Intended as a viable alternative, communes attempted to exercise the utopian vision of life outside of the system and the money economy.

But it soon became clear that Kaliflower’s structure was far too rigid for someone more inclined to dancing like Isadora Duncan and wearing fruits as turbans. Hibiscus waved goodbye and joined what was now to become The Cockettes house. Hibiscus catalysed the group’s innate sense of performance and fantasy, encouraging everyone to dance in public and be free.

 

Hibiscus dancing with baby at Earthfare, Golden Gate Park, SF  April 20, 1969  sheet 278  frame 8

Hibiscus dancing with baby around the popular spot in Golden Gate Park known to many as “Hippie Hill”, San Francisco, 1969. Photographed by Robert Altman

 

CHILDREN OF THE SUMMER OF LOVE OF ‘67

 

The Cockettes were born in the hotbed of experimentation of the late Sixties. This was a turbulent era, defined by radical ideas, utopian dreams and a booming youth culture. These ingredients gave rise to widespread demonstrations, political activism, environmentalism, a strong counterculture with its very own Underground Press Syndicate, as well many other unprecedented movements and ideas that are still shaping much of the world of today. Artists sought to reconcile art and life, sometimes building actual communes, such as the infamous Drop City in southern Colorado.

In America, the wild child of it all was by far San Francisco. In the Summer of Love of 1967, the Bay area became a breeding ground for a mad, alternative hub pioneering communal living, psychedelic peace and sexual liberation, attracting some of the country’s most radical and colourful freaks, drop-outs, artists and writers, often hitchhiking half way across the country to make their way to the city.

Located in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighbourhood in an old Victorian house, The Cockettes house became something of an on-going party house of hippie divas. “That was our family”, recalls Fayette, “I thought we were the most beautiful, the most artistic, creative people in the city”.

 

The Other_Subculture_Style_Cockettes_San Francisco_Fayette Hauser_01_Cockettes house

Inside the Cockette House, Oak Street, San Francisco, 1971. Photographed by Bud Lee

 

HIPPIE DRAG QUEENS TAKE ON THE STAGE

 

In the fall of 1969, The Cockettes made their theatrical debut. Jumping spontaneously onto the stage at the Palace Theatre during the Midnight Film screenings held by San Francisco’s underground film collective, The Nocturnal Dream Shows, their joyful and shambolic half-naked performance was legendary. Psychedelic gay hippies had been unleashed on the world! Thrusting genitals full of glitter, The Cockettes were propelled to the height of the countercultural avant-garde – capturing all at once the imagination and revolutionary impulses of their generation.

 

The Cockettes during Luminous Procuress (1972)

The Cockettes during Luminous Procuress (1971) A film by Steven Arnold. Colour, Sound, 74mins, 35mm.

Kaliflower The Interncommunal [free] Newspaper, a publication of the free print shop Vol. 1, No. 38 (January 8, 1970) Cover

Kaliflower The Intercommunal [free] Newspaper, a publication of the free print shop Vol. 1, No. 38 (January 8, 1970) with the Cockettes on the cover.

WHAT PEOPLE SAID

The wildest drag show in the world, free or otherwise.
– Herb Caen/SF Chronicle

It was sort of like going to a high school reunion at a mental institution. (…) They were like hippy acid freak drag queens!
– John Waters

When you walk down the street and you see somebody sitting in a mud puddle and they invite you to jump in and you do, that’s the Cockettes.
– Organ Magazine

This is the most outrageous thing I ‘ave ever witnessed.
– Truman Capote

Cheered on by wild audiences entranced by their transcendental vision of sexuality, The Cockettes first took on the West Coast. Their extravagant musicals included performances such as Madame Butterfly, Les Ghouls, and Journey to the Center of Uranus, (which included a guest performance by countercultural icon drag queen, Divine). The Cockettes’ brand of theatre was an explosive mix of influences which included the likes of The Living Theater, the films of Jack Smith and John Vaccaro’s Play House of the Ridiculous.

