April 14, 2013

Finding The Fabulous Miss Peggy Honeydew


In October of 1971, a group of wildly costumed friends, including the people who within a year would be known as The Residents, commandeered the stage at an open mic night at a little club in San Francisco called The Boarding House.

            Following the eight or nine mellow souls with acoustic guitars who preceded them, playing Crosby, Stills & Nash covers and lulling the audience into a mass hypnotic state in the process, the chanting, hooting, banging, free-form poetry and screeching instruments wielded by this obviously deranged, Satanic, and decidedly un-mellow mob snapped the crowd back into terrified attention. Throughout the duration of the twenty minute set, only two of the eight or nine people on stage were named: The Mysterious N. Senada (in a trench coat, fedora, and shades), who introduced the show and played—well, sort of played—the saxophone, and the Fabulous Miss Peggy Honeydew, a nightclub singer in a fancy wide-brimmed hat and evening gown.

            Miss Honeydew, a beautiful blonde of about twenty, was introduced about half way through the performance and sang the group’s only real song, which begins:

            Go fuck yourself on the doorknob, mom

            In a mouldy auditorium

            They’ll find you hangin’ upside down

            With your glasses goin’ round an’ round

            It’s a catchy little number, but hardly something you’d expect to be coming from a blonde in an evening dress. And perhaps for just that reason, Miss Peggy Honeydew made an immediate impression on me.

            She would go on to perform at a few other Pre-Residents events and make an unforgettable appearance (flirting with a pair of Siamese twin tag-team wrestlers) in The Residents’ abandoned epic film project, Vileness Fats. Then around 1974 she would quietly vanish, becoming another of the countless legends that have made up The Residents’ forty year history.

            But the Fabulous Miss Peggy Honeydew stuck with me—who was this person, and what happened to her?

            I was perfectly happy (sort of) to leave it as nothing more than simply another one of those tantalizing mysteries. Then, as part of another project I was working on, it suddenly became necessary to track Miss Honeydew down. After some forty years, it didn’t promise to be an easy task. How do you begin tracking down someone who’s been missing for four decades, especially when you don’t have a real name to start with (making the perhaps dangerous assumption that “Peggy Honeydew” was not her given name)?

            Well, I wish I had a long and twisty tale of gumshoe adventurism to tell, full of dark alleys and red herrings, but it turned out to be pretty easy. I just contacted one of my well-positioned secret plants within the Residents organization, and he gave me a name. To make things even easier, Peggy Honeydew’s nephew just happened to be in the process of selling autographed photos of his aunt on eBay, and he gave me a mailing address. A few days later, I received a very nice note from Peggy herself—Margaret Swaton (nee Smyk, though online it’s usually misspelled “Smik”). A week after that I called her at home. The first surprise came when I learned that through all these many years, no one had ever contacted her about Peggy Honeydew before. These Residents fans can be an obsessive and dangerous lot, so I expected nerdy types would be showing up on her doorstep at all hours.

            “Nope, they never have,” she says. “My nephew is a drummer, and when he found out I was Peggy Honeydew he just went nuts. He’s been selling autographed pictures of me all over the world, and I’m very popular in Europe it seems. He was saying that these people are so excited to get a picture. I guess I’m kind of elusive without even planning on it.”

            It seems the Europeans aren’t the only ones who are excited about Miss Honeydew, either.

            “I was tickled to hear that Penn Jillette was with The Residents for a while, touring with them,” she says. “In fact I went to Vegas one time by myself and saw Penn & Teller’s act. I love their magic. And they go out and talk to people afterwards in the lobby. I waited until everybody left and I went up to him and said ‘Hey, we have mutual friends.’ And he asked who? I said ‘Well my stage name is Peggy Honeydew.’ And he went wild. And I was over here dumbfounded at meeting him.”

            The more we talked, the more it became clear her life had been an interesting one, well beyond those few short years she was working with The Residents.

            After being adopted at four months, she was raised in South San Francisco.

            “When I was in high school I was a good kid. Never cut school. But I was always odd in my thinking. Everyone would always talk to me because they knew that I didn’t care if you got pregnant or whatever. I was pretty open-minded on things, which is why I fit in to the hippie thing so well. It just made sense to me.”

            Being seventeen in 1968 and living less than ten miles from The Haight, she found herself in the right place at the right time.

            “It was right up my alley. Me and my two girlfriends, it just fell in for all three of us. It was perfect for us. I met Timothy Leary and I got stoned with Jerry Garcia. A friend of mine was building a music studio in San Mateo, so I met Jimi Hendrix that night and Jerry Garcia. And Owsley. That’s how I got my first acid, from Owsley.”

            And as it turns out, she met Timothy Leary in prison.

            “I was visiting a friend in prison and he was there. That was when he was first caught and he was in the Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo. I was visiting a family friend who’d murdered his wife and Timothy Leary came be-boppin’ in while I was waiting for him and he sat down and started talking to me. He was loaded.”

            It was around 1969 or ‘70 that she began hanging around with the future Residents, who at the time were beginning to experiment with assorted art forms, including music (even though none of them could play a note). But then after those couple of performances and after filming her role for Vileness Fats, Margaret disappeared, and Peggy went with her.

            “I can’t tell you why I stopped doing Peggy,” she says. “ In those days, I was a little nomadic. I was in bartending or food service so I went where the money was and where things sounded like fun. I think it just happened, because I never had any ill will with anybody in the band—I loved them all. They were great people. But when you’re in your early twenties things happen. But it was forty years ago and a lot of drugs. I’m surprised I even remember being in it. It was such a fun part of my life, and they were such honest, nice people.”

            So in the mid-seventies she left and wandered a bit, working bar and restaurant jobs along the way but never straying terribly far from the Bay Area.

            “I was into food and bars, so it finally dawned on me that I hated working in offices, offices are just weird. So I got into middle management in hotels doing banquets and weddings and all that stuff. I did that for years, then I got tired of the weddings because of the long hours. So then I’d go back to bartending for a while. I got married twice which is stupid because I never even wanted to be married the first time. My first husband has since passed, but we maintained a friendship. My second husband wants to kill me. He has no sense of humor. He had no sense of humor about anything. So I just did what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.”

            There were also a number of health issues along the way. When she was twenty-five, a horse fell on her, nearly killing her. She survived breast cancer. And the progressive hardening of the bones of her inner ear led to an operation that left her deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other—along with leaving half her face partially paralyzed. But she faces it all with a clear-eyed, plain-spoken humor.

            These days she lives in a trailer on a friend’s horse farm in northern California. She keeps a garden, and takes care of dogs, together with helping out around the ranch. And she still likes messing with people every now and again.

            “I have a little dog, she’s part Chihuahua and part Italian Greyhound,” she explains. “She’s very long-legged and built like a Greyhound, but she has a Chihuahua apple head. She’s very cute, and when people stop I tell them she’s a miniature Great Dane. I go on and on, and they say ‘oh you know I’ve read about those.’ But I made it up! And they believe me. I have a snap on the back of my skull for this hearing aid I snap on when I need it. People will see it and go ‘What is that?’ And I tell them it’s a pacemaker for my brain. This experimental equipment that works the same way it does for your heart but it’s for people who had too much fun in the sixties. They believe me too—they’re so gullible. That’s part of the way I am.”

            And maybe that, too, helps explain why she got along so well with The Residents. And with me, for that matter.


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