Chris is a resident of Portland Oregon. From around 1990 to 2000 he lived in San Francisco, and began his time there working at the same company as John Law, who introduced him to Burning Man. He first attended the Ft. Mason gathering, and assisted John Law with the logistics. He would attend Burning Man several years. From SF he moved to New Orleans before eventually settling in Portland Oregon in 2006. He is also the former owner of the Alice Coltrane Memorial Coliseum (a former Hare Krisna center and before than a hang out spot frequented by Steve Jobs). He sold the building in August, 2018.
Chris is a colorful character, and a part of Burning Man history. Here are a few perspectives on Chris:
THE CITY THAT WAS: THE CHRIS RADCLIFFE AND AN EVENING OF PROUSTIAN GRAFFITTI
Among the many colorful personalities that have passed through my life, the affectionate award for No, 1 Shit Disturber has to go to the force of nature known as The Chris Radcliffe. Radcliffe might appear at an event as Chris or Christine, altered or not, but always with a cheerful vengeance.
My first recollection of him was at a Cacophony event, The Charles Bukowski Support Group, organized in “protest” of The Marcel Proust Support Group. It’s unlikely we’d met before, because he’s not the sort you forget; he has been described as a man who sucks all the air out of a room.
One of Radcliffe’s favorite games was starting some totally false rumor about someone and waiting to see how long it took to get back to him. The record was 8 days. He was once driving a cherry picker around town, one of those trucks that elevates sign installers high above street level, and he decided to knock on the outside of Larry Harvey’s Alamo Square apartment windows to bum a cigarette.
In spite of his difficult aspects, he’s a great friend. For years, he made sure I got to Burning Man and back, and later with all the stuff for the café (in the years when it still fit in a single large vehicle). He made mischief there, or was suspected when any happened, and the only reason he wasn’t booted on principle from the desert completely was that he was my friend and transport. He stopped coming of his own volition when suddenly there were too many rules.
The picture of the trash can documents one of the many bizarre adventures Radcliffe talked me into. No one has ever talked me into so much weird shit. That’s a stencil of Proust’s face on a Baker Street trash bin near 1907.
This adventure began when we heard that the writer and philosopher, Alain de Botton, had just published his book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, and was coming to Berkeley for a book signing. I was incensed that someone wrote this book before me. But I admired de Botton for thinking of it first, and it was certainly good, in its way.
Radcliffe showed up at 1907 the night before the Berkeley reading with a stencil he had cut of Proust, from a painting by Dean Gustafson, and said we should leave a trail of Proust images from 1907 to the bookstore where de Botton would appear. There was no other eccentric thing happening that night, so we loaded up some spray paint and a carload of friends in the late night hours, the only time for such things.
We sprayed Proust on freeway overpasses and construction sites, utility poles and dumpsters. Wherever we saw a non-intrusive blank spot along the route, we improved it. And what was the point of that, you ask? Well. It was different. It was an experience. Perhaps one person would see it and decide the time had come to finally read Proust. Radcliffe talked me into it.
The following night, the Marcel Proust Support Group showed up in force at the Berkeley reading. We listened, clapped respectfully, and after it was over, I said hello. The author hadn’t seen our stencils, but he noticed us, and told Lingua Franca Magazine, a few months later, that we were a scary looking bunch of people.
Proust obviously didn’t change de Botton’s life all that much, or he would have found us no scarier than some Proustian characters paid to rough up masochists. I leave it you to decide: does this man, The Chris Radcliffe, look scary to you?
2006 interview by Mateo (note, some may find this interview challenging):
Four days from now Christina will become Chris. He's not about to have an operation, rather he's in the middle of a nine-day cycle that won't end until Christina sleeps. When Chris wakes, a day and a half later, the cycle will have begun again.
Chris Radcliffe lays back in the chair, motionless but looking like he might just slip off the front. From under a heavy gaze he watches the smoke pour upwards from his hung-open mouth. The teeth of his lower jaw make a steaming grill, while his eyes sparkle darkly in their pink fleshy pools. Just as the gray curl of smoke hits the ceiling, Radcliffe's body snaps forward to deliver the words just formed in his mind, "If I got a parking space in Manhattan, I'd stand in it till I could buy a fuckin' car," he says. I try to find the thread of logic that runs between my question and the Manhattan parking space, but Radcliffe is moving on.
