You can say whatever you want about the quality of Seattle's musical output, but no one can deny that our music community has always been rich with possibilities. Seattle's music scene can certainly hold its own with most major American cities: We've got the snotty attitudes, the political guts, the DIY smarts colliding with rock star struts, and more drugs than any of us would care to admit.
About the only thing missing from Seattle's rock landscape--until two ferociously smart young men brazenly infiltrated the scene last year--was the presence of truly unnerving, edgy, and ugly-cool drag culture. Ask any San Francisco or New York hipster: Drag queens are an essential part of the underground scene--and I'm not talking about a queen lip-synching to Cher in a $200 wig, while Dockers-wearing fags scream, "You go, girl!" I'm talking about genuinely subversive performance artists: whiskey-drinking, thrift-store-trash-outfitted, fright-wig wearing, Vaudeville-inspired, gallows comedians. I'm talking about the reason Lou Reed had a drag queen girlfriend during the Velvet Underground's heyday. And most specifically, I'm talking about 27-year-old Marcus Wilson and 32-year-old David Latimer, better known as Ursula Android and Jackie Hell, two underground performance artists who've spent the past 12 months rattling the Seattle music scene's rusty cages and earning themselves a following of remarkable devotion and diversity.
Marcus and David have gotten their broadest public exposure through Pho Bang, a sordid cabaret of John Waters-toned drag performances, live punk bands, and superbly unconventional DJ stylings, formerly housed at the now-defunct homo dive Foxes. For a mere $5, audiences were treated to Ursula and Jackie's ever-evolving catalog of wretchedly funny skits, typically involving sexual deviance, slapstick violence, and any number of pleasingly sociopathic scenarios. Their darkly funny escapades were augmented by unrestrained sets from up-and-coming bands (everyone from the Gossip to the Turn-ons). The evenings closed with DJ Baby J spinning the best of indie, punk, and harder new wave, inevitably drawing the whole damn audience onstage to dance with drunken joy.
Pho Bang ran as a weekly show for 59 weeks at Foxes, and it's now a monthly event (renamed Faux Bang) at Sit & Spin in Belltown. Much of the charm of the show is in the sweetly misfit mix of the audience. Fags and fairies abound, but there's an equal if not larger assortment of straight rocker kids, snarly punks, nerdy indie types, retro-damaged hipsters, oddball loners, and perfectly normal-looking Joes stumbling into this disorienting, classless collective.
Upon its debut in winter of 2000, Pho Bang met with instant and seemingly endless success. However, David and Marcus' first receptions on the Seattle drag circuit were anything but warm. This initially chilly response ended up being one of the keys to David's success.
"When I came to Seattle, I had no intention of being a drag performer," David explains. "I did drag once or twice at Neighbours, just to annoy people. There would be all these drag queens who were totally snobby and took their stuff really, really seriously. And I just wanted to fuck with them. I'd walk around acting like a diva, but I looked like a fucking truck ran over me. And it really bothered people! I got rejected by almost everybody in the whole bar, and I loved it."
David's formative drag experiences took place in his Eastern Washington hometown, Soap Lake. "I had a friend in junior high. We used to dress up in my mom's clothes and ride our ten-speeds downtown. People used to come out to watch us. We'd preach to people as they came out of the taverns--holding Bibles and telling people they were going to hell because they were alcoholics." When I ask if such antics in a small town earned him harassment or scorn, he smiles slyly and shakes his head. "No. People just did not know what to say to us. One time we poked our heads through Hefty bags and wore them as dresses, then put lipstick all over our faces and just walked around, ringing people's doorbells. When they opened the door, we'd just stand there, stare at them, and not say anything at all. I loved doing stuff like that. I was so bored in that town; I had to do something. That's what led to what I'm doing now."
