THE COCKETTES, THE ANGELS OF LIGHT, CHANTEUSE
Bambi Lake is the strongest woman I have ever met. She is a fighter, a survivor, a 6-foot legend with a towering presence. All it takes is one look into her eyes, and you get it and more. "It" means whatever Bambi is in the moment, fleeting or enduring.
Bambi Lake is a chanteuse who sprung out of the Cockettes, the radical, gay, hippie performance troupe, and the Angels of Light, the free-theater child of the Cockettes. Off and on, for nearly 50 years, she has performed in San Francisco at the biggest, smallest, cleanest, and dirtiest clubs. When I asked her what her greatest talent is she said, "making people cry."
She is sculpted by those who glance at her, finely chiseled by her music, poetry, and mystery. Forever a pioneer, she paved the way for transgender women, women who would normally be forced to succumb to the internal isolation outsiders can’t describe. The same isolation visionaries overcome to attain their status.
When I was 18 years old, I read Bambi’s book, The Unsinkable Bambi Lake, and knew that I had to find her. I searched and searched and searched. In my quest, when I mentioned her name to people, I would hear gasps and, often, be asked to leave.
One day that same year, I found her on the street. I had her book in my backpack. Midnight the next year, in 2010, I saw Bambi at Carl’s Jr. She had a home, and she was sober.
Poetry spilled out of her midnight coffee, "There is a whole world of beautiful people under the beautiful American Dream.” To me, she is one of the great, unsung San Francisco street poets and performers. She had overcome it all, homelessness, drug addiction, a life day by day if not minute to minute.
The rumors that cloak her legacy are not always true, but they helped build it. One time when I was walking around with her, someone stopped us on the street and exclaimed, “I found Bambi Lake! I can’t wait to tell my wife.”
Bambi spends most of her days alone. She has always been alone. She tells me that she should be traveling to Europe, performing all around the world. It should be her.
I tell her that without her, so many trans people wouldn’t be able to perform. She was too much, too out there, too early to have the life she longs for. She pounded the pavement, and, to this day, her songs are performed worldwide. Like her hero, Joni Mitchell, said, “The reasons artists live to be quite old is because they are children… that never put their crayons away.” She is forever chasing fame in a circle outlined by crayons. Since she started performing again a few years ago, she has consistently sold out two hundred people theaters.
Sometimes you meet someone, and they stay with you. You see them where they aren’t and hear them in silence. Bambi Lake is one of those people.
At the time of this publication, Bambi Lake is in poor health in the hospital. The following interview was conducted on August 18, 2015, when I was 21 years old.
August Bernadicou: How would you describe yourself in three words?
Bambi Lake: Tall, thin, and wistful.
AB: Do you believe in magic?
BL: Not anymore.
AB: What made you believe in magic in the past?
BL: When I was a child, I was very into fairies and fairy tales. I actually believed in fairies until I was about 26 years old. There is a 1910 photo book called The Scottish Fairy Book. It was a big thing because it made everyone think fairies were real. Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote Sherlock Holmes, and all these people were involved with it.
One day, I showed it to my friend Angel Jack, Hibiscus’ [Founder of the Cockettes, the radical, hippie performance troupe and the Angels of Light, their free theater offshoot - Ed.] boyfriend, when we walked down Polk Street. Jack just burst out laughing because somebody clearly edited the photos. Jack and Hibiscus cut out pictures of fairies and put them on the Angels of Lights posters. The book looked like an Angels of Light poster. I realized at that time fairies weren't real.
AB: Has anyone ever put a curse on you?
BL: I think I might have had—
AB: Tell us more about that.
BL: I’m not going to say it!
AB: Come on; this is going to be your definitive interview.
BL: No—I’m not going to say!
AB: Did you go to Catholic School?
BL: Yes, when I was younger. I went to a regular high school.
AB: What and when was your first performance?
BL: Brigadoon at Sequoia High School. I grew up with Kenny Ortega, and we went to high school together. When we were both sophomores, he got me in the original Broadway production of Oliver at the Circle Star Theatre. He later choreographed Dirty Dancing and is now a big-time choreographer. He directed High School Musical.
Oliver was epic—I was in the original Broadway cast! I didn't get my union card because they said I was an apprentice. At 14 years old, I performed with those people.
AB: What would a union card have entitled you to?
BL: I would have been able to go to union auditions, and I would have gotten paid. We weren't getting paid. I would have been in show business. It wasn't until Kenny got in Hair—Hair was big time. If you could get in Hair in those days, then you were in show business! All those people seemed to start here. Kenny got in Hair, and I couldn't, so the Cockettes were the alternative to that.
