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"Stairway to Paradise" by James Nolan

November 4, 2018
Was anyone ever so young? -Joan Didion, “Goodbye to All That”

"Stairway to Paradise" by James Nolan

from Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy

(University Press of Mississippi, 2018)

Winner of the 2018 Next-Generation Indie Book Award for Best Memoir.

Reproduced by permission of the author.

The night Mick Jagger picked me up in San Francisco, I was spending my last two dollars on a Heineken at a terrace table of the Savoy Tivoli in North Beach. It was another chilly fall evening of 1970 in a city where, for someone who had just turned twenty-three, anything and everything seemed possible. From the back, one of the two Brits at the next table looked familiar, and then he swiveled around, eyebrow arched with a question, finger pointing at the lighter on my table. The lips, the cheekbones, the silk scarf knotted around his neck—it was him—and when our eyes met, I could tell he was looking for more than a light.

I nodded, and then Mick lit his cigarette, taking me in at a single glance: blond hair past my shoulders, velvet pants, kohl-lined eyes, and a ring on every finger of the hippie sitting alone nursing a beer. “Mind if I join you?” he asked with a wink. Stunned, I again nodded, pushing out the chair next to mine. “It gets a bit boring chatting with one’s chauffer.” The man he’d been seated with was wearing a driver’s uniform and cap. “Please allow me to introduce myself,” I said. Those fleshy lips twitched at my joke. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. And for the first time I smiled back. Then he took out a silver coke spoon, twiddling it between his fingers. Our preliminary conversation was something about New York, a tour, how hard it was for him to go out publicly. Soon we were sitting behind the tinted windows of his limo parked around the corner on Union Street, holding up the silver coke spoon to each other’s nostrils. I was surprised to feel his hand on my knee, and then farther up my thigh, which I took as permission to lunge toward those lips with a gelatinous kiss that seemed to go on forever. I’d never had sex with another man before but under these circumstances, didn’t hesitate. To my embarrassment, the cheap zipper on my hand-stitched velvet pants stuck, and Mick had to tug at it, but the zipper on his tight goatskin trousers eased down like a first bite of ice cream.

We finished fooling around just as the chauffeur was settling into the driver’s seat in front of the screened partition. When the engine was turned on, the speakers in back blasted: “Pleased to meet you / hope you guess my name / and what’s troubling you / is the nature of my game.” Then the short, muscular English eccentric pecked me on the cheek, opened the limo’s back door, and said, “It’s been a gas, Jimmy. Ta ta.” Clenching my jaw and sniffing sticky fingers, my boot soles barely touched the sidewalk as I practically skipped along Grant Avenue toward the neon lights of Chinatown. This of course never happened.  Not to me in any case, although I wouldn’t have doubted it for a moment if somebody else had told the same story.

Maybe it was being out of school for the first fall since I was four, or the way the fog tumbled over the Golden Gate Bridge late every afternoon, draping the city in a stage scrim of make believe, or that feeling, as Janis Joplin was singing at the time, of “nothing left to lose.” Maybe it was just being young, but I was convinced something this thrilling could take place at any hour of the day or night, given the collective fantasy we inhabited during the early seventies in San Francisco. By “we” I mean the droves of young people from across the country who had taken over the city during the past few years, all of us in various scraggly stages of reinventing ourselves, complete with new names for our divine reincarnations. We were poised for the magic heading our way, heralded by every moan of a foghorn resounding across the Bay: each of us was destined to become a rock star, the inevitable revolution was almost here, the Vietnam War would soon be over, and our culture of zonked-out peace and love would triumph around the globe. Any day now the Black Panthers would take over City Hall, the troops would come home to plant organic vegetable gardens, and food, rent, theater, and clothes would be free—if only we could figure out how.

We were educated, talented, liberated from the old Judeo-Christian shackles, and seething with visionary optimism. Like Mickey Rooney announcing to the other kids in one of his thirties musicals, “Hey, I have a barn we can turn into a theater—let’s do a show,” we had an even better idea: let’s make a new world together. The old one we left behind had gone to hell. In Aldous Huxley’s phrase, we had “cleansed the doors of perception” with psychedelics, and now saw life as grown- up children did, the unfettered children we were never allowed to be.

