These days, I write for BlackBook the magazine as well as online. The magazine has limited space, and I have long stories to tell. Here’s the expanded version of my September print column.
As I wander around Manhattan on deserted summer Sundays with my entourage of furry mates, I sometimes pass an old warehouse or deli that once was the hottest place around. Sometimes I sneak a glance and try to remember where the bars or DJ booth were. The Petco on Union Square, for example, was the Underground, and after that The Palace de Beaute. I smile at reptile food where lounge lizards chatted up debutantes to Jellybean Benitez beats. The “five best clubs in my memory” is an exercise I try every couple years. The list can change, as my memory serves me in some strange relationship with the amount of distractions cocktail waitrons serve me. It’s my memory, and as I’m sure there were amazing clubs before my time, I’ll leave that list to some other dude. You wont find El Morocco on the list, or even the Copacabana or Latin Quarter. I’m sure these were swell places, but before my time. The Peppermint Lounge — a club where the young Beatles played — must be noted, but again I was playing with tin soldiers at the time.
The five best clubs in my memory are Studio 54, Area, The World, Max’s Kansas City, and Paradise Garage. Now there can be valid arguments to replace the last two with a Danceteria or a Tunnel or even Save the Robots. You peeps can play that game all night if you like. I’m sure I’m forgetting joints, but anyone who has spent as much time as I have in clubs can be forgiven an omission or two. Besides these already mentioned, other great ones in no particular order: The Saint, Limelight, Club USA, Red Zone, Mars, Bungalow 8, Palladium, Life, Lotus, Spa, Sound Factory, the Roxy, Xenon, the Underground, Heartbreak, Nell’s, and NASA.
CBGB’s is missing from the list. Although I saw some pretty great shows there — including a triple billing of the Police, Talking Heads, and the Ramones — for the most part I never featured the place. To me it was the Grateful Dead of nightlife. Never really a top band, but they survived so long. They refined their sound and reputation, had a loyal if confused following, and absolutely get an A for effort if not a G for greatness. CBGB’s had its moments, but in my mind doesn’t crack the list. The top five changed the way things were done, were way ahead of the curve, are still talked about or remembered by generations too young to have ever gone, and they offered great music, crowds, and diversity. Diversity is missing with the Paradise Garage, as musically it was Larry Levan and a few other pharaohs offering disco and house to a predominantly gay and black crowd. Its greatness and the religious devotion of its patrons still echoes through clubdom. Larry Levan is the Babe Ruth of DJs, and the Garage was his Yankee Stadium.
With the exception of Bungalow 8, no current club is listed. The current crop needs to be judged from a distance. Marquee, the dominant club of the bottle era, may qualify if it finds some new life and relevance to add to its legacy. Butter is great, but it’s just one night; the Beatrice was well on its way but flamed out a bit soon. Hopefully its legacy hasn’t been written yet So here’s my own personal current top five, with nostalgic setlists provided by DJs and other friends.
The greatest club of all was Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street). Here Mick wooed Bianca and Truman Capote told wondrous tales to the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol. It was the playground of the smartest set of my era. Carmen D’Allesio, the VIP hostess, said it was great “because it was the type of crowd that we trusted. It was a conglomeration of the best of the entertainment and music business, the fashion world, and the international crowd. Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell produced events that nobody had done before Studio or since Studio.” Now it’s a theater. Waiting for Godot is playing. The crowd only needs a ticket to see the show — there is no door policy, and Liza and Pele probably wont show. Setlist: “Bad Girls” (Donna Summer), “Love Attack” ( Ferrara ), “Ring My Bell ” (Anita Ward), “This Time Baby” (Jackie Moore), “I Love the Nightlife” (Alicia Bridges).