AB: Were you drafted for the Vietnam War?
BL: The year I was up for the draft was the year they installed the lottery. There was a time when if you missed the eight o’clock ballet class, they would drop you from school, and you would go straight to Vietnam. If you weren't in school, you would get drafted fast.
I went to the Oakland Induction Center, and I went through all of the mazes. I wrote “I AM GAY” in giant letters on my paperwork. My mother was so ashamed, but I just wasn't going to go. It wasn't until I lived with Hibiscus that I felt some kind of Gay Liberation spirit even though the Cockettes weren't political.
AB: How old were you when you wrote your first poem?
BL: That came to a lot later. In school, I couldn't spell very well, and I flunked English. I never thought of myself as a writer until spell check came around. In the late 1980s, when John Doe, Exene Cervenka, [With John Doe, founders of the band X - Ed.] and Henry Rollins [Singer of the band Black Flag - Ed.] did their spoken word tours. That started to flow out there, and so did I. All of a sudden, there were poetry readings everywhere you went. It was a part of the culture. One of the first poems I wrote was Golden Age of Hustlers.
AB: Who are your favorite poets?
BL: As a college kid, I would read Shelley and Keats. I liked Gregory Corso in college. Richard Brautigan, who wrote Trout Fishing In America and later killed himself, came to my college.
AB: When did you move to San Francisco?
BL: When I was 20 years old, I moved into the Angels of Light Commune in San Francisco. I grew up in Redwood City, but my father was raised in San Francisco. I came to San Francisco on the weekends with my cousins and went to places like Chinatown.
AB: How did you first meet the Cockettes? Who was the first Cockette you met?
BL: I was in the theatre all through school. It’s all I’ve ever cared about, and I didn't have much interest in anything else. I finally got a lead role when I graduated and did The Boyfriend.
One day, I was hitchhiking to this theatre at a junior college, and Peter Mitton picked me up in a 1932 Coupe, a fabulous little gangster car—he was my age, and he had a tape deck and played a tape of his piano playing. He later became the piano player for the Cockettes.
Now, Peter is the toast of Manhattan and has been for many years. He only plays for the wealthiest people in the world. He plays for Donald Trump—he used to play in Nob Hill after the Cockettes. He is just a fantastic person.
He came and played at my rehearsal for The Boyfriend, and he played for a couple of shows I did in college. I met him a year and a half before my time with the Cockettes. One day, he invited me up to meet them at a rehearsal. I wasn't gay at this time—this was in 1970, I was 20.
AB: What did you expect San Francisco to be like? How was it different than you thought?
BL: I already knew about San Francisco because I did all my shopping up here. I got all my school clothes here. Before I knew it, I transitioned from a Leave It To Beaver suburb into the Angels of Light Commune.
The newspaper called the commune “A Hotbed of Screaming Faggotry.” It was beautiful. I lived with Beaver Bauer and Martin Wong from the Angels of Light. Beaver was the head-mother and became a famous costume designer with the American Conservatory Theatre.
AB: Do you like the ideas of communes? Why didn't it work? Where was it?
BL: It was almost in the Castro, near Mission High School. In between the Mission District and the Castro. It was a big house full of artists. They just don't happen now. If you can imagine, we were paying 50 bucks a month. Fifty dollars a month to live! We had two people in a room, and, even though there wasn't that much to eat, everyone pulled their food money together. Instead of $1,000, you could get a gorgeous vintage gown for 30 bucks! Housing was available in these times too.
AB: Why did you go to Europe in 1973?
BL: It might have been 1972. [In 1973, Bambi went to Europe for the first time to perform in the Angels of Light play, The Enchanted Miracle - Ed.] One of the Angels of Light, Sister Ed, a hilarious person and one of the first people to do nun-drag, had inherited $50,000 or something from his grandmother. Hibiscus was already there, and he took Beaver Bauer, Rodney Price, and me to perform at The Roundhouse in London. We thought it was going to be at The Roundhouse, but it was at The Ovalhouse. Everyone was like, "Oh, The Roundhouse, The Roundhouse, The Roundhouse!" But no, it was The Ovalhouse. It was off in the fringes. We did get written up in Time Out magazine.
Lindsay Kemp’s [British dancer and mime - Ed.] people came to see us. I remember running off to see Camden Street. I loved London so much that I just had to stay. Just to be a dishwasher there was wonderful. We just did one show for a couple of weeks, and then it was pretty much dishwashing all year.
