By Anna Merlan
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"Nightclubbing is not a crime," reads a promotional t-shirt for Twilo's monthly techno night, Respect is Burning. Maybe not, but for the line of clubbers outside the popular venue earlier this month, it must have felt that way. A dozen or so cops formed their own line in front and casually surveyed the crowd while the patrons submitted to the complicated security checks required for entry. Above the cash registers, a huge banner blared in capital letters: "UNDERCOVER POLICE NOW ALWAYS ON PREMISES."
These are trying times for the Chelsea superclub. As the establishment embarks on a bid for international fame with the launch of a CD series, a national tour, a magazine, and the startup of its own label, the city is trying to close Twilo's doors for good. On October 30, Judge Jane Solomon will begin hearing a case to determine whether the city can refuse to renew the club's cabaret license.
Prompted by two deaths in the last two years, a series of undercover drug buys at the nightclub, and an October 8 incident involving the alleged cover-up by the club's security of three unconscious patrons, the city is suing the club, hoping to shut it down under the Nuisance Abatement Lawa regulation generally used to padlock doors of places involved with prostitution or drug dealing. Under the law, a club can be closed after three arrestsa technicality that police initially used to their advantage against Peter Gatien's Limelight and Tunnel, and against the old Sound Factory in recent years.
Since it opened in 1995, taking over vacant Sound Factory warehouse space on West 27th Street, Twilo has dominated the local superclub circuit, counting Sasha and Digweed, Paul Van Dyk, and Carl Cox as regulars. Boasting the city's biggest sound system (the self-built Phazon Integrated system, which also pumps up U.K. clubs like Cream, Home, and the Guvernment), Twilo quietly mopped up the competition with its unrivaled lineups, garnering worldwide attention.
But this fall, at a decidedly pivotal moment for New York nightlife and for the club itself, Twilo general manager Mike Bindra and the venue's two owners find themselves up against a wall. In the same two months that the club launched a record label, a CD series, and a pop culture publication called Magazine, the cover-up allegations have reinvigorated the city's case. Two years ago, State Supreme Court Justice Solomon ruled that the city lacked justification to shut Twilo down, and instead issued a restraining order prohibiting the sale of drugs on the premises. Citing a need for further investigation, the city failed to renew the club's cabaret license, which expired in late September. Without such a license, no dancing is allowed. Court documents indicate that, though the club submitted proper renewal forms on time, the city effectively stalled in dealing with the paperwork. On September 27 Twilo filed an Article 78 petition, asking the judge to expedite the city Consumer Affairs Department's processing of cabaret license paperwork. The club's lawyer, Peter Sullivan, says, "We have every right to operate a cabaret. The city improperly failed to renew the license. We did everything we were supposed to do."
Neither the June 1998 death of Brigette Murray from an Ecstasy overdose nor the alleged 18 undercover drug buys that police made at the club within an eight-month period in 1998 (resulting in two arrests) were enough to halt Twilo's bid for world disco domination. But the recent alleged cover-up, and the Ecstasy overdose of Johns Hopkins student James Wiest this past July, might provide further ammunition for the city. "There are a series of serious public-safety issues that are of grave concern," says Daniel S. Connolly, special counsel for the New York City Law Department. "We believe we are able to convince the court that this is not a responsible organization that should continue to operate. The fact that people are dying inside of there [demonstrates that] there is a pattern of reckless disregard of the safety of the clientele."
Twilo lawyer Peter Sullivan says that, while Brigette Murray's friends told police she had been at the club earlier that evening in 1998, she did not actually die on the premises. "No one is dying because of Twilo," he insists. "And this problem could be solved if the police department had the courage to work with the nightclub industry rather than simply blaming the nightclub industry.
"Every citizen in New York has the right to call the police department for help," says Sullivan. "Our industry is the only group of citizens that the police department refuses to help."
