IS IT MY OLD ROOMMATE? OR IS IT— MEGATRON MAN?
Patrick Cowley and I were friends throughout the seventies and into the early eighties up until the time he died. We were roommates on and off on at least three separate occasions in San Francisco—in households both big and small. I first met him in Buffalo, New York where he had grown up. I had gone to high school in a small town outside Buffalo, and of course ran off to the big city from time to time. I can’t remember the exact circumstances where or when we met but it was probably around 1970 or 71.
I have to say that it is a bit unsettling to realize that the guy I bickered with (like all roommates do) about the phone bill or over whose turn it was to do the dishes or sweep the floor, or turn that g*dd**n volume down (or up) for g*d sakes I’m trying to sleep! is now internationally famous, but that being said, I think it is a wonderful and well deserved thing, since one of the very best things about living with Patrick and being his friend was getting to listen on a regular basis to the impromptu synthesizer concerts he would perform at home when the mood (or maybe I should say the moog) struck him. He played for roommates, friends, boy friends (lots!), and sometimes, if I was the only person around, just for me. He played all kind of things including the rough cuts and embryonic tracks of songs he worked on with Sylvester, things he worked on with Jorge Soccarras, Paul Parker and others and later what became Megatron man, and all kinds of other things too, sometimes he just liked to jam and see what happened. It was very informal and a lot of fun. In this way he was able to practice and hone his craft for an audience, even if it was an audience of one or two, and entertain his friends at the same time, and this created a real bond. Patrick eventually had a studio South of Market (SOMA) St, but he still always had a little home studio and a portable synthesizer.
These at home concerts began long, long before Patrick was well known, and before he began touring with Sylvester and wrote all the synthesizer licks that helped make those Sylvester songs big hits. And they continued for quite a long time, even when he was starting to get some recognition. One of my favorite rituals with Patrick when we were in between roommate stints was that every month or two he would call me and our mutual friend Theresa McGinley, and invite us over for his homemade macaroni & cheese casserole that I think was his mom’s recipe, with secret ingredients canned peas and mushroom soup–Alice Waters it wasn’t, but it was actually pretty good, real comfort food. Theresa and I would each bring a salad or desert or a bottle of wine or something, and we’d all catch up with each other and the local gossip and eat and then Patrick would play for us. Not musical legend and superstar Patrick, because he wasn’t those things in those days but just our old pal. One of a gazillion very talented people able to explore that talent in depth due to the cheap, cheap rent (read it and weep) that was San Francisco in the 1970’s and that made it possible for musicians, artists, painters, actors, writers, etc. not to have to work 24/7 to cover the bills, so they could focus on their craft. It wasn’t just the rent, although that definitely helped, it was an extraordinary convergence of creativity too, like Paris in the twenties. And of course, San Francisco was and is a very Gay positive town (the term LGBT wasn’t really in use then) and full of gay men and Patrick loved men. He was very cute and a great musician so naturally he had no shortage whatsoever of opportunities to meet them and he made very full use of those opportunities.
But his first love was music, and Patrick took a lot of music classes at City College of San Francisco (CCSF), including electronic music classes when that was a rare, weird thing and he used to spend a lot of time there. He met other electronic musicians and creators of electronic instruments and hung out with them, so he had access to synthesizer equipment and was in a community of like minded people, who musically were way ahead of their time. He played guitar and piano too, and I remember in 1972 or ‘73 a bunch of us dragging and pushing an old upright piano that someone had given him up two flights of stairs on Central St. It was free, the only catch was he had to move it himself.
So he rigged up some ropes and pulleys to the banister and figured out how we could go about this without the piano falling on our heads and pulverizing us. And against the odds we did in fact get it up all those stairs without any fatalities and finally to the top landing and pushed it down the hall to him room. A crazy thing to do— I weighed about 110 pounds at the time and had no business whatsoever trying to help anybody push a piano up a couple of flights of stairs, someone definitely should have told me to get the hell out of the way, but at that age we all thought we were invincible. Patrick, in his usual determined way just made it happen, and entertained everybody with that piano just like later with the synthesizers . But it was a continual battle with the cockroaches that kept invading his room from the kitchen, and nesting inside the piano. He’d start to play and then they’d start jumping out of it. This drove him crazy for obvious reasons and one day he went absolutely wild with the bug spray. Another epic moment on Central St. We may not of had a lot of money, but we weren’t bored in those days.
Patrick was a very neat, orderly person, and even the less fastidious of us in the household tried to keep the kitchen clean since roaches can live forever on very little, but it seemed that every apartment in the Haight was cockroach heaven, and they and Patrick did battle over that piano for a long time. This was the downside of cheap rent, which the roaches also really liked. As amazing as San Francisco was at that time it definitely had its real funky side.