Growing up in Phoenix, Marcus was equally bored, but attempted to amuse himself by exploring performing arts and the Phoenix punk scene. "I tried a lot of different artistic outlets. I'd been in a couple of bands, I painted, did theater, some performance art--anything I could possibly do to kill the boredom. I liked doing all those things, but none of them was exactly what I wanted. I really liked singing and acting, but I didn't want to read somebody else's lines. I wanted control over the content as well, so performance art seemed like the proper medium. But as it stands, performance art is normally put on in galleries or at poetry readings, neither of which attracts the kind of audience I was looking for. I always felt more comfortable with a rock audience than an art audience. I think it was because of the atmosphere I grew up in. I started going to punk shows at the VFW hall in Phoenix when I was like 14, seeing bands like JFA and GBH. I was always really attracted to and intrigued by new wave and punk female icons like Diamanda Galas, Siouxsie Sioux, Exene Cervenka, Polly Styrene. I never really wanted to be a girl, but if I were a girl, that's the kind of girl I would be."
Marcus took his love of public performance and these budding punk feminist sensibilities to Seattle in the early '90s, and was introduced to David through mutual friends. "I saw David out in drag and I was really fascinated. I'd been going to drag shows in Phoenix for years, and always had an interest in drag that was somewhat sincere and somewhat ironic, but I hadn't really thought about doing it myself on a regular basis. The type of drag I wanted to do--in Phoenix, there really would have been no audience for it. But seeing David out and seeing a couple of his friends out, I realized there was this really small scene already happening in Seattle. That gave me the impetus to start going out."
At that point, "going out" meant attending drag contests at either the mainstream gay disco palace Neighbours, or at the more trash-friendly, now-defunct Brass Connection. "The first time I performed onstage was probably at the Brass Connection," recalls David. "I did a Diamanda Galas song, which went over really well. It was with a friend of mine, Jenona. We mixed Diamanda Galas with this little piece from Negativland, which had this little girl singing about clowns and ballerinas. Jenona did that part on a little kid's piano, just sitting on the stage. I started doing the Diamanda song walking around, acting really crazy. I had a lot of energy for that performance--a lot of falling down and dragging myself across the floor. We got such a good response it made me want to do more performing."
Conversely, Marcus' experience at Neighbours was equally inspiring for different reasons. "For the most part, Neighbours hosted very, very mainstream diva drag--all beaded prom dresses and wigs, people singing Celine Dion. The hostess there instantly hated me. The second time I performed there, she flipped out in the middle of my number and cut me off--cussed me out and told me never to come back again. The crowd loved it, and I think that was really my first reputation-making moment of drag performance. It was great, because the hostess completely broke character. It was just a man onstage in a dress cussing me out. It was great."
The pair soon found a more suitable residency at the Tacky Tavern, a now-defunct dive on Summit Avenue. "It was unlike any other place on Earth," enthuses Marcus nostalgically. "It was such a fucking dive, and the stage was hilarious. It was about the size of this table," he says, gesturing to the Linda's booth we're sitting in. "And they had tinfoil up on the wall behind it to reflect the Christmas lights. They had old pantyhose and shoes hanging from the ceilings as decorations. It was a fantastic mix of people--transients, hideously ugly drag queens and trannies, and punk kids, trying to get people to buy them drinks. It definitely had, in a lot of ways, the right vibe going on, the right weird mixture of people. On Wednesday nights, they had an amateur drag night. It was totally surreal, how weird and bad most of it was. It definitely made you feel comfortable though, performing there. We'd go down pretty much every Wednesday night. I started out lip-synching to Yoko Ono."
Although they were still performing separately at this point, Marcus and David were clearly heading toward a potent collaboration. "We'd get ready together, and go out together," says Marcus. "We'd watch a lot of movies, and talk about ideas for vignettes that we had half-written in our heads, toss ideas back and forth." They also began developing an aesthetic that was clearly driven by both a rejection of traditional drag styling and by their natural leanings toward a DIY approach to art. "Most of what we wore we either found or made ourselves," Marcus says. "As far as our aesthetics go, it was completely self-taught."
David takes over. "Most drag is all about having seamstresses, elaborate beading, and immaculately coifed wigs. We just thought that was all so boring, like being a parade float or something. So much of the enjoyment of doing it was doing it by ourselves, and really making it an expression of our own taste and ideas." Marcus continues, "There's a big argument that punk is passé, that it's been done to death and nothing new is coming out of it. I think that's a valid argument, but at the same time, it doesn't matter what you're creating art or music with--turntables, guitars, knives and forks--it's all about the ideology, and that can never be passé."
