Secret history

Pub date October 13, 2009
WriterMarke B.
SectionMusicSectionSuper Ego

You say that you love women, you say that you love men … but do you love your robot children?

— "Robot Children" by Catholic

SUPER EGO Thanks to the mid-decade rediscovery, by young people at least, of ’70s gay bathhouse disco and the Hi-NRG club scene it spawned, the Bay is back on international electronic music nerds’ radar. Gay San Francisco wiz Patrick Cowley (1950-1982) — the man behind such essential touchstones as "Menergy," "Megatron Man," Paul Parker’s "Right on Target," and Sylvester’s "Do You Wanna Funk" — is now often mentioned in the same breath as Giorgio Moroder in terms of pioneering electronic dance music. Nightlife historians fetishize Cowley’s early ’80s Menergy parties at EndUp, and his unabashedly homoerotic output is embraced as both the prime source and an exciting alternative to all the gay-centric techno that followed.

In terms of retro styles — our digital century’s shameless obsession — Hi-NRG may well be the final frontier. Buried by AIDS, wondrously reeking of wanton gay sexuality, and lodged for decades in the "utter cheese" category of musical taste, it could only become acceptable in our post-rock, pro-gay, retro-viral moment. No one dared touch this stuff before. Now, straight fans get brownie points for enjoying "gay music," gay fans can relish a period previously blacked out by sadness, and everyone looks cool dancing to bang-up tunes they’ve never heard before. It’s a pretty apolitical revival so far. No one’s agitating for our bathhouses to be reopened, and I’ve yet to attend an underground retro disco party that donates its proceeds to AIDS research. But in terms of audio-archeological exploration, it’s a stunner.

Take the story of Catholic, the genre-exploding act Cowley formed with Indoor Life vocalist Jorge Socarras. From 1975-79, the duo recorded a batch of songs that improbably melded krautrock, synthpop, proto-punk, and electro experimentalism with bluntly gay lyrics ("Don’t you recognize me!" Socarras commands on "I Am Your Tricks.") The tunes were so far-out for their time that Cowley’s legendary label, Megatone, couldn’t handle them, and they languished in label head John Hedges’ basement for decades.

Enter Honey Soundsystem who, along with DJ Bus Station John, are our prime bathhouse boosters. When Honey’s members heard in 2007 that Hedges was planning to retire to Palm Springs, they gained access to his literally underground repository and loaded up a truck’s worth of Megatone tapes and acetates. Among the treasure were the stunning Catholic sessions. The rumor of a golden cache of lost, weird Cowley lit up Europe’s rarified techno scene, and the Catholic tapes found their way to German minimalist Stefan Goldmann, who with partner Finn Johannsen decided to release them on their recently formed Macro label. The result, Catholic, is jaw-droppingly prescient and fills in a wealth of subcultural blanks. (You can stream the album at and

But there may be a danger here. "This stuff is so much more popular in Europe with the straight crowd," says Honey’s DJ Pee Play. "Of course the music is for everyone, but a lot of gay people here don’t even know that this is their history." Accordingly, Honey Soundsystem, in association with the GLBT Historical Society and others, is curating a special monthlong exhibit called "Megatron Man: The Life and Times of Patrick Cowley" at Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory. The exhibit incorporates memorabilia, audio interviews, and musical tributes inspired by Cowley, sent in from around the world.

Honey’s Josh Cheon has been painstakingly recording the interviews with key figures of the era, including Cowley’s roommate and sister. "It’s been incredibly emotional," he told me. "Everything is still so wrapped up with AIDS. Patrick died of it, and this is the first chance most people have had to open up about that, to cry about it. That’s the bigger story for us as gay people with this music. It’s a resurrection not just of Patrick’s contributions, but of a whole period that’s never been truly brought to light."

Adds Pee Play, "There were so many sprits at work with this project. Just the way everything worked out, we could feel them watching over us. The whole thing — the exhibit, the release, the parties we’re planning around it — we just wanted to acknowledge that. Before it becomes something else, we want to have our time with it, for San Francisco to dance around with the spirits and reconnect."


Opening reception, Sun/18, 6 p.m.–10p.m.;

Exhibit through Nov. 18), free

Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory

1519 Mission, SF.