I’ve had this article on my hard drive for many years. I can’t recall exactly where or when I found the essay but I do know who the author is – it’s written by a man named Patrick Runkle. I couldn’t find too much about him on the Internet, other than he is a music producer/composer from the U.S. and is a founder of Cohaagen Music. He is also a member of the electropop group Ganymede. Patrick has written this interesting but sad and wistful article about the electronic music scene of the late 70s/early 80s in San Francisco, its effect on gay liberation and culture, and the toll AIDS has taken on many of the performers.
In the dusty back rooms of dance music stores and in cardboard boxes stored in attics all over San Francisco, there are indigenous records in worn sleeves with titles like Menergy, Cruisin’ the Streets and Die Hard Lover. These records — like their creators — had short, brilliant, tragic lives.
The names on these records are unknown to most people, even those who follow San Francisco music. To others, the names are fading memories from a dead era. But to a few people, like music lawyer and former nightclub owner Steven Ames Brown, the disco stars who made records in San Francisco during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were friends who died too young.
Brown sits in his Franklin D. Israel-designed modern mansion on Grand View Avenue overlooking the city. “At 49, I’m an elder statesman of San Francisco dance music. It’s an eerie feeling,” he says.
He pages through Tribal Rites, a book from 1987 by David Diebold containing first-person remembrances of the gay music scene in San Francisco, and finds a picture of himself from 1981 posing with drag queen Sylvester.
“Look, I had brown hair. And I was thin,” he says, even though he’s currently in incredible shape.
Brown pages through the book some more and then closes it.
“God, all these people are dead.”
The cover of Tribal Rites is a collage of faces from the era. The men are buff, young and virile, all with full, perfectly trimmed mustaches and huge smiles. They seem to be frozen forever in the blinding afternoon sun of Castro Street.
“Every night was another party,” Brown said. “It was an incredible time to be a jet-setting homo. The music was fun; life was fun. There was someone for everyone to go home with.”
“People don’t remember why there were thousands of men marching in the gay pride parades. Nobody gave a shit about the political speeches,” Brown said. “The music was the glue that brought the community together. It was because people like Sylvester were on the floats that we marched behind them.”
Sylvester, San Francisco’s first breakout disco star, was a soul singer who enjoyed success in the early ’70s as a member of the Bay Area transvestite group the Cockettes. His outrageous performances won him a large local following and a solo contract on the Fantasy label. A series of hit disco tracks followed, including “Dance (Disco Heat)” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” both from 1978.
Members of the same nightclub and disco culture from which Sylvester emerged started to see the possibilities for the gay community to produce its own music without the interference of major labels.
“It became possible because of advances in recording technology in the disco era to produce tracks for a lot less money than before,” Brown said. “Also, and most important, the music didn’t need enormous distribution to be popular.”
Brown came to the city in 1974 to study law at Hastings after working as a disc jockey for a Michigan radio station and studying film at USC in Los Angeles.
“I happened to acquire some property in South of Market in one of my first cases here as a lawyer,” Brown said. “Because of my experience in the music industry, I decided to open a nightclub. And it did so well that I opened another.”
“Disco music had re-invigorated dancing and nightclubs, and the clubs went from being dirty, back-room swill holes to being fun, bright, gay places. After pressing only a few thousand records and playing them in the right clubs, you could have a major hit.”
Musicians in San Francisco’s gay nightclubs started to make music of their own. Bill Motley was a charismatic but frustrated disc jockey in the Castro who had big dreams.
“Bill was a man whose inside didn’t match his outside,” Brown said. “On the outside, he was a large, burly guy who looked like the kind of person you wouldn’t want to run into in a back alley.”
“But on the inside, he was Diana Ross.”
Motley’s experience was mostly as a lighting consultant for local nightclubs, but his musical intuition was sharp. Although he wanted desperately to be a star, he knew his talent was for production.
