Outside the moon looked dangerously full, swollen enough to burst, and the Empire State was crimson from its tippy-top to way down the shaft. “Engorgé,” someone murmured, this dollop of French sauce being appropriate because we were at a party in the penthouse of the Dream Hotel on 16th Street given by Carmen D’Alessio, a Peruvian locomotive of Manhattan’s nightworld for lotsa years.
D’Alessio, whose hair was a darker shade of the same color as the glowing Empire State, was in full spate, screaming “Amore!” at all-comers, but paused long enough to order multiple drinks from the Leaning Tower of Blondeness of a waitperson doling out drink tickets, and announced “For me the party never ends,” then collected us into a group and organized selfies.
Was this a hint of an answer to the question that had brought me here: Why is Manhattan’s night-world now such a different animal from the one which was born 40 years ago, grew huge, and played a significant part in the metamorphosis of New York into a World City? And could it rise again?
Well, many of the players are still around. Interest is clearly heating up in the original ’70s and ’80s models. There was the 13-hour Dance Party that the Austrian artist, Martin Beck, put on at MoMA PS1 last September, using the playlist that David Mancuso had used on June 2, 1984, in The Loft, his space on Prince, which had been a prime incubator of Disco.
Thus also New York Stories: Nightlife Edition, an event at the Stonewall Inn last Fall, which featured, amongst others, Sally Randall, the former doorperson of Palladium, Chichi Valenti—who referenced Rudy Giuliani as a prime scourge of clubbing—and Michael Musto.
One standout was Jorge Socarras of Area who spoke of the night a man collapsed there, mid-dance, and was taken out on a stretcher, and how everybody went on dancing as Johnny Dynell, the DJ—who was also there at the Stonewall—put on Madonna’s then-current hit, ‘Holiday.’
Socarras said, “No one who walked in at that moment would have known someone had just died on the dance floor.”
There’s more. Susanne Bartsch seems to give one of her mega-parties weekly: the latest is called Kunst. John Lydon and Vivienne Westwood have given birth to memoirs. A show of paintings by Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, a social Energizer Bunny of the time, went up recently to celebrate the new art space beneath the Chelsea Hotel.
Debbie Harry will shortly be playing the Carlyle. Nile Rodgers, creator of the disco classic, “Le Freak,” has unearthed shimmering outtakes from his band Chic and will be on tour in March. Ian Schrager, co-founder of Studio 54, is putting together a picture book about that storied club and the picture book, by Eric and Jennifer Goode about their own, the aforementioned Area, came out 15 months ago.
Indeed my own contribution, The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night, has just popped out as an eBook. So, advertisements for myself aside, this seemed an appropriate time to look around at Manhattan’s night-world and the changes it has undergone—changes which nobody I know of describe as being for the better.
Let’s begin with those selfies.
Could the VIPs rooms of long ago have survived smartphones, I asked revelers at the Dream? Heads were shaken, lips clenched. I might as well have been offering vampires garlic treats.
Facebook, Instagram, YouTube!: they are all another big change. But there are others. Amongst the folk at the D’Alessio do were Roger and Bara de Cabrol. Old friends. Roger de Cabrol had arrived in Manhattan at the end of the ’70s, so he was vintage Eurotrash, like myself. “It was fine,” he said of the event later. “It was Remembrance of Things Past. But it was nothing compared to what we lived, was it? Far from there!
“It’s not like you’re getting old or anything but at a party like Carmen’s you would have seen Elizabeth Taylor… the local plumber … a serial killer… Truman Capote … all seated in the same area. But now what you see at these parties is the Worst of Wall Street. All these bankers, dressed the same way. And surrounded by East European hookers. Don’t get me started!”
Andy Warhol came up with a typically smart definition of Studio 54’s winning formula. It was, he said, “A dictatorship on the door and a democracy on the dance floor.” New Yorkers had always been stolidly tribal. But indications—the crackle of the New Journalism included—were that they were becoming curious about each other. Steve Rubell’s intuition was that Studio 54 shouldn’t just be posh or preppy, or gay or straight. It should be a salad, mixed nightly.
Naturally curiosity in practice could turn to abandon and not just in the VIP rooms, like the one beneath Studio or Howard Stein’s grotty office in Xenon, but citywide. This assignment sent me to my laptop to dig into my own Memories of Lost Time. What follows is a not untypical leaf torn from my cyber-diary, written in the Early Noughties.