When a sewage pipe broke and flooded the Tacky Tavern, the same owners opened the Oz, which eventually became Foxes. "We performed there a lot," Marcus says, "but we still didn't have a show of our own. We'd hang out and talk about each other's numbers, but we were still pretty much doing separate lip synchs. Then Coffee Messiah opened."
This den of caffeinated blasphemy ended up being the perfect place for Marcus and David to realize their combined potential to, well, really, really fuck with people's heads. David's warm but spooky laugh fills our booth and Marcus' face lights up gleefully as he recalls their debut performance. "One night we were bored, and Coffee Messiah had this hippie open-mic night," says Marcus. "Basically, it was a bunch of guys in Birkenstocks, earnestly reading their work. We got all dressed up, went down, and reenacted a 10-minute scene from this really weird porno called Geriatric Park. It's this elderly-folk porn with a scene at a pool between two women, Corky and Sheila...."
"Didn't we start with a Bible reading?" interjects David. "Ursula was reading and then I came in, slammed the door to Coffee Messiah, and we went into this scene."
Marcus continues. "So, we acted that out, and the audience didn't really know what to make of it, but the owner loved it. He approached us about doing a regular show there, so we decided to do it starting at 2:00 a.m. on Saturday nights. We called it the Cabaret of Despair, and it was half-scripted and half-improvised. The quality of the show was very dodgy. Half the time, the show wouldn't start until nearly 3:00 a.m., and we would just get as wasted as we possibly could--lots of bourbon. But it went over great--all these totally fucked-up people watching a drag show at 3:00 in the morning. We did the Coffee Messiah gig for about 10 months, and it was a great learning experience for us. It really brought out the chemistry between us as performers, and it brought out our improvisational abilities. It's nothing I would ever do again, but I learned a lot about putting on shows and how to work with very little preparation."
After Cabaret of Despair, the pair lay low for a while, focusing on writing together as much as possible. They put on a couple of one-night shows at Foxes, including Hollywood Hose Bags, a play about Jackie Hell moving to Hollywood and getting married, and the brilliantly deviant JonBenet Ramsey Memorial Beauty Contest, both of which were eagerly absorbed by sick minds throughout Capitol Hill.
The success of these endeavors sparked Marcus' intuitive sense about gaps in Seattle's club nights. "I'd gotten really bored with going out to rock shows, and we were pretty bored with drag shows. It was all getting really repetitive, and there was no place to go dancing. I knew so many kids in this neighborhood who wanted to go out dancing, and they definitely didn't want to dance to drum 'n' bass or house--they were totally into rock. It shocked me that no one was catering to that crowd at the time." Marcus also realized that these rock-starved kids might be the most receptive audience for their brand of terror-drag. "The shows at Coffee Messiah were when we started to see the type of crowd we were drawing and the types of people that really seemed to appreciate what we were doing. Drag has always been considered such a staple of the gay community--something you would go to see at a gay bar, with a predominantly gay audience. But what we were finding out was that gay people had such set-in-stone preconceptions of what drag was supposed to be that the majority of gay people who saw what we did were completely turned off."
Marcus' theory was validated further when Ursula and Jackie started throwing house parties. Their invite list included all the open-minded characters who circulated in their lives--punks, trannies, rockers, queers, and miscellaneous arty kooks. "The parties always went over so well," Marcus says. "People were always commenting how it was the most refreshing mix of people they had been around in so long. My boyfriend at the time [DJ Baby J, future mixmaster for Pho Bang] and I would sit at home watching movies, wishing there was a place like [those parties] to hang out. Even though David and I performed at Foxes all the time and it seemed like the logical place for putting on a weekly show, we were still a little afraid that no one would come. The reputation of Foxes was horrible, outside of our little drag ghetto. It wasn't considered chic-trashy at the time."
The final validation Marcus and David needed came on a trip to San Francisco for New Year's Eve, 1999. "Jackie and I performed at Tranny Shack, a weekly drag night down there," Marcus says. "We were so intrigued by the mixture of the crowd, the quality of the drag--and the DJ was playing great music. The only thing we thought was missing was the live band--that would have made the evening perfect. When we came back from that trip, we knew that we definitely wanted to do a show like that, and that we were going to do it at Foxes."