His idea was to record a disco version of the Ashford-Simpson soul classics “Remember Me” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” He borrowed money to do it from his friend Victor Swedosh, owner of the Moby Dick bar at 18th & Hartford in the Castro.
Taking inspiration from the Village People, which was essentially a front band for producers Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo, Motley created a fictitious band called The Boys Town Gang to realize his vision.
“Bill found some kids in the city who could sing,” Brown said. “He designed a stage show for them, and started recording with them in the studio.”
The track that resulted was a 6-minute suite, “Remember Me/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Motley, Swedosh, and another friend from the Castro, Stan Moriss, formed Moby Dick Records in 1980 to release and distribute the Boys Town Gang recordings.
The first track went out on a 12-inch EP called Cruisin’ the Streets, which hit #5 on Billboard’s dance music chart and made enough money for the fun to continue.
“Remember Me/Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is a joyous burst of soulful disco that, while not incredibly progressive, shows an incredible ear for production. It was a great answer to all the vapid, soulless corporate disco albums that caused the national ‘disco sucks’ backlash in 1980.
Elsewhere in the Castro at the same time, Patrick Cowley, a synthesizer player and former nightclub lighting technician, was preparing his first solo release.
Cowley had studied music and synthesizers at City College before landing a spot in Sylvester’s band in the late ‘70s.
“We didn’t even know Patrick could play music when we met him,” Sylvester recalled before his death in 1988. “He was designing the lighting for some of our shows, and he played us a tape of his music. I asked him to join us.”
Indeed, Cowley’s unique analog synthesizer flourishes showed up first on Sylvester’s Step II album in 1978, and he contributed two songs to Sylvester’s Stars album a year later.
But Cowley had personal problems with some members of Sylvester’s band, and decided to go solo in 1980. Cowley became friends with the owners of the Automatt studios at 11th & Harrison, and they would let him use the studio during off hours.
“Patrick was a short guy, very passive,” Brown recalls. “All he did was make music, get screwed, and do drugs.”
Cowley and business partner Marty Blecman, a former disc jockey, put together an album of electronic disco music, heavily influenced by the European synth sounds of Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Giorgio Moroder, which was to feature a title track called “Energy.”
“One day, while we were recording,” Blecman wrote before his death in 1991, “We got high and I added an ‘M’ in front of ‘Energy,’ and we came up with all these completely gay lyrics for it. In the end, that’s what we used.”
The song “Menergy” was born. The album Menergy, released on the Fusion label, became an international dance smash in early 1981. It went to number one on Billboard’s dance charts and set a new high-water mark for electronic music.
The title track owes a great debt to Giorgio Moroder’s production of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Like Cowley’s best work, it makes no apologies for its sexual orientation, but maintains an eye-winking charm, without
being explicitly about sex. “The boys in the back room are lovin’ it up / Shootin’ off menergy,” the joyous female chorus sings. What exactly this menergy is that the boys are shooting off is left to the fertile imagination of the listener.
Moreover, Cowley’s electronic arrangements had a fantastic, almost sci-fi quality that tied into the drug-induced club experience of the time.
The success of Menergy allowed Blecman and Cowley to form a company of their own, Megatone Records. In the same way, sales of the Boys Town Gang’s first record ensured more recordings from the Moby Dick label.
The two companies were run from Victorian homes in the Castro, and the performing stars that the labels created enjoyed notoriety both in San Francisco and throughout the worldwide cosmopolitan gay community.
“There was a point where you could fly to any city in the world, and the gay bars and nightclubs were playing the same songs.” said Brown.
People loved “something which was homegrown. It wasn’t marketed to you by faceless corporations. It was the allure of quality music from the community.”
“They were producing a cultural commodity, if I can put those two words together,” Brown said. “They created a business that was both self-sufficient and gay, an underground economy. This was also around the time that we saw an explosion of gay lawyers serving gay clients, gay doctors serving gay patients, and so on.”