Like previous generations of pioneers, we had flocked from across the country to its Western edge to push the limits of the possible way past the parameters of our parents’ dismal lives. We weren’t in Kansas anymore. At the cusp of those libidinous sixteen years between the introduction of the birth control pill and the first AIDS cases, we thought we could reinvent sexuality and stage a prison break for pinch- lipped Puritans. Armed with little but bulk brown rice, food stamps, and secondhand clothes, we also could take back the economy. And if the Promethean fire of freedom were indeed the devil, we felt an enormous sympathy for him. What could possibly go wrong?

My introduction to the ongoing orgy, or atleast to the gay part of it happened differently than in a limo with Mick Jagger tugging at my zipper. Yet it blew off the top of my head. One evening a performer with the Cockettes, a gender-bending theater collective I was hanging out with, showed up at my door on Arguello Street. Sprite- like Gary Cherry had a mane of crinkly chestnut hair past his shoulder blades, and we’d only had one previous conversation. Odd as it seemed at the time, his name wasn’t made up, and it turned out we were both related to the Cherry family in Tennessee. Southern traditions die hard, and so it would take a cousin, so to speak, to get my gay cherry. Twinkle-toed as Puck, Gary held out his hand. “I have a hit of mescaline. Want to do it with me?”

I invited him in, and we split the turquoise tab. Gay life, as I saw it until then, had never attracted me. A few years earlier, in the French Quarter demimonde of older bohemians that formed my introduction to adult life, many of the men I knew were bisexual, fathering children with wives and girlfriends but cruising for tricks in the gay bars, sometimes for money, other times for kicks. During college and grad school, I’d had several serious girlfriends.

Although I felt some homosexual inclinations, I’d never acted on them because I was self-identified as a beat or a hippie, not—how can I delicately put this?—as a fruit. Those were the clean-cut boys in the band who smoked Kools, wore mohair sweaters, hung out in piano bars sipping cocktails and singing Barbra Streisand songs, and worked as florists, decorators, or hairdressers. I liked these people, counted several among my friends, but it wasn’t me.

Once, as a high-school senior, I’d been taken to a Quarter gay bar by a few of these friends, students from the Tulane Architecture School who seemed to know more about me than I did. All four walls of the tiny bar were mirrored, which made it seem crowded, and everyone looked as square and craggy as my uncles. I had no idea what to do or say. A man in a fuzzy sweater tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey,” he said, “what you doing?” Anxious to leave, I wasn’t doing anything. “I’m looking in the mirror,” I said, as if there were anywhere else to stare.

“Oh,” he said, turning away abruptly, “you’re one of those.” I’d never met a gay hippie and didn’t recognize my ambiguous sexuality in the mirror of the times. That is, until I arrived in San Francisco in September of 1970 to crash with some college friends. On my first morning, fresh off the plane from New York, where I’d finished a Master’s in English, I awoke in a two-storied Victorian on Washington Street to a beehive of activity. In the cavernous living room where I’d slept in a corner, guys dressed in work boots and kimonos with glitter in their beards were painting cardboard scenery and singing in falsetto chorus:  “I’ll build a Stairway to Paradise With a new step every day. I’m going to get there at any price, Stand aside, I’m on my way!”

The air was musky with the scent of pot and patchouli, cut by the sharp smell of poster paint and glue. Somebody with a joint between his ruby lips was running around with glittered nipples and a staple gun, affixing yards of sequined ribbon to the borders of cardboard cutouts. Dressed in denim overalls, a blonde woman who looked like Heidi clanked in with a bucket and shovel she’d just used to compost the organic vegetable garden in the backyard.  Upstairs, my college friend David MacMillan turned on the Rolling Stones.

