"Bambi blazed trails and burned bridges for many decades but she always remained a dreamer," writes Justin Vivian Bond today, on the death of longtime friend, Bambi Lake. "It feels like the end of an era."
Bambi Lake, a songwriter, performer, Tenderloin fixture, and former member of the legendary Cockettes — the gender-bending performance troupe that grew out of the queer spaces in the Haight of the late 1960s and deeply influenced modern San Francisco drag — has died after a brief battle with cancer. She was 70.
The news has come via social media from several of her friends and chroniclers, including Bond and archivist and podcaster August Bernadicou, who interviewed Lake in recent years for his LGBTQ History Project. And the Bay Area Reporter confirmed news of her death at Zuckerberg SF General on Wednesday.
Longtime SFist readers may remember Bambi Lake sightings reported around town, and she was no stranger to bouncers at queer bars or the police. In the last decade or so she was occasionally sober and properly medicated, and sometimes seen raving to no one on street corners. She had also enjoyed some minor fame and recognition for her songwriting — in particular the amazing song "The Golden Age of Hustlers," about the heyday of gay prostitution on Polk Street, which Mx. Bond performed often and even made a music video out of in 2014 with directors Silas Howard and Erin Greenwell.
The haunting song contains great lyrics that are personal to Lake's own story but also capture a complicated nostalgia for a bygone era when she watched "the best bodies of my generation sold, bartered and destroyed by drugs and prostitution."
In interviews, including the one with Bernadicou, Lake said the song was in part a love ballad to a boyfriend she had back then, referred to as "San Jose Johnny the Libra" in one of the verses.
He was a real person and if he would only show himself it would be great. He ended up moving to Texas to be a fisherman. He was simple and an enigma. He was an Okie with the cutest, butch way of talking. He lost all his teeth from doing drugs, and he was a master thief. He had grown up in jail. He didn’t have the slightest bit of menace to him. We met at a time when we both couldn’t judge each other. He knew what a queen was and how to respect a queen.
As former SFist editor Brock Keeling wrote in 2012, when she was doing one of her occasional cabaret performances, Bambi was "a controversial figure in the local queer arts community. Which is putting it mildly. A brilliant performer when she's on, Miss Lake, though not a drag queen, used to polarize the local drag scene, especially back in the day, for a myriad of reasons but due in large part to the fact that she's an explosive force of fire, vocals, and heels."
And as Pitchfork wrote of her in 2015, "With her wild beauty and pre-punk, theatrical antics, she was a source of both bedlam and irresistible energy, an early member of the Cockettes who was frequently kicked out of venues and arrested by the police."
One of those arrests came in the 2000s when, according to Bambi's telling (as retold on stage by Bond, who was said to have based the character of Kiki largely on Bambi), she had been chatting up Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher at the Red Room near Union Square. She says Gallagher had invited her to come to the band's afterparty at a particular bar, following a show they were doing in the Bay Area that night. According to the story, Bambi got dressed up ("And I looked good, girl."), and headed to the party, but the bouncers refused to let her in no matter how she protested.
Bond's telling, in the voice of Kiki, can be heard below in the context of another song attributed to Bambi, "This is Charlotte Rampling on the Line." Suffice it to say Bambi went home fuming, called 911, and called in a bomb threat on the bar. She says when the cops came to arrest her, she was thrown in the back of a squad car that then drove by the bar on the way to the county jail, and she saw that everyone was milling around outside. "Those holier-than-thou motherfuckers. Their party was over, girl, and I was laughing my ass off all the way to jail! Don't they know who I am?!?"
Bambi said in a 2017 interview with the BAR that she had based her stage persona on her late friend John Rothernel, who lived with Sylvester and performed in drag doing obscure songs from the 1930s. "He was very grand and did amazing things. He didn't worry about sounding like a woman; he just belted it out," Bambi said. "Connie Champagne does Judy Garland. Veronica Klaus does Peggy Lee. I do John Rothernel."
Bambi published a book in 1996, a memoir of sorts titled The Unsinkable Bambi Lake that was co-authored/edited by SF writer Alvin Orloff. Orloff said of the book, "Bambi's story is unique and universal, fascinating and frightening, and one of the most compelling I've ever heard. It was a privilege to help her write it down."
In recent years, Bambi made infrequent public appearances. Bernadicou directed the video below for her cabaret number "Jaded Lady," which was recorded over a decade earlier for her one and only album titled My Fabulous Life as a Broadway Hostess. This features some of the last footage of Bambi, lip-syncing on a roof in the Tenderloin to her own song, with well-tagged walls as a backdrop.
"I guess my greatest talent when I perform is making people cry," Lake said in that earlier interview. "I don’t know exactly why."
"'Golden Age of Hustlers' affects people so much because I'm not proud of it. I didn't enjoy it," she continued. "The song has that context to it. It’s not something I recommend people do. People get shocked by that because it's right on my sleeve. I've watched people destroy themselves. It has a very sweet melody so you don’t quite recognize it."
Top photo via 'Golden Age of Hustlers' video/YouTube