The most vibrant cultural movement of our time was founded in Congo Square, New Orleans, because that was the only place in North America where anyone could mix and forge new ceremonies. On Sundays, use of the square had been set aside for the French-African slaves, who’d been transplanted from Haiti after a revolution broke out there. These slaves welcomed the Houmas natives, who probably had the best drums and undoubtedly reminded the Africans of their own tribal heritage. Congo Square was an appropriate name for this place because it was also the only place where slaves and Indians could legally play drums because they provoked fears of an impending attack throughout the original Colonies. The site had been used for years by the Houmas to hold harvest ceremonies and was considered a sacred spot. There may have been some sort of drum circle or jam session going on at Congo Square every day, but Sunday afternoon was the peak moment when the best performers went off. Congo Square created blues, jazz, rock’n’roll and reefer smoking. This culture traveled up the Mississippi, eventually infecting Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago. When it hit Chicago, a Jewish teen named Mezz Mezzrow jumped onboard and the rest is history.
One of the most important things I learned from cannabis: the more diverse your gene stock, the more vibrant your F1 hybrid. The Great Spirit That Runs Through Everything loves diversity and shows this affection in many ways. The reason Congo Square erupted with such creative energy is because so many diverse cultures were mixing ritual and ceremony to create a unique hybrid that respected all cultures. When you visit Mardi Gras you can clearly see the deep appreciation for Native American tradition. As blues evolved into jazz, elements of Western culture (like harmony and orchestral instruments) were incorporated. The foundation of this culture was always based in improvisation, whether it be in music, dance, slang, or gesture. The counterculture encourages freedom in every aspect, which is why every generation looks and talks different, yet all grow from the same trunk.
The most important influence in the early sixties came in the form of a Magic Bus of Merry Pranksters. Ken Kesey went from celebrated novelist to customizing his jeans and encouraging total freedom, similar in many respects to Julian Beck’s cry of Paradise Now!, only the Prankster version initially involved taking LSD as often as possible, a lifestyle that quickly proved unsustainable. Acid was too powerful and potentially dangerous, although it proved to be a great medicine for those who used it sparingly. If anything was learned in the sixties, it was that reefer is the only safe daily sacrament.
The most influential group to emerge from the Haight (aside from the Grateful Dead) was a commune called The Cockettes. After the Pranksters called everyone to council, strangers began creating instant communes in the Haight that mixed people from all backgrounds. One of these communes was super eclectic and included a few gays, who were really glowing at the time because this was their coming-out party after centuries of oppression and they encouraged everyone else in the commune into dropping acid, dressing as wild as possible, and channeling whatever energy emerged. The Cockettes launched a lot of different styles, but Glitter Rock was their most important. They blazed a stylistic trail soon followed by the New York Dolls and David Bowie, among many others. They also created the cult movie scene, because their original performances evolved out of dressing up and attending a local cinema, where they used the film as a sounding board. Before long, the film element was discarded as the audience was more interested in the Cockettes, so their improvisational antics became the entire show. If the Club 57 crowd had lived in the same commune 24-7 they probably would have fomented something huge, although in a way that’s exactly of what happened when Keith and Kenny moved in together. Andrew Carnegie and Napoleon Hill would’ve called that forging the master-mind, one of their many telepathic keys to success.
The one lesson I’d take away from this is that there’s probably a relationship between the diversity of a Master Mind group and the amount of creative energy that group will eventually unleash.
And isn’t it interesting that our dominant religions work against these laws of nature, encouraging bigotry against other cultures and declaring jihads and crusades against the unbelievers? That’s because war is a profit stream constantly being mined for revenue, so the accepted religions need to do their part to manufacture the conflicts.
4 Replies to “The Master Mind: From Congo Square to the Cockettes”
Steve, did you ever meet Michael the Poet? He was Chris Yapp’s (from Urbana) boy friend. He was associated with the Cockettes. (Mike and Chris both died of heroin overdoses years later.) Also, I remember when the Finchley Boys came out to San Francisco – one of their members – Tabling? – was somehow associated with the Cockettes.
I was reminded of that story by others, although there is some concern Larry might not want this story to get out.
There were straights associated with the Cockettes like Michael the Poet – though he might have actually been ominsexual 😉 Yeah, now that I remember, I was kind of shocked to see an Urbana boy like Tabling with a bunch of campy queens. Anyway, he got the Cockettes to sponsor the Finchley Boys in a concert that was held at a Chinese Theatre. At the concert, as a joke, I booed the Finchley Boys and then a lot of the audience joined in (I think also as a joke) but I think the concert turned out ok. (Also, as a joke, I got the audience to boo Allen Ginsberg at a poetry reading in Berekely and call for Gary Snyder to read instead – but Ginsberg knew we were all joking and played along.)
Great stories! That must have been the same Chinese Theater where the Bobby Fuller Four played their last gig.