“These were the Cockettes”, explained another college friend, David Wise, their in-house photographer. The group had been started on New Year’s Eve by someone called Hibiscus. By July, Rolling Stone already had published the first of several articles about them. Hibiscus, a.k.a. George Harris, was from a New York theater family, and in the wake of the 1967 Summer of Love, had traveled with his lover Allen Ginsberg to San Francisco, stopping along the way in October at the protest march in Washington, DC, against the war. “Flower Power,” the iconic photo of the blond young man in a white turtleneck inserting a carnation stem into the raised muzzle of a National Guardsman’s gun—that was George—on his way to becoming Hibiscus, the long-haired guy with the glittered beard and staple-gun whom I was studying as I rolled up my sleeping bag.

The troupe was getting ready for a fifties-themed show called “Hell’s Harlots” that would open at midnight on Friday at the Palace, a former North Beach Italian opera house and movie theater now used during the early evenings to screen kung fu flicks and stage Chinese operas. This was to be the seventh of the Cockettes’ loony, homemade shows at the Palace, following that year’s big hits of “Paste on Paste,” “Gone with the Showboat to Oklahoma,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Fairy Tale Extravaganza,” “Tropical Heat Wave,” and “Hollywood Babylon.” As the new “hot number” wandering onto the scene, Hibiscus came over as I stood gaping, planted a lipstick kiss on my cheek, and invited me to the new show—for free.


That Friday, as the elderly Cantonese audience came tottering out at 11:30 p.m., the sidewalk in front of the Palace was already swelling with a dazzling mass of costumed freaks, the likes of which I’d only seen during Mardi Gras in the French Quarter. Both men and women had bracelets up to their elbows, rings on every finger, and madcap bonnets on their frizzy heads. They were shimmering in vintage designs of satin and velvet, turning the corner of Columbus and Powell into a thrift-store runway. Everyone had a unique, elaborately put-together look, or as put-together as you can get while dressing up on LSD. “Love your drag,” people in the ticket line squealed to each other. And this was just the audience. The performers were inside, setting up the scenery. The admission was two dollars, although some people paid with joints or by laying out lines of coke at the cashier’s window.

When the two college-pal Davids and I entered through a stage- door entrance in the alley, the theater already reeked of reefer. Backstage was mayhem, a rainbow whirl of glitter, sequins, toppling cardboard scenery, and half-dressed men and women strapping on high heels. Nobody could remember their lines or knew their cues, although a normally-dressed goateed redhead stood by with a clipboard trying to organize the performers’ entrances and exits. Hibiscus struggled with an enormous papier-mâché flying saucer while a regal looking black man named Sylvester zipped himself into a satin sheath. While David MacMillan threw on a skimpy biker skirt and David Wise snapped away with his Pentax, I took a seat in the front row, studying the faded chinoiserie that decorated the walls and ceiling.

Was I ready for “complete sexual anarchy,” as John Waters would later describe his time with the Cockettes? The previous year I’d gone to Stony Brook on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to study with the death-of-God theologian Thomas Altizer, after taking seminars with his colleague William Hamilton at New College in Florida. Recently their photos had appeared together on the cover of Time, under the caption “Is God Dead?” My Master’s thesis had been on the nouveau roman and the death of traditional narrative. As an undergrad, I had fallen under the spell of the Freudian Norman O. Brown’s books, which proposed that the repressive ego dissolve into “polymorphous perversity,” along with media-guru Marshall McCluhan’s books, which prophesized the end of linear, print-oriented thinking. Marxist writers such as Herbert Marcuse convinced me that capitalism was over. When I decided to end my graduate studies with a Master’s and forgo the Ph.D. path, it appeared that, as a culture, we had thought ourselves to the very end of thinking.

That show was over. God, traditional narrative, the repressive ego, linearity, and capitalism may have become obsolete, dead as the four student war resisters shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State that spring, but I was just getting started. So sitting stoned out of my skull on the front row of the Palace Theater waiting for a Cockette show to begin at midnight, was I in the right place? I thought so. Then the people waiting outside poured in like a flurry of winged angels, and I was soon to discover that the audience was half of the show. We were all on stage as, one by one or in chorus line, the performers tripped onto the proscenium, did their impersonations of slutty greasers, sang and danced—often not so well—while the audience jumped to their feet with catcalls. Hibiscus’s papier-mâché flying saucer came crashing through the scenery, ending the Westside Story gang fight. Sylvester did a silky Billy Holliday number that knocked me out, and then backed by a rock ‘n’ roll band, someone named Rumi barreled onto the boards dressed as Tina Turner, belting out “Proud Mary” while two boys done up as the Ikettes harmonized behind him. No, these weren’t lip-syncing drag queens striking poses in a mirrored gay bar, but for better or worse, real performers marked by an elfish lack of guile.