"It's not how quickly you can run in high heels, it's how quickly you can turn and stand when it's really going to count." He says these words with a sly look, like he's just handed me the thread I was looking for. He speaks alternately with the elegance and poise of a distinguished lady, or the beer-soaked swagger of an armed iconoclast. Chris Radcliffe is both people busting out of one body, and he loves the dualism. He told me, "Life's great adventure begins just beyond where you're comfortable."
We spoke about his adventure from the beginning. Chris Radcliffe spent the Cuban missile crisis underground; he experienced his first boyhood fears in a neighbor's backyard bomb-shelter. But it was just after Khrushchev left Cuba that Chris' real war began. It was on the day that he was sent out to a Catholic military school. "Dad parked me there so he could get a new wife," said Radcliffe. Because his arm was broken on the first day of school, they offered him free tuition to avoid a lawsuit. However, the school soon began efforts to replace Chris with a paying customer. "They put me on disciplinary routine one week after the arm healed. From that point on I didn't get to talk to another kid; I got to eat, march, go to class, and sleep," Radcliffe said with a bitter sadness. "The isolation was so extreme; the distance between them and me might as well have been the size of the Russian fuckin' steppes. After 2-years I wasn't functioning as a human being."
At 10-years old he came home to a new step-mom and two new sisters. Everyone was gone most of the time, and before long Chris was secretly wearing his step-mom's outfits. On one of these occasions he ventured out to stroll in the gardens behind his house. His afternoon reverie was shot through the heart when he saw the stranger. From across the fence the neighbor had seen him, and was laughing his ass off. The young Radcliffe was mortified for 3-weeks, until eventually he realized that the neighbor wasn't about to betray the secret.
Soon, summer vacation was in play and Chris said yes to his secret fantasy. The two young daughters of the laughing neighbor asked Chris to play dress-up. "I walked in and they changed me, put make-up on me, changed my hair, I remember looking in the vanity mirror, seeing this different person for the first time; I had 5 or 10-seconds of that shock of recognition," said Radcliffe.
He was again interrupted by the stranger; the door opened and the girls' father came in. He complimented his daughters for their beauty; they said "thank you Daddy" and left the room. The neighbor, who had been having sex with both of his daughters, cut a deal with girls. Their job was to get Chris into their room, and into their clothes, in exchange for "time off".
"He was gentle but he had me" said Radcliffe. Chris cried and the girls comforted him. They got him to admit that he must have already been interested, which is probably true because Chris returned to play dress-up for about another year. "I was his mistress. I swear to you it was the only human contact I had, and I wanted it so bad I didn't care. I became what ever person he wanted me to be. I don't regret it to this day" said Radcliffe.
Chris would come home from school each day; he would go to the neighbor's house to dress-up with the girls, then he would sleep with their father. "When he was done with me I'd be sitting on the front lawn; watching my parents come home; watching his wife come home. I was totally invisible," he said. At the time, Chris was aware of the surreal nature of what was happening to him, but it would be many years before he realized that other queens existed.
Radcliffe joined the Navy and was stationed in Millington Tennessee where he attended aviation school. On weekends he rode down to Nashville for a vicarious education in "drag school." He dated different queens, he learned about what they called "the life," and he saw how cruel gay men were to queens in the '70s. "Those bastards in their crew-cuts, their Izod shirts, and tight jeans; they were wearing that uniform of conformity that is so much more of a straight jacket. (They) would piss all over you if you were a queen. You couldn't go into their discos; they'd snatch the wigs right off your head. We were an inconvenient public image for them," he said, with the spittle of contempt balancing on his lower lip, and his boot now pounding the floor.
"I'm on top of the food chain," he barked randomly. He moved the spittle from his lip to the sleeve of his leather jacket and lit another cigarette. His face betrays the hard pursuit of good times, and the dangers that are part of this quest show in scars and the busted teeth of his loose smile.
After the Navy, Chris moved to Hollywood; he enrolled in UCLA Film School and went into full time drag. "All these queens that I had slept with the previous year were furious; you cannot be our lover and then our competition," he said slowly with a smile, wringing the last drops of pleasure from each word. Chris Radcliffe has a beautiful and dirty smile. Countless lascivious words have passed through his lips, and it would seem that they were all sweet to the taste.
