Review: Flights of Angels: My Life with the Angels of LightAdrian Brooks with photographs by Daniel Nicoletta
Flights of Angels
Published by Arsenal Pulp Press
Reviewed by Jonathan Statham
The playwright Edward Bond once wrote that ‘freedom means being able to destroy oneself’. The helter-skelter life of the Angels of Light – revolutionary theatre troupe, queer anarchist commune, queens of the genderfuck – is perhaps an illumination of this principle, both its dark side and its gloriously outrageous sparkly neon side (with sequins).
The Angels of Light were a splinter group broken off from the more famous drag troupe, the Cockettes. Based in San Francisco during the 1970s they were at the centre of gay liberation during its most radical period. Flights of Angels is the personal memoir of Adrian Brooks, poet, performer, playwright and one-time member of the Angels. There is little about his story that is not extreme.
The shows staged by the Angels, which were free to attend, can only be described as being somewhere between political pantomime and transcendentalist drag: ‘the Angels did not so much appear on stage as descend from above like wraiths, harpies, and ancient furies, awe-inspiring and totemic, sweeping aside all non-essentials with a spirit that was both unstoppable and uniquely gay’. These shows, with titles like Paris Sites Under the Bourgeois Sea (the playtext of which is included as a chapter of the memoir) and Holy Cow!, may never have been ‘great plays’ in any conventional sense but they were certainly ‘stupendous events’. And Brooks recalls those events along with the stressful domestic life of the Angels in a prose that is both evocative and affective (gainfully accompanied by Dan Nicoletta’s photographs). He has a poet’s eye for detail and a political militant’s sense of what art can accomplish when its creators are passionate.
Brooks’ concern seems to be to convey both the sheer wonder and the spiralling trauma of his life with the Angels, often supported by extracts from his journal. In so doing he captures the strange bipolarity that the work of liberation encounters, at once ecstatic and mystical, destructive and even psychotic. Indeed, a remarkable quality of this memoir is Brooks’ capacity to look at his past without judgement, with a serenity and an unflinching desire to confront both the grotesque and the glorious.
As such, this memoir is a powerful reminder that the intensities and the extremities of that time still promise us something: ‘how can we expect future generations to embrace their own uniqueness or avoid repeating our mistakes if we withhold authentic touchstones?’. For ‘to lose our own history,’ Brooks warns us, ‘is crazy’ – even, perhaps especially, if that history itself is crazy. That at least is why Brooks himself dedicates the memoir to the Angels’ founder, Hibiscus: ‘deranged by his own audacity, he plunged into a dark sea, / leaving indelible golden wings freely available to all’.
Flights of Angels is by no means the whole story, but it is a valuable personal contribution to our understanding of what gay culture was doing in that first decade post-Stonewall. If today it seems to some of us that a politics of liberation has been replaced by one of assimilation then this memoir at least encourages us to dream of a political aesthetic that might allow others to feel as Brooks once felt when he joined the Angels of Light: ‘this was the actual dynamic of gay revolution: its irreducible heart and soul. At last I understood who I was’. And perhaps by such means, we may at last come into a ‘passion beyond possession’, which I cannot but think would be a deeper love and so a fuller, freer sexuality.
Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Manchester.