For two and half years, The Cockettes lived full blast. It was a short-lived but incredibly prolific time. As Rumi Missabu says, “We thought at the time that was how our lifestyle was going to be forever“. By 1972, the glory days were fizzling out. Following a disastrous debut in New York to an audience that included the likes of Andy Warhol and the illustrious fashion editor Diana Vreeland, it was clear that drugs and money disputes had taken their toll on the group. In July 1972, the remaining Cockette members parted ways. Sadly, by the Eighties, many of The Cockettes were struck with AIDS, with Hibiscus notably being the first of the group to leave this world.

 

An early Seventies poster for the Midnight Films

An early Seventies poster for the Midnight Films

The Cockettes (2002) Directed by Bill Weber and David Weissman, 100 mins. The Only Cockettes documentary ever made. To watch the full film, visit www.thecockettes.com

THE OTHER_Home of Subcultures and Style Documentary_Photography_The Cockettes_San Francisco_Wally

Cockette Wally, 1971. Photographed by Clay Geerdes

 

HIGH DRAG: STYLE À LA ACID VISION

 

The Cockettes gave birth to a new vision of drag: or “high drag” as original Cockette Fayette Hauser calls it. As Hibiscus said in a 1980 interview: “Instead of dressing in drag, I was dressing more as gods. We were all creating mythic figures.

Clothes were the physical gateway into this new realm of fantasy. The outfits became wearable art, the body a canvas, and every pavement, a stage. “We completely communicated through drag”, affirms Fayette Hauser.

 

The Other_Home of Subcultures and Style Documentary_The Cockettes_Group_02 Paris Match Mary Ellen mark

The Cockettes photographed by Mary Ellen Mark. Originally published in French national newspaper, Paris Match, 1971.

 

Think mystic opulence on a thrift-store budget (at the time, that meant practically no money at all). The Cockettes’ style was a rapture of different references melting together – think Twenties and Thirties glam meets the epoch’s signature cosmic gypsy style, tribal Africa on Voodoo acid (a particularly dark LSD trip), and an infinite number of other bizarre concoctions and layers of patterns, colors, fabrics and textures draped along the body to wild effect.

Usually performing, singing and dancing while tripping on generous amounts of LSD, outfits and make up were also styled à la Acid Vision.

This is bricolage on a new level: lashings of sequins, lace, fur, tulle, chiffon, tinsel, rhinestones, crêpe paper come together with accessories such as fluorescent feathers and turbans, while exposed surfaces of the skin were given the finishing touch of glitter – tits and cocks often boldly flaunted. The operative word here is FREEDOM.

 

The Other_Home of Subcultures and Style Documentary_The Cockettes_Photography Clay Geerdes_San Francisco

The Cockettes as Psychedelic Geishas in the last production of their musical ‘Pearls Over Shanghai’, San Francisco, 1972. Left: Scrumbly. Right: Dusty Dawn and Wally. Photographs by Clay Geerdes.

 

FREE LOVE AND THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION

 

The Cockettes celebrated sexual experimentation and free love. Most of The Cockettes were bisexual, celebrating a poly-amorous relationship with nearly all who entered The Cockette house. For a group who aspired to be psychic divine creatures, no wonder conventional social constructs or ideas of sexual orientation and identity were ill-suited. As Original Cockette member Rumi Missabu remembers, “What we were wearing was as equally important as being naked and being exhibitionists”.

This is genderfuck at its best. Or post-gender, as some have even called it. The Cockettes obliterated limits between male and female, pioneering a new sense of confidence within the gay liberation movement of the time as well as celebrating the new, sexy, liberated body consciousness of the times. As Weissman tells us, “It gave me a window into drag that I’d never thought up before, which is to see drag as a subversive medium. A revolutionary medium!

 

The Cockettes- breakfast at the Bush Street house June 1970. Photographed by Robert Altman

The Cockettes- breakfast at the Bush Street house, June 1970, San Francisco. Photographed by Robert Altman.