They weren’t trying to sell us on anything, either sexual roles or their own musical talent. Men played women, and women men, most performers falling somewhere in between. They were the androgynous body celebrated by Whitman and Blake resurrected in all of its sensual glory, far from the ashen sense of an ending that hovered over my graduate seminars during the post-“Wasteland” days of Western civilization. They were the joy that happened after Godot finally arrived. And so they stole my heart.

Well that was fun, I thought, as Gary Cherry slipped out my bedroom at dawn, leaving me naked between the sheets of my mattress on the floor. He did me, I hesitantly did him, we got high, got off, and a good time was had by all. Why had I been so wary about caressing another man’s body all these years? A weight lifted off of my shoulders. Now if people thought I was gay, well, guess what? I was, sort of. At the time I had a girlfriend in the Haight whom I sometimes visited, although those late-night booty calls suddenly seemed less urgent. Evidently, there was another sexy world out there.

And it soon moved in with me. One night Rumi, the Tina Turner impersonator, came a courting in the same way Gary Cherry had. Gary never dropped by again, and I suspect that triple-Scorpio Rumi, as determined a creature as I’d ever known, had sent Gary as a scout to test-drive me. When Rumi finally got my pants down around my boots, he told me that since the moment we met, he’d set his cap for me. In October I’d seen him do a riotous Mick Jagger impersonation at “Les Ghouls,” the Halloween show, pouting carmine lips and shaking maracas in gold harem pants while singing “Sympathy for the Devil,” which inspired the raucous audience to leap up dancing on their seats.

Rumi Missabu aka James Bartlett as Mick Jagger
in LES GHOULS Pagoda Palace 1970
photo: David Wise

Even though this wasn’t the back seat of Jagger’s limo, I was ready. The next morning Rumi woke to tell me about his dream. He was in a room with Tina Turner and Mick Jagger and they were “doing,” or impersonating, each other. When he moved in with me, this grad- school poet learned how to behave as a proper stage-door Johnny.

At that time I was also living with photographer David Wise in an elegant two-story Victorian on Arguello that we scruffy types were able to rent only because one of our roommates, Janet, had persuaded her ex-husband Jerry Jeff Walker, a musician I knew from the French Quarter, to sign the lease for us. Another of our roommates was the drummer for the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils, and the fourth a fading Yankee belle named Shelia, who kept a pet ferret, tolerated only amber light, and was a least ten years older than we were. Wispy Sheila counted among her ex-flames Leonard Cohen, the satirist Paul Krasner, and Gary Brooker, the piano player for Procol Harem. That Halloween, when Brooker came to stay with us while the band played the Fillmore West, he wound up in Janet’s bed, not Sheila’s, and the two never spoke again. As always, I carved a pumpkin, and when my jack-o-lantern wound up perched atop Booker’s grand piano during the gig, I was ecstatic, such was my reverence for lyricist Keith Reid’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

“Rumi,” Sheila would say, “would you please tell Janet that I say not to hang her wet socks over the shower curtain in the bathroom?” The two women’s silences grew loud enough to fill the chilly Victorian. Sheila once walked in on Rumi and me having sex in front of the blazing fireplace in the living room. “We need to establish a firm rule in this household,” she primly announced as we sat cross-legged on tatami mats over our Hunga Dunga food-co-op dinner. “No fucking in the warm room.”  But because of my jack-o-lantern on Procol Harum’s piano, I forgave Sheila her fitful Blanche DuBois scenes. Compared to the chaos, clutter, and cat-fights at the Cockette commune then on Haight Street, our ménage was as sedate as a Jane Austen novel.

