By Ashley Naftule, June 2020 issue.
Fayette Hauser has worn many hats throughout her long, strange trip down America’s psychedelic rabbit hole. One of the founding members of avant-garde drag/hippie theater group The Cockettes, Hauser has been an actress, a drag artist, a costume designer, a lecturer, a curator, and a writer. In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, she’s taken on a humbler, more nuts & bolts role.
“I’m a shipping clerk now: that’s my new job,” Hauser says with a sardonic tone over the phone. After years of carrying the torch for The Cockettes’ legacy by hosting lectures and participating in art exhibitions dedicated to their work (assisted on occasion by fellow Cockette Pam Tent), Hauser has created a gorgeous historical record of the Cockettes’ acid-drenched era to celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary.
Out now via Feral House, The Cockettes: Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy is a coffee-table sized hardcover jam-packed with stunning photographs of The Cockettes in action (along with interviews conducted by Hauser with artistic peers like Peter Coyote and John Waters).
“It was really too bad that it came out right at the beginning of this pandemic,” Hauser says. “I had a lot of live events planned for it — I was all set to travel and we had two exhibitions planned. But it’s not like the book is going to become untimely anytime soon: it’s evergreen.” Unable to tour the book, Hauser the shipping clerk has been signing copies of the tome and selling them online. Hauser’s book makes a compelling argument for The Cockettes as an inspirational hub for the underground. Their groundbreaking drag shows, full of Brechtian theatrics, public nudity, silent film-inspired costuming, and radical political actions inspired generations of glam, disco, and punk artists. But while the countercultural history is absorbing, the star of the show in Hauser’s book is the photographs — glitter-drenched snapshots from an age where it seemed like everything was permitted. “Our look — the visual language we created — that’s our legacy.”
Echo: It’s fascinating to see how long a shadow The Cockettes have cast over the underground. You count folks like Sylvester and Tomato du Plenty from The Screamers among your members. What was it about the Cockettes that could inspire people who’d go on to blow up in such disparate scenes as disco and punk?
Fayette Hauser: All of those groups were part of what I consider the entire counterculture movement — which went from the Beats all the way up to the punks. Many of the same people that were doing things during the hippie movement went on to do glam, then went on to do things in punk. There was a very, very deep common thread. Even though the manifestations seemed different, the core element was the need to be authentic. It was really about being authentic to your art and to your soul. This was your soul’s expression.
It was very different and completely disassociated with the mainstream. That was a real strength for us because we didn’t have anyone to please but ourselves. It wasn’t about the money — it was about the challenge of coming up with something new. What would be the next idea? That’s what made it grow so quickly. The energy, the challenge, was in the ideas.
Do you think it’s possible to achieve that same level of authenticity today? We live in an age where art seems inextricably linked to marketing — all of us encouraged to build our brands and relentlessly sell ourselves.
It might seem hard, but it’s just a slight turn in your mind. It’s a consciousness expansion that needs to happen now so that people don’t have to keep following the money. A lot of people that were born after the counterculture movement think that’s the only way to live. That’s another reason why I wanted to do the book: I wanted to show people that this is not how you have to live. You can create a different life like we did.
Being more authentic and really meaning what you say and putting out your soul’s desire — I really think that’s going to come back. Now that we’re in a pandemic and people are dying and people are staying at home, I think they’re going to realize there’s no time to waste. Even though there’s a very high price to pay with this current situation, I think it’ll make people think in a different way and things will get better. We won’t be bought off so much.
One thing that really struck me about the book was how timeless the Cockettes’ aesthetic was. So many of the photos in the book feel like they could have been George Melies film stills or lifted from a book on Weimar cabarets or Dada cafes. Was that a deliberate effort on your group’s part, to achieve that kind of timeless look by mixing so many different vintage and modern styles together?
There were all these arthouses around in the Sixties, so you could go to film houses and see old films, silent films, French New Wave films. So I was watching George Melies movies while I was in school in Boston. And old musicals: the Busby Berkeleys. My feeling is that what we were into was also what was going on in the ‘20s and in the pre-war movements happening in Europe. Dada, Melies, Jean Cocteau — all those artists were very appealing because there was this level of consciousness being explored in the early part of the century, a consciousness that got interrupted by World War Two that we ended up picking back up. We were kind of on the same wavelength as those artists — we were just bringing it forward into the future.