Marcus and David wisely selected Thursday night for their weekly show. Based on liquor sales, Thursday is one of the most popular nights to go out in Seattle. They took the name Pho Bang from a karaoke lounge in Phoenix (a beloved and debauched hangout for Marcus and his friends) and began promoting their first show. Pho Bang was an instant success. "The first night we had almost a hundred people paid," remembers David. "We were shocked." Bands who were originally apprehensive about playing a small, dingy gay bar with two frightful drag queens as stage companions began calling in droves. "After the first show, I had the first three months booked immediately," says Marcus.
While the majority of Seattle's gay community didn't seem to notice the rising popularity of Pho Bang, a select few were thrilled beyond belief. "It was awesome to see so many cool queer guys and girls that I'd never seen at a bar before--maybe at a show, but never at a gay bar," recalls Marcus.
Phillip Pickins, an indie-rock-loving gay transplant from San Francisco's Tenderloin district, elaborates. "Pho Bang just became something you had to do every Thursday night. It felt like you were in New York, or in a good club that you weren't old enough to be a part of, something you might have read about. Like the New York scene with the Velvet Underground--a really weird, subversive scene. It wasn't like it was a specifically gay thing--everybody went there."
Mark Cuadrado, who coordinates the film projections for the local band the Turn-ons, concurs. "I loved going to Pho Bang, because it reminded me of the Island of Misfit Toys. It was very nonjudgmental. It felt like a community there. And where else could you go to find gay punk boys?! Gay bars in this city are very homogenized. At Pho Bang, things were a little dirtier."
Straight girls also found a haven where they could feel safe and freely libidinous at the same time. Ma Chell Duma was a regular. "You couldn't ask for a better punk rock environment," she says. "Ursula and Jackie scared the pants off any semi-normal person who mistakenly wandered in the door. That kind of liberating environment weeded out the assholes pretty quickly. And anyone could get laid there. If you were a one-armed tranny dressed as a nun, there was someone there who was going to be into you."
"Everybody was getting laid all the time," remembers Marcus. "I think the only people who never saw any action at Pho Bang were Jackie and I, because we were too busy running the show."
Sadly, the dirty decadence met a premature death when Foxes closed with virtually zero notice. "I knew it was going to happen eventually," says Marcus, "but it ended up being rather devastating. I didn't feel it for the first month. It wasn't until we started shopping around for a new venue that we realized just how good we had it at Foxes."
Jackie and Ursula eventually found a new stage at Sit & Spin--unfortunately cleaner and brighter, but a more reliable space. "People have been cool about it," says Marcus. "I've only had a few people come up to me and say, 'Oh, it's not Foxes!' because I think everybody knows it's not Foxes. What would be?"
Appropriately enough, Ursula and Jackie now both front their own bands--Ursula and the Androids, and Jackie and the Control Tops. "I'm more interested in playing out and potentially touring as a band," says Marcus. "It would be very refreshing to play a show and not be responsible for running the whole thing." Marcus doesn't see Ursula leaving the stage anytime soon. "I've written a couple of plays. I'd like to put on more of a feature-length theatrical production onstage, in the same vein as Dina Martina's shows. I worked the door for her last show at Re-bar, and I really enjoyed being with those people in that space. I hope to work with them somewhere in the future."
David's leanings are distinctly cinematic--and violent. "I really like low-budget horror films, and that's what I see myself doing in the future. We have one called Meat in My Spaghetti Os, where an intruder comes into Jackie's apartment, attacks her, and she kills him. I like to experiment with ideas mostly involving violence."
With all these ambitions, I can't help but inquire how long they see themselves continuing as drag performers. David doesn't hesitate with his reply. "I definitely see myself in this for life, and I didn't see it that way until I started doing drag on a regular basis. I just decided this is it; I want to be an entertainer."
In a tone that is equal parts comic and romantic, Marcus paints me their future scenario. "Sometimes when I've been walking around Manhattan or in San Francisco in the Mission, I'd see all these great old, old apartment buildings with fire escapes. I can totally picture Jackie and I as these scary, dilapidated, Laurel-and-Hardy-on-a-bender old ladies, with our knee-highs rolled down to our ankles, smoking on the stoop and yelling at children. Just sort of performing for each other in a tragic, Tennessee Williams kind of way."