For those of us who have not seen the seedier side of town in a while, a stroll with Billy Hough and his “Wild West of the East” tour is an eye-opener without the hangover.
With his dark eyes and sharp cheekbones that don’t hurt to look at, Hough — the bookish rocker of “Scream Along With Billy” — is an engaging storyteller. He’s the kind of person you’d hope to sit next to on a barstool. And indeed, a lot of the tales that Hough tells during his one-hour tour of debauched Provincetown occurred in bars over the last century. But you don’t have to be inebriated to hear them.
Every Thursday evening (and Saturday afternoon), Hough leads groups of about 10 through the central part of town. The tour was developed with author and journalist Ann Wood. Both Wood and Hough have a little Charles Bukowski in them. They are funny and just a bit depressed, and their tour mixes Pilgrims, Farrah Fawcett, and drugs. It’s a good cocktail.
The tour starts at the Boatslip, just a stone’s throw from the Dick Dock — a place for public, anonymous sex. Hough explains that, until the last few decades, homosexuality was so hidden that men used these spots to find each other. Every city has such hidden places, says Hough — Provincetown’s just happens to be underneath the Boatslip deck.
The Dick Dock seems a far cry from Provincetown’s puritanical origins. Hough reviews the Pilgrims’ arrival in Provincetown in 1620 before they decamped for Plymouth (which then got all the credit as the first landing spot). Then he tells the story of Provincetown’s own special Pilgrim: Peregrine White.
White was born in Provincetown Harbor aboard the Mayflower. He is considered the first Mayflower descendent born in the U.S. He lived to be 83, and spent most of those years in Marshfield, according to Plymouth 400, that town’s official Pilgrim anniversary organization. What Plymouth 400 does not mention, however, is that White was also the first Mayflower descendant arrested for “buggery” with his own wife. At least according to Hough. Like a lot of things that Hough says on his tour, this is difficult to verify.
Do you know why Provincetown used to be called “Helltown”? According to Hough, the reason is that, before there were lighthouses, fires were set to alert sailors of landfall. Mariners would identify the tip of Cape Cod by a series of fires. But the name also refers to mooncussers, who would either put out those fires, or set others in places that deceived sailors into thinking they were on a safe course when they were headed for the shoals. When the ships foundered, the mooncussers would loot them, Hough says.
Who performed at the Atlantic House, which Hough says may be the oldest continuously operating gay bar in the U.S.? Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Judy Garland, to name just a few.
Who found her boyfriend Ryan O’Neal getting drunk with Norman Mailer at the Old Colony Tap? According to Hough, O’Neal was supposed to be “on the wagon” when Farrah Fawcett saw him at the O.C. She ripped her mink coat, a present from O’Neal, into furry pieces outside the bar. This was during the filming of Tough Guys Don’t Dance.
Another one of Hough’s yarns concerns the actress Cookie Mueller at the Gifford House Inn. It’s not appropriate for a family newspaper, but something got shaved with a straight-edge razor.
There are many other tales of famous people, writers, actors, and closeted political figures such as Roy Cohn, who used to pick up young men in Provincetown. That is, when he was not busy prosecuting suspected Communists during the Red Scare or later providing legal counsel to Donald Trump. Hough says that Cohn loved the Front Street restaurant — there is more to that story involving some off-menu items.
After the tour, Hough tells me that his favorite Provincetown era is the one we are living in right now. But after that he would choose the 1970s, when Waters was partying with Divine, Mueller, and the Velvet Underground — until members of the band got arrested for stealing cough syrup from the Adams Pharmacy. Or it would have been the 1950s, when Tennessee Williams met up in Provincetown with Marlon Brando, who would play the celluloid version of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
The most dramatic story Hough tells involves John Waters’s star, Harris Glenn Milstead, better known as Divine, who got voted out of town by the selectmen after many unpolitic and criminal activities over the years, such as selling all of his landlord’s furniture to pay rent and cutting down the town Christmas tree.
Can you really be permanently banned from Provincetown by vote of the select board? Hough says he is pretty sure it’s true. He has heard it from more than one source.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll
The event: “Adults Only: Wild West of the East” tour
The time: Thursdays at 6 p.m.; Saturdays at 4:30 p.m.
The place: Provincetown
The cost: $20 at outercapetours.com