“LOVED the Wasp Women! They were TERRIFYING!”
David Weissman – Dir. ‘The Cockettes’
Quite some time ago now, I posted a blog – two actually – which made reference to a lost drag troupe of San Francisco known as the Wasp Women. There was little surviving information to be found regarding this tantalizing group, save for a short piece of footage that surfaced from the Castro Street Fair in ’79 and an appearance in the legendary Marc Huestis film ‘Whatever Happened to Susan Jane’.
Re-issues of grainy noisy and poor quality sound bites from the ‘…Susan Jane’ performance circled the internet via groups such as Killed By Death but not until Dark Entries records released their compilation – ‘Bay Area Retrograde (BART for short)’ did something truly substantial surface.
Featuring, as its crowning glory, the Wasp Women’s infamous ‘Kill Me!’ single in PERFECT quality, I was sent into a rabid spin of sudden and urgent enquiry – How did they get hold of it? Are there members still in circulation? Is there more material to come?
I had to know!
A quick e-mail sent to Dark Entries regarding the possibility of digital download or CD release proved fruitful as the lovely person who answered gave me an e-mail address. Not just any e-mail address mind you, THE e-mail address. This address belongs to the only surviving member of the Wasp Women, a lady named Teena. When I saw the message and its content, I practically fell over. This could not possibly be true – after all this time suddenly here was a member of the group I had been so intrigued and possessed by. It couldn’t be real.
Tentatively I sent out my first correspondence to Teena and sure enough, within a couple of hours I had my confirmation. I was indeed talking to a Wasp Woman. What was even better was that over the course of the coming two weeks, she would agree to be interviewed for this blog via phone from San Francisco!
And so, here is the amazing truth (in part, as there is more to come) about the Wasp Women, legendary post-punk wailers of San Fran counter culture, Angels of Light who fell into darkness and revelled in the shadows…
D: So, Teena, for those who may have missed the memo – Can you tell us; who/what were the Wasp Women?
Teena: Well, the Wasp Women started out as part of the Angels of Light who were a division of the Cockettes. We performed at the Castro street fair in 79 and around town starting out as a 5 piece. That group started as just one of the Angels skits but it was really popular – when we performed at the Castro everyone was screaming for more, we ended up going all around town and performing more and more as the Wasp Women. Everyone wanted more. We eventually became a 3 piece with the band as well, The WW performers up front were myself, Rodney and Julie. Rodney died of AIDS and Julie passed from cancer a few years ago.
D: It is correct then, that you started out as a sort of sub-faction of the infamous Cockettes drag troupe…
Teena: That’s true. There were lots of groups that started out that way. Sylvester was a Cockette at one point. He was one of the top billed performers at the Castro Street Fair. When we were on, because we were so popular, everybody kept screaming for more and Sylvester was kept waiting, eventually he got real mad and was like “Get off the fucking stage, it’s my turn!” [Laughs]
D: I first discovered you through watching the infamous Marc Huestis film, ‘Whatever Happened to Susan Jane?!’ How did you become involved with this project?
Teena: Well, that’s my all time favourite film. Marc was one of the Angels of Light and lived on the communes. We all used to hang out and get high and go to Café Flore. I think that’s where things started to get talked about, Marc came up with the idea for the film and he used to come up with all these great ideas for skits. He used to just grab his camera and get things shot all the time. I mean, the film was scripted, it wasn’t all improv or anything but it was a very creative time. It was great to be involved in that, that whole time was amazing.
D: Rumours abound and are referenced in ‘…Susan Jane’ that a full length album of the Wasp Women exists called ‘Crib Death’. I remember reading a piece from MAXIMUMROCKNROLL in which a journalist was desperately searching through their archives for a copy. Is this fabled LP somewhere?
Teena: I’m really not sure, I’m not aware of it. Marc has archived it all and has a lot of those things. I couldn’t be sure, I was really high [Laughs]. I have a few things from back then, like the wig and the dress somewhere [Laughs] I think Wendy MukLuk has a load of photographs of the Wasp Women in her portfolio.
D: Your visual personae was very striking. It presented a really strong contrast to the drag of the time, what inspired the imagery you employed?