A lot of our outfits were influenced by things from the deep past. We weren’t looking at the now, we were looking at everything. We developed a palette of different references that we would mix together with our personalities and our own interests. I like to say that we had one of everything in the pocket! That was the magic when we put it out on the stage: we’re this very divergent group of people, everyone has their own idea of how to do drag, and it all comes together. It was only three years, but we came a long way in our expression and got our art honed to a really great place. The way we mixed things and put them back together in a whole new way influenced a lot of people — from the Rocky Horror Picture Show all the way to Gucci.
It’s interesting to consider how often theater doesn’t get the credit it deserves when it comes to influencing the counterculture. Groups like the Cockettes, Theatre of the Ridiculous, and The Living Theatre helped influence countless artists but they still struggle to get the credit they deserve in cultural histories and retrospectives. Why do you think that is?
Theater is live, it’s in the moment, and you have to have a theater to do it. Whereas if you make a film, you can show it everywhere. But there’s an isolation to theater that those other mediums don’t have. Once you do a show, only the people that were there at the time actually see that show. When you go to the theater or to the opera or to the ballet, it’s a very moving experience. It’s a synergy that can only happen in that space. It was very important for us to have that symbiotic energy going on — what passes back and forth between the audience and the stage. We learned that from The Living Theatre.
That’s what’s great about theater: you have to be there. It’s what happens at concerts and anybody who’s lucky enough to see their favorite band in a small venue where you can really feel it. It’s fabulous. There’s nothing like it, absolutely nothing on Earth.
You’ve been doing lectures and Q&A’s about the counterculture for a while now. What’s the biggest misconception that people seem to have about that era? When they come see you, what are the questions that come up time and time again?
When I first started doing Q&A’s, the first question people would ask was “how come it failed?” Because they thought the counterculture was supposed to create a perfect society and hand it over to the next generation. It puzzled me when people would ask that because I felt like we succeeded to a tremendous degree. But we were socialists … once, the youth were really supported by grownups when I was young. The generation after the war. They wanted everybody to travel and go find yourself and go out and make the future. But they just didn’t like the future we created because it was basically socialist.
I felt we were really successful in creating something and that we were also such a small group of people. When you look at how many people were involved in that society compared to the population of the country it is very small. We were on a trajectory that was far away — we were in a parallel world. But at a certain point, everybody had to go out into the world and you had to stay strong. And that was difficult because by that time people were trivializing the hippies. ‘Hippies are layabouts and pot-smokers.’ And then they demonized it with Manson, saying that Manson killed the counterculture. They couldn’t wait to get rid of us, frankly, because we were socialists.
I think people now are starting to learn the lesson that capitalism isn’t going to keep you alive, much less make you happy. Right now, the capitalists want to kill you. So the other question that kept coming up was ‘how did you do it? How did you live?’ Like, ‘how did you sleep together?’ They wanted to know the specifics of how we lived in the house. Because that kind of communal living was so very different from your mom’s house.
Are there other books you’d recommend to people who want to find out more about The Cockettes?
Flower Power Man by the Harris family (ed note: Mary Lou Harris, Jayne Anne Harris, Eloise Harris). It’s about the life of Hibiscus — George Harris. He was just the greatest theater person. He used to tell me ‘theater is the blood in my veins.’ He was a whirling drama in himself. Everything was about drama and high emotion with him. He would weep and then he’d laugh hysterically. He was so fabulous — he changed the energy in the whole house when he came in. We were all creative: we would do things together, we’d all dress up and go out to the Fillmore. But we didn’t have a focal point, a single trajectory. When he came in and proposed the theater, that’s when it became focused. He’s a big star in our universe and he needs to get recognized more as the genius that he was.
When he came to San Francisco and became Hibiscus, it changed my life completely. Changed all of us. Once we became Cockettes, there was no turning back ... Now I can meet people and sometimes I can see the Cockette in them. It’s a certain element that you recognize in people. And people need to let that freaky side out more. We need a resurgence of freaks in the world. That’d be so nice. It’d be great to go back out at the end of all this and go out into a freaky world.
The Cockettes: Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy is available now via Bookshop.org.