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!
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.
“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.
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”.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.