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American Leather Goes Mainstream

Anger, Arnett and Life Magazine

American Leather Goes Mainstream: Anger, Arnett and Life Magazine

Posted with the author's permission.

So let me ask a question. When would you guess that the public mainstreaming of kinky sex really began? Was it the year when Janet Jackson flashed a solid silver nipple shield during the halftime show of Superbowl 38? Or when a crap romance novel named Fifty Shades of Grey stunned everyone by becoming the biggest selling SM book of all time? Was it mainstream audiences flocking to the Cineplex to watch James Spader inflict a host of indignities on a more than willing Maggie Gyllenhaal in the indie hit, Secretary? The eighties when the Village People guest starred on Fantasy Island, with their S&M biker and Leather/Levi Cowboy? Or was it back in the mid-seventies when the Rolling Stone put up a billboard above Sunset Blvd showing a tied up fashion model captioned “I’m Black and Blue from the Rolling Stones and I LOVE it!”? Seriously, take a guess.

Try 1963/64. This is when, a whole cluster of leathery things - all seemingly unrelated - happened at once.

"The Velvet Underground," a paperbook book by Michael Leigh

First there was the book: a sleazy paperback (posing as sociology) that purported to describe the secret world of sadomasochism, wife swappers, and correspondence clubs in the early sixties. Despite the tabloid sensibility (The author called it “a report on moral decadence”) the book serves to validate Kinsey’s observation that a lot of Americans seemed to be indulging in forbidden sexual practices. Today the book is remembered mainly for its title. New York guitarist Sterling Morrison, found a copy in the gutter and brought it along to band practice with the Primatives Everyone agreed that the weird title might make a great bandname. And from that day forward they were The Velvet Underground.

1963 was also the year Kenneth Anger unleashed his infamous art flick, Scorpio Rising on the world. First a few words about Anger himself. At a time, when homosexual acts were still illegal in the United States, Anger was pretty much out as a gay director. He was also an out and proud practicing Satanist, and there are not a lot of those floating around. For the time, Scorpio was pretty heady stuff: an abstract, plotless 28 minute collage of sultry, faintly homoerotic biker boys and their rides, Third Reich iconography, skulls and death totems, sadomashochistic initiation rites, weed, pill popping, church desecrations, false Gods like Brando and James Dean, motorcycles roaring like the trumpets of the apocalypse - all of it accompanied by the first-ever all-pop-music-movie-soundtrack. Scorpio Rising was a darker, scarier MTV in the year of Love Me Do; The original sex, drugs and rock and roll movie. Hitler and Jesus both made cameos (The Son of Man healing the blind to the sounds of He’s a rebel was a special highlight for me). Just how “out there” was it? So much that the American Nazi party actually sued for the desecration of the Swastika. Coming as it did on the heels of the JFK assassination, Scorpio Rising seemed to herald the death of the Age of Aquarius before the Age of Aquarius had even begun. Biker Nick attended the film premier with Odin at the grimy Cinema Theater in Hollywood in a full house of slumming college kids, lecherous old men, and several chapters of the Hell’s Angels MC. Even Hollywood Vice came by for a peek. They liked it so much that they took the print with them, arrested the house manager, and charged Anger with obscenity, assuring the film national infamy. The case went all the way to the California Supreme Court which decided in Anger’s favor. Thousands went to see it. And for many closeted gay men who would later join the leather community, Scorpio was the moment they pointed back to as first knew.

Perhaps it was the buzz generated by Kenneth Anger’s movie, but the very next year Life Magazine decided to take a risk and do what no major magazine had dared before: acknowledge the actual existence of gay Americans. Their article “Homosexuality in America” (26 June 1964,) was the first time Joe and Josephine Sixpack got to see and read about real life gay men and women. And did they feature that nice, taxpaying, church going couple up the street who everybody likes? Hell no. The focus was squarely on cruising, sadomasochism, anonymous sex, and the emerging leatherbar culture around Folsom. Life Magazine called San Francisco “Gay Capital of America" and talked about a “Secret world” of underground sex. And Liz, this was Life Magazine! Moms read it. Grandmas read it. So did ten million other mainstream people.

the two page photo spread from Life magazine
IMAGE SOURCE: Life magazine June 26, 1964.

But before I go on, I need stop to describe a painting. The so called Toolbox Mural, painted by head bartender, Chuck Arnett, was big; a crowd portrait that took up an entire wall. Arnett was a professional dancer from New York, who moved to San Francisco by way of Chicago and dove right into the evolving manscape south of Market. In Chicago, he had been a Gold Coast regular and an admirer of Ettienne’s Herculean wall murals of Herculean men. So when he started working at the Toolbox, he decided to attempt a mural of his own. His painting shows a high contrast black and white crowd portrait of heroically scaled leathermen - some with faces modeled on actual Toolbox regulars. There was a guy in a motorcycle helmet, one in a cowboy hat, lots of black leather jackets. On crowded nights in the club, the figures stared out over the heads of the bustling crowd like slumming God’s tacitly endorsing the evening revels.

It may not sound like much - a long gone wall mural, in an obscure drinking establishment - but that painting is without a doubt the most important work in leather history. Mapplethorpe and Tom of Finland probably tie for a distant second. Why? Because when people went through that issue of Life Magazine they saw the two-page-spread of the toolbox interior (and the pages of Life were big) of leather clad, gay men yucking it up over longnecks with Chuck Arnett’s soon-to-be-world-famous-wall-mural looming over their heads and staring a challenge straight into the eyes of middle America. Go West, they seemed to say. Come to Marlborough Country!

Today it’s hard to imagine how big a deal this was then. Everyone read Life Magazine. My mom read it, and so did your grandma. And because everyone read Life, everyone saw Chuck Arnett’s wall mural at the Tool Box. There was so much talk about it that Joseph Magnin’s, an up-scale store for San Francisco women, even put a mockup of the Toolbox Mural in their windows.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that the Tool Box Mural was a more important work of world art than Guernica by Picasso, another black and white painting, of about the same size. Why? Because I’ve never heard of anyone moving to Madrid so they could live a short walk from the Reina Sofía Museum. And that’s what happened at the Tool Box. Gay men and women, wherever they were, read the article, ogled the photos, and then handed in their resignations from work, packed their bags, and headed West for a new sort of Gold Rush. Life Magazine’s feeble attempt at a smear campaign, illustrated by Arnett’s wall mural turned out to make a mighty fine travel brochure. And every damn one of the Bay Area newcomers went to the Toolbox for their first night in town.

Rubble of the Tool Box IMAGE SOURCE: "Folsom Street: The Miracle Mile" by Gayle Rubin in Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture by James Brook, Chris Carlsson, and Nancy Peters, eds. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998)

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More about Scorpio Rising, Life Magazine, and the Toolbox Mural

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