Michael Alig reached out from jail to punk impresario Malcolm McLaren in 2011.
The end of Alig’s long stretch in the New York penal system for the killing of a drug dealer, Angel Melendez, was in sight and he was thinking about future projects.
“I had just read Malcolm’s autobiography. And it was very much revealing him as a Barnum & Bailey type, a fixer,” Alig told me when we met recently.
Michael Alig is the kid from South Bend, Indiana, who had come to New York in the ’80s, dropped out of the Fashion Institute of Technology to become a busboy at Danceteria, and gone on to invent the Club Kids, that nonstop adventure in outrageous misbehavior that pumped life into Manhattan’s Nightworld of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
What he saw in the man who put together the Sex Pistols was another socio-cultural engineer. “A lot of people really seemed to hate him,” Alig told me. “And that was one of the things that endeared him to me. Because a lot of people hate me too. And they’ve always hated me. And I think for all of the same reasons.” (Important qualifier: McLaren never, as far as we know, helped kill anyone.)
“Because my job has always been what I call a ‘massifier,’” Alig continued. “I would take an idea I would see happening somewhere and I would say, ‘Ohmigosh! I have to tell everyone about that.’ I would promote that idea, whether ecstasy or acid house or whatever. And the people I call the ‘fabulous fundamentalists’ don’t like that. They like to keep the ideas for a small group of elitists. And I like to spread them out. They consider me a sellout, I guess.”
Did McLaren make the prison visit?
“No. We talked for a while. I told him some of my ideas. He liked the idea of getting together and doing something scandalous. And getting people to hate us more.”
Gurgle. Alig has a remarkable laugh, a venting of pressure, like a cooker in a lab.
“And then he just died all of a sudden,” Alig added of McLaren.
Alig and I met in a coffee house on Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side. The Michael Alig I met in the ’80s would have been near uncontrollably buoyant. Now 50, he is friendly, open, and lower-key.
Melendez’s murder was a horror that could have been scripted by the darkest of dark playwrights. (Indeed, his story was made into a 2003 movie starring Macaulay Culkin as Alig, Party Monster, which was based on James St. James’s book, Disco Bloodbath.)
On May 17, 1996, Alig—who was in an apartment paid for by his boss, the club lord Peter Gatien—and his friend Robert “Freeze” Riggs got into a squabble with Angel Melendez over drug money they owed.
It ended with Melendez dead in a bath sloppy with Drano and fancy fragrances, then an amateurish dismemberment and a dump into the Hudson, a clubland thrumming with rumors about Angel’s disappearance, and with Alig blabbing about it all to skeptics like Arthur Weinstein, creator of such oases of the after-hours culture as the Jefferson and the Continental, in the VIP bar of Limelight.
The torso was found, there were arrests, and the charges were pulled down to manslaughter because there were elements of self-defense. Alig was convicted on May 17, 1996, and did close to 17 years. Did that change him? “I sort of realized who I really was,” he said. “Before I was whoever I said I was.” He emerged to… what?
Involvement in an exceedingly dark scenario can affect the protagonists very differently. I spent time with O.J. Simpson while working on a magazine feature a few years back, and I was struck that when we were in public spaces The Event was a palpable presence. It’s hard to imagine Anthony Weiner sinking into the undergrowth.
But Alig is interacting with the rest of the world mostly untouched. Why? He isn’t surrounded with groupies, greedy for any sort of fame. It’s more that what happened seems unimaginable, hard to connect with the individual you meet in the here and now, as if it was kind of a freak storm.
“Even I can’t believe it sometimes,” Alig said. “It’s unfathomable, I was a different person then. I was using drugs every day, five different kinds of drug a day. And it does something to your brain. We weren’t living in a reality.
“First of all, the clubs were making so much money that we could do basically anything we wanted. And I’m not putting the blame anywhere else. It’s just it would be easier for people to understand how we could get to that spot where you feel you can do anything.
“And it’s not real! It’s all make-believe, because you’re always high, you’re always in an alternate reality… we could break any law in the world, really, and as long as the clubs were making money, nobody would say anything to us.
“And again, it’s not their responsibility. I was an an adult and I should have noticed myself that it was spiraling out of control, and I think that at some level I did realize that. But I felt that it was going to be like that forever, we would just get away with everything and we were going be young forever.”