“Got back from LA and called Otter. It turned out she was on the following night. Saturday night is her night at Pyramid. It’s called Trip & Go Naked. “I’m doing my vibrating pussy piece, so I suggest you catch it,” she said.
“We arrived in time for Otter to disrobe from her Little Bo Peep costume… Alice in Wonderland stockings and a plumed hat … another woman screamed at a heckler “It’s not that I like women. I hate men!” running around topless … water balloon attached to his penis which exploded after simulated sex… two lesbians called the Scum Sisters … drag queens and dominatrices… blue family with red children… an English blonde Sophia who failed to perform… a cartoon imitator, Snaggletooth, Maggie, Mr Burns… even the dominatrices were laughing… A bald youth, clearly a popular favorite, stood there while a beer bottle was shattered on his head. No blood, tho. The next two bounced… Otter was very aggravated that no blood was drawn… “He’s not bleeding! We need another bottle!”
Well, that kind of vibrant nightlife seems absent these days, at least, as widely available entertainment. Not that there isn’t a lot going on. It’s a big city, and filled with folk who want to have fun. In areas like the Meatpacking District and the East Village there are dozens upon dozens of small clubs, bars and restaurants and the streets pullulate at night.
There are small, uber-expensive bottle service boîtes to After Hours joints to deliciously sleazy hangouts which might easily give the impression that over the last 30 years not so much really has changed at all.
So why has Manhattan’s night-world become such a staid, unsurprising place? Some cite the heft of the Community Boards and the difficulty of getting a liquor license. Others see forces not specific to New York but to our increasingly—and rightly—nervous times.
“You have to be screened. Like in an airport,” says the artist/photographer, Anton Perich. “So there’s no fun going in. Every time you go to a nightclub there’s heavy-duty guys guarding it.”
Perich, who started a picture magazine, Night, in 1978 (perfect timing), says, “Studio 54 was run by totally under-age people. The bartenders were under-age. The guy on the door, Mark, was underage. Everybody was under-age! Teenagers! Can you imagine it now? You cannot even get a drink now. There’s no way you can even imagine it happening now.”
Another force for drabness, Perich believes, is mass connectedness, the glutinous anomie of individuals staring into screens, on the street, in subways, in bars, at restaurant tables. “I’ll tell you what’s happening now,” he says. “At clubs you see couples dancing on the floor, listening to their own iPhones. So the guy is dancing to one music, the girl to another music. That is what is going on.”
Such conclusions are supported by somebody as qualified as anybody I know to compare the Manhattan-As-Was with the Manhattan-That-Is. Michael Alig, former leader of the Club Kids, ringmaster for such clublords as Rudolf Pieper and Peter Gatien, has returned to New York after doing 17 years for the murder of a drug dealer, Angel Melendez. I’m glad to include him here. He was smart. He was high, he did the crime, he did the time, and now he is sober. And still smart.
“The thing is that with these clubs in the Meatpacking District is there are no Palladiums, no Areas, no Danceterias, no Limelights, no USAs,” says Alig. “There are no superclubs of 7,000 people a night. There was a time when we had seven of these superclubs a night…we would go from one to the other and only spend 20 minutes in each one because we had to go to another one.
“It was the residual effect of Studio 54. The fabulousness of Studio 54 had a ripple effect and there were clubs like Area and Danceteria that were offering something completely new. They were offering New Wave, more of an ’80s thing. Everybody had the fever. And they don’t now. Because they are all online. They are all at home, sitting in front of their computers.”
If online-fixating is one cause of night-world’s diminution, the flushing in of One Percenters, with a preference for bottle-service boîtes that are essentially the VIP rooms of old, is another.
The rise of a greedily invasive media is a third factor. Pursuit of the rich and famous is an old story, of course—as old as idol worship, aspiration, envy—but technical advances constantly renew it and bulk up its musculature.
Back in the ’30s and ’40s, Arthur Fellig, the Manhattan tabloid shutterbug, aka Weegee the Famous, covered mayhem from murder to traffic wrecks, but also the doings of the upper crust, which he did with an unflattering eye.
“Last night at the opening of the Met opera season, I rubbed elbows and stepped on the toes of the society crowd (and I don’t mean café society),” he wrote in his diary. Sometimes he would use infra-red film when shooting in the dark, to escape being detected by flash. He wrote at a later Met opening: “I couldn’t see what I was snapping but I could almost smell the smugness.”
