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Renée Zellweger plays Judy Garland in Rupert Goold’s biopic. If you are a gay man of a certain age, her impact and relevance is almost inescapable.
Like most kids who grew up in the ‘70s, my intro to Judy Garland came via The Wizard of Oz on Christmas television. In later years, and due to repeat viewings, the wicked witch ceased to scare this twisted child and became my favourite character.
I wanted a fleet of winged monkeys; to fight my corner and terrorise my enemies. My prize-winning rabbits and unfortunate terrapins were my only army. Those pets didn’t savage or scare the local bullies, but they taught me about death and how to improvise a dramatic but budget funeral.
Judy Garland remained far from my radar throughout the ‘80s, but emerged repeatedly when I started to explore the London gay scene. Every bar had at least one legendary old queen who was a living Wikipedia of quotes, history and culture. Sometimes they were staff. Often they were daily regulars. They were The Mothers.
Niven Govinden’s brilliant book, This Brutal House is concerned with ‘The Mothers’ of New York city, the elders who rule and run the vogueing houses. When Niven discussed the novel on Out in South London, we reflected on The Mothers of London.
They didn’t have ‘houses’. They had pubs. That’s where they reigned. Sometimes a venue would boast a coven of Mothers. Old queens would vie for top billing, stealing crowns from each other with quips and bitching.
The Richmond Arms, Royal Oak in Hammersmith, The Colherne, Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Piano Bar, Comptons- they were queer academies of sorts. You could drink, fight, flirt, watch and learn. It was more fun than school, but there were still lessons to learn.
The Mothers could be cruel, alcoholic and mercurial, but they housed wisdom. Section 28 had silenced my tutors, so with nowhere else to turn, Mothers became my mentors and role models. Margaret Thatcher’s policies forced this teen to seek solace in drag queens and leather clones. As death stalked our community and homophobia bled from the media, those old queens were my only saviours.
The Mothers talked of drag balls in Porchester Hall, of arrests and raids, broken hearts, Polari and Judy. Always Judy. They quoted her films. They had paper tickets from shows, revered like the Shroud of Turin, hidden in Victorian cabinets or framed on yellowing walls.
You could never say a bad word about Judy, unless you wished to provoke a monstrous, hysterical fury. I respected the worship and listened with patience, but struggled to make sense of their faith.
Before all day licensing was introduced in the ‘90s, pubs on Sunday were only open between 12:30 and 2:30pm. Their doors would remain primly shut ‘til 7. Those supposedly dry afternoons were often spent at the abode of a Mother. She’d gather peers and acolytes to stave off loneliness and savour her drinks cabinet. And listen to Judy at Carnegie Hall. It’s a double album. We’d often listen to it twice, before returning to the pub. It drove me mad.
As rare groove evolved into acid house, many gay venues remained impervious to the cultural revolution and continued to spin hi-nrg with the odd show tune thrown in. It felt dated and embarrassing. Ecstasy, M25 raves and magic mushrooms replaced my Judy-filled Sunday afternoons.
The old clones, theatrical queens and leather clad Daddies called Mary had my respect, but by my late teens, I was drawn to lasers, pills and the joys of dancing in a warehouse.
I drifted, raved, and abandoned my Mothers. They griped and hissed. Made me feel guilty. They hated house music. They were wistful and weepy. Rancid and distant. They disappeared.
The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were soon filled with funerals. And raves. My elders, who’d been piqued when their ‘children’ left the nest, were often on the front line when their prodigies started dying. Some of them were lost to AIDS too. Their funerals were stately, camp and theatrical.
Some Mothers were swept into the next life to the strains of Judy. Or Liza. Or both. Friends my own age and younger died too. This led to wild wakes fueled by MDMA and techno. It’s what they would have wanted, we said, wide-eyed, shocked and grieving. We danced. They died. We cried.
Judy returned to my life after the Millennium, when I first heard The 2 CD quasi-bootleg, Judy Garland Speaks!
It blew my mind. The darkness, pain, addiction and fury spoke to me in ways that Judy at Carnegie Hall didn’t.
This wasn’t show tunes and gingham, it was shadows come to life. Dickie Beau was also fascinated by those recordings, using them to critical acclaim in his show Blackouts: Twilight of the Idols.
Judy evolved from weird memories of dead queens and chintzy flats in Earl’s Court. Judy became performance art, channeled by a brilliant friend. Dickie Beau ‘remixed’ Judy for another generation. In 2010, I saw End of the Rainbow at Trafalgar Studios, largely drawn by the reviews of Tracie Bennett’s performance.
She lived up to the hoo-ha. The show was nominated for four Oliviers, including Best Actress for Bennett, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for McRae and Best New Play. The production served up a fresh perspective on Judy and a spooky glimpse of what it might have been like to see her live on stage.
Out at Clapham
End of the Rainbow inspired the Renée Zellweger juggernaut that’s just hit our cinemas. Out at Clapham was perhaps the queerest place to view it.
As well as wall-to-wall gays, there was a pre-screening drag turn from the fabulous Vivienne Lynsey and a post-show Q + A with the producer David Livingstone.
Sat next to Ms Lynsey, I can confirm that she downed a bottle of wine during the screening and became a living river of mascara by the closing credits. The spirit of Judy was IN THE HOUSE.
I enjoyed the film and it’s true, Renée delivers a blinding portrayal; uncanny, rich and dramatically textured. The girl can sing too. Following the screening, I joined Out at Clapham host David Robson and a bouquet of Judy watchers for a meal at a local restaurant.
Unfortunately, on arrival, our clan was homophobically abused by a group of male diners. There were scenes. Voices were raised. Violence was pondered. Clueless drunks stumbled down Clapham High Street and into our splintered and distressed party. It was all very Brexit. We eventually found food and shelter at a superb Indian restaurant called Maharani.
We were lucky to be joined at dinner by Theodore (Ted) Brown, Gay Liberation Front veteran and the force behind Black Lesbians and Gays Against Media Homophobia. Regarding the film, he was perhaps the most critical of our crew.
As he shared his views, with historical and cultural context, I nibbled on Peshwari naan and pondered the power of Judy. Ted’s connection to Garland ran deeper than any of us could know. He’s from a generation that had no Madonna, Gaga or Beyoncé. They had Judy. They also had to fight harder than we’ll ever know.
I swore to never become an old queen banging on about Judy Garland. If the Mothers were my parents, and they were, it seems their work is done. I’ve become one of them. They are part of me.
Our elders are a glittering font of knowledge. We may not always agree with them. They sometimes get it wrong, but they have lived. And survived. That’s always worth a listen. As is Judy Live at Carnegie Hall.
You win, Mothers.
Judy is in UK cinemas from 2 October
Dickie Beau is in Botticelli In the Fire at Hampstead Theatre 18 Oct- 23 Nov.