Soon he found a quack doctor for a hormone prescription. "The nurse would shoot me up with straight Estrogen and Primarin; pickling my hormonal balance. I remember the first time that I felt that cone under my nipple; it started to swell and develop. Quickly I had tits and I was trying to kill myself on a quarterly basis," said Radcliffe. In those days there was no counter-therapy, and most queens had never heard of an endocrinologist. "We all were on a thread. The mortality rate for my people was 85% before 34 (years old)... that's pre-AIDS; simply the most dangerous way to spend your time," he said of the queen's life.
Radcliffe knew there was a great deal of personal power to be gained from these experiences. "I don't believe in a fate or destiny, I believe because I fight the heart of each battle, that my will is the key to victory. I have such willpower that I have to keep it in Ohio where the warehouse space is cheaper," he said.
The idea of will-power seems incongruous with a life of drug use and sexual abandon. But what is important for Chris is the will to explore all that life has to offer him, and the courage to truthfully express all he finds. "I want a primary experience of existence. A secondary, processed experience of existence means that you are in a crowd. If you are in a crowd, beware the wolves that do feed on flocks. What I know is that the wolves seldom make a kill, coming across the iconoclastic ram, nyuck nyuck nyuck, Mo, Larry, the cheese is getting away," he said, with a combination of absurdity and gravity in his voice.
He collects himself from his sloppy sprawl to affect a new look. He sits up properly and crosses his legs with grace. One hand he rests on the top of his wineglass, the other hand he places seductively on his hip. He drops a subtle wink and turns his head so I can't see him laugh at himself.
Chris spent five cruel years of drinking, drugs, and rejection in Hollywood. As a drag queen under the fluorescent light of society's glare, Radcliffe became the subject of ridicule and violence; he had to develop an ability to stop the pain from touching him. He transcended the pain through prostitution. In part, this was because he got paid for being in drag, but also because he found that most of his customers, "simply wanted to go down on me. They wanted a phallus, but they didn't want any of the maleness associated with it." It was a validation of his sexuality from the "straight" world. "I experienced that thing I guess Catholics call redemption. I became the best prostitute in LA. By my nature I thrived in that environment. I prospered," he said.
When the sun rose on Chris Radcliffe's 29th birthday, he was alone, and had been up all night. Chris realized that as a cocaine junky and prostitute, he would not see the dawn of his 30th year. A doctor at the Veteran's Administration Hospital interviewed Chris before admitting him to the drug detox program. There was a problem. "He said there was a virus that apparently I hadn't heard of. He explained the mechanism of death from AIDS; told me that I was in so many high risk groups, the chances were overwhelming that I was already infected," said Radcliffe. The detox program was very expensive and the VA would not make the investment. "The guy closed my file, looked me in the eye and said, 'If I were you, I wouldn't quit partying,' He told me I was already dead," Chris said with wide and serious eyes.
Everything changed for Chris on that day. He began to rehabilitate himself while waiting the 30-days for his blood test. He quit prostituting, and he quit partying, at least for a while. He had been to too many funerals, and he now wanted stability. For 30-days Radcliffe held life in one hand, and death in the other.
At the VA Hospital once again, Radcliffe found himself frozen in time. The office clerk stood with his back to Chris for several eternal moments as he looked through the test results. He finally slapped the folder shut, turned around and said "Negative!" Chris chose to skip the detox program anyway.
Shortly after this fearful month Chris met Susan, an Irish-Catholic accountant from Brooklyn, and during their long conversation that evening, she never mentioned the fact that Chris was a man in drag. He was wearing a beautiful $400 vintage dress, a fur coat, and a pair of pumps. "She was the first person that I had ever encountered like that and I was intrigued," Chris told me. They quickly fell in love and moved in together, and although their relationship provided a measure of stability, within 2-years both of their lives were destroyed. She had a secret alcohol problem and now they were both addicted to cocaine. After seeing how badly she had fared in his life, he made a deal with her. They separated for a year; she went to her parents' while he took a job as a waiter in Big Sur.
Chris began to cry when he told me about the Christmas that they spent with her family. He said that, "previously, Christmas and family had a very negative connotation to me." He watched her and her family exchange presents. "I experienced family for the first time in my life. Her Mother and Father (were) all proud, God I wanted that," said Radcliffe as he wiped tears and snot from his face.