THE OTHER_Subculture_The Cockettes_San Francisco_Rumi Missabu_s

Left: The Allegory of Venus, 1970. Photographed by Blair Paltridge. John Rothermel, Sandy, Aaron, Rumi, Toby, Kreemah Ritz and Johnny during the recreation of the Painting “Allegory of Venus” by Agnolo Bonzino, painted c.1546. Right: The Cockettes Ride a San Francisco Cable Car, 1967. Photographed by Gene Anthony.

A LEGACY THAT LIVES ON TODAY

 

As ephemeral as it was, The Cockettes’ inspiring spirit lives on today. There’s something of it with today’s rising counterculture. The Cockettes spoke of a cultural renaissance, challenging all at once sexuality, identity, society, and the very foundations of reality. Between 1969 and 1972, they materialized a parallel universe, a melting pot of subversion and their own signature of psychedelic glamour.

Free reign to imagination! Ideas are the new currency! Revolutionise your reality! These seem to be the some of the maxims firing up The Cockettes. Or, as the underground newspaper Village Voice wrote, “Insanity becomes reality, fantasy becomes truth”!

Their mystique hasn’t gone unnoticed. Since the 2002 documentary film release of The Cockettes by David Weissman and Bill Weber, a resurgence of (overdue) interest has been sparked. Major contemporary fashion designers such as Marc Jacobs and John Galliano notably credit the Cockettes as a source of inspiration, while Vogue Italia paid tribute to The Cockettes in the pages of its magazine in an editorial entitled “The Couturettes” in 2006.

What’s more, today, in The Cockettes’ very own birthplace of San Francisco, a revival of their exotic musical Pearls Over Shanghai is now taking place. It follows a revival of Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma last year. The performance unites original Cockettes alongside contemporary theatre troupe The Thrillpeddlers as part of their annual Theatre of the Ridiculous Revival.

The Cockettes’ spirit lives on today. Drag queen or not, there’s part of it with every outsider and freak. It’s a legacy living on through every free spirit, every explosion of imagination, or as Rumi Missabu tells us, every human being “who lets their freak flag fly high!” – AMEN.

 

➜ http://cockettes.com

➜  http://www.davidweissmanfilms.com

http://www.altmanphoto.com

➜ http://fayettehauser.com

A revival of San Francisco’s longest-running Cockettes musical hit’s PEARLS OVER SHANGHAI is presented through June 28th 2014 by The Thrillpeddlers and three original Cockettes, Scrumbly Koldewyn, “Sweet Pam” Tent, and Rumi Missabu, at The Hypnodrome Theater, San Francisco.

 

The Other_home of subcultures and styel documentary_The Cockettes_John Flowers by Bud Lee

John Flowers relaxing at home at The Cockettes’ Victorian house, San Francisco, 1971. Photographed by Bud Lee

The Cockettes by Clay Geerdes

The Cockettes at the entrance of their Victorian home on Haight Street, San Francisco, 1971, Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark. Originally published in Paris Match

THE OTHER_Home of Subcultures_Style Documentary_The Cockettes_san Francisco_Paper doll book_03

The only book published by the San Francisco based drag troupe The Cockettes: their version of a paper doll book. Scrumbly, Wally, Pristine Condition, John Flowers, Link, Golden Glitters, John Rothermel and Sweet Pam from The Cockettes strip and model for the book. Artwork by John Flowers with Photography by Clay Geerdes. Published in 1971.

Excerpt from a unique book published by The Cockettes, San Francisco, USA. 1971.

Excerpt from a unique book published by The Cockettes, San Francisco, USA. 1971.

THE OTHER_Home of Subcultures_Style Documentary_The Cockettes_san Francisco_Paper doll book_02

Excerpt from a unique book published by The Cockettes, San Francisco, USA. 1971.

THE OTHER_HOME OF SUBCULTURES AND STYLE DOCUMENTARY_THE COCKETTES_San Francisco_wally_by_Leee Black childers

Original Cockette Wally channeling pure flamboyance, New York, 1971. Photographed by Leee Black Childers.