Along with the piano, or maybe a little later, came the synthesizers, and again, you can thank CCSF for launching Patrick’s electronic music career. In those days, public education was taken to be exactly that—education—including arts education, thanks to then Governor Pat Brown and becoming educated was considered a lot more than just preparation for a life of corporate hive drone-dom. It was supposed to expand your mind and your talents. So every time you hear of more budget cuts to music and arts programs at any level of education in CA or anywhere else, whether little kids or in community college or the state universities, think of all the potential Patricks and Patricias out there, of all ages, shapes, colors and sizes who can’t afford private lessons or their own instruments and aren’t going to get their shot, because they have no place in the school system to develop and explore their talents, although there will probably be a military recruiter on campus somewhere more than willing to teach them how to blow somebody’s brains out in a far away land somewhere. Vietnam then, Iraq now. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
At any rate, in the late seventies and early eighties Patrick worked with a lot of musicians and different kinds of musicians, like Frank Loverde and Paul Parker in the dance and disco scene, and with Jorge Socarras who did performance art too as well as being a musician and they were good friends, he was doing more experimental stuff with Jorge, and then of course there was Sylvester, who was beyond category. Patrick joined Sylvester’s band in the late seventies and began touring with them. With Sylvester they had all kinds of hits. Sylvester played a concert at the San Francisco Opera House at one point, or maybe it was the Herbst, but either way Patrick had comped a bunch of us in and we were way up in the Himalayas, dancing away in the nosebleed seats to ‘You Make Me Feel Mighty Real’ and so on and so forth. Sylvester was a great entertainer and singer, truly one of a kind, but it was Patrick’s synthesizer work that really made that song, and a lot of the others songs that night, and it was obvious to all of us that Patrick was really going somewhere. And he did, touring all over the country and Europe with Sylvester and Two Tons of Fun and the band and then coming back and telling us all about it. I think they went to Brazil – to Rio. He came from that tour not feeling well with what the doctor said was some kind of intestinal parasite— we were roommates on Rivoli St. in the Upper Haight/ Cole Valley neighborhood then. He seemed to recover but after that his health was never the same although it was awhile before it became truly debilitating. I don’t know if it actually was parasites, or if that was the point he was infected with HIV, and I don’t remember the exact time frame, but he was working on Megatron Man and a lot of other things – and lot of people wanted to work with him at the point when he was starting to get really sick.
On one visit to his apartment – not Rivoli St., he’d moved back to the Castro, lower Diamond Heights into a very cute quirky cottage with a large yard and garden way back off the street— I noticed at one point that that there was kinds cough and cold medicine all around, both prescription and non. He said he’d had this extremely bad cold and chills and he began going to the doctor, and more doctors, and then it was a few stints in the hospital. The doctors had no idea what it was, and kept diagnosing all sorts of different things, medicating him up and then sending him home. Then he’d end up back in the hospital again. This went on for months until finally he ended up in UCSF, Marty Blechman whom he worked with had brought him there the first time, after awhile the Epidemiologist there (can’t remember his name) diagnosed him with what they were calling GRID I think , and what came to be briefly known as Gay Cancer. But nobody knew what it was, only that they’d seem a few other similar cases, at that time all in gay men.
So as Patrick’s career was beginning to take off Patrick’s health dramatically deteriorated. He lost large amounts of weight, he had a severe case of thrush in his mouth, his hair went from very thick and curly honey blond to a thin almost translucent fuzz on his head. He developed carposi lesions. He was dizzy all the time, and coughing all the time. Then more in and out of the hospital and he had all kinds of tests and procedures, much more serious than the first round of hospital stays, etc. He was in the ICU unit a couple of times getting major transfusions and everything else imaginable. It was almost as though he was turning into a piece of electronic equipment himself. HIV Man being cannibalized by all the tubes, drips, more tubes, beeping machines, respirators attached to him. Although we didn’t know it was HIV at the time. No one did. I was no stranger to death by the early eighties, but I had never witnessed that kind of very prolonged wasting and extreme suffering up close before, although like many of us in San Francisco I was to see it many times again.
Patrick had a lot of friends, and quite a few of us rallied to his side and took turns doing what we all do when friends or family are in very poor health. He stayed with Paul Parker and his partner for awhile and they did their best to take care of him but it wasn’t easy considering his condition. I remember going to visit Patrick a few times in their beautiful flat. Old friends who had left San Francisco for New York began calling and then visiting. One night Theresa and I went to meet George Socarras at the airport in a huge rain storm. He came in from NYC to see Patrick once he heard how sick he was. It was one of those years in San Francisco when it just rained and rained and rained. At one point the three of us were slogging down Market Street. We’d just gotten out of a car, or some kind of public transportation, but for whatever reason we had to walk quite a few blocks to Patrick’s house, and we were wading ankle deep through puddles and leaning into this sideways rain and the wind blowing all over the place in the dark and turning our umbrellas inside out and just being wet, wet, wet. It was like that all the time toward the end even if it wasn’t raining.
