By Robert Heide
In the mid-1960s, the Beatles recorded two prominent hits. One expressed the desire for revolution, suggesting that “we all want to change the world,” while the other had the foursome shouting over and over again, “All you need is love, love!”
The psychedelic 1960s brought forth a new, young, hippie counter-culture generation that created ‘love-ins’ and ‘be-ins,’ protesting in large gatherings as a form of revolt against corporate America. In 1967, a youth movement that came to be called the ‘Summer of Love’ found runaway teenagers and dissatisfied young adults flocking to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to participate in the rituals of free love.
A new book, entitled Flower Power Man and authored by three sisters—Mary Lou Harris, Jayne Anne Harris, and Eloise Harris—tells the story of the breakthrough 1960s decade and the disco-backroom sex of the 1970s. The focal point is their brother, George Harris III, who became famous in San Francisco and New York as ‘Hibiscus,’ the founder of the ‘Flower Power’ movement and creator of musical glitter-transgender extravaganzas known collectively as The Cockettes, and later, The Angels of Light. There was also a cabaret act called Hibiscus and the Screaming Violets in the late 1970s, a trio that consisted of the Harris sisters who, together, created this phenomenal book.
This must-read tome is edited by Walter Michael Harris (Hibiscus’ younger brother), and features an introduction by Kembrew McLeod, the author of a forthcoming book entitled The Pop Underground: Downtown New York’s Converging Arts Scenes in the 1960s and 1970s. It should be noted that, for a period of several years, a huge glittering sign affixed with fluttering, large multi-colored sequins existed on Sheridan Square above the Village Cigar Store (on the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue) advertising the show Hibiscus and the Screaming Violets.
A number of contributors to Flower Power Man wrote their personal accounts and memories about the fabulous Hibiscus and his apocalyptic adventures. Among these are the actors Tim Robbins, Agosto Machado, the Warhol superstar Holly Woodlawn, Angel Jack (aka Jack Coe), Lance Loud, Penny Arcade, and the Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto. Musto was with Hibiscus in 1982 at St. Vincent’s Hospital when he died at age 32 of what was then called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID)—the mysterious plague that later came to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)—which defined the eighties (many now refer to the decade as the AIDies). I also contributed several accounts regarding Hibiscus, in particular, my astonishment when I saw him as a young, blonde teenager in Jeff Weiss’ oedipal play, A Funny Walk Home at the Caffe Cino in l965.
Flower Power Man is also chock-full of great photos by the likes of Peter Hujar and Bernie Boston. Boston took the famous and now-iconic picture, on the cover of the book, of Hibiscus putting a carnation into the barrel of a rifle held by a National Guardsman in Washington, D.C. on October 21, 1967, to protest the unending Vietnam War.
To some, the great Hibiscus shows featuring drug-crazed male and female glitter drags were an all-the-way breakthrough in terms of gender bending—with 1920s fringed lamps for hats, halved coconuts for breasts, and homo-sex shenanigans with everything hanging out for all to see. The midnight musical extravaganzas—utilizing 1930s Depression-era songs like “Keep Your Sunny Side Up” and “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” at the Palace Theater in San Francisco’s North Beach, with titles like Pearls Over Shanghai and Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma—have become legendary. Fortunately, much of this story may be viewed on screen or on DVD. These documentaries include The Cockettes (2002) and, a favorite of mine, Pick Up Sticks (1973), which has Hibiscus starring with his Flower Power mentor Allen Ginsberg (both in full drag). In this one, we see Hibiscus portraying Jesus Christ on the cross.
The story of Hibiscus is no flash in the pan. It has become the stuff of true legend. Think James Dean or the incredible Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick. All three had short lives in the spotlight but all became—each in a different sense—bright comets that flashed across the sky and then were gone.
Read Flower Power Man. It’s the real thing and, yes, a lot of fun. Find it on Amazon.
Robert Heide’s new book, Robert Heide 25 Plays, is available on Amazon.com.