Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong continue sorting through their archives of punk-era concert footage as it’s digitized for the Downtown Collection at N.Y.U.’s Fales Library.
All punk rockers were not alike. From blue-collar rockers to art school grads, the CBGBs crowd ran the New York gamut: diverse, passionate and extremely opinionated. But there was one thing everyone agreed on. Everybody loved Divine.
Born Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine was dubbed “Drag Queen of the Century” by People magazine after appearing in 10 films by John Waters. Here’s how much downtowners adored Divine: In April, 1978, The Neon Women, a play written by Tom Eyen, opened at Hurrah’s, a nightclub on West 62 Street. Starring Divine as Flash Storm, a retired stripper, it was loosely based on Gypsy Rose Lee’s detective novel, “The G String Murders.” Downtowners actually crossed 14th Street to see it, traveling uptown in droves.
It took the Blitz Benefit to reverse the flow. Gyda Gash (of Judas Preistess) booked most of the bands for the four-day fundraiser for injured drummer, Johnny Blitz. She recalled going to Hurrah’s with Dead Boys frontman Stiv Bators and her then-boyfriend, guitarist Cheetah Chrome.
“Bators loved all things John Waters,” she said. “He started seeing Maria Duvall, who was appearing as one of the Neon Women in the show.” They got to know Divine and when they asked him to appear with the Dead Boys for the finale of the Blitz benefit, Divine said yes. “I think it was one of the most memorable shows ever at CBs.”
And it was. During the chaos of the last night, our audio cables were ripped from the soundboard, so the audio quality really suffered, but the energy that night was undeniable. They blew the roof off the joint.
Those were pre-silicone days and the Neon Women shook the moneymakers god gave them as the band tore through a cover of the Dolls’ “Looking for a Kiss.” When Divine exhorts the crowd to “Fill up these G-strings for Johnny!” (at the 3:20 mark of the video), the place exploded.
Divine never again performed at CBGBs, but developed a lasting friendship with the Dead Boys, and especially Stiv Bators. In 1981, they costarred in John Waters’ Smell-o-Vision epic, “Polyester.”
Divine and Stiv were forces of nature. Their stage personas were wildly outrageous and larger than life. Off stage, they were both sweet and kind. They died within two years of each other, quietly in their hotel beds. Just three weeks after the release of “Hairspray” in 1988, Divine died of an enlarged heart while preparing for an appearance on the sitcom, “Married… With Children” in Los Angeles.
In 1990, Stiv was vacationing in Paris with friends when he was struck by a streetcar. After waiting in an emergency room for hours, he despaired about ever seeing a doctor and returned to his hotel room. He died in his sleep at age 40, presumably from the complications of a concussion.
We prefer to remember them as they were that night. Fearless.
This story originally appeared on The Local East Village.