My friends Gregory and Chandra—Gregory was gay but married Chandra to live in London—we all lived together in an attic room. It was at the time of Bowie and Roxy Music, and it was an excellent time to just be in the streets. We went to Dingwalls’, a very Amy Winehouse place in Camden. It was the coolest rock ‘n roll club you can fucking imagine. They are just slick when they go out at night. You just can't beat them. They are well dressed, great musicians; they are just cool.
AB: Had you been out of California before you went to Europe?
BL: I had never been out of California except for Disneyland.
AB: Did you only sing original songs? Did you have a backing band?
BL: I have been in so many bands and have tried so many things. I was in the first all-girl punk band, VS, with these severe girls, and that’s how I met Exene. It was hardcore with a ton of speakers. They had this singer who didn't have chops, and I got her job—that’s how I started getting to meet these and open for people like Exene. I opened for the Dead Kennedys, too—it was later, when I did “Golden Age of Hustlers” in 1996, that I began to do my folky-rock band.
AB: Who did you tour with?
BL: I opened for Black Flag and Henry when he was by himself. I did two gigs with Black Flag. Many people don't like Henry because he replaced the charming singer Dez; I played with him too. I toured with the Stranglers, and I played with Frightwig a lot. It was exciting. I played with Specimen, but just in Los Angeles. I opened for Jesus and Mary Chain and Specimen at the Santa Monica Civic Center. A lot of kids would come up to me later on and recognize me. Iggy Pop [punk rock singer - Ed.] had canceled, and I was going to open for Iggy around 1984. I sang backup for the girl who married Bruce Loose from Flipper, Mary Housecoat’s band.
AB: Where did you tour?
BL: I did a lot of shows in Los Angeles; they were nice little gigs. Sometimes just to play at a coffee house like the Pick Me Up, a cool little place. During my book [The Unsinkable Bambi Lake - Ed.] tour, in 1996, I met everyone in the world. Joan Jett, the Circle Jerks, Red Hot Chili Peppers, everyone. One of the Circle Jerks opened for me! There was a band called Stone Fox, who were part of Exene's touring band when she had a solo act—Viggo Mortensen, of course.
AB: When did you start performing your poetry?
BL: In 1988. I met this woman named Danielle Willis [Author of Dogs in Lingerie - Ed.]. She was the person that told me how to do it. There was the Cafe Babar before me, but I started going to readings at The Paradise Lounge and The Chameleon. You would get “features” at this time. You would go to an open-mic, and they would invite you to be a feature. You got to talk for 20 minutes, and maybe they would give you 15 bucks. It was started by Henry and Exene. They did it in 1984, at the same time as Madonna. They would make fun of Madonna. They were ahead of the curve. Henry turned millions of little skater boys into poets, which is a great thing.
AB: Is Broadway Hostess with “Golden Age of Hustlers” the first album you made?
AB: How old were the songs at that point?
BL: They were 20 years old by that point. I did the CD in 2005. “Jaded Lady” was 25 years old. When Birdie Bob and I got together, we did a show based on the 25th anniversary of the Cockettes. It was “Celebrate the Silver.”
It wasn't until the 40th anniversary came that it all became a big deal. There was an event at MOMA and places like that. Most of the CD is stuff I learned from Peter Mitton, and the other songs are beautiful, old, and rare 1930’s songs.
AB: What is your favorite neighborhood in San Francisco?
BL: I liked the Haight. I liked the early Castro. I liked North Beach. Now? I used to feel comfortable in the Mission, but I am not sure right now—now that I have been bruised, battered, and clinically depressed. I’m making my comeback—I have terrorized so many of these neighborhoods, some places have warnings about me.
AB: What do you think of when you go to Haight Street now? Fuck these kids?
BL: It’s an enclave of rich kids. There are these super-attitude kids—there are all these great vintage clothes you want to buy, but you just can't afford it. You just want to steal them or spit on them! Neither of those will get you anywhere. They only get you in trouble—I was a Cockette. Vintage clothes were my deal. I would spend every penny I had—time goes by— now it’s by appointment only. It’s all too exclusive.
So what? Now that I have quit fighting it all and am clean, I am like, “It’s a vintage store, it’s rich kids—so what?” They are rich, so what? It was tough to live through because I want so much, but now I have different priorities.
AB: When was the last time you went out on Polk Street? Do you like it anymore?
BL: Oh, god, wow, you are good! It’s funny because it was the first gay neighborhood. Now, it’s the worst, and it’s not gay anymore. It’s breeders. It’s all just girls with big tits.
The tranny scene is wretched. The Mafia owns everything. They bring in these queens, and the guys drool over them. What’s going on there? The mafia takes these young boys and gives them implants and speed. It’s exploitive and terribly sad.
