BARchive :: Keep On Rocking in the Queer World

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Sunday December 25, 2016
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Tuxedomoon performing at the Gay Community Center (330 Grove) in the late 1970s
Tuxedomoon performing at the Gay Community Center (330 Grove) in the late 1970s

Rock and roll was tied up in my concept of what San Francisco was even before I moved here. The impact of the Summer of Love and groups like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were felt around the world. But when I first visited in 1978, punk and New Wave were the dominant forces.

My trip featured a visit to Rough Trade Records, then on Grant Street. When I moved here in 1980, the clubs I favored included the Stud, the I-Beam and the Headquarters (683 Clementina) - where a metal door was rolled up between midnight and 2am. Then the pizza restaurant had made its nightly transition to an afterhours club where I was introduced to songs like Human League's "Being Boiled" and Pete Shelley's "Homosapien."

If you watch films about this period, you would think that all gay people listened to disco. But the gay press of the era will disabuse you of this notion. Howie Klein, who worked at Aquarius Records on Castro and KSAN -and who would go on to work with artists like Depeche Mode, Talking Heads and the Ramones at Sire Records - wrote a column for the Bay Area Reporter called "Discographic Drool" from 1976 to 1978.

In his first column on Aug. 5, 1976, he wrote, "In San Francisco you can hear the Blue öyster Cult in Toad Hall, Willie Nelson at the Rainbow Cattle Company, Patti Smith at the Hungry Hole, Emmylou Harris in the Cinch, and, of course, disco music in other bars."

He then went on to review the first Ramones album. Klein was followed by Adam Block and Jerry De Gracia, who wrote about rock music in the B.A.R. well through the '80s.

Another LGBT press connection from the era is transgender author and musician Ginger Coyote. Coyote began the zine Punk Globe in 1977 (online at www.punkglobe.com) and went on to form the White Trash Debutantes in the late 1980s.

DJs were a vital source of inspiration to nascent punk rock in the gay community as well. Marc Huestis told me, "We had punk rock Mondays at Cafe Flore followed by punk rock night at The Stud."

Larry LaRue started playing rock at The Stud (then at 1535 Folsom) in August 1978, so the informal punk rock Mondays at Flore was happening before that. Sam LaBelle started playing rock at The Brig in 1979. By 1981 Alan Robinson had started playing rock at the I-Beam. Greg Cruikshank began his DJ career playing punk and new wave at the 181 Club in 1981 as well.

One group of performers central to LGBT Punk and New Wave were the Angels of Light. Members of Tuxedomoon, Noh Mercy/Esmerelda and the Wasp Women were all involved in the Angels, as were filmmaker Marc Huestis, electronic wizard and producer Tommy Tadlock, and Cruikshank.

Daniel Nicoletta was romantically involved in the '70s with Tuxedomoon member Steven Brown and photographed their performances. Cruikshank had been to London and told me, "In 1976 I met and collaborated with Vivienne Westwood in the U.K. Upon returning, I felt the need to be a conduit for what was a counter-cultural London moment that would later be called Punk or New Wave."

Tuxedomoon provided musical accompaniment to the Angels show Sci-Clones at Everett Middle School (450 Church) in March, 1978. They also performed in the Castro at the Eureka Theater (then in the basement of a church on Market Street). Their version of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" features Cruikshank on vocals and was recorded live on the back of a float on Castro Street in August 1977 during Gay day celebrations.

Tuxedomoon performed at the Gay Community Center (at 330 Grove) with Winston Tong and Noh Mercy and at the Temple Beautiful, Deaf Club and Mabuhay Gardens. A complete history of these prolific musicians (including the period involving the Angels of Light) is available in the book "Music For Vagabonds: The Tuxedomoon Chronicles," by Isabelle Corbisier.

Noh Mercy was Esmerelda Kent and Tony Hotel and existed from 1979 to 1980. They performed at places like the Deaf Club (530 Valencia), Mabuhay Gardens (443 Broadway) and Savoy Tivoli (1434 Grant) as well as 544 Natoma, Peter Hartman's performance gallery. In 1980 the group broke up and Esmerelda began performing solo. A CD of Noh Mercy's work, including live performances from the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, was released in 2012.

The Wasp Women were Rodney Price, Julie Petro and Teena Rosen and existed from 1979 - 1981. Their backup band called The Maggot Men featured musicians from the Touch Tones and Wire Train. They began as a skit from the Angels of Light at the Castro Street Fair in 1979 and were so popular they continued to perform for two years. The released a single entitled "Kill Me!" backed with "I Don't Need Your Attitude" and are perhaps best known for their appearance in Huestis film Whatever Happened to Susan Jane.

Said Huestis, "What I loved about this scene was the gay element melded into the punk zeitgeist. It was wild and looking back curiously innocent."

There were several other San Francisco bands associated with the LGBT community that were not associated with the Angels, however, including Wilma, the Contractions and Voice Farm. Wilma and the Contractions had a political edge to their music, whereas Voice Farm was catchy and synth dominant (they would later open for Depeche Mode).

And events against Proposition 6 occurred such as "Nix on Six: Save The Homos Benefit" with bands like Crime and The Offs playing, with Harvey Milk acting as emcee at the Mabuhay Gardens.

Aside from homegrown performers, the queer punk scene drew performers from outside the area as well. One notable example is Camille O'Grady, who had been performing in New York at clubs such as CBGBs and Max's Kansas City since 1973. O'Grady's sound was keyboard-based and as a punk chanteuse she was well known for her song "Toilet Kiss."

Initially a member of Television was in her backup band and she opened for Lou Reed on the Street Hassle tour. She was provided an introduction to San Francisco from Robert Mapplethorpe, who recommended her to writer Jack Fritscher and artist Robert Opel.

O'Grady moved here in late 1978 and performed at several clubs in SoMa including The Brig (where they constructed a pine coffin as her stage) and The Ambush, as well as at Opel's Fey Way gallery.

Gay San Francisco was a magnet for bands on tour as well. The Tom Robinson Band came through town in 1978 and tied their message to Anita Bryant, John Briggs and Proposition 6.

Jayne County came to town in June 1980 and Adam Block suggested in his column it was an event "every adventurous soul should tattoo on their calendars."

When musicians with special appeal to the gay community like Visage and Pete Shelley came through town, there was ample coverage in the gay press (and non-musicians like Edith Massey got coverage when they fronted bands as well).

Punk and New Wave were a vital response to the Reagan years and channeled the anger of their fans. They had a home in gay San Francisco in the late '70s and early '80s, providing entertainment to many fans. As part of our history the scene deserves to be remembered - and it is preserved both through Huestis' film and the iconography and music from the era. The punk impulse remains a vital artistic inspiration.

The author would like to thank Marc Huestis, Greg Cruikshank, Dan Nicoletta, Sam LaBelle, Penelope Houston, Camille O'Grady and Jack Fritscher.