The Man Behind the Menergy
In the early 70’s I befriended a cute, gay, rather quiet electronic music student at CCSF named Patrick Cowley. Patrick was making all manner of music, drawing inspiration from composers as diverse as Tomita, Wendy Carlos, George Crumb, Giorgio Morodor and Igor Stravinsky, and hybriding elements of symphonic, film, electronic, new wave, funk and rock. While he was also making dance music, I never guessed that in a few years he would shape the sound that made Sylvester a disco legend, fashioning his own iconic brand of music in the process, often referred to today as HiNRG.
I soon learned that my ostensibly quiet friend was as intensely sexual as he was creative. The two streams were concurrent – he explored music the way he did sex. He had his preferences, but would try anything. (At least one famous female porn star can testify to this.) One day he unexpectedly presented me with a membership card to the Jaguar Bookstore in the Castro, insisting I was going there with him. Now I was no prude, but mine was a free-love type of promiscuity, and the adult bookstore’s backroom sex club represented something quite different. Patrick practically marched me to the Jaguar and took great satisfaction in my ritual initiation. (I of course had the even greater satisfaction.) At about the same he also turned me on to the gay porn films of Wakefield Poole (Boys in The Sand), themselves informed by a quasi-mythical sense of ritual and initiation, and eventually he would compose his own music for gay porn.
Patrick drank up new music with this same kind of initiatory fervor, and when we started making music together he approached each song as an opportunity for experiment, often combining elements of genres that were conventionally regarded as incongruent, i.e., electronic, punk, new wave, disco. While today musical artists such as LCD Soundsystem and Caribou are acclaimed for their hybrid musical genres, in the 70’s Patrick’s experimental material proved confounding to his industry peers. We can now appreciate that Patrick’s was a truly post-modern sensibility because over the past 30 years we have become more flexible in navigating the interstitial spaces between genres. Indeed those spaces have become subgenres in themselves: post-punk, ambient, trance, trip-hop, acid, minimal, etc.
Meanwhile, music files tagged “queer music” have begun appearing in music stores in gay urban centers. Patrick Cowley’s music, which San Francisco’s gay culture and, successively, dance-music aficionados at large have embraced and strategically positioned in the genealogy of dance music, can also be appreciated in the broader context of “queer.” Here the term serves a dual process, both attributing the music to artists identifiable as other than heterosexual, and defining the music itself as being outside the conventional or available genre categories. Ironic that Cowley, gay dance music maestro, should at last be recognized as a considerably more complex musical artist by virtue of that sexual otherness.
The name “Menergy” was Patrick’s play on the sexually charged, tribal atmosphere that made San Francisco clubs such as The Stud legendary. How appropriate then that for Patrick’s 60th birthday party, we should bring the celebrating back to that same primal dancefloor. While we’re dancing on it, lets celebrate our sexuality, our music, our culture. Lets remember that the greatest honor we can give our brothers and forerunners who fell victim to AIDS is preserving the culture they helped forge, and that the best way to start is by preserving ourselves. (No coincidence that the more apt Spanish word for condom is “preservativo”) Lets celebrate diversity – not just of sexuality and lifestyle, but of music itself. An evening of nothing but HiNRG would ultimately have bored Patrick – just as any one flavor of sex would have. (Patrick worked for a time scooping in San Francisco’s first gay ice-cream parlor, “Gaylords”) As music reviewer Rich Morris pointed out in Soundlab, “…Cowley had far more (here it comes, can’t help it) Catholic tastes than anyone was giving him credit for.”