Even Anton LaVey would have laughed at that one.
I first became aware of LaVey and the Church of Satan in the 1980s, through infrequent mentions in Herb Caen's columns. LaVey seemed to be an aging socialite of the city, another one of the hundreds of occasional Caen name-drops that appeared to carry over from another era. In 1990, I received in the mail the new authorized biography of LaVey, The Secret Life of a Satanist, written by his personal secretary/companion, Blanche Barton, and realized his contributions had merited far more than mere column mentions. He put San Francisco on the front page of the New York Times for performing satanic weddings and funerals, the latter for a member of the Navy at Treasure Island. He played the role of the devil in the film Rosemary's Baby. His books sold in the hundreds of thousands. He mingled among high society and Hollywood elite, and dated Jayne Mansfield. And at the core of it all was a hometown boy who had tossed away previous careers -- organist, lion tamer, and police investigator -- to start up his own religion and get some attention. What could be more San Franciscan than that?
After an item appeared in this column about the book, arrangements were made for me to have dinner with LaVey and Blanche at a French restaurant in the Richmond District. As I approached their table, LaVey stood up energetically, extended his hand and, announced, "You're a very brave man."
I asked why; he replied that even mentioning his name or the word Satan in print can have dangerous repercussions. We ordered a bottle of sweet white wine (his choice), and throughout our dinner of steaks (blood-rare) LaVey revealed himself to be a charming, intelligent conversationalist, with little patience for tedious chuckle-bum chatter. He was comfortable talking to media, and seemed to know instinctively the elements of his life that would be newsworthy.
We retired to his black Victorian house near Seacliff, where the High Priest of Satanism proceeded to entertain me on an elaborate system of keyboards set up in his tiny kitchen. Blanche served instant coffee from pentagram-emblazoned mugs. As LaVey rolled through his repertoire of forgotten circus music and burlesque themes, two house cats prowled the horizontal surfaces of the room and a caged boa constrictor seemed to bounce its head in time with the music.
Twenty five years earlier he had entertained much larger groups of people in this same house. As pot smoke drifted from the beatnik pads of North Beach to the hippie flats of the Haight, Anton LaVey was presenting a series of late-night occult lectures in his living room; subjects ranged from werewolves to cannibalism and circus freaks. His regular audience of eccentric heiresses and socialites dubbed itself the Magic Circle. In 1966, on the suggestion of a friend, LaVey combined his many interests into a religion he named the Church of Satan, advocating indulgence over abstinence and loathing anything that smacked of mass appeal or "herd" mentality.
The Church received most of its media attention during the late '60s and early '70s, attracting celebrity members who included filmmaker Kenneth Anger, Sammy Davis Jr., and Gilligan's Island star Tina Louise. After LaVey restructured the organization in 1974 to be more decentralized, it continued quietly via books, newsletters, and the occasional article or Caen item. Buses of tourists still drove past the black house, and the church was still listed in the Yellow Pages under the Satanic category, and neighborhood kids would still attempt to break its windows with projectiles.
The early 1990s saw a renewed interest in LaVey and the church. As another generation discovered him, he became the subject of articles in underground publications, including Re/Search, and the S.F. State magazine Prism. Feral House Press reissued his books. Being the editor of a local magazine, I too wanted to put him in print, and the staff came up with the idea of doing a fashion shoot called "Full Devil Jacket," to be shot entirely on location in his home. LaVey readily agreed, and during the coming weeks we met several times.
Each instance felt like a visit to the house of a baron from the Old World. We sat in his living room, which was filled with books, fake plants, and a coffee table made from a tombstone, and talked philosophy until dawn. Unlike the teen-age girls who had shared well-thumbed copies of The Satanic Witch, I had no knowledge of the church at all. Like any religion, it seemed a handy worldview for those who desired one. What seemed most valuable and tangible, though, was LaVey himself. I didn't agree with all that he said, but maxims like "The most important thing to do is to produce" made sense.
When we discovered a shared interest in the 1940s exploitation magazine Whisper, published by Robert Harrison, LaVey asked Blanche to retrieve something from another part of the house. She returned a few minutes later with a banker's box full of dozens of issues of Whisper, each preserved in a clear poly-bag, and LaVey and I sat for the next few hours paging through them, discussing the photography and graphic presentation. He was such a consummate pack rat, I got the feeling that whatever our shared interests might have been, he would have produced boxes full of relevant artifacts.
One St. Patrick's night at a restaurant crowded with drunks on Clement Street, LaVey, his daughter Karla, Blanche, and myself shared a pizza and talked about his previous media attention. He knew he made good copy, and appreciated all the coverage but for a Rolling Stone article from the late 1980s. In that piece, journalist Lawrence Wright attempted to fact-check LaVey's past, and came up empty-handed on several claims, including a supposed stint with the Clyde Beatty circus. The LaVeys were furious at these accusations, and indicated that Wright didn't do his job properly, and they had utmost confidence in me to get the story correct. To be truthful, it didn't matter if his past was based on truth or storytelling. It would be as pointless to fact-check Anton LaVey as it would any Hollywood memoir.
Other evenings we spent eating hamburgers at obscure Daly City restaurants, LaVey always sitting with his back to the wall, packing heat under his jacket in case any "hotshots" wanted to try something funny. The subject of Zeena, his youngest daughter, came up eventually. She had grown up in the church, and at one time had appeared on talk shows, but had severed all ties with her father a few years ago. He talked about her with a hint of sadness, a moment of rarely visible emotion. I realized that after all the curses and spells and Eleven Satanic Rules of the Earth, he was at heart a family man. Whether you were the Prince of Evil or not, it still hurt to lose a daughter.
Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan have enjoyed a pop culture resurgence of sorts these past few years. San Francisco's Amarillo Records has released albums and CDs of Satanic Masses and LaVey's organ stylings. Filmmaker Nick Bougas completed the documentary Speak of the Devil (which includes a Bay Area children's TV show from the early '60s, starring the LaVey family and their pet lion). Rock poster artist Chris "Coop" Cooper and cartoonist Dan Clowes frequently include images of LaVey in their work. Satanic-related chat rooms and Web sites crowd the Internet (one even compares Anton LaVey to actress Susan Anton). And both artist Steven Johnson Leyba and scare-your-mom rock star Marilyn Manson eagerly espouse their satanic affiliations.
LaVey's death from heart trouble at age 67 came as a surprise to many who knew him. To those who dwelled only on image, he seemed responsible for everything from animal mutilations and child abuse to lousy heavy metal bands. But anyone privileged to meet the man knew he was an intelligent, eccentric musician and clever carny who happened along at the right time in history and seized the moment for what it was worth. Throughout his rich and full life, he never lost his sense of humor. In the bathroom of his house hangs a strategically placed gas mask.
Bassist in Bed
Regular KQED listeners will know of "Diamond" Dave Whitaker, a local poet who helped found KPOO way back when. Whitaker's son Ubi, bass player for local rock bands such as Little White Radio and Flower S.F., has just been released from the hospital after emergency open-heart surgery for a faulty heart valve. Friends were hoping to plan a benefit concert to offset Ubi's medical bills, for which he has no insurance, but after looking at the five bands that were most likely to play such a benefit, realized it would be difficult -- Ubi was the bassist in all of them. A benefit show finally has been scheduled for Nov. 24 at the Cat's Grill, featuring Liar, the Broun Fellinis, and special guests. Donations to offset his medical expenses may be sent to PO Box 170311, San Francisco, CA 94117.
Address all correspondence to: Slap Shots, c/o SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Lobby 4, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: 536-8152; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jack Boulware