BY Daniel Reich in Frieze | 09 SEP 02
Featured in
Issue 69

Bearded Ladies

The Cockettes

BY Daniel Reich in Frieze | 09 SEP 02

If you ask someone of a certain generation and background about the early 1970s drag performers The Cockettes, they will say 'Yes, of course'. And it turns out that A stayed at their commune after arriving in San Francisco while B snuck in under-age to see 'Hot Greeks' and C's friend D was an actual Cockette.

The Cockettes made their début on New Year's Eve 1969 at San Francisco's Palace Theater. During an intermission in a midnight film programme for tripping hippies, which mixed experimental works such as Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1966) with Captain Marvel cartoons and vintage Hollywood cinema, a group of wildly costumed hippie men in dresses got on stage and danced to the Rolling Stones' 'Jumping Jack Flash'. They received a standing ovation from the audience, many of whom had joined them on stage, and The Cockettes became regular entertainment at the Palace, soon attracting the likes of Janis Joplin and receiving a rave review from Rex Reed in his nationally syndicated column. For a time 'The Cockettes [were] where it's at', as Truman Capote put it on the Tonight Show. They appeared in Rolling Stone, Paris Match and other periodicals, and attracted admiration from Diana Vreeland, John Lennon and Marlene Dietrich, among others. All this ended with their catastrophic New York début, when the Anderson Theater's large stage overwhelmed their cardboard sets and their flower child anti-professionalism seemed merely unprofessional. Gore Vidal delivered the kiss of death by remarking, 'a lack of talent is not enough', as he left mid-performance. Covered in glitter, dressed in thrift store gowns and chaotically bedecked with pineapples, beads, feathers and surprising oddities, The Cockettes created a paradoxical, funky glamour.

Their singularity of vision is captured in David Weissman's new film The Cockettes (2002), which chronicles the band's rise and fall, presenting them as LSD-fuelled atom-smashers melding the absurd. The Cockettes were all about juxtaposition: a glittering, hippie, slapstick, drag, pop, organic, flower-power, Situationist escapade, including men (mostly hippie queens), women and even children. John Waters described the group as 'total sexual anarchy' and most Cockette productions involved unanticipated groupings, gropings and couplings. Examples include the Fairy Tale Extravaganza, which featured every fairy tale character they could think of, Les Ghouls, in which two brides of Frankenstein become lovers while Frankenstein's monster elopes with the laboratory assistant, and the film Tricia's Wedding (1971), based on Tricia Nixon's nuptials, where an orgy of political figures and celebrities is unleashed when Eartha Kitt pours LSD into the punch.

Allowing for infinite variation, the iconic Cockette look combined beards, lipstick and excess glitter with dresses. Other characteristics included shaven eyebrows, women's make-up used almost as a form of body painting with tribal flourishes, and velvet and lace thrift store clothing. The funky glittering beard look lent itself at one moment to profane simulations of urgent, unquenchable, whorehouse lust, while in photographs it can have a sacred Byzantine stillness, strangely twisting the messianic associations already afforded to long-haired, bearded young men with ideas in the 1960s.

If The Cockettes had a messianic leader, it was their founder, Hibiscus. However, as potential adherents and prophet were perpetual acid queens, leadership was always a mixed-up, contentious issue. Born George Harris, the 17-year-old Hibiscus travelled to San Francisco from New York City in 1967, the Summer of Love. As a child actor, he had performed both in television commercials and at Café Cino, whose proprietor Joe Cino donned a black cape to introduce his underground theatre productions with the words 'It's Magic Time!' In New York, Harris befriended Jack Smith and Playhouse of the Ridiculous founder John Vacarro, who since the mid-1950s had used glitter to cover actors, costumes and entire stages. The dissonant blend in Harris' background of optimistic hippie 1967 zeitgeist, poptimistic TV commercial jingles and the asphalt glitter of Café Cino, Jack Smith and John Vacarro was essential to The Cockettes, to which Harris initially gave the less marketable, more invocational, name of Angels of Light.

The LSD, love-generation mentality encouraged finding one's own trip and could be realized in the distribution of free food or in the use of free time to smell daisies and jump up and down in the park to conga drums - all of which Harris did on arriving in San Francisco. The wreath of roses in his hair became an elaborate headdress and, trading his long Indian tunic for a dress, he named himself Hibiscus after a Jean Cocteau poem about the brightly but briefly blooming flower. Looking like Christ in lipstick, he cut a sensational figure in public and soon attracted other future Cockettes, who remember first seeing him in a tree singing show tunes beckoning them to join him.

The Cockettes' original film and theatre productions were mostly in the tradition of American escapist entertainment: exotic Hollywood epics such as Pearls Over Shanghai (1971) and MGM Musicals such as Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma (1969). In a way The Cockettes were thus nostalgic for Hollywood glamour, which they remembered from the black and white repeats of 1940s and 1950s movies they had seen on TV, and D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille spectaculars. Needless to say, they appreciated that the thrill of Hollywood glamour lay in its hysterical sublimation of wanton, persistent need, as portrayed by Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon (1958), which chronicled the perversities, addictions and grotesque deaths of the stars. Like The Cockettes, the pre-1960s Hollywood star was repackaged with a new name and processed with a surgically standardized, graphically made-up face embalmed in black and white celluloid to live eternally as a death mask in the purple dawn of the American imagination.

In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) Tom Wolfe describes the psychedelic vision as in part a product of the packaging, sales pitches and comic-book fantasies of pop organic mutation on which the nuclear baby boomers of 1960s America were raised: 'The incredible postwar American electro-pastel surged into the suburbs, with super-highways, dreamboat cars, shopping centres - Eight new Plexiglas Display Features - Go ahead and say it: Shazam! Billy Batson said "Shazam!" And turned into Captain Marvel.'

In the metaphor of Billy Batson becoming the fabulous Captain Marvel, Wolfe captures the American aspiration to redemptive transformation through stardom or the repeated mantras of spiritual faith or the accumulation of dollars, shiny coins, new clothes and luxury paraphernalia. As the artificial display light of Wolfe's vision would cause glitter to sparkle, so in his Playhouse of the Ridiculous John Vacarro meant glitter to symbolize 'the gaudiness of America, the gaudiness of Times Square'. But glitter also mimics the twinkling of celestial stars, graphically standardized as the Stars and Stripes, giving birth to Hollywood stars, projected on the silver screen in the Palace Theater in San Francisco a century after the Gold Rush.

Harris died of Aids in 1982, leaving behind a glittering scrapbook on The Cockettes the beauty of which is beyond coherent ideological form, like saying 'Shazam'. Thrill was the essence of The Cockettes. Or, as ex- Cockette Reggie remarks in the film, 'I got nothing from school, church or family. When you consider the world with its wars, its banks, its malls, give me a hit of acid and a torn dress and let's go to the beach.'