Slimelight


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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 Springerís 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 Culkinís 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Peter Gatien is arguably the most unjustly maligned New York City nightlife entrepreneur since the Volstead Act was repealed.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 Gatienís adversaries pursued him. The rampant drug use at Gatienís 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 Gatienís 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 Gatienís empire, replete with a subplot detailing the much faster parabola of Mafia-wannabe Chris Pacielloís 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.


Owenís research is impeccable. He details the players, the venues and the history that led to Gatienís 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 Pacielloís meteoric career track in Miami, where his club Liquid was briefly the hottest thing in town.


Whatís 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. Burroughsí 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 theyíre snorting God-knows-what in the bathroom stalls and fucking goats and dogs for sport at parties, next theyíre crying for charity to deal with some horrifying disease theyíve contracted. Iím a professional; I canít 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. Heís 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 whoíll kill to be seen with Madonna. The narcs are the Keystone Kops, useless bureaucrats forever finding new ways of squandering the taxpayersí 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 Gatienís 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 Cunananís 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. Itís just a shame it took Cunanan so long to get there, and his work doesnít even rate a mention in Owenís 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. Iíve taken ecstasy a few times. Itís 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 shouldnít be given lightly. Any drug that induces trust is a drug to be avoided.


Itís not a new story. The same scenario has been played out before, at Bill Grahamís Fillmore East and the gay club The Saint that came to occupy that space, at Maxís Kansas City, at Studio 54, and doubtless at many other less famous venues around town. The major difference isnít Michael Aligís 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. Iím quite certain that there were murders associated with the trade at 54, if not the Fillmore. Roy Radinís 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. Martinís Press, 320 pages, $24.95

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