My room soon filled with Rumi’s drag—mothy feathers, tasseled dresses, silver stars, mascara pencils, and pineapple tits—although I remained an austere ragamuffin not drawn to the Palace stage. One way I did participate was to write a cover article on the troupe for Organ, a San Francisco monthly, my first piece of published journalism. It featured David Wise’s photographs, and he and I had a grand time brainstorming among the proof sheets in his basement dark room. The piece was called “Picture Postcard Home: The Cock on the Right Is Mine,” a title inspired by the 1936 photograph of my mother’s murdered sixteen-year-old brother in Carnival drag, in which Jimmy is posed on the right. Appropriately, the article is a faux letter to my mother attempting to describe the Cockettes, written in the hyperbolic rush of images inspired by Tom Wolfe’s and Hunter S. Thompson’s New Journalism, my nonfiction muse at the time:

Now, Mother, you told me a number of things about your life during the Depression; nobody had any money, no one had a job, you had two dresses in your closet and everyone, being in the same leaky boat, had fun. Things are not too different here, and sometimes I’ve wondered if it might be your same dresses because, honey, they’re old but were quite a bargain at the Third Hand Store. You said you and your friends made things—none of this TV business—stood in welfare lines, put on your own shows when you didn’t have a quarter for the movies, dreamed of revolution but schemed at getting rich. If anything, the thirties are happening again in the seventies: the talk is big, the soup is thin, and we have a blast . . . The Cockettes are queens in their mothers’ fur coats and their father’s buckle-up army boots. Fools, beautiful fools, in love.

I still wasn’t communicating with my parents after they’d committed me three years earlier, so I never sent this make-believe letter, published in a West Coast magazine that I hoped would never reach New Orleans. But the letter device was more than rhetorical, as close as I was ever to stray toward coming out to them about my fluid bisexuality. After all, I reasoned, I didn’t want to know about theirs, so why should I burden them with details about my sex life. Besides, as far as my family was concerned, I was now “away at sea,” like my great-Uncle Numa, the Merchant Marine engineer. Whatever he did during his long voyages to India, China, or Egypt didn’t concern them. Only what happened in New Orleans counted.

A week after the piece appeared, I got a call from Ramparts, the national leftist magazine. “Is ‘Jimmy Nolan’ a pseudonym?” asked Peter Collier, the editor. That was how I’d signed the piece. “Yes,” I said in a high-pitched lisp. “My real name is Truman Capote.” Capote, a Cockette fan, had been to many of the shows. Collier laughed. “Whoever you are, we’d like you to write for us. Please drop by our office in Berkeley to discuss doing a feature piece for us on another topic. We need your kind of jazzy cultural commentary.”

Late that December, I finally made my first and last stage appearance with the Cockettes at a show called “Winter Wonderland New Year’s Eve Anniversary Extravaganza,” held at a swank mafia nightclub in North Beach, Bimbo’s 365 Club. Rumi insisted that I do it, since at some point the star performers’ “hot numbers” or current boyfriends were expected to parade on stage as boy-toy trophies. But, to say the least, the Cockettes and the mafia weren’t a good fit, so while I was prancing about the stage in a red Sergeant-Pepper-style military jacket, Mr. Bimbo was running around the bar wrapping naked Cockettes in tablecloths, shouting “I’ve never seen so many fucking finocchios in my life.” Rumi was supposed to close the show with his Tina Turner number, which he’d tirelessly been rehearsing for this big break on the club scene. But just as he was about to go on stage with his band, Mr. Bimbo cut off the lights. “Union rules,” he announced, triumphant. “This show got to shut down at two in the morning.”

Rumi Missabu as Tina Turner 
photo:David Wise

Rumi was heartbroken, weeping all the way home in the taxi while I held his Tina Turner wig in my lap. He disappeared the next day, and still crestfallen came back a week later to collect his drag. What’s love got to do with it? I wondered, already up to my neck in secondhand emotions and third-hand dresses.