And the crime itself?
“I just remember flashes. Like a movie.”
Alig had been in jail for years. Has he changed?
“Back then I used to be whoever I said I was. Now I know who I am.”
I told Alig he has been blamed for not showing enough contrition.
“Of course, I’m sorry,” he said. “But that sounds trite. No words can make any difference anymore. It’s actions. There’s a charity element to every one of my projects.”
But, he added surprisingly, “I have been having trouble finding a nonprofit that will accept my money.“
One such, he said, was the Hetrick-Martin Institute, set up for LGBT youth. Another is Green Chimneys, which deals with kids with emotional, social, and behavioral problems. (I reached out to both organizations for comment, and will add their responses if they supply them.)
“They wouldn’t accept it. They wouldn’t even accept it anonymously. I think it’s because they don’t want the publicity. And they also don’t want to be seen as money laundering, like they are being used to lighten my image. Because they would be complicit, sort of. In the crime. So I have started my own.”
It is called Skroddle Squad, he said. He and a professional market researcher have been putting it together, and it is already online.
“Skroddle is a lifestyle. It’s the club kid kind of lifestyle of be your own person, love who you are, and that kind of thing. That’s what the Club Kids were. We were misfits in our own towns, and we came to New York and we created our own family. And that’s what this is, except now it’s worldwide and it’s on the internet, we have representatives in Brazil and in the U.K. and Norway, in France and America.
“Each city has their kind of club kid representative. And then you go onto the website and you click on the city you want to go to. And it will connect you immediately to all the cool people in that city. It’s a network and it’s a family.
“And the emails that I’m getting from kids… they are 15 or 16 years old… their parents have kicked them out or they don’t have any friends or they are being bullied in school or whatever… they find comfort in having this international family of like-minded weirdos and misfits… and there’s safety in numbers. And there’s security in numbers. The emails I’m getting, they make you cry, they break your heart.”
Alig’s own infamy precedes him. As well as McLaren, he had also reached out from prison to Maurizio Cattelan not long before that jokester-artist’s retrospective at the Guggenheim, during which his works were hung from the ceiling by ropes.
“His assistant wrote back and said, ‘Ohmigod, Maurizio is so happy that you wrote to him, he would love to do something with you. Let him know when you are out.’”
Alig also sent a Christmas card to John Waters, who mentioned the card later in a profile in Interview magazine.
Alig has been in and out of the public eye since his return home. Last week he pinned up some of his famously inventive invitations from the disco days in the Rumpus Room on Eldridge, and a few evenings later I saw him being filmed in the same venue with Michael Musto for Vamp Bikers Tres, a zombie movie in which Alig plays God.
Since last fall he and the market researcher have been going through what the market guy described as the “thousands of handwritten project notes” that Alig made inside, including screenplays, TV treatments, plans for a clothing line, and for an illustrated book about the history of the club kids.
The market researcher is working pro bono—“it’s time to change the conversation,” he told me—but did not wish to be named, being understandably nervous about his corporate clients.
Celebrity crime is a terrain thick with moral booby-traps. I asked Alig whether some wouldn’t claim that this continued drawing power derives from the doing-in of Angel Melendez.
“People do say that,” Alig agreed. “And I understand where they are coming from. But those people are the people that only knew of me since the crime. Anybody that knew me before the crime knows that I was doing this before. It’s all that I know how to do.”
While he was inside had he thought of finding something to do that would keep him clear of “Nightworld”?
“Yes, I did. But I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t think of anything. It was kind of a fantasy.”
He added: “It’s second nature to me to come up with ideas and projects. I don’t know how else to earn a living.”
What was the best part of getting out of the joint and coming home? I asked.
“The best thing is having people to talk to that I can connect with.”
And the worst thing?
“I thought that coming home would solve all my problems, and I would be happy. But I came home, and I wasn’t. I came home and I realized that it doesn’t really matter if I’m here or I’m there. I’m just the same person!”
One of the Skroddle Squad online apparitions, incidentally, is headlined “MICHAEL ALIG ARTIST WRITER CRIMINAL.” He said he is thinking it may be time to take “criminal” down.