The Other_Home of Subcultures and Style Documentary_The Cockettes_Fayette Hauser_San Francisco_img011

Excerpt from a unique book published by The Cockettes, San Francisco, USA. 1971.

THE OTHER_Subculture_The Cockettes_San Francisco_Fayette Hauser

Fayette Hauser, one of The Cockettes as her cosmic gypsy persona, San Francisco, USA, 1972. Photographed by Roger Arvid Anderson

The Other_Home of Subcultures and Style Documentary_The Cockettes_Link_San Francisco_img013

Excerpt from a unique book published by The Cockettes, San Francisco, USA. 1971.

Rumi in Pearls Over Shanghai, one of the Cockette's performances.

Rumi in Pearls Over Shanghai, one of the Cockette’s performances, Ross Alley, San Francisco Chinatown, 1970. Photographed by David Wise

The Other_Home of Subcultures and Style Documentary_The Cockettes_San Francisco

Scrumbly Koldewyn, (as Native American ‘brave’) – Backstage at the Palace Theatre, San Francisco. “I was dressed to sing “Indian Love Call” in duet with Kreemah Ritz as Jeanette McDonald. I opted for the Indian role rather than the Canadian Mounty as portrayed by Nelson Eddy in the 1930s film”, says Scrumbly.

The Other_home of subcultures and style documentary_The Cockettes_Native Funk and Flash

Cockette Superstars, Scrumbly Koldewyn and Pristine Condition as photographed for the Seventies book, Native Funk and Flash by Alexandra Jacopetti Hart. First published in 1974.

THE OTHER_The Cockettes_san Francisco_Drag_Scrumbly Koldewyn

Scrumbly Koldewyn with grapes in his hair, in the back yard of the Cockettes house on Oak Street, San Francisco, c.1971.

The Other_Subculture_Style_Cockettes_San Francisco_Fayette Hauser_02

Fayette Hauser (1971) Photographed by Clay Geerdes. This was taken in an alley behind Steven Arnold’s studio in the Mission District, San Francisco.

The Other_Home of Subcultures and Style Documentary_The Cockettes_Sweet Pam, John Rothermel, and Pristine Condition photo by Clay Geerdes

Sweet Pam, John Rothermel, and Pristine Condition in an alley of the Mission district, San Francisco, 1971. Photographed by Clay Geerdes.

THE OTHER_The Cockettes_san Francisco_Divine_Fayette Hauser_Scrumbly_John Rothermel

Left: Divine and Cockette friends. Right: Fayette Hauser, John Flowers and John Rothermel in an alley of the Mission district, San Francisco. 1971. Photographed by Clay Geerdes during the photo shoot for The Cockettes’ unique publication: a paper doll-style zine.

The Other_Home of Subcultures and Style Documentary_The Cockettes_San Francisco_Wally by Fayette Hauser

Wally at home on Oak Street, San Francisco, 1971. Photographed by Fayette Hauser, also known as Semaphore. “Wally spent hours assembling his high drag which was filled with glitter and feathers, extremely colorful. He would then trip around the City, spreading the love, coming home days later, with the drag looking much the worse for wear”, says original Cockette Fayette Hauser.

Scrumbly and Link in the Field of Lavender – 1971. Photographed by Semaphore

Scrumbly and Link in the Field of Lavender – 1971. Photographed by Fayette Hauser. “Scrumbly and Link were our great creative pair, the magicians. Scrumbly wrote the music and Link wrote the lyrics as well as the script of our plays. We began singing old Broadway and Hollywood show tunes but we soon grew into presenting original musicals”, says Fayette.

THE OTHER_Subculture_The Cockettes_San Francisco_Sophie Pinchetti

Pristine Condition, Marshall Olds, Cockette Bobby, Danny Isley and Link Martin in the Field of Lavender – 1971. Photographed by Fayette Hauser. “The Chateau on Oak Street had a yard that grew wild lavender and I imagined us as blooming in a mystical landscape, full of color and magic. The mystical landscape that spawned our dreams was San Francisco”, says Original Cockette member Fayette Hauser.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>