That February, Hibiscus left the troupe he’d founded, aghast at the hippie-capitalist direction the group was taking. An internecine war broke out between those who supported free theater and those who, unhappy with the $20 per show they earned each month, wanted a more lucrative success to match their spreading fame. Hardly anyone had a real job and most lived either on funds from home or on a pittance of state welfare called Aid to the Totally Disabled, for which they auditioned by acting out for a social worker their most bizarrely psychotic fantasies. A welfare acceptance letter was considered an Academy Award.

Hibiscus, a purist at heart who gathered day-old bread and wilting flowers from restaurant garbage cans, had fallen under the early influence of the Kaliflower commune, where Allen Ginsburg had installed him before returning to New York. The commune, whose window curtains were blood-stained sheets free from the city morgue, was run by the dictatorial ideologue Irving Rosenthal, author of the novel Sheeper and a former editor of the Chicago Review. Although I avoided Rosenthal, at least two decades older than I was, years later when I came to know Allen Ginsburg better, I could well imagine how the two could have been friends (or perhaps aging makes fussbudgets of us all). Kaliflower banned tobacco and alcohol, conducted surprise midnight meat raids on other communes’ fridges, cutting them out of the Hunga Dunga food co-op if they discovered so much as a hot dog secreted among the mung beans, and insisted art should be free. Hibiscus soon founded another gender-bending theater troupe called the Angels of Light, more like the Living Theater than Busby Berkeley, whose sporadic free shows were even more spectacularly chaotic than the Cockettes.

Ambivalent, I continued to hang out with both camps, but the bloom was off the rose. As a veteran of political movements, I’d been wondering how long it would take for tribal factions to square off in some atavistic clash and people to start screaming at each other. I’d also been waiting for Puritan America, which we thought we’d left behind, to pinch it’s judgmental lips and butt in. As it turned out, Cain and Abel, along with the four figures in “American Gothic,” had been waiting in the wings the whole time, clubs and pitchforks raised, even while the rest of us thought we were tap-dancing our way to paradise.

I turned back to writing.  Louis Simpson, my poet mentor at Stony Brook, managed to place one of my poems in the 1971 edition of Ted Solotaroff’s New American Review, where it followed the first English translation of my idol García Márquez’s story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Heartened by this and a visit to the Ramparts office, I surveyed the California scene for a suitable subject for a Gonzo-style feature. What I came up with were the burgeoning fundamentalist Christian communes of so-called “Jesus freaks.” I’d grown up in the straitlaced Bible Belt, where I memorized scripture at Sunday school, and was fascinated by the oxymoronic concept of hippie evangelicals. Even though now a self-proclaimed pagan, I certainly looked the part and could speak the Southern-inflected talk of “born again” and “praise the Lord.” So I launched my first experience in immersion journalism, staying for days at a time in various Jesus-freak communes, smiling, nodding, and making everyone there think I was one of them.

Although practicing an insidious form of brainwashing, the kindly older evangelists who ran these rescue missions for drug-zombie drop outs weren’t bad people, although I couldn’t wait to escape their suffocating prayer circles and group hugs. In my room at home, the portable typewriter was set up on a closet door thrown between two sawhorses. Although a weak speller, I was so poor that I couldn’t afford a dictionary. So while I wrote, I made lists of words with dubious spellings, which I took down to the corner drugstore, where standing at the revolving metal book rack I looked up the words on my lists in the paperback dictionary for sale. It wasn’t easy to find the solitude to write in a household booming with four roommates, plus boyfriends and girlfriends, but like David Wise holed up in his darkroom designing rock album covers, they considered my prolonged withdrawals just another eccentricity.

I’d had one previous stint in commercial writing, during which I fell in love with publishing. In Stony Brook, I’d rented a damp basement apartment in the gothic seaside mansion of Joe Simon, the creator of Captain America and other Marvel Comic superheroes. When the middle-aged Joe and I discovered we both stayed up all night working, we’d meet over the light table in his studio to consult about his latest project, a magazine called Something Else, a groovy version of Mad magazine for bellbottomed teenyboppers. Eventually he hired me to write some of the copy and dialogue while he did the art, and amid clouds of his cigar smoke, we sipped coffee, tossed around ideas, and cracked each other up until dawn. Joe saw me as a down-home Southerner, so asked me to put together a section for black kids, one I titled “The Plain Brown Rapper.” Meanwhile, I was writing poems to slip under Louis Simpson’s office door, and working on seminar papers about the impending death of everything. Nietzsche by day, teenage Mad by night: I barely had time to rattle the maracas in our student band, Brain Damage.

