Disneyland With Heavy Eyeliner: Ray Vaughn Is Back

The punk rocker-turned-singer-songwriter Ray Vaughn returns to his South of Market stomping grounds.

Ray Vaughn hates the term “SoMa.” To him, the area now populated by condos and cavernous modern restaurants will always be South of Market. It’s where he cut his teeth in the early 1980s, living in a massive warehouse dubbed The Crab Palace and playing in a punk band called Hostages.

“No one went [to] South of Market unless someone took you there. It wasn’t just gay, it was outlaw,” Vaughn says. “Polk Street and Castro were gay, but South of Market could be anything you wanted it to be. For a moment, it just felt like a secret.”

While Hostages and Vaughn’s other band, Die Bossa Nova, have long since disbanded, much of the raw energy from those years can still be felt in the straight-up rock ’n’ roll he plays today with his self-titled group, Ray Vaughn Band. He’ll be just down the street from his former digs at Hotel Utah this Saturday, performing for a much different audience than he once did at local spots like Mabuhay Gardens, The I Beam, Nightbreak, and a handful of warehouses off Harrison Street.

Regardless of the backdrop, Vaughn’s essence as a queer punk rocker from the 1970s and ’80s bleeds through his guitar, and the commanding vocals he deftly throws at the crowd are enough to make you feel you’ve been with him the whole time. His two recent albums, Way Down Low and Wounded Bird, are reflective treatises on a life hard lived, but one that isn’t ready to walk off the stage.

Vaughn got his first taste of punk rock while living in London in the early ’70s, and returned home to the frenetic landscape of early S.F. punk bands such as The Offs, The Avengers, and Dead Kennedys. It was 1978, and he had just got a job at the original Hamburger Mary’s, right across the street from The Stud.

“There was this camaraderie at Hamburger Mary’s,” he says. “It was straight, it was gay, it was punk, it was hippie, it was drag queen. But nothing was cynical. There was a sense of liberty and respect at the same time. We wanted to shock them, but we still wanted them to come back and tip us.”

Hostages was in its heyday, and Vaughn lived with lead guitarist Eddie Rawlings and producer Michael Rosen in the warehouse on Fifth and Clara streets. Rosen went on to produce records for homegrown thrash metal heroes like Testament and Death Angel, and later for bands like Less Than Jake and Rancid. But back in the ’80s, he was the connective tissue for everything Vaughn and Rawlings had going on.

Rosen notes that while they were all friends and contemporaries of bands like Romeo Void and Flipper, Hostages were in between so many genres that they didn’t ever fully take off. True to form, they were as much about living punk as playing it.  

“Eddie had this old Chevy Super Sport that he’d have parked out front of our place, and he let this homeless person sleep in it when he wasn’t using it,” Vaughn says. “Then, when he’d wake up in the morning, he’d roust him out of the car and he’d go to work. It was a symbiotic relationship, because he’d make sure the car wasn’t stolen. That was South of Market in those days.”

Vaughn also describes parties at The Crab Palace that started at midnight and would go on until the next day, and drug-fueled romps that put the hippie scene to shame.

“It was like Disneyland with heavy eyeliner,” he says.

All-night soirees were complete with elaborately built stages, fire-eaters, snake-charmers, and go-go boys in bondage. At one point, their place hosted a large flock of tropical birds that were given free rein over the premises. But all the carefree melee was underscored by the destructive power of the AIDS epidemic, and in 1987 — when the first blood tests for HIV became available in the U.S. — Vaughn received a positive diagnosis. While he sat and watched his community disappear around him, he survived, responding well to the medication.

“You handled it one of two ways: You became numb to it and moved on, or you came apart and moved away. A lot of people weren’t from here, and it was too hard,” Vaughn says. “You would see someone and they looked OK, then you’d see them two weeks later and they looked like they could die at any minute. Then you’d hear they died. It was apocalyptic.”

Running up credit cards thinking he’d be dead before he had to pay them, he played a monthly residency with Die Bossa Nova at Paradise Lounge. But he was growing bored of his own music, and weary from all the death around him. It was around this time that he met his current partner.

“He came to the U.S. from Central America, which was in the middle of a revolution at the time. The world suddenly became a bigger place for me. I realized it wasn’t about me or just playing music. Being a lead singer in some band just didn’t seem to be as important,” Vaughn says. “It was about growing up and seeing that you’re something larger than just being in the punk scene.”

With this in mind, Vaughn enrolled in City College and S.F. State, earning a B.A. in Spanish and a master’s and teaching credential in special education. He went to work as a paraprofessional at Galileo High School in 1998 and ultimately became the department chair of special education, retiring last year.

“To be honest with you, a stage is a stage,” Vaughn says. “You have to keep an audience engaged. Teaching is performance, if you think about it. But no one who knows me could have seen that turn of events in a million years.”

Despite this cavalier attitude, by many accounts Vaughn had a true gift when it came to working with and advocating for kids with disabilities, and was something of a celebrity rabble-rouser in the world of special ed in San Francisco. In fact, he was among a group of teachers in the district pushing for greater levels of mainstream classroom inclusion.

And on the way out of his second act, Vaughn started to write music again.

“I suddenly felt I had new stories to tell. I had to relive a whole new life in order to come back and have something relevant to say,” Vaughn says. “If you ever want to feel authentic again, go work in an inner-city high school. You’ll recognize very quickly who has choices and who doesn’t.”

He’s once again linked up with producer Michael Rosen to put out two full-length albums since 2012, featuring a cadre of musicians such as Michael Urbano (Sheryl Crow, Cracker, Third Eye Blind), Prairie Prince of The Tubes, and Kevin White and James Deprato of Chuck Prophet and The Mission Express. Eddie Rawlings, who Vaughn credits as the backbone of most of his musical endeavors, is once again on lead guitar.

“With Hostages, Ray and I would just sort of develop a communication while we were playing where we had this sort of telepathy, and we’ve rediscovered that and that’s been fun,” Rawlings says.

This Saturday, the band includes Rawlings, bassist Ricky Fishman from San Francisco post-punk band The Valkays, and local drummer Jeff Herrera, who got his start playing at The Mab when he was just 15.

Vaughn once played music with nothing but time in front of him. These days, it’s the other way around. But that isn’t a bad thing. It’s likely he’d be unable to write the songs he does today without the two lifetimes in his rearview.

Rosen describes Vaughn’s return to the stage and the studio as an epilogue to everything they were doing back in the ’80s.

“I think that Ray was in a perfect place to do this, having finished his other career and coming back to this was satisfying to both of us,” Rosen says. “We all came back with a little more perspective and a little more knowledge. We weren’t trying to ‘make it,’ we were just trying to make a really good record.”

Ray Vaughn Band, Saturday, Nov. 18, 9 p.m., at Hotel Utah, 500 Fourth St. $10; rayosomusic.com

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