While in Big Sur Chris received an important letter from Susan; "she told me all the reasons why she valued me," said Radcliffe. He went out that day with a winch and a 4-foot chain saw. "I went up in the woods and I harvested a giant slab of redwood: 12-feet long, 3-feet wide, and 4-inches thick. I used the come-along to winch it out of the forest, and drag it into my van. I sold it and I bought an engagement ring and a wedding ring. I went up and begged her to be my wife," he said. At the wedding, Chris had the DJ play Cole Porter songs. They were married for 10-years.
Like so many enchanting ladies, Radcliffe is mysterious and evasive, but just as soon as I reach the limit of frustration and curiosity, he parades his secrets before me with a haughty swagger. His dusty black boots lay down a quick tempo as he speaks, but his lips move at about half that pace. Radcliffe's voice sounds like two basements full of wet smoky gravel.
During his years of marriage, Radcliffe developed a very personal relationship with sex, drugs, and drag. "I never screwed around on Susan, except in the mirror," he said. "I'd get a bag of speed as the weekend rolled along, and I'd go into my office, shoot up my bag, feel that warm rush into transition. I'd get dressed, and share my company with a mirror for days at a time. I had the ability to become all the women that I ever desired. I don't have sex for an evening; I have sex for days at a time," Radcliffe said.
Chris met John Law and assisted with the Ft. Howard Installation of the Man. Brian Doherty describes this in This Is Burning Man:
The barge floated between two docks that jutted parallel to it and perpendicular to the shore. For a good video opportunity, they let the barge, with the Man standing in glory, drift back down between the two docks . Cacophonists stationed out on the docks were supposed to tug back on the ropes, keeping the barge berthed so it could return after it floated away from shore a bit.
"The barge started moving down the dock, and I started noticing people on the docks who were supposed to be watching our ropes wandering off to get beer," Radcliffe remembers. "We ended up with only two people holding the rope on one side , three on the other. And we're picking up speed."
"I shouted up to John, 'What do we do now? Go to Tahiti?' Cause we're about to launch this enormous barge into the bay without any hope of getting it back. I grabbed a couple of hammers and I began pounding a cadence on the deck of the barge to get peoples' attention. By the time people ran back to the dock to grab the ropes, we had about ten feet of hawser line left."
With the Dot Com boom in San Francisco forcing Radcliffe into exile, he set out for New Orleans to prepare an escape route and sanctuary for those who would join him. Most of his friends went to Oakland, but instead he was visited by Hurricane Katrina. Radcliffe built four houses with a gun in his tool-belt, and all of them survived the hurricane.
After Katrina, he defended his property from looters seated on a motorcycle in the front yard. He was wearing a dress and clutching an AK47, a pleasure most people will never know. The looting and weapons were not uncomfortable for Chris, however what does cause deep anxiety for him is the global warming that he believes is related to Hurricane Katrina.
"The Russians were supposed to kill me, straight men were supposed to kill me, AIDS was supposed to kill me, drugs were supposed to kill me. Send your cohorts; it's never been a problem for me in the past. But the weather is more than I can I deal with. I cannot contend with the Gaia," said Radcliffe. "We've gone a step too far. Disasters will start to multiply one upon the next; chaos will take its hand. Buy me ten psychiatrists who will call me crazy and I'll fall into their arms. I take no pleasure in thinking I'm right about this," he said.
Lately Chris has been living from the sales of his New Orleans properties. "I'm buying $50 nylon stockings now-days. I don't plan to begrudge myself an indulgence here or there," said Radcliffe. He spends his time hunting for new adventures, attempting to build more myths for himself and his friends. "I think it's the most gracious thing I can do," he said.
Chris Radcliffe's life has been, from the beginning, a battle to live with total honesty and without mediation from a stunted public opinion. "The hardest, meanest lesson I ever had to cope with was censure," he said. His memory is stocked like a fishing pond by a lifetime of fearless self-exploration. All of his hard won victories are tools in this campaign against fear and censure. "I would be sad to learn that I'll never take a bigger bump at a higher speed. I love my life, but I DON'T recommend it," he said, showing no sign of slowing down.