In mid-1981, Megatone Records had its first official release, Patrick Cowley’s Megatron Man LP, the title track from which was another huge hit for the company.
Meanwhile, Moby Dick put out a Boys Town Gang LP, Disc Charge, as the follow-up to Cruisin’ the Streets. That album’s disco cover of the Gaudio-Crewe standard “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” was a monstrous worldwide hit.
The parties lit up the city every weekend. Thousands of men converged on dozens of nightclubs to hear the latest tracks and see the stars perform.
But it wasn’t to last.
After Megatron Man was released in 1981, Cowley fell ill with a mysterious illness.
The disease, first called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) or the AID Syndrome, would soon put an end to it all. Cowley was among the first victims in San Francisco.
“Patrick was the first person I saw who was really sick,” Brown said. “They wheeled him onto the balcony of the Palladium. It was too upsetting to watch.”
After fighting the disease for a year, Cowley died on Nov. 12, 1982.
“In the year leading up to his death, Patrick was either in the studio or the hospital,” Blecman told the San Francisco Chronicle upon Cowley’s death. “He left his legacy on tape.”
After Cowley’s death, but before panic over AIDS spread throughout the nation, the two Castro-based labels remained profitable.
Megatone released posthumous Cowley-produced material throughout 1983, including vocalist Paul Parker’s #1 hit “Right On Target” from his LP Too Much To Dream, and Cowley’s reunion with Sylvester, another #1 single, “Do Ya Wanna Funk?”
Moby Dick released another Boys Town Gang album, as well as a huge hit single from vocalist Frank Loverde, “Die Hard Lover,” which was a collaboration between Cowley and Motley.
But everyone knew the end was near. “By late ’83, HIV had scared everyone out of the nightclubs, especially the straight suburban kids who spent so much money,” Brown said. “People thought it might be transmitted through the air.”
“After that, they didn’t have any hits.”
Other problems plagued the fledgling companies. In-fighting among the personalities in the scene over performances, disappearing royalties, and record sales stunted their growth.
“None of these people knew how to run a record company. They created an overhead that they couldn’t possibly maintain,” Brown said. “They had to pay for marketing, pressing, packaging, administration, everything. When their sales started to slip, it was all over.”
“These guys didn’t want day jobs, and they were attracted to the allure of show business.”
“Their lives were bleak. These guys didn’t have any stage presence whatsoever, they couldn’t perform,” Brown said.
Michael Garrett, a disc jockey from the era and current owner of the CD Record Rack, a Castro district dance music store, remembers a performance from artist Frank Loverde:
“Loverde had a hit record in ’82 with ‘Die Hard Lover.’ There was a show at one of the clubs downtown where he was supposed to perform. He came out on stage and saw all the men in the audience, and he fainted. They had to carry him off, and I don’t think his career ever recovered.”
The years of the AIDS crisis destroyed the San Francisco disco community. As the artists watched their friends and colleagues die, the music changed.
“The mood was different,” Brown said. “It was about mechanical sex.”
Moby Dick dissolved soon after Bill Motley left the company in 1984. He retained the rights to the Boys Town Gang, but got sick soon after and died in 1986. Brown was in charge of selling the company’s assets.
“The only they had that was worth anything were the Boys Town Gang masters,” he said. “I still have those, and I won’t part with them.”
Megatone sputtered along under Blecman throughout the ’80s, releasing regurgitated hits, unremarkable dance music and pathetic aerobics compilations. When Blecman got sick in 1990, Brown brokered the company’s sale to a Canadian company, Unidisc.
Patrick Cowley, Marty Blecman and Sylvester share square number 2795 of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Frank Loverde, who died in 1987, is memorialized on square 1791. Bill Motley, who died in 1986, is on square 4152.
“This music was part of a transcendent force of gay liberation,” Brown says. “The community has lost the memory of how important this music was. I think these artists won’t ever, ever get their due.”