Songwriter and performer Bambi Lake fought a brief battle with cancer and died at the age of 70, as confirmed on Wednesday by the Bay Area Reporter at Zuckerberg SF General. Several of her friends and reporters brought the news via social media, including Justin Vivian Bond. He looks back on his friendship with Lake.
“Bambi blazed trails and burned bridges for many decades, but she always remained a dreamer,” Bond wrote. “It feels like the end of an era.”
Another friend of Lake’s, August Bernadicou, also took to social media on the news of his death. Bernadicou is an archivist and podcaster who interviewed Lake in recent years to talk about his LGBTQ History Project.
Aside from being known as a performer, Lake also earned the title of a troublemaker in San Francisco while he was still alive. According to longtime SFist readers, they remember sightings of the late singer around town and is no stranger to the police and bouncers at queer bars. People sometimes see her babbling to no one on street corners, and is occasionally sober and medicated during the last ten years. She has also enjoyed some minor fame and recognition for her songwriting skills, particularly her song, “The Golden Age of Hustlers.” This track talks about the prime of gay prostitution on Polk street. Mx. Bond performed the song often and even filmed a music video with directors Silas Howard and Erin Greenwell in 2014.
The track contains great lyrics based on Lake’s personal story mixed with elaborate nostalgia for a previous era. The line, “the best bodies of my generation sold, bartered and destroyed by drugs and prostitution,” was inspired by real-life events. In past interviews, Lake stated that the song was in part of a love ballad dedicated to her ex-boyfriend. In one of the song’s verses, he refers to his ex-lover as “San Jose Johnny the Libra.”
When Lake was doing one of her casual cabaret stages in 2012, former SFist editor Brock Keeling wrote how Lake is a disputable figure in the queer arts community.
“A brilliant performer when she’s on, Miss Lake,” Keeling wrote. “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,” he added.
In 2015, Pitchfork wrote of Lake’s troublemaking tendencies, describing her as a “source of irresistible energy, and early member of the Cockettes who was frequently kicked out of the venue and arrested by the police.” One of those arrests came sometime in the 2000s when Lake chatted and got invited by Liam Gallagher to go to the band’s afterparty in a particular bar. According to Lake’s viewpoint of the story, Lake dressed up as a girl and went to the celebration, only to be refused entry by the bouncers despite her protests.
Lake revealed in a 2017 interview with the BAR that her stage persona takes after her late friend John Rothernel, who hails from Sylvester and performed drag accompanied with dubious tracks back in the 1930s. She also wrote a book in 1996 titled “The Unmistakable Bambi Lake” that serves as a chronicle of sorts. Lake wrote the book with co-author and editor SF writer Alvin Orloff, who described Lake’s story as “unique and universal, fascinating and frightening, and one of the most compelling I’ve ever heard.”
During recent years, Lake made irregular public appearances. Bernadicou filmed a video for her cabaret number “Jaded Lady.” The recorded video is in honor of her only album titled “My Fabulous Life as a Broadway Hostess,” featuring the last footage of Lake lip-syncing to her song in a roof on Tenderloin.
Lake was also a former member of the legendary Cockettes, a gender-bending performance group that immensely shaped San Francisco’s modern drag.