The sailors and soldiers called it “Shit Street.” During Vietnam and a few years after, Hotel Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown was the Broadway of the skankiest red light district in the country. Haven’t been to them all, but can still say that with authority. There were live sex shows, transvestite revues, gypsy fortuneswindlers and whorehouses with a line of swabbies outside the front door. At 3 in the afternoon.
Club Hubba Hubba was Shit Street’s crown jewel, an old burlesque hall and dry hustle joint just around the corner from Sailor Jerry’s tattoo shop. All the old greats, like Tempest Storm and Little Egypt had been on the marquee, but in the ’70s the big draws were porn stars like Kandi Barbour and Annette Haven.
My military family moved to Hawaii from Idaho in 1971, when I was 15. Culture shock doesn’t come close. We came from six years in Mountain Home, Idaho, where one day a new kid showed up at school not wearing socks and caused disapproving murmurs and confusion. Then you’re gonna move me to a state where sometimes schoolkids didn’t wear shirts and shoes?
But the thing that really blew my mind was Hotel Street. For some reason, Honolulu city planners made Hotel Street the main thoroughfare for city buses and so everytime I rode from Hickam AFB to Ala Moana or Waikiki, I got a load of the “Boys Will Be Girls” revue placard, with real life “mahus” milling about, and all the porno movie arcades (“the quarter sweaters”) and drunken GI’s fighting with locals. Topless and bottomless joints were the Starbucks of Shit Street. I couldn’t wait to turn 18.
The most alluring neon sign was that of Club Hubba Hubba, where the full-figured featured performers would come out in layers and long gloves and make you wait three songs to see nipples. The band was a sax player and drummer, older black guys about to fall asleep onstage.There wasn’t a cover during the day, when I dropped in because I felt safer, but beers were $3 each in a tiny glass and if you didn’t keep ordering them, one of the girls would come over and tell you to get the fuck out. Or they’d
try to get you to buy them a drink. It was $11. I only bought one once, for a dancer named Apache who would come by Mr. Lucky T-Shirts around the corner, where I worked. She was actually kinda pissed off that I bought her a drink- that was for suckers- and she never came by the t-shirt shop again.
Michael Malone bought Sailor Jerry’s shop after the old man died in 1973. I met him through his girlfriend Kate Hellenbrand, who was my first editor, at Sunbums magazine. He would sometimes take visiting tattoo artists to Club Hubba Hubba, which kept grinding along in the ’80s. He and Ed Hardy and maybe Miss Roxy were in there one night, sitting behind a table of shitfaced Australian sailors on the rail. After one stripper came out in her ridiculous costume and went through a song taking off accessories, one of the Aussies stood up and started patting the runway. “We don’t care about your fancy dances and your feathers and spangles,” pat, pat, pat. “We want to see your twat,” pat, pat, pat “right here, right now.”
This all reminds me of my Bernard Purdie story. Purdie is known as one of the greatest groove drummers ever, particularly for his work on Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” and “Spanish Harlem” and Steely Dan albums like “Royal Scam” and “Aja.” But when he came through Honolulu in 1975 on Jeff Beck’s “Blow By Blow” tour, I had only known him for appearing with his band, fully clothed, in a XXX movie called “Lialeh,” which was billed as a black version of “Deep Throat.” It was a true blaxploitation film I had seen in a 37-capacity theater on Hotel Street a few weeks earlier. Well, the Beck show was amazing and afterwards me and my friends went to a 24-hour diner named Coco’s in Waikiki and sitting at a booth was Bernard Purdie with an attractive young lady. I never know what to say to celebrities, so I went up to him and said, “Excuse me, are you Bernard Purdie?” He gave a big smile and expected to hear about how great the show was, or maybe how his drumming on B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” changed my life, but instead I said, “I saw you in that movie ‘Lialeh.’ His gal said “movie?” So I said “yeah, it’s a porno movie. He was in it. They called it ‘The Black Throat.'” That was my brush with the world’s greatest living drummer Bernard Purdie.