When author Frank Owen, a wide-eyed Mancunian immigrant to New York, asserts that the “first full-fledged rave scene in America” originated in Mafia-controlled hoods like Bensonhurst and Staten Island, he is apparently unaware that acid-house music and Ecstasy-driven rave culture were already in high swing in Los Angeles and elsewhere several years before New York’s Limelight epoch, which he documents in Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture.
Owen suggests that rave in the U.S. could never have happened without the aid of various gangsters, street perps and other business sociopaths. Although he’s partly on the money — at least, after 1991 that was somewhat true — his contention becomes muddled when he posits that in the beginning, “techno” music and its accompanying neo-hippie peace-and-love culture could only have flourished as a direct result of the four-way mob-deep axis (Peter Gatien, Michael Alig, Chris Paciello, Lord Michael) he gamely attempts to chronicle over 300-plus pages. By ignoring (or not knowing about) L.A. rave happenings from ‘88 on, such as Alice’s House, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, Sunshine ’89, Stranger Than Fiction and the Orbit, Clubland emerges as yet another claustrophobically New York–centric account that sinks in its own insularity.
But Owens may be right about one thing: The availability of shitty speed-trashed E and Special K at Peter Gatien–owned nightclub–cum–drug emporiums, such as the Limelight and the Tunnel, did have the power to pull in the bridge-and-tunnel masses — the only ones actually coughing up hard cash for a night on the town — in a way the music itself might never have. Gatien, one of four main characters whose career trajectory Clubland traces between 1991 and 1996, owned the Limelight, but was considered a King of New York type by DEA boneheads determined to squelch him. Owen depicts him as a frozen, one-eyed, utterly joyless Gallic version of Christopher Walken on crack, with a creepy black leather eye patch and “the humanity of a dial tone.”
At the outset, Gatien is seen as a desperate club owner threatened with extinction who takes in Michael Alig, an equally desperate small-town Hoosier transplant with an overactive imagination and a pathological need to be the center of attention, and someone who’d go to any extreme to conceal what he really was: a deeply hurt, socially estranged provincial who’d been humiliated and faggot-thrashed since boyhood. Michael “It’s Hip To Be a Mess” Alig graced the pages of Vanity Fair and landed on the cover of New York magazine for being the extravagant Pied Piper of seekers of Ketamine, heroin and free drink tix as the leader of New York’s “club kids.”
The club kids were outcast loners and predominantly gay youngsters fleeing Middle America, and they set new standards of gross-out, exhibitionistic, beyond-punk self-destructiveness and grotesqueness as they ushered in New York’s era of Grand Guignol nightlife and stomach-pump chic — which ultimately ran right in the face of Mayor Giuliani’s neo-Puritan “quality of life” crackdown. Mercifully, Owen avoids rehashing the more sensational club-kid shenanigans — the public pooping and peeing, the projectile vomiting, the cocksucking, urine drinking, filthy-mouth contests, and the fucking of prosthetic limbs — already covered in James St. James’ Disco Bloodbath. Most of these stunts — and more — had already been done anyway by Black Randy, El Duce, Kim Komet and the Monster Sisters, among others, during the original “club-kid era” of self-mutilated, boho-punk rockers in late-’70s L.A.
One salient point Owen raises: Can you have a ragin’ club without the manic energy of people like Alig, a Darby Crash type with a perverse sense of humor who made some outsiders so desperate to belong to something they’d do anything to win his approval and gain entrée to the inner cabal. Evidently not, at least not in NYC. Alig ultimately became better known as an ice-cold killer than as a once prolifically creative promoter after he smashed the skull of a former roommate/drug dealer with a hammer and poured Drano down his throat before chopping him up with a meat cleaver and dumping the stiff in the Hudson.
Gatien, who’d been trounced by the opening of Steve Rubell’s last gasp, the Palladium, was only too happy to take in the club kids after they were booted from the Tunnel for having outlived usefulness to their original patrons by ’90-’91. Alig’s Disco 2000 parties restored the Limelight to prominence, but the price was having to cater to the dreaded bridge-and-tunnel crowd. To swell the numbers on other nights, Alig recommended that Gatien hire “Lord Michael” Caruso, a party promoter/petty criminal from Staten Island who was tapped in to “techno.”
Caruso was New York’s first major E connection. With Gatien allegedly “looking the other way” (i.e., toward the massive door and cash-bar receipts), Caruso moved into the Limelight to set up a Gambino-backed E franchise and immediately recruited a real hard-ass, Chris Paciello, to keep the club’s in-house dealers in line and all others out. While Caruso was a chubby, soft-handed alterna-kid who’d grown up romanticizing thug life and the bling-thing from afar and was committing the odd petty armed robbery for street cred, Paciello was the real deal — a steroid-bugged, gym-rat guido who strutted around the clubs in icky tank tops, turquoise-striped jogging pants and gold neck chains. He was a ferociously ambitious former special-ed student who commanded attention because of his height and hunky model looks (he ended up transforming the entire South Beach Miami Versace-era nightlife while trying unsuccessfully to ditch his wise-guy past, and wound up in the pen for homicide, robbery and racketeering).
Owen’s narrative moves beyond being just another squalid regional-scene piece when he explores the larger questions of what fuels club life. Can you have a fabulous edgy club without cop raids? Can a really raucous, rockin’ club exist within the limits of the law? How liable, ultimately, should a club owner/promoter be for the goings-on? How liable should a club owner be for people on drugs in the establishment? But Owen doesn’t really answer any of these questions, especially pertinent today with the advent of the new anti-rave legislation that threatens promoters with liability.
The middle part of Clubland is a barrel of laughs — a hilarious hootenanny of guidos, goombahs, and goofball narcos as thick as the hoods they’re chasing down. Although most readers will struggle to care about these people amid the relentless beat-downs and the pork-belly undercover narcs in drag attempting to pass themselves off as swish club kids, those amused by Homo sapiens at their lowest and dumbest will revel.
But ultimately, the book is about Owen the diligent vigilante journalist snitching off a bunch of snitches in his Village Voice articles (goodbye, Paciello and Caruso), and even more comic relief is provided as each side — cops and stool pigeons alike — loses track of the incredibly complex labyrinth of lies and counterlies they spin to each other. The D.A.’s Office becomes so desperate to get the club kids to rat out Gatien that one attorney pulls an Andy Sipowitz: If the club kid doesn’t give it up, I’ll personally make sure his beloved Chanel outfits are confiscated!
In the end, after six years of following the seamy goings-on of Gatien and company, Owen concludes that doped-up, edgy nightlife “is not supposed to come with a body count.” Which raises yet another question: Why wouldn’t it? Why would there be no “collateral” fallout, if there really was an envelope-pushing edge of true danger?
Brendan Mullen is the co-author of We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk and Lexicon Devil: The Life and Times of Darby Crash and the Germs.
CLUBLAND: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture | By FRANK OWEN | St. Martin’s Press | 313 pages | $17.47, hardcover