Weegee wasn’t inventing the wheel here—Cartier-Bresson sometimes taped up his camera to avoid being seen to be taking pictures—but so far as getting shots of grandees off their guard he was ahead of his time.
Celeb ambushes in privileged spaces were unusual in Disco Days though, and any paparazzo caught snatching such shots would be cut off the photo-opportunity list, lickety-split. Such indeed was the punishment meted out three times by Steve Rubell to Ron Galella, best-known of the New York paps.
Galella would take up a position outside his chosen club, restaurant or whatever at the entry or exit point his targets would be most likely to use. One telling shot was taken outside that great hang-out, Elaine’s and shows a garbage pail lid skimming in his direction, propelled by Elaine Kaufman herself.
It’s one of his favorites and it happens that I can add to the record here. Harry Benson, a former paparazzo turned serious documentarian, tells me that he was talking to Elaine shortly before her death, and she told him of her two main regrets. One was chucking out Truman Capote because a waiter complained about his behavior—he never went back—and the second was hurling that lid at Galella.
So, yes, there were hassles. In 1978 Richard Corkery got a shot of a friend of John Kennedy Jr. kicking out at one of his fellow paps after a party given by Jackie O in Le Club, one of Manhattan’s more genteel boîtes of the time. It was inarguably a far healthier phase of the Celebrity Culture though. Professional Celebs of the Kardashian genus were rare. Galella did have his own problems with Jackie Kennedy—she took out an injunction against him—but his relationships with the individuals who were his bread and butter were seldom combustible.
Let’s fast-forward to a warm evening in 1998. I’m in a banquette in Indochine, then and now a modish eatery in Downtown Manhattan, with a slender blond woman, whose nom de guerre was Justine Ski, a hefty man in a black suit called Frank Monte, and a fellow who I shall call Jed, who had a docile expression, spectacles, a mullet, and a dark flannel shirt, its sleeves rolled up to show an armful of tattoos.
Ski, Monte and I were tucking into the spring rolls as if this were an ordinary dinner, not the warm-up for a covert taping session. Which it was.
Inside Jed’s breast pocket was a video surveillance camera the size of a celebratory postage stamp, with its fiber-optic lens, itself the size of a caviar egg, peeping through the button-hole. When the device was activated, any ambient activity would be taped and transmitted an hour later to NiteLifeCam, a key constituent of Monte’s recent start-up, a website, Spy 7, from where it would be beamed to eager subscribers.
Dinner done, we made our way to Veruka, a buzzing place on Broome, where a supposedly private birthday party for Mark Wahlberg was bouncy with boldfaced names. Jed wove his wired way through the throng.
NiteLifeCam had been born when Monte, an Australian private eye, then resident in Manhattan, had brought Jed aboard to upgrade Spy 7, which had been transmitting soft-core girly material. After the tech was taken care of they dropped into the then high-fashiony lounge, Moomba, where Jed had spotted Leonardo DiCaprio and Ralph Fiennes. It happened that Monte had been contemplating ways to put surveillance technology to fruitful use on the Internet. Yee-haw!
Monte was prudent, indeed legalistic. NiteLifeCam was just visuals. “I can’t do sound,” he told me. “That’s bugging.” But covert videotaping was legal in New York.
Then, just when Spy 7 seemed ready to blow up it … well, it blew up. Monte and Justine Ski split and Monte was sued by the Versace clan for speculation about Gianni Versace’s assassination. Spygirl and NitelifeCam went pfft! And Frank Monte returned to Australia.
But you can’t put the techno toothpaste back in the tube. In Touch Weekly used a drone to cover George Clooney’s wedding in Venice. Video of Jay Z’s brouhaha with his sister-in-law Solange Knowles in New York’s Standard Hotel elevator went global.
Whoever leaked the tape was swiftly found and fired but when I last checked on the videotaping of the episode Google had reported 11,900,000 visits. Venues try to be beady-eyed but what are they going to do? Take everybody’s smartphone apart?
Was that golden era really “the last party,” as my book title had it? No, night-world will continue—but differently. As the Brit writer G.K. Chesterton pointed out in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, human beings take great pleasure is listening to prophets—and then going and doing something completely different.