When my first Ramparts article came out as a cover story called “Jesus Now: Hogwash and Holy Water,” I felt a bitter aftertaste of betrayal even as I cashed the modest check. As they say, a journalist is always betraying somebody, and I wasn’t sure that I was cut out for immersion journalism, worming my way into people’s lives then serving up portraits of them skewered by my own perspective. Although I hadn’t liked them in the least, I felt guilty about my wry depiction of the fundamentalist hippies, who mailed me boxes of homemade cookies with notes tucked inside saying Jesus loved me, anyway.

After the Cockettes released a movie called Tricia’s Wedding, in which an Eartha Kitt impersonator spikes the nuptial punchbowl with acid at the Nixon White House, those remaining in the troupe were aflutter with plans for their upcoming premiere in Manhattan.

Dusty Dawn, John Flowers, Gary Cherry
Tricia's Wedding, 1971
photo: Scott Runyon

I was growing weary of the nonstop hype of San Francisco’s counterculture, in which somebody always seemed to be hatching yet another slick new scheme. I wasn’t cut out for the adrenaline-fueled whirligig of a pop journalist’s life. I spent a few days in laid-back Sonoma County visiting John Foret, the Satanist poet from New Orleans, who was running a funky craft shop in Sebastopol called the Rising Sun, filled with homemade candles, incense, and embroidered clothes. In flight from the city, I wound up buying the business from John for $300 and moved my scant possessions into the Rising Sun’s storage room. I turned out to be a disaster of a businessman, giving away the consignment items or trading them for the gallons of fresh goat milk I lived on.

When Hibiscus came to visit me, he was critical of my pathetic attempt at hippie capitalism, and convinced me to sell the business for exactly what I paid for it. Then he and I discovered a decrepit two- story house in a shadowy cathedral of ancient sequoias in Rio Nido, a hamlet on the Russian River. So I moved from the sleepy Rising Sun into a ruin named Sunset. The rent was $100 a month, which included both stories together with a small apartment over an empty garage. Dressed in a flowing kimono, Hibiscus immediately wandered barefoot into the forest only to return with a sack of dried leaves, which he glue-sticked with glitter and thumb-tacked onto Sunset’s shabby walls as décor. A week later, half of the Angels of Light were hanging out in every clammy nook and cranny of the old redwood house, practicing Kathakali dance steps in saris in the front yard and making pots of vegetables and brown rice in a kitchen crawling with banana slugs.

Like Hansel escaping into the woods from the witch’s oven, I was enchanted by my mushroom kingdom. Far away from the media buzz of the city—no phone, TV, or newspapers—a new phase was beginning for me, one that would inspire the title of a poetry collection I was working on: Why I Live in the Forest. Hibiscus had been right.  Amid much fanfare in the press that winter the Cockettes did make it to the Anderson Theater on Second Avenue, where they presented a show called “Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma” and fell flat on their greasepaint faces. Half of the distinguished New York audience had walked out by mid-performance. Sylvester, by far the most accomplished of the group, resigned in a rant on stage. The Post published a review titled “The Cockettes—The Show Was a Drag,” and Gore Vidal summed up the spectacle, quoting a line from Gypsy: “No talent is not enough.”  New York didn’t get San Francisco, and the feeling was mutual.