On one of his times home from the hospital in the last year of his life, in 1982, he bought a home in the Castro with his royalties, a big yellow Victorian with a rose garden in the back. A lot of us pitched in to help, but Theresa McGinely was the friend of Patrick’s who did the most for him in terms of really taking care of him then—rolling up her sleeves and emptying the bedpans, changing his dressings, moving him in and out of his wheelchair day after day after day, month after month, making sure he got his meds—in other words the real nitty gritty when he was dying. I was around at the end, visited him both at home and in the hospital many times, and tried to help where I could along with quite a few other people others including his father who came in from Buffalo and stayed for quite a while, but it was really Theresa who did the heavy lifting, including dealing with the incredibly obnoxious final nurse that the visiting nurses agency sent over. Most of those visiting nurses had been pretty good, but this one was a piece of work, and occupied herself reading Patrick’s will, chatting on the phone and smoking in the house and when she thought no one was looking, dissing Theresa and going through Patrick’s drawers. She showed up at the memorial service wearing a very nice, and very expensive striped sweater of Patrick’s that he definitely had not give her, since he was semi-comatose by the time she was hired. She was sitting a row or two ahead of me at his memorial, and I did not want to cause a scene, but I wanted to rip it off her. And even though I am a peaceful person (most of the time) if I could have found a way to do it without interrupting the service and making a complete spectacle of myself, I would have. I didn’t care about the damn sweater, but it just seemed like the final indignity in all that the disease had been stolen from him— his health, his looks, his life and his future just when he was about to realize his dreams as a musician and not only become rich and very famous, but write his own ticket in a way that few of us ever get to do and do whatever he wanted to do with his talent.
But to back track–by the last few weeks we were taking turns twisting a white handkerchief or wash cloth soaked in water into Patrick’s mouth so that he could get a bit of liquid since he could no longer drink out of a glass or hold anything down, and this was the way they told us to do it. Drop by drop. He was a wraith then, Skeleton Man and semi–comatose but he still had those enormous blue eyes, clouded over by then, but still these big pools, and I just remember looking into them and dripping water into his mouth and wondering if he had any idea who any of us were. I was glad his father had come early enough from Buffalo, N.Y. to really be a support to him and when Patrick was still fully cogent. Hid dad was a very kind man, not sophisticated and I think very taken aback at times by the openly gay lifestyle his son was leading, but very devoted to him none the less and very accepting of his friends, and trying to be brave and cheerful for his son under very trying circumstances.
There was a big dance concert put on in Patrick’s honor very shortly before the end, it was a record party and I think it was at the Galleria, Anyway this was a very big place .
Lots of people were there, so many of the musicians that Patrick worked with over the years , a lot of friends and the platoon of former roommates since we all had a ton of former roommates in those day, there were fans of his music dancing up a storm on the dance floor, strobe lights and disco and his epidemiologist and epidemiologist’s girl friend were there too.
His father had been in San Francisco for awhile and both his sisters has flown in and made a very concerted effort to be upbeat for their brother . His mom was in poor health and could not come. Patrick was very stoic about his illness, the only time I ever saw him break down was at the end of the night of this concert, when we were all leaving.
He knew it was the end for him, and he was just beginning to get the recognition he deserved. We had all been up in this big balcony space that they’d roped of for him and friends and family. The party and record opening were a big success but Patrick by that time was simply too sick to go out on the dance floor, even in his wheelchair.
As we all got to the elevator he began, very quietly, to weep. The world at his feet, slipping away.
It’s been over twenty-five years since Patrick died. I still live in San Francisco, And sometimes I’ll be walking down the street or walking by a club somewhere and I’ll hear some Sylvester song coming off a car speaker or something, all that Cowley synthesizer joyously blasting and roiling away and I’ll think, there’s my old roommate again.
Francesca Rosa (F.S. Rosa)
F.S. Rosa is the author of Post War and Other Stories and has lived in San Francisco since the 1970’s. She is a co-editor of Ithuriel’s Spear Press http://www.ithuriel.com with publisher James Mitchell and has just finished a novel, The Divine Comedy of Carlo Tresca. She works in social services and is a rank and file member of SEIU 1021 and a member delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council representing same. She is a member of Bay Area Labor Committee for Peace and Justice and is involved in several human rights groups pursuing justice and accurate reporting in Israel/ Palestine and the Middle East and spent six weeks on the West Bank in 2003 picking olives (among other things).
And she had a lot of fun being Patrick’s roommate.