AB: What’s your advice to those boys who have been taken advantage of?
BL: Get out. It seems tragic.
AB: How many concerts have you played? How many plays have you acted in?
BL: In college, I was trained in the great rolls. There were a lot of us who went onto careers. I did Shakespeare and Chekhov and Beckett. The Angel of Light plays were one after another—there were a million different Angels of Light plays. It seems like I was performing every Friday for twenty years somewhere in San Francisco.
In the early ‘90s, I had a techno-pop-fetish band that was quite good. I couldn't be happy in a rock ‘n roll band. I always had to go back to me and the mic. That is where I have power. It’s not terribly commercial, even though it can be. You have people like Joey Arias with one fucking piano. It makes me jealous because that is what I want to do, but it’s not over until it’s over.
AB: Do you use your jealousy to push you to go harder?
BL: Yes, I try to.
AB: Have you written any plays?
BL: No—I’ve always wanted to, and maybe I will someday. I reached my limits. I never thought I could write a rock song because Siouxsie Sioux significantly blocked me. It wasn't until I told myself, “What does Joni Mitchell do? She writes about her ex-boyfriends.” That was my way in. Everyone writes about their ex-boyfriends.
AB: Have you been in any movies?
BL: I was in Pickup’s Tricks, which has never really distributed, but it’s out there, somewhere! That was with the Angels of Light. There is a movie coming out that has had a lot of money poured into it. It’s by the man in The Cockette documentary, the guy with crazy makeup talking about the Angels of Light, Jilala. You see his films in the documentary—that’s in the process of being made. There is a lot of beautiful footage of me.
I was always the star in the Angels of Light. I always played the leading lady. There is a film of me with a loom sewing sequins. I was so young and innocent.
I didn't start doing drugs until I was 30, in the 1980s. I am in the film Sex Is, which went all the way to Sundance and the Cannes Film Festival. I am also in a movie with Kate Bornstein. She is Justin's mentor and invented the word “transgender.” She has many books out. The movie is called Gender Outlaw, and it’s an excellent movie because Justin and Sofie Lemaire are in it. She was a club kid and a supermodel.
AB: Besides yourself, who are some of your favorite San Francisco artists?
BL: First, I would say Justin because Justin was a San Francisco artist for a very long time. He made his name here, and then he was wafted off. He came from Baltimore, and his parents sent him to London. I don't want to call him a rich kid—but his parents sent him to London to study drama. I like Connie Champagne [San Francisco singer - Ed.] and Penelope Houston. [Lead singer of the band the Avengers - Ed.]. I also like good old Jello Biafra [Lead singer of the band the Dead Kennedys - Ed.].
AB: Is the American Dream dead?
BL: That reminds me of Exene because she always predicts the end of the world when I see her read. What else can I say to that—I don't know if I think in terms of the American Dream— I am going to quote Jello, “The punk thing renews itself every five years with the new freshies.” All I can say is enjoy it now because you have your golden years, and pretty soon, there will be freshies who take it away from you. Be on the American Dream. Sometimes I think I am dying, washed-up, and a has-been. You have to tell yourself otherwise. I am at a low ebb, but I have learned the hardest lessons. You can't obsess too much about the small stuff.
AB: One last question, who is “San Jose Johnny the Libra” who you call “the prettiest boy I ever saw" in “Golden Age of Hustlers?”
BL: I have been trying to define him for a while. He was a real person, and if he would only show himself, it would be great. He ended up moving to Texas to be a fisherman. He was straightforward and an enigma. He was an Oakie with the cutest, butch way of talking. He would say, “I used to ride with the lowriders.”
He lost all his teeth from doing drugs, and he was a master thief. He stole a bunch of things and had a garage sale, and fixed his teeth. Today, that’s 50 grand for new teeth. He had implants, and they looked real. They would squeak a little—he was a jail-boy and had grown up in jail. He didn't have the slightest bit of menace to him. He was a strange character.
We met at a time where we both couldn't judge each other. He knew what a queen was and how to respect a queen. He didn’t turn tricks, but he just hung out on the street. He had a wife and two little daughters in San Jose. He was spending the time he could before he had to spend the rest of his life taking care of his kids. I met his wife. She was friendly and dorky looking.
He was so beautiful to look at—a cowboy and with a bubble butt. He was always bouncing a soccer ball. He never looked at anyone else or other girls—he only looked at me. We lived in a cheap motel room and listened to classical music at night. We made love. He was in love with me when he was with me. I had these gorgeous punk boys who would stay with me because they needed a place to stay, but it was different with him. He was special. He was sweet and romantic, and the love of my life.