Leaving Sunset in the care of various Angels of Light, I began to travel abroad during the winters, when the sequoia forest was so dark that the streetlights were on twenty-four hours a day. On the Russian River I’d connected with writers living in other communes linked to ours, including my lifelong friend Andrei Codrescu, along with the poets Harold Norse, Hunce Voelcker, and Paul Mariah. The Jesus-freak article was anthologized in a collection on religion published by MacMillan, and the Canadian Broadcasting System invited me to Montreal to discuss it on a televised roundtable with a preacher and a priest, along with a rabbi, one who later, on leaving the TV studio, arm draped across my shoulder, congratulated me on my “common sense.” In spite of these heady successes, my final assignment for Ramparts was a flop. It was supposed to be an interview with Jane Fonda while she and Donald Sutherland were performing their F.T.A (Fuck the Army) antiwar shows on military bases. After the photographer and I snuck onto the base in a camouflaged jeep, I was so intimidated by stony-faced Hanoi Hannah that instead of requesting an interview with her I submitted a zany Tom-Wolfish portrait of the Hollywood- star-as-revolutionary, which the magazine killed. The photographer accused me of acting unprofessionally, which I did. Like the Cockettes in New York, I’d fallen flat on my face in the big time, and for the moment was finished with journalism.

But the flute-and-bongo-playing processions with sarong-clad Angels down to the nude beach on the Russian River made up for it. At the time I had a hippie girlfriend who wore long India-print skirts, had an Irish setter named Kiowa, and hitchhiked with 50 lb. bags of dog food and a gold vial of speed. This didn’t stop me from putting the make on visiting “hot numbers,” the good-looking young men from the city who crossed our rustic threshold. Our mix of woodsy communalism and free love was a potent one, or as Andrei Codrescu once told me, remembering our days together on the Russian River, “Every time I smell burned brown rice I get a hard on.” There, instead of the shy seduced one I became the horny satyr, and learned to be careful of the sexual roles I assumed: sooner or later the script would require that I play the opposite one.

An abrupt role reversal that, in some way, paralleled what happened to purist Hibiscus in 1973, when he returned to New York to found a branch of the Angels of Light, which soon became “Hibiscus and the Screaming Violets,” a glittery rock show he performed with his three sisters. After this, at some point he turned back into George Harris, cut his hair, shaved his beard, acted in commercials and soap operas, and GQ-handsome in his Armani suits, became a high-end escort for wealthy sugar daddies. In 1982, he was my first friend to die of the rare “gay cancer,” but by that time, we were becoming accustomed to loss. Many of the former Cockettes had already ODed on drugs, including the deflowering Gary Cherry and, years later, my college friend David MacMillan. AIDS swept away most of the rest, such as Sylvester, who by then had turned into a disco-diva sensation with his hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” The Stairway to Paradise had collapsed into a slippery slide to hell. By the time we realized that we ourselves—not Mick Jagger’s limo— were the magic we’d been waiting for, it was already gone.

The last time I saw Hibiscus, during a bleak New York winter, he was still Hibiscus bearded and long-haired.  Sunset in Rio Nido had been condemned and torn down, and I was returning from South America by way of New York to move in with Cockette photographer David Wise. Of all the naïve notions, we planned to get “back to the earth” by renting a farm in subzero Vermont. In a ratty loft in the East Village, Hibiscus was putting on the last of his Angel of Light extravaganzas, one in which he and the cast were costumed as sequined mermaids writhing their fishtails along the bottom of a glittery cardboard sea. Although his parents sat on the first row, bursting with pride, the show was sparsely attended, and by the time it was over, most of New York’s Beautiful People were already at Max’s Kansas City, cavorting with Warhol super-stars such as Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling.

David Wise and I, the last ones left in the emptied theater, were helping Hibiscus to lug his bulky cardboard waves down the narrow steps of the drafty factory. Still dressed in my Colombian wool poncho, I had a pint of brandy in my back pocket to brace myself against the stinging cold, and was already drunk. “Goddamn this shitty hellhole,” I raged, barely hanging onto my end of the cardboard scenery, “and fuck New York and the snotty assholes living here.” Hibiscus swirled his sequined mermaid fishtail around on the grimy stairway to face me with a sweet lipstick smile. “What are you so mad about?”

After all, it had been his show. But this was what had become of our California dreaming. It was January of 1975, and I really didn’t understand yet what I was so angry about. The Vietnam War was raging toward its shameful climax, that summer the criminal President had resigned, the snarling punk era was just beginning, and disappeared Chilean poets were being tortured in dungeons. As adrift in life as J. Alfred Prufrock, I could still “hear the mermaids singing, each to each,” although they no longer sang to me.