Area (157 Hudson) was grand, according to former employee Desmond Cadogan. “At Area there was no VIP room. If you got past the door staff, you were a VIP. Everyone was hanging out together from art and movie stars to sexy yuppies and skanky hos.” The Area space is under construction; according to a friend at the building department, it’s to be “first floor offices, second floor lofts, third floor lofts …” The space also held Quick, NASA, and the Shelter. As I was standing there remembering the sounds of DJ Mark Kamins while listening to the buzz of circular saws, a neighbor whispered to me “Don’t buy there!” They didn’t want the clubs, and now they don’t want the gentrifiers. Ah, it made me wonder. Setlist: “I Feel for You” (Chaka Khan), “You Make Me Feel” (Sylvester), “Why” (Yaz), “Relax” (Frankie Goes to Hollywood ), “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” (Dominatrix), “Slave to the Rhythm” (Grace Jones).
The World (254 East 2nd Street) was a mess. It was my fault, as I helped run it. It was where house went from the Paradise Garage crowd to the hipster crowd. It’s where hip hop broke out from the streets to everywhere. Public Enemy played, plus Salt-n-Pepa, and Beastie Boys, but also Bowie and Sinead and Bjork and even Neil Young. One night Pink Floyd rolled in unexpectedly and wowed us. It was a place where Keith Haring was arting up the bathroom stalls and Andy Warhol was calming me down. It was dangerous and smart. It was Caroline Herrera wearing a zillion dollars worth of emeralds while project kids popped and spun. Owner Peter Frank says, “The true stars of the World’s universe were the club kids and patrons … when they came through the doors, they became anyone they wanted to be.” The building was torn down some years ago. Today the East Side Tabernacle resides on the first floor, while upstairs East Villagers listen to music that broke there back in the day. Setlist: “Paid in Full” (Eric B and Rakim), “Yo Bum Rush” (Public Enemy), “Saturday Night” (Schooly D), “Open Your Heart” (Madonna) , “Brass Monkey” (The Beastie Boys).
Max’s Kansas City (213 Park Avenue South) was rock and roll hootchie coo. Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome offers, “Max’s was great because of the feeling of family there, from the Mickey Ruskin days right through to the day Tommie Dean closed it. It was one of the few places on the planet many people felt at home, and I’m proud to count myself as one. Hell, I even liked the food.” Max’s first incarnation was the Ruskin era. Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Robert Rauschenberg, Debbie Harry, and the amazing New York Dolls defined New York nightlife. That time alone would put it near the top, but its second Tommie Dean reincarnation was the Ramones and the Dead Boys and Wayne and (eventually) Jane County. It’s a deli now, next to the W Hotel on 17th and park. Been in there a thousand times before this piece, and I never realized it was here that I had tea with Johnny Thunders. Setlist: “First Rock Star on the Moon” (The Brats), “Rocket USA ” (Suicide), “Flip Your Wig” ( Jane County ), “Final Solution” (Pere Ubu), “Blitzkrieg Bop” (The Ramones).
Paradise Garage (84 Kings Street) was indeed a garage but paradise was never known there until the great Larry Levan showed a disjointed world how to love and support each other. Out of his great heart a sound developed that still rocks clubs all over the world today. This was his house and he is the legend — the standard bearer for so many. Paradise Garage is like that De Niro character from Awakenings. It was asleep, but suddenly from nowhere rose up and enjoyed a magical period of sound and joy and meaning, only to eventually slip back into a mundane coma. The building now stores Verizon trucks. Designer Malcolm Harris found himself there. “As a young African American moving to New York, finding the Paradise Garage was as close to finding a spiritual oasis or tribal commune as one could possibly get. A night at the Garage was a revival meeting, tantric healing, and primal orgy rolled into one. Larry Levan was a spiritual healer and leader, and we all knew every weekend when we left on Sunday morning our souls would be filled until we met up at the same time the following week to receive his gospel: LOVE IS THE MESSAGE.” Setlist: “I’m Every Woman” (Chaka Khan), “Le Freak” (Chic), “You Stepped into My Life” (Melba Moore), “I Will Survive” (Gloria Gaynor), “Feed the Flame”(Lorraine Johnson).
See also: Five Wheezy Places: New York City’s Most Overrated Nightclubs