Sin Ain't What It Used to Be
I finally caught up with the reincarnation of Pearls Over Shanghai, a Cockettes show I first saw at San Francisco's Palace Theater, way back in the psychedelicious days of just-post-Stonewall 1970. (Or maybe it was 1971; I was fabulously stoned at the time.)
The Cockettes were a mostly-gay theater troupe who mounted shows—and each other—in an old North Beach theater that otherwise featured Chinese operas. Their gloriously under-rehearsed extravaganzas, brimming with Broadway-baby queeniness, cutting-edge genderfuck, and LSD-soaked spirituality, were the public face of a mostly-now-forgotten queer communal scene, one generally erased from the standard history of hippies. And the audiences were, hooray, every bit as sloppy and stoned and scabies-ridden as the goings-on onstage. A dick-flapping theater legend was born.
Those were also the days of the rich and famous tooting up some lines and going slumming, so when überfags Rex Reed and Truman Capote saw Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma and thereafter gushed profusely, the die was cast. The troupe packed up their eyeliner and headed for the Big Apple, destined for a disastrous flopperoo now remembered chiefly for Gore Vidal's trenchant observation that "Having no talent is not enough."
That's not a problem with the current revival, which has now topped a fairly astonishing 100 performances. The show features some truly talented performers, sets that don't collapse mid-number, and, on a good night, Scrumbly and Rumi, two of the original troupe (entirely too many of whom are currently donning drag in Heaven).
So kudos to the raunchy revivalists, especially that gorgeous boy with glitter on his dick.
It's just that…
Well, okay, I don’t want to get nauseatingly nostalgic over past San Fran, like some Herb Caen of perversion. But for all its glories (and that glittery blue dick), the Pearls revival was for me a reminder of how far we've all come…and not.
Because after the Cockettes came the Theater of the Ridiculous and Ziggy Stardust and Rocky Horror and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and hell, even a crossdressing male nun is old chapeau these days, hardly worth a yawn unless you're some rabid fundamentalist from Kansas. Nowadays RuPaul has a series on VH1, a Miss Trannyshack finalist sings for the Scissor Sisters, and the audience at the Pearls revival has to be encouraged—indeed, exhorted—to "make some noise."
Yes, things have certainly loosened up in forty years, and in many, no, most ways, that’s a very good thing. But what once was bracingly cheeky now too often just seems tired. When an all-male Swan Lake gets broadcast on PBS, what difference can a feather boa or two possibly make?
It's not just a matter of camp and genderfuck, either. Perversion itself lacks the beyond-the-pale cachet it once so proudly bore, back when it skulked in the sewers. Bondage, discipline, flogging, fisting…it's all out there in the open now, and what's more—SM aficionados patiently explain—it's good for us, like spinach.
I can still recall the slightly queasy thrill of seeing, in the 1987 film Dances Sacred and Profane, the lovely Fakir Musafar hanging by hooks stuck through his tits. Nowadays that sort of once-startling stuff is commonplace amongst kinky folks from Boca Raton to Billings, Montana, and woe betide the would-be hipster anywhere who's insufficiently pierced and tatted.
Darlings, there's limited fun in being transgressive when sin has lost its sting, and, in the words of dear old closet queen Cole Porter, anything goes.
Who knows when the tipping point was reached? Was it when John Waters shifted his focus from dog doo to Johnny Depp? Did the era of oppositional rock and roll culture start to slide when Jefferson Airplane did a commercial for Levis, or was it when the Clash's "London Calling" was used in a Jaguar ad? And after Rosie O'Donnell showed up in the astonishingly awful film Exit to Eden wearing domme drag and brandishing a whip, could anyone take sadomasochism non-ironically any more?
Hell, you can buy a Tattoo Barbie doll down at Toys "R" Us, and the ultra-notorious Folsom Fair was sponsored by Budweiser until the religious right raised a stink.
Does any of that matter, anyway? If late consumer capitalism is capable of defanging, co-opting, and merchandising everything short of snuff films, so the fuck what? Who needs a counterculture, anyway, when everything is instantly available on your iPhone…preferably in sentences of 140 characters or less?
No, no one wants to go back to the bad old days of police raids and the like, but the lack of sufficient taboo sure takes the wind out of sin's stimulating sails. Who, precisely, wants to be naughty when you can't be all that naughty anymore? Sure, the ultimate journey is the internal one, toward self-acceptance, the clear white light, the orgasm of your dreams, whatever. But when the frisson is freeze-dried, shrink-wrapped, and marketed, with free shipping on orders of 50 lashes or more, what borders are left to cross?
It perversely appears that these days, the final frontier, transgression-wise, is allowing two men to pick out a China pattern at Nordstrom and go get hitched. And while that may lead to nice tax breaks, I can't prevent myself, sorry, from waxing just a wee bit nostalgic for the days before boys waxed their chests, back when "debauched" still had some meaning, and getting fucked up was not just a way of life, but a bona fide spiritual path.
And how fucked-up is that?