I’m often alienated by hagiographies of late-60s hippie culture, where Boomers & burnouts wax nostalgic about the time that they almost saved the world through the power of Positive Vibes. The early 2000s documentary The Cockettes is the one major exception to that personal distaste. The grimy San Francisco drag scene it profiles feels like it’s only hippie by default, emerging too early to be D.I.Y. punk and too late to be an echo of the Beats. The only other countercultural icon of the era that speaks to (and, honestly, guides) my sensibilities is the Dreamlanders crew, headed by John Waters. It’s no surprise, then that Waters and partner-in-crime Divine feature prominently in the film as Cockettes-adjacent artists at the fringes of the scene. It’s the one snapshot of hippie culture where I’ve ever genuinely felt “These are my people.”
Although their bottomless appetite for LSD and their complete lack of a work ethic often made their stage shows sloppy to the point of incoherence, the Cockettes had a clearly defined point of view as a visual art collective – at least in the medium of drag. They were basically a never-ending carnival where every single attraction was a bearded lady, freaking out even their fellow hippie communes with their 24-7 dedication to glamor & hedonism. Their version of drag makeup was distinctly modern, defined by exaggerated eye lines and mountains of glitter packed into their unshaved beards. Cisgender women were equals among the crossdressing men in the collective, establishing an aggressive genderfuck ethos long before that term was coined. While their makeup was cutting-edge, their wardrobe was purposefully old-fashioned. Most of their stage shows consisted of hard-tripping, half-naked drag queens singing showtunes & acting out Busby Berkeley chorus lines in the discarded rags of 1940s Hollywood starlets who’d left their gowns & furs behind with the changing times. The gimmick only worked because everyone in the audience was on the exact same drugs as the performers, but the documentary allows us to enjoy their visual artistry as a gorgeous lookbook in motion while members who survived the dual epidemics of heroin overdoses & AIDS outbreaks gush about the best of times in reverent “You had to be there” tones. It’s fabulous to behold, even when their half-forgotten anecdotes drift into “Kids these days” bitterness.
Of course, having John Waters on hand as your bearded-lady-carnival barker helps tremendously, as he’s one of our great living storytellers. Hearing him vouch for the Cockettes as “hippie acid freak drag queens” who conjured “complete sexual anarchy” out of the Peace & Love movement is a huge boost to the film’s entertainment value, and he’s interviewed extensively throughout to capitalize on that infectious enthusiasm. It’s a justified inclusion too, as the Cockettes’ San Francisco venue—The Nocturnal Dream Show at The Palace Theatre—was the first cultural institution outside of Baltimore to embrace early Dreamlanders pictures like Multiple Maniacs, and the Cockettes themselves were the first subculture to treat Divine like a legitimate celebrity (along with iconic queer soul singer Sylvester). Any excuse to hear John Waters riff on a subject he’s passionate about is well worth the time investment, but this particular queer-culture doc does way more than most to justify the indulgence.
Revisiting this documentary on DVD after only having seen it on a taped-off-the-TV VHS was like wearing glasses for the first time. The iconography of The Cockettes is visually splendid and, even two decades after its original printing, the Strand Releasing DVD does rightful justice to their visual art. As inextricable as their art & lifestyle were from late-60s hippie culture (so much so that their genderfucked utopia quickly fell apart in the early 1970s), I still see a grimy D.I.Y. punk ethos to their version of counterculture theatrics that’s missing from most of the scene’s proto-Burning Man feauxlosophies. If nothing else, I think it’s exceedingly easy to connect the dots from the Cockettes’ Old Hollywood carnival drag to the iconic costume designs of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which directly influenced the visual markers of punk fashion, if not punk’s sexual politics. Their nostalgia for the long-gone days of functional hippie communism isn’t too different from the punk communes led by bands like Crass either. And then there’s John Waters—the only other hippie-era counterculture institution who’s outright proto-punk in his personal philosophy & art—putting his stamp of approval on the entire experiment. The Cockettes may have self-identified as hippies, but I’m claiming them as an example of ahead-of-their time punks, if not only so I won’t fee l so self-conflicted about waiting to re-watch this movie every goddamn day of my life.