Teena: The Wasp Woman, the original film I know was a real inspiration for Rodney. The AOL came up with a lot of the original ideas for the group and Rodney had a major hand in that. It started out with 5 of us then became 3. I’m the only one left. It was 2 women and 1 man. In those days, ’72, when we started as Angels, the definitions weren’t really in place like they are now. It was really creative and free. There didn’t really seem to be ‘sexual rules’ – You could walk into a room and never know what you might see or what might happen [Laughs]. There were SO MANY DRUGS! [Laughs].
D: We’ve talked about your appearance at the Castro Street Fair, small bits of footage have surfaced of your performance there featuring a song (I’m guessing) titled ‘Shoot Me Like A Dog’. I tried to contact the person who uploaded that footage but was unsuccessful, are there any plans to release further surviving footage that you’re aware of?
Teena: I’m really not sure, I don’t really have the access to that material, I think that’s in Marcs collection. Maybe? I hope so. Usually if the people want more, we give it to them [Laughs]
D: If we listen to the lyrical content of the surviving songs such as ‘Kill Me!’ or ‘I Don’t Need Your Attitude’, a notably dark thread runs through. They’re down right pessimistic, but in a kind of cynical and dramatic telenovela-esque way. This seemed to be very ‘At-odds’ with the public perception of a city like San Francisco, which was seen as a very free and hippie infused place to be. What do you think the reason for this was?
Teena: To be honest, I think it was AIDS. Really it was a very dark time for a lot of us. People don’t understand now, it could be that you saw someone on the weekend and a week later, they were gone. It was so sudden and so paranoid. Nobody knew what was going on or what was happening. At one point it was like, ‘Is there something in the water? can we share the same glasses or eat from the same plates?’ that kind of thing. At times it was a test of friendship, like, who would drink from the same glass if someone was sick. Julie’s brother had AIDS and it was horrible, she was really devastated when he died.
It politicised people. It changed things forever. I think that’s why the songs were so dark. It was the time we were living in.
D: Are you still involved with the Drag/Punk/Goth counter-cultures? San Fran seems to have a thriving scene still, just look at Peaches Christ and what she’s doing with those Midnight Mass shows!
Teena: [Laughs] I’m old now and tired [Laughs], I do see some of the people from the old days, the ones that survived, like Marc. He actually dragged me up onstage when they did a showing of ‘…Susan Jane’ when it was re-released a few years ago. That was TERRIFYING, I don’t think I have ever been onstage sober [Laughs]. Quaaludes were always great for getting rid of nerves! [Laughs].
I haven’t really kept on going with things but my daughter and husband were in some scenes of the Peaches Christ film, ‘All About Evil’. You’ve got to love a Drag Queen! I do think she’s great!
D: Looking back on that time, how do you feel about it all?
Teena: It was an amazing time. Once again, I was REALLY HIGH for a lot of it [Laughs] but it was a great time, very creative and free from a lot of the rules about sex and sexuality that are around now. Unfortunately there was a real dark side to it as well, it was loads of fun until you cut to the image of Rodney all shrivelled up in a wheelchair. What that disease did to everyone was awful.
D: You are part of a history that has been greatly celebrated, and there are loads of people like myself who have been hugely inspired by groups such as yourselves. There’s definitely a thread of what you guys did in contemporary performers such as Sharon Needles, even if they’re not aware of it. And, I’ve got to ask, as you were part of it all… was Hibiscus ( infamous leader of the Cockettes), really as controlling as they all said he was?
Teena: [Laughs really loud!] OH MY GOD! He was a NIGHTMARE! [Laughs] You couldn’t even eat certain types of honey in their house! He was crazy [Laughs].
I have to say a massive thank you to Teena as well as the Dark Entries records group for getting me in contact with them! I absolutely loved this, talking with her has been so amazing – and as I uncover more of the Wasp Women I shall make sure to keep you all in the loop!
Don’t forget to check out Marc Huestiss’ film ‘Whatever Happened to Susan Jane’ at www.marchuestispresents.com
You can also buy the Dark Entries vinyl record re-issue BART, here: http://www.darkentriesrecords.com/bay-area-retrograde-bart-volume-1/
If you’d like to know more about the Cockettes or the films of David Weissman who gave me our fabulous opening quote, head on over here: http://www.davidweissmanfilms.com/ If you head on over to his short films section you can watch Teena et al. vamping it up in the amazing, ‘Beauties Without a Cause’.
Bile and Bruises