There’s this song. It’s a piano ballad, one written for the pre-HIV/AIDS era of San Francisco where poverty-stricken street hustlers wandered Polk Street, turning tricks and sharing burgers at the famed Grubstake diner. "I saw the best bodies of my generation sold, bartered, and destroyed by drugs and prostitution," the lyrics go, describing the "dumb men" who paid the rent and the "young men" who loved them. But "The Golden Age of Hustlers" is beautiful, too, a poetic, vivid song for gloomy cabarets and lonely spotlights, an artifact of a not-so-distant era of queer existence on the brink of vanishing entirely. And its author, "the unsinkable" Bambi Lake, lived it all.
A fixture in alt theater and cabaret troupes in 1970s and '80s San Francisco, Bambi enchanted everyone she met. 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. But Bambi endured, putting out a record of cabaret songs laced with glam and punk DNA in 2005, Broadway Hostess. She also never stopped performing those songs, even to this day: Bambi appears now at cabaret nights here and there across San Francisco, an unstoppable artistic force who found solace from the hardships of being a trans woman in America through song, and whose voice and music shaped countless artists coming of age in the embryonic punk and spoken word scenes of the time.
Silas Howard, the former Tribe 8 guitarist turned documentarian and director, was one of those artists. The first time he saw Bambi, she was crashing a Pride parade. "There was this tow truck pulling a fake cop car, and it was surrounded by all these punks and drag queens with baseball bats and high heel shoes smashing the cop car," Howard recalls. "And then in front of it it said ‘NO APOLOGIES, NO REGRETS.’ That was the sort of crew that Bambi was performing with." Through Howard’s time with the groundbreaking, incisive Tribe 8, he ran in the same circles as Bambi, and became enamored with her as a larger-than-life character, a rare older member of the queer artistic circle in a time when tradition and histories were being erased by the generations lost to the AIDS epidemic.
Last year, Howard returned to Polk Street with camera in tow to put Bambi on film. The resulting short documentary, Sticks & Stones: Bambi Lake, takes a stroll with Bambi as she points out old haunts and dishes on her past, intercut with interviews with longtime creative partner Birdie Bob and archival footage of Bambi performing at San Francisco clubs. The doc is a glimpse into Bambi’s art and life, while also serving as a time capsule of a fringe artist pushed to the margins of history and a San Francisco in the thick of gentrification.
Without question, Bambi’s influence has persisted. Justin Vivian Bond, the NYC-based cabaret legend and trans activist, still performs "The Golden Age of Hustlers" in their live shows, and even sang it in a tender music video that Howard and Erin Ereenwell directed last spring. Filled with a crop of current drag queens and performance artists, the video captured the impact that fringe artists like Bambi have had on current generations of outré artists. But her impact extends even further: just last month, teen fanzine Teenage News tracked her down and interviewed her.