From Sixties hippies to anarchist drag queens, I discovered one cultural treasure after another

From Joshua Gamson’s The Fabulous Sylvester, I learnt of the birth of the San Francisco gay scene and the counterculture of the late 1960s.

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I love how one cultural thing leads you to another. I’m always following trails from a song to a book to a film, which is why I’m always grateful for recommendations, every little piece of treasure opening a door on to the next.

The other day I was making a playlist that included “Mighty Real”, and that led me to read a piece by Alexis Petridis in the Guardian, which told the story of Sylvester’s career and mentioned a biography I had never read: The Fabulous Sylvester by Joshua Gamson. I immediately bought that and was captivated by it, as it filled in lots of gaps in my knowledge about the birth of the San Francisco gay scene, and the counterculture of the late 1960s. I thought I knew about hippies, and Haight-Ashbury, and flowers in your hair. And I thought I knew about Tales of the City, and the gay dating and clubbing world. But this was something else – a scene that often gets missed, that was outside rock’n’roll, and before disco: a sort of cabaret/hippie crossover.

The stars of that world were the Cockettes – the flamboyant group which at various times included Divine and Sylvester among their many members, and who put on “Busby-Berkeley-on-drugs shows at midnight”. So after reading the Sylvester book I went on to watch the 2002 documentary The Cockettes, which told their story, and learned about a bunch of misfits who had each hitchhiked their way across the USA in search of adventure and the like-minded.

A young man called George Harris was one minute being photographed sticking a flower into a soldier’s gun, looking like your average anti-war college kid, and the next had rocked up in San Francisco and renamed himself Hibiscus, resembling “Jesus Christ with lipstick”. The others gathered round him like bees on lavender.

Living in various communes, they were an unusual blend – hippies singing show tunes. Film-maker John Waters said these “acid-freak drag queens” were unique then, and would still be. He has a point. In their shows, anarchy was the name of the game: no scripts, no plans, no rehearsals, and in the end that’s what did for them.

The film began with the moment in 1971 when the troupe of 47 performers flew over for a make-or-break New York show at the Anderson Theatre, at which “everyone” was in attendance. Or at least everyone from Gore Vidal and Andy Warhol to Allen Ginsberg and Angela Lansbury. Actually, yes, that is everyone.

Their landing on the east coast was hard. The hippies met the cynics, Californian dreamers clashed with tough New Yorkers, and the show bombed. Too ramshackle for the Broadway crowd, it was also too tame for the Warhol crowd, for whom drag was really nothing new. As one said, “You gotta deliver in New York, and they didn’t.” At this point, as so often, the story turned sad. The drugs got worse, heroin came into the mix, and when that happens, as Cockette Jilala said, “It always ends in desolation and in flames. That’s how it ends.”

At this point I wanted to go back to where I’d started, with the Sylvester book, and the joy of one fantastic anecdote after another. In his young drag days, Sylvester was known as Miss Dooni, and, “In a world where ‘ridiculous’ was the highest of compliments, Miss Dooni was the most ridiculous of them all.” Or this one: “For Dooni, the word ‘eyes’ didn’t quite go far enough. He called them ‘aye-ees’.”

Best of all is Gamson’s definition of fabulousness: “Fabulousness has a je ne sais quoi, like other indefinable things – beauty, love, star quality, good television. You know it mostly by encountering it… Sequins don’t hurt. The sea parts for
the fabulous.”

He connects back to Sylvester’s churchy childhood, and the dressiness of those occasions, with special reference made to the ladies’ hats. And so I’m led to yet another book, Craig Marberry’s Crowns, portraits of black women in church hats: “platter hats, lampshade hats, why’d-you-have-to-sit-in-front-of-me hats, often with ornaments that runneth over.” From a song, to an article, to a book, to a film, and back into a book. Everything a link in a never-ending chain.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad