Confronting My Past, Present, and the Article in ‘Crain’s’

So a friend (who prefers to remain nameless) and great publicist from R.Couri Hay Creative Public Relations, handles Stash, a club I recently completed, and Elsinor, which I am finishing up. I’ve known her forever and she is the tiger you want in your tank when you need some ink … press (if you need the other ink ,a tattoo, then Three Kings or Graceland serve me… well but I digress) She pitched and placed an article about me which talks about her clients in Crain’s, and that’s a big deal. I had mixed feelings about the piece which, while blowing me up as this design hero, brought up my checkered past, including my conviction for being part of an Ecstasy sales ring while I was director of the Tunnel, Club, USA, Limelight, Palladium. It also mentions my year in prison. Some people thought this was an unfair attack, or old news, or unnecessary for the story. A debate raged on Facebook, on my phone, and in emails and among friends about the value of the article and whether it was actually a positive thing. I called her up and she gave me this spin: "Your past has helped shape who you are today, and it’s a testament to the quality of your work that you’ve remained a player in the design industry for as long as you have. Clearly, there’s no end in sight." I’m buying into that.

The reporter, Ali Elkin, was very upfront about her desire and obligation to tell it like it is. I told her it was quite alright because it is a huge part of what drives me and defines me and I have never hid from that past. She noted in the article my take on things: "Currently living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he denies any wrongdoing."
The responses and Facebook posts ranged from "Shoot the messenger," to "It’s fabulous." I responded that "I yam what I yam," quoting that great poet, Popeye. I would tell you my side of that story in details, but so many have done so already, including Frank Owen in his Clubland book, which tells a story pretty close to the real. There was a little bit in there that I objected to, and my old friend Frank and I almost came to blows, and that spat resulted in a few articles here and there. We’re friends again. There is also the Limelight documentary by Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman which is coming out any day now on DVD; it really does a great job in summarizing that circus. I’m all up in that and advise you to check it out if you want more insight into that era and the circumstances of my conviction. I didn’t participate in any Ecstacy ring. I didn’t need that to fill clubs. I and the people assembled to run those clubs were the best in the business. The creativity and results of our efforts were rewarded with tens of thousands of satisfied customers who enjoyed one of the best nightlife eras.
The running of clubs, the wars fought , the million smiles, the million nights, the trial, the prison stint all define me as well as my relations, friends, and my little dog too. My creative abilities, as meager as they often are, come from creative freedoms earned on a hard but rewarding road. When someone hires me to design their joint, I understand the price of succeess and failure. I bring all my experience to the table. I have made a great deal of omelettes and have had to break a great many eggs as well, but it all seems worth it when I walk into The Darby, Stash, Butter, the WeSC store, or Aspen Social Club and see them occupied by people enjoying my work. It’s been almost 10 years since my first design gig. Butter was the first place I designed for people other than myself. For many years I designed the places I was going to operate, but Butter was for others. In prison, having completed Butter, I decided to design and write when I hit the streets.
I practiced and studied and used the time I was given to learn how to redefine myself when I got out. Now, after a decade of doing it, I am clearly happy with the Crains article, which celebrates my attempt to get up and stand up. It’s harder than I thought to live with a felony conviction. Many things you take for granted are very difficult for me, but I have no regrets. I may have lost this or that, but I earned a lot and learned a great deal about what it takes to survive. My friends have always been there. The greatest gift has been the clarity I have when I look in the mirror at the beginning or end of every day. Many have said I should have done this or done that or said this about them or that.  A thousand "whatevers, what ifs, and why nots" have been analyzed and debated till my stomach was knotted and then un-knotted with the satisfaction of doing the right thing … I wouldn’t want to change a thing. Nothing in my life, or that wonderful Crain’s article.
Oh, if you are going out tonight, visit me at Hotel Chantelle, or head over to Bowery Electric for Frankie Inglese’s Beahver party. This party dominated Thursdays in NYC forever before Frankie moved to LA. I cannot recall a better party. I guess any party better leave me unconscious and without memory.

An Interview With Limelight Director Billy Corben

Since Limelight opened, I’ve been getting calls. Most think the person who played me was good, although not as handsome as the real me—just kidding. For those not in the know, it’s a documentary and I was me on that screen. I was not the person who used to be Steve Lewis. That person lurks buried inside me as my stint at the University of Pennsylvania, Schuylkill and a whole lot of other learning and calming makes me look back at wonderment that he… was me. I talked to Limelight director, Billy Corben about the movie. I love Billy and think everyone else does too.

I hear that Peter Gatien is not happy about the film, which in its final cut is a bit of a puff piece about his persecution at the hands of various agencies of the U.S. government. I think the film is fair and he could have been portrayed far worse. I miss Peter. I always found him to be a bright guy. We seem to still have beef after all these years. I have offered him a chance to talk here and I was told “No fucking way,” with some giggles added in. That’s okay, as the film will be a pretty good barometer of who cares. In this interview with Billy Corben I say that none of us were innocent, not him, nor me. That doesn’t mean I’m saying that we were guilty of the charges brought against us so long ago. I believe neither of us really were, but I can only be sure of my role. The world was different then and although we threw out the dealers we saw, we probably didn’t do enough until it was already a federal case. The fundamental problem we encountered was the Feds shifting the responsibility to fight drug dealers to the club owners and away from law enforcement. We became the criminals when we didn’t go to war with the criminals on the turf we controlled. We actually did but obviously not enough and we were, of course, infiltrated and exploited by promoters who dealt drugs and then pointed their fingers at us to save their asses. None of those guys went to jail, as speaking to the feds against Gatien gave you an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card.

I did not testify, did not pass go, collect $200, or my get-out-of-jail card. I refused to cooperate and got banged. I not only live with that decision but am proud of it. I never allowed drug dealers to work on my watch and refused to plead guilty to that when told it meant automatic freedom. Peter remains in denial and deep in Canada because of tax indiscretions that resulted in his deportation. Did he get a raw deal? OMG yes! He lived here for decades. He has American born children here and all that. It’s in the movie. The Limelight club was banging for more than a decade, 6 days/nights week. Noise, events, celebrities, great music, acts and everybody came and had a blast. The stomping down of Peter marked the end of a certain type of freedom and creativity that has left a gaping hole in the fabric of this town. The Limelight movie can’t recreate that time or restore Peter to the top of the world or make me Steve Lewis again. It is what it is and will be seen differently by all the eyes that see it.

There doesn’t seem to be any winners, save for maybe celebrity lawyer and all around good guy Benjamin Brafman. The government lost badly with only little ol’ me as their pound of flesh. I didn’t win, having lost my career and any loot that I had—although I’m a much happier camper now than I was then. Peter seems devastated on film and from what I hear, in the reality of his exile decidedly not on Main Street. Alig rests up in jail, ready to hit the ground running and the dealers turned rats are the same as before…empty shells of human beings. Tony Montana wannabes without the cajones they never quite grew. The public lost as well. Only now does nightlife seem to be near that era’s greatness, thriving without the drug epidemic. In a month or two Limelight will shrink back into the damp cobwebbed corners of my mind where it has dwelled for so long. For now, people care about Peter Gatien and some will sympathize with his plight, but if he has delusions of redemption or return I fear he will be disappointed. This movie will not persuade his detractors and not encourage the masses to rebellion to save him from his plight. He is no Napoleon and not a saint either and the story told will merely be nostalgic amusement with popcorn in theaters and then TV. Sure those that witnessed it will debate on blogs and Facebook but the history has been written and our fates decided. I wish Peter only well. My reaction to the film was that I miss the guy. Fate and the laws of two countries say he can’t come here and I can’t go there. Maybe we can meet in that river by those great falls him on his Canadian Niagara tour boat, me on the American one.

I’m sitting with Billy Corben, who’s most famous for Cocaine Cowboys (1 and 2), which did okay in theatres, but banged on TV. Part 1 was the only one that was actually released and did nothing. It was released in about 13 cities and made $17. It actually blew up on DVD back in ’07, and it played on Showtime and was really successful.

You produced Limelight and you’ve become known as a “drug movie” producer, although I’ve said that the movie is not necessarily about a club—it’s about drug culture and crime, it’s a crime documentary. You did a great job covering the personalities involved in this movie. What has driven you to hang out with this element? We did Cocaine Cowboys, which is an ’80s cocaine movie, and now we’ve got Limelight, a ’90s ecstasy movie, so we’ve got drug trends by decade covered. Also, we didn’t choose the story, this story chose us. Jen Gatien came to us, she had seen Cocaine Cowboys and had been looking for some time for some filmmakers to tell her dad’s story. Alfred, my [film partner] had suggested that she direct it. There’s a tradition of the offspring directing documentaries about their famous parents. So there’s nothing really wrong with it because they are the kids, that’s a part of the thing. We had been approached to develop things in house before, this would be the first non-Miami centric, or Florida themed project that seemed to be in our wheelhouse, it being a kind of drug movie and crime story. We talked it over and what we really liked about it, just like Cocaine Cowboys was the “macro” and a “micro.” The “micro” in Cocaine Cowboys were individual cocaine cowboys like the lawyers, the reporters, the hitman, the wholesalers, and the cocaine godmother. The “macro” is that big picture, which is the city of Miami in the ’80s. It was similar because of what people experienced in the Limelight, set against the backdrop of the ’90s in New York City, the Giuliani revolution and how it completely transformed the biggest city in the world. We told Jen we would do it if we could get final cut, because we’re not going to do “Memoirs of a Gatien.” We weren’t going to be the PR arm of the Gatien family.

That’s a brilliant line and it was my concern. I think Peter thought because Jen was producing it, there would be a little more editorial control on the family’s part and there wasn’t. This wasn’t going to be an image rehabilitation project for us. We had no interest in that. We had an interest in the story and the people.

When I was approached about this, my initial reaction was, “no fucking way” will I be in it. But after speaking with you guys, I felt very comfortable that the story was going to be told right. I wanted to make sure the story was going to be told truthfully…to the extent it could. Was I 100% happy? No, of course not, but I think it was an extremely honest piece. It was like looking at a room through in the space of a peep-hole—you can’t actually see the whole room. That would be impossible. In Casino Robert de Niro’s character was based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, and Nicholas Pileggi wrote both the book and screenplay for Casinolike he did for Goodfellas. In the book they used all the real names, but in the movie they had to be changed which was bizarre because all the characters are the same in the story. So we were talking to Lefty before he died about doing a documentary about him, and we asked him about the accuracy of Casino. He said that 10% of the story was told, 67% accurate, and that’s become sort of the barometer for now, I’ve borrowed that from Lefty. In these movies, you’re talking about people’s lives over the course of a decade or longer, so all you can really hope to do in two hours is tell a good 10% of the story and hope to get it to 100% of accuracy possible.

Since our movies don’t have narrators, they’re all told by first-hand participants and like you said, everyone’s got a personal agenda and there’s the impact of time and history. I think there was an advantage in that what we said to Jen when she approached us. “My God, you could throw a stone outside a window and hit several filmmakers that are more qualified than we are to tell this story just based upon the fact this was New York based and had been a part of the scene, or had even met Peter,” but I also think that was part of the appeal to her. The idea that we wouldn’t have an agenda, a pre-conceived idea of what had happened. I knew what I thought had happened, but I didn’t have a dog in the fight.

What do you actually think happened, now that you’ve interviewed everybody? Between who or where? One of the things Peter is pissed about is that the documentary doesn’t mention that you testified at theSLA hearing. He thinks you got off too easy, that’s what he thinks.

Oh, yeah? How about if I testified at the trial right now, he’d be in jail right now! He didn’t mention that!

Yeah, he didn’t mention that I saved his life. The SLA hearing, which I did testify at, was innocuous since I testified that I never saw Peter do any drugs and had never seen him drink.

Yeah, and he told he was told it was a foregone conclusion that he was going to be shut down.

Yes and after the fact, I was subpoenaed. I mean, he can be pissed all he wants, it’s cool. I testified under subpoena at a city hearing. Was I supposed to be in contempt for him? What did he do for me? All I had to do at the trial was show up and the outcome might have been very different. The bottom line is that if I had testified against Gatien, maybe told a little lie or a big truth to save myself… I was offered a free pass. No harm done. Come testify and you will never go to jail, I was offered to plead guilty to a misdemeanor a minor charge, speak against him and walk away stock free. And I didn’t testify against him when it really counted. What’s really fucked up about this whole thing is that you asked me what I thought, and there are so many nuances of this to talk about. You could literally talk this all day and not draw any conclusions. One of the most fucked up things about the whole situation is that when you look at the assorted cast of characters involved in this whole story, with the exception of Sean Kirkham, you’re the only one that went to prison. Caruso! Nothing. Rob Gordon? Nothing. Joe Fortuna Uzzardi? Nothing. Michael, obviously he killed somebody for fuck’s sake. I mean, it just boggles the mind that in terms of the core defenses that you were in the Limelight case, you’re the only one–and Kirkham went to prison. Kirkham went to prison for lying. It boggles the mind, it really, really does.

Now everybody says in surprise, “Wow.You really didn’t rat.” I didn’t. But at that time, the thought was that the only people that could be worse than that gang was the DEA because they just weren’t playing straight, I couldn’t trust them. I basically said, “You know what? I can’t trust any of these guys I better take my chances”. That’s one of the most distressing things about this story really. And this is a part of the reason why you’ll notice we cut out 15 minutes off the movie since [the] Tribeca [Film Festival]. We cut one of the two extended sequences about Alessandra, or Susan, whatever the fuck her name is (Gatien’s third wife). They’ll be on the DVD, it’s not like we completely deleted these from existence. They’re still very much a part of the story, they just won’t be in the [official release] of the movie. 1, we cut it for time and 2, we discovered during the Q&A’s at screenings that so many of the questions had to do with this “black widow” character, which was how everybody portrayed her in the story. That was the interesting thing about her.You even had some nice things to say about Peter and he had nice things to say about you, miraculously, but I’ve never experienced a situation in which no one had a nice thing to say about a person—in this case Alessandra. In fact, people had some of the least nice things to say about her that I’ve ever heard anyone say about a person. “I’ve got nothing nice to say about this person and I’m willing to do so on camera.” I’ve never seen a situation in which people unanimously had the most vicious things to say about a human being.

There’s a reason for that… It became such a distraction. The first question wasn’t about the DEA or the Federal Government’s behavior in this case, the first three questions from that Q&A were about Alessandra.

Before she came along, we were doing some wonderful things. It was about the art. Michael Alig, for example, was an artist but when she came in, there was a shift. It was kind of evil and it changed the dynamics of the place. We went from being a creative concept to a competitive concept. You know, I’m the one that moved Alessandra in. I was the one that introduced them to her. It’s all my fault…

I know. It’s all your fucking fault (Laughs).

How did you get these people at risk to speak from the heart, to speak truthfully? What is it about your technique or your personality that disarms people? Well, I don’t know if it’s a technique per se, that makes it sound a bit Machiavellian or something.

It’s not? I always assume that people would say no, “Fuck no!” So being in that half-empty kind of a place puts me in that, “I’ve got nothing to lose” kind of mindset. I feel that this person has to not want to reveal the most personal, intimate, embarrassing aspects and stories of their lives on camera…because I wouldn’t. So when people say “No”, I understand. I get it. But then I’m always pleasantly surprised when people say “Yes”. What that says about my technique is that I expect to be turned down every single time! But I think what it is, is that…Number one: we haven’t fucked anybody. We’ve made a sufficient amount of filmography and nobody has ever come out and said, “They fucked me. They took my shit out of context. It was an unfair telling; it was inaccurate. It was not what Billy or Alfred has promised me”. No one has ever said that. We take it very seriously not only when we approach someone but also when we’re editing. And the truth of the matter is between the people we saw on camera and the people we spoke to off camera, off the record, we spoke to almost every single person involved in the case. One of co-producers spoke with Gagne on the phone, off the record. I met with one of the prosecutors off the record. I spoke with the Federal Prosecutor on the phone. That was two out of the three U.S. attorneys I spoke to off the record. Other than the witnesses in the case against Peter that we spoke to on camera, I met with Joe Uzzardi, I spoke and met with Rob Gordon, we spoke with Jenny, a club kid that Peter had an affair with.

Jennitalia. Ah yes…well my point is that we did our homework so it wasn’t just the people in the movie. And by the way, the off the record conversations that I had with these people also affected the edit of the movie, so they had an opportunity to impact the edit and the perspective of the movie. Had they been on the record, it would’ve been [different], well maybe not for the DEA…

Now Peter Gatien is exiled and he complains about his guilt and his innocence. I say that nobody was innocent. Well, innocent of what?

Well, here’s what I say. I say I’m not guilty because, I’m not guilty of what they charge me with, though I am certainly not innocent. And I wrote that I should’ve yelled, I should’ve said more. I should’ve done more. Yeah, but what does that mean?

I don’t know. But I went to jail… and although I never felt I was doing anything illegal, I went to jail My point is that none of us are innocent people and that doesn’t mean we should go to Federal Prison. And it doesn’t mean we should be banished from a country where we’ve had American citizenship, children, and an American citizen wife. When you look at the criminals we have in this country, somehow Peter Gatien is Public Enemy Number One who people think should be shipped off to one of these horrendous immigration prisons. It’s bizarrely absurd because it just shows how completely out of whack are priorities are.We know that when Peter was free, he was making restitution on the tax case; he was about 50% of the way there. He was making his regular visits to his Parole Officer, and then suddenly one day, it’s in the best interest of the the people of New York to throw Peter into what must have been a multi-million dollar (Federal) immigration case, and prevent him from continuing to pay restitution which he was half way through? If you really waved the pros and cons of what was in the best interest of the tax payers, would it not have been better to keep him here, paying his bill that he owed the people of the city of New York, and the tax case?

I’ve got a big buzz on this film. I’m being stopped on the street. People are recognizing. My dentist stopped while drilling me and said, “Were you in a movie trailer…?” It’s not a wide release. It opened in New York, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and then there’s going to be a platform release. It’s going wherever there were Limelight clubs first—Atlanta, Chicago, South Florida, because the first one was in Hollywood, Florida. I guess it just depends on the initial reaction to the movie.

So you’ve got a buzz? The media has been extremely generous. Of course the fact that the media is essentially located in New York and a lot of those people were at Limelight, Palladium, Tunnel, and Club USA.

If we’re guilty, then everybody’s guilty! And perhaps they’re repenting my covering this story! People are expecting this nostalgic trip down memory lane and it’s only really like for the first half of the movie, and the second half is a very schizophrenic, bi-polar experience. Someone asked, can you describe the journey of the movie in five words, and I ended up with seven. It was: from rolling on ecstasy, to Kafka-esque k-hole. That was the idea in the beginning. It starts off in the ’80s coke driven, and then it shifts towards Ecstasy and everything gets very cool and nostalgic and lovey-dovey and then it gets really dark and. A lot of people are responding to the fact that they expected it to be a journey back to Limelight and it’s only like that for like the first half and then the second half is a very disturbing, dark story and I don’t think that people are really prepared for that. The whole thing kind of reminds me of Casino. You have this very straight, well-mannered guy upstairs in the main office, trying to maintain sanity down on the floor. And you have all of these conflicting interests there, whether it’s the club kids, the Staten Island ecstasy dealers, or as Frank goes (mimics his high-pitched voice): “The Staten Island scum-bags.” And then you have Giuliani and the SLA, and the DEA, it’s very Casino-esque in that regard.

You’re talking to hit men and to potentially dangerous people. Is there ever a point that you hesitated or worried about who you were talking to? I think it’s a blend of naiveté and distance in that it’s a historical documentary. The material in the story and the crimes are a decade, or more, old. And that’s true in this case, and it’s certainly true in Cocaine Cowboys. I don’t think that people operate now the way that they did. Certainly not the way the Colombians operated in Miami in the ‘80s, or the way New York City operated under Rudy Giuliani.