This doesn’t really sound like sex music.
Patrick Cowley passed away tragically young in 1982 but left behind a vast body of work that’s still being unearthed. Oddly, his best-known solo works today are arguably his porn soundtracks thanks to a comprehensive reissue series from the Dark Entries label: School Daze, Muscle Up and now Afternooners.
Cowley’s contribution to the world is the Hi-NRG disco style, built around that octave bass throb that even the most sheltered Christian sectarians know to associate with bulging male muscle. But his porn soundtracks are sprawling, ambient synth ruminations, built around the basic pulse of disco but also happy to dip a toe into far more cosmic territory. One suspects that if not for how inescapably gay his music is, he might have as much currency in the oppressively straight “chill-music” circles as, say, Nujabes—a mysterious cult figure to be passed along as an awesome secret alongside joints and iPod jacks.
But that’s what makes his porn soundtracks so special (at least when separated from their original function, as they are on these reissues). Finally, chill music that isn’t brainlessly, apolitically positive but situates us in a specific community at a specific time—San Francisco in the late ‘70s, between the hippie boom and the devastation of AIDS. Anyone should be able to enjoy it. But they have to get past its gayness first, which will be hard for a lot of straight people, and that’s why it’ll probably always be a specifically gay stoner-music experience.
Afternooners is more compact than the sprawl of School Daze, a little more sedate than Muscle Up. It’s mid-tempo, sunny, stoned, unobtrusive but subtly mind-bending. Cowley’s a wizard in the studio, populating the foreground with all sorts of pings and burbles and burps and organic squishes and splats; he pulls out what sounds like a Buchla at the beginning of “Big Shot.” The songs aren’t quite as immersive as on his other soundtracks, with the exception of the abyss of “Bore & Stroke.” Instead, they’re easygoing and gently psychedelic.
This doesn’t really sound like sex music. Titles like “Jungle Orchids” and “One Hot Afternoon” suggest the environs in which the lovemaking takes place rather than the act of love itself. Porn is so far-removed from what sex is really like that it seems to take place in a parallel world with its own rules, and Cowley’s music conjures that place—a utopia where enthusiastic outdoor coitus is as casual as making bacon and eggs in the morning. It’s kind of like how we imagine the Castro in the ‘70s, though that greatest of gay villages was less of a utopia than a communal reaction against marginalization and the threat of violence.
Cowley’s work was usually far more paranoid and realistic. The songs he produced for other artists celebrated gay club culture while acknowledging how precariously it was perched on the edge of the world. His solo album Mind Warp is a body-horror concept album about a mechanical invasion of the human body, made while the AIDS-afflicted Cowley couldn’t even stand on his own. The then-undiagnosed disease would claim him at age 32 and go on to take tens of thousands more lives before the Reagan administration so much as said its name.
It’s easy to frame Cowley’s career in the context of what was to come rather than his own time. Certainly, knowing the details of Cowley’s death and the violent theft of countless queer lives to come casts a sad shadow over this music. But that’s not what Afternooners is about. In his invaluable liner notes, Matmos’s Drew Daniel—another brilliant Bay Area musician whose music is deeply rooted in queer history—equates Cowley’s omnipresent synth mist with the fog that hangs over the desolate parts of San Francisco. But it’s the Castro that seems to get most of the city’s sun, and on Afternooners, there’s not a cloud in the sky.