Pirates Be Cool (Yarrrgh!)

All Things Piratical

During the Middle Ages, the mere mention of the Barbary Coast was enough to incite a fearful flutter in the bosom of every self-respecting gentlewoman in Europe; the North African seaboard between Egypt and the Atlantic Ocean was considered the most dangerous place on earth, a heathen hideaway for ruthless depredators who stalked the seas in search of foreign ships, wealth, and slaves. It mattered little that the seaborne "marauders" were, in fact, corsairs -- Mediterranean privateers given permission by their rulers to stem the bloody tide of the Crusades -- or that European seafarers had long employed similar tactics; in the hearts and minds of invading Christendom, the Muslim captains were savage, bloodthirsty pirates, and the Barbary Coast encapsulated all that was wicked in the far reaches of the world.

Several centuries later, as New World riches turned Spanish galleons into slow-moving treasure troves, it was the Caribbean that inspired similar tales of breathless horror and futile prayers. Islands such as Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Tortuga became treacherous enclaves for runaway slaves, French deserters, British privateers, Norwegian sailors, and escaped convicts of every nationality, creed, and color, all of whom banded together to form the highly skilled, thoroughly debauched, undoubtedly pitiless, and, consequently, most famous pirate crews the world had yet known. But, while cities and ports throughout the Caribbean staked their economy, and sometimes their sovereignty, on the brutality and excess of high-seas outlaws, not one was tagged with the "Barbary Coast" epithet; that dubious honor was preserved for a small, fog-enshrouded town on the Pacific coast.

"The Barbary Coast," wrote Benjamin Estelle Lloyd in his 1878 chronicle, Lights and Shades of San Francisco, "is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, lewd women, cutthroats, murderers, all are found here. Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where bleary-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs, and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome, are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also."

Pirates KO monkeys, rule the pop-culture world.
Pirates KO monkeys, rule the pop-culture world.
Cap'n Blackdawg.
Paul Trapani
Cap'n Blackdawg.

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The Barbary Coast of Lloyd's observation curled along the edges of one of the finest natural deep-water harbors in the world, but that was not its allure. There was gold in them thar hills. San Francisco was a sudden city raised by adventurers, crooks, misfits, and outcasts, a community comprised entirely of coarse men seeking easy money and coarse women of easy virtue. It was a pirate town -- if not in practice, in spirit -- so the "Barbary Coast" epithet took and the renegade ideology seeped into the stone.


My first contact with the Pyrate Punx took place in 1999 on the shores of Lake Lagoda. "Thar be pirates!" read the nearly indecipherable map to Libertatia. And there were pirates indeed: Dressed in faded hues of tattered black, with bandannas tied around their heads, silver hoops thrust through their ears, and bluish tattoos etched across their suntanned skin, they stood in the lake fully clothed, up to their knees, cradling a bottle of rum and singing "Drunken Sailor" at the top of their wind-cracked voices. I was duly intimidated and inevitably beguiled.

The Pyrate Punx were formally, but loosely, established in 1997 by Cap'n Blackdawg -- a San Francisco native -- and his punk-rock compatriots, Calaveras Grande and Crocked Mouth, for the purpose of staging unsanctioned, free concerts throughout the Bay Area. Over the years, they've pulled off hundreds of illegal "engagements." Punk rock, heavy metal, and sea chanteys are the common tender, and antiestablishment counterculture is the creed.

The annual campout to which I was willingly subjected is a weeklong music festival and Pyrate Punx utopia inspired by the principles set forth in A True History and Account of the Pirate Captain Mission (His Crew and Their Colony of Libertatia Founded on People's Rights and Liberty on the Island of Madagascar), an oral history recounted by one Larry Law. There, as at all Pyrate Punx events, denizens are afforded equal vote in all matters of the common good; booty (usually in the form of castoffs from The Man) is seized and shared equally, even while theft from their own is forcefully discouraged; and music is held in highest esteem, eclipsing even the pyrates' love of strong liquor and cheap beer. (So devoted are the Pyrate Punx to the dream of Libertatia that when federal land for the event was unavailable last year, they camped out on an industrial beach in San Francisco, plying the authorities with hotdogs and ribald tales when they deigned to investigate the somewhat toxic site.)

For a long while, it seemed the Pyrate Punx flew the only pirate flag in town. There were rare occasions when the Jolly Roger fluttered proudly over Islais Creek, where the captains of Cyclone Warehouse sometimes offered barge rides and pirate-led sing-alongs, but year-round picarooning was the bastion of a more rugged breed, and almost anyone wearing the "Articles of Agreement" on a T-shirt was sure to be from the Pyrate Punx camp. Then things began to change. I started to notice an incursion of skull-and-crossbones T-shirts, fliers, and patches; pirate flags appeared mysteriously in apartment windows around my neighborhood; there was a mounting interest in sea songs, a propensity for co-workers to slip "Aarrgh!" into casual conversation, and a growing acceptance of short pants and pantaloons.

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