Slimelight

Written by Alan Cabal on . Posted in Books, Posts.


The club
kids of the late 80s and early 90s are about to get their second shot at the
limelight with the impending film production Party Monster, which chronicles
the misadventures of the loathsome Michael Alig and his repulsive friends. Celebrity
comes pretty cheap these days: Alig falls into the category occupied by the
likes of John Wayne Bobbitt and Joey Buttafuoco, a few notches down from John
Wayne Gacy and Kato Kaelin, a notch or two above the guests on Jerry Springer’s
freak show. Virtually unknown outside New York City, Alig shall surely revel
in the five minutes of fame he gets from being the vehicle for Macaulay Culkin’s
comeback effort.

Peter Gatien
is arguably the most unjustly maligned New York City nightlife entrepreneur
since the Volstead Act was repealed. City, state and federal law enforcement
agencies wasted countless man-hours and other resources in their desperate and
ultimately futile attempt to nail him as some kind of drug kingpin. Ultimately,
all they could get him on was tax evasion, a charge that would probably stick
to half the business owners in the city if they were pursued with the ferocity
with which Gatien’s adversaries pursued him. The rampant drug use at Gatien’s
clubs was in no way distinct or unique, but part of a continuum stretching back
to the days of the speakeasies. People go out, they want to get high. What was
distinct and unique was the incredible effort to frame Peter Gatien.

This effort
was assisted by the lurid media coverage, particularly the vicious slanders
perpetrated by Jack Newfield at the New York Post. Frank Owen at the
Village Voice took a more moderate approach, using innuendo and snapshots
of Gatien’s private life to depict the club owner as some latter-day Caligula
who lorded over an empire of drugs and depravity. Now Owen has written an excellent,
if somewhat biased, account of the rise and fall of Peter Gatien’s empire,
replete with a subplot detailing the much faster parabola of Mafia-wannabe Chris
Paciello’s erstwhile stint as a club owner in Miami. The gist of it is
that club owners should avoid making decisions in the midst of a binge, be the
binge on steroids or crack.

Owen’s
research is impeccable. He details the players, the venues and the history that
led to Gatien’s monumentally stupid decision to recruit Michael Alig and
his followers to pull Limelight out of a 1989-1990 slump. The sidebar effort
is an excellent account of Paciello’s meteoric career track in Miami, where
his club Liquid was briefly the hottest thing in town.

What’s
really impressive is the fantastic level of gross stupidity demonstrated by
everyone in this story: the club owners, the club kids, the narcs, even the
author. At one point, Owen recounts copping a hit of ketamine from Angel Melendez,
the kid Alig murdered and dismembered over a lousy few thousand dollars. Rather
than take the alleged ketamine off to be analyzed by a reputable chemist, Owen
ingests it, in the interest of research. That is insane. One hard and fast rule
that has kept me out of a world of shit is that I buy only from sources I know
and trust. Anybody who would buy drugs from a stranger deserves whatever they
get. Darwin in action.

I was out
of town when Gatien opened Limelight in November 1983, and I missed the celebration
of William S. Burroughs’ 70th birthday there three months later. I hated
techno, and I hated the so-called "club kids" on sight. Self-conscious decadence
is not pretty, especially when it comes packaged in that anything-for-attention
"fabulous" pose. One moment they’re snorting God-knows-what in the bathroom
stalls and fucking goats and dogs for sport at parties, next they’re crying
for charity to deal with some horrifying disease they’ve contracted. I’m
a professional; I can’t abide amateurs, and I hate whiners.

This book
is about fin-de-siecle America and the sick pursuit of notoriety at any cost.
Peter Gatien is the small-town boy come to the big city to strike it rich who
gets in over his head with whores and crack until he makes one unbelievably
dumb mistake. Michael Alig is that mistake. He’s a needy little psychopath
determined to be the center of attention. Michael Caruso is the snitch, the
glue that holds the Paciello-Gatien threads together. Paciello is the steroid-laden
guido from Staten Island, a no-necked atavism with more balls than brains who’ll
kill to be seen with Madonna. The narcs are the Keystone Kops, useless bureaucrats
forever finding new ways of squandering the taxpayers’ money in the pointless
and futile "War on Drugs" which in this case appears to have been a "War on
Nightlife."

Owen does
a terrific job of recreating the scene and providing the background on the various
personae as they make their entrances and exits. His innuendo regarding Gatien’s
knowledge of and/or control over the huge drug market at his clubs, however,
seems out of line to me. I find it highly unlikely that the man was in any way
complicit. Certainly, he went through a period of depravity, which Owen recounts
in true tabloid fashion with great relish.

Owen is
a bit more guarded about his own depravity, although he does drop hints. I find
it difficult to believe that Gatien was in control of the drug trade at Limelight,
Tunnel, or any of his other establishments. The evidence presented clearly indicates
that no one was in control. One has to wonder what exactly drew the authorities
to Peter Gatien. They never showed that much interest in Bill Graham, Ian Schrager
or Steve Rubell.

Their interest
in Chris Paciello made much more sense. Paciello (nee Christian Ludwigsen) is
one of those pretty-boy steroid queens you see hanging around places like Scores
sucking up to the Made Men in a desperate attempt to become Sonny Corleone.
With no wits to speak of, he let his fists do the talking as he clawed his way
to notoriety in Miami as that scene was peaking prior to Andrew Cunanan’s
turning out the lights. That Paciello was so lionized by the vapid crowd of
celebrities and celebrity hangers-on speaks volumes about the moral void at
the center of that world. His club, Liquid, was a magnet for the needy and the
greedy, big wheels like Madonna and Sly Stallone, who produce nothing, not even
art. It’s just a shame it took Cunanan so long to get there, and his work
doesn’t even rate a mention in Owen’s book, despite its lasting importance
to the Miami scene. Ultimately it was the ghost of a middle-aged, middle-class
housewife from Staten Island that brought down Paciello. There is no statute
of limitations on murder.

Owen writes
with a certain nostalgia, and repeatedly implies that there was something innately
noble in the origins of the club scene. Again and again he refers to the idea
that MDMA was some kind of unique social glue bringing together the different
races and genders in some blissninny orgy of serotonin-fueled agape. I’ve
taken ecstasy a few times. It’s a remarkably stupid drug. It induces a
state best described as the opposite of paranoia. A better street name for it
would be "chump," because only a chump would take it in a public venue. Trust
is a valuable commodity and shouldn’t be given lightly. Any drug that induces
trust is a drug to be avoided.

It’s
not a new story. The same scenario has been played out before, at Bill Graham’s
Fillmore East and the gay club The Saint that came to occupy that space, at
Max’s Kansas City, at Studio 54, and doubtless at many other less famous
venues around town. The major difference isn’t Michael Alig’s savage
murder of Angel Melendez or the sheer quantity of drugs available. There were
certainly more drugs at the Fillmore East, and arguably more drugs at Studio
54. I’m quite certain that there were murders associated with the trade
at 54, if not the Fillmore. Roy Radin’s name comes to mind here. The big
difference was the fantastic amount of heat that came down on Peter Gatien.
Why this man became the target of such an enormous and expensive investigation
remains a mystery that Owen, alas, does not truly address.

Clubland: The Fabulous
Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture

By Frank Owen
St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages, $24.95

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