On Monday, October 9, Twilo bouncer Joseph Murray was charged with reckless endangerment and obstruction of government administration for failing to report that three passed-out patrons remained inside after closing time. According to police spokesperson Officer Louis Cruz, police arrived in response to 911 calls, and, once lights were finally turned on, found the three clubbers in a back room near a bar. The three were taken to St. Vincent's Hospital at nine the next morning.
But not everyone agrees on what happened that night. Reports in the New York Poststated that Twilo bouncers allegedly tried to block the cops' entrance, which Sullivan denies. As does Cruz, who says police "were able to get into the club, but couldn't find the bodies." Cruz was also unable to confirm Postreports that the two men and one woman told cops they had taken "Liquid G," presumably GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), an antidepressant that can cause unconsciousness and, in some cases, death.
According to the Post, police confiscated videotapes that showed a security guard ushering the patrons into a small back room (described by the paper as a "closet") and employees talking about sticking to a "story." Impossible, Sullivan says, since "the [security] cameras have no sound."
Twilo, says Bindra, has tried to be in full compliance with the city, taking extra precautions by beefing up security, even hiring its own undercover guards who question people engaging in suspicious activity.
Such hard-line security tactics, according to regular patron J.C. Gaviria, even went "a bit overboard. It was to the point where it was prohibitive of people taking a cigarette out of their pockets." Gaviria, a local DJ, A&R rep of Emusic.com, and former host of the dance music show Freqon the now defunct Internet TV Web site Pseudo.com, jokes about the intense scrutiny: "Do I have a sign above my head in neon that says, 'I'm holding!'? [The bouncers] were doing such a good job that they actually approached three undercover cops in there."
Bindra, while admittedly uncomfortable with the beefed-up security, insists it is necessary. "I'm doing everything I can to make sure that we are complying and running a responsible, safe organization," he says. "We pull people aside all nightwe are literally on the verge of violating people's civil rights, just short of forcing them to give a blood test when they walk in." Bindra would not comment, however, on the October 8 incident, referring all questions to the club's attorney.
The club's owners and management are "devastated by the allegations," says Twilo lawyer Sullivan. "We don't know if the allegations are true, but we believe that the responsible course of action is to act as if they are true, because our responsibility is to the public." The club is going to "retain, on a permanent basis, EMT ambulances that are immediately available at any time we are open," Sullivan adds. He says that the club has assigned a staff person to work with the EMT.
But since October 8, doubts about the effectiveness of of Twilo's internal security have resurfaced. Says Connolly: "The number of incidents indicates a failure, in our view, of the management of Twilo to address the issues of the past."
Twilo is hardly alone in its battles with the city. Smaller venues, under continual surveillance by a police department intent on enforcing the cabaret law, have been dealing with fines for allowing unlicensed dancing. And on August 20, as part of Operation Cinderella, police raided several superclubs, busting 78 people at Sound Factory, Cheetah, Exit, Speed, Ohm, the Social Club, and the Roxy. At Vinyl, they seized hundreds of E pills and $13,000, arresting seven patrons and two employees. Vinyl is also facing a nuisance lawsuit from the city, alleging unlicensed sale of alcohol and six sales of illegal substances on four different dates. "It's very frustrating in this climate because it seems to never be enough," Bindra says. "Clubs in New York are under a giant magnifying glass."
Twilo's situation, though, might be especially severe, since the renewed investigation comes at a time when the dance palace is attempting to branch out on a national and international scale. Like U.K. über-clubs Ministry of Sound and Gatecrasher, Twilo hopes to expand its reach into a veritable brand name.
Under the guidance of publicist Ryan Thomas, the club has published its first two issues of Magazine, covering everything from music and DJs to video games and Web sites, and conveniently previewing upcoming Twilo events. The club is also sponsoring a book called A World Without Thumbs, which will feature art, poetry, and prose from Twilo's patrons. And Twilo recently inked a deal with Virgin Records for its CD seriesthe first installment of which, a double disc featuring longtime Saturday-night resident Junior Vasquez, was released at the end of September. Bindra says each CD release will be paired with subsequent national tours featuring resident Twilo DJs.
When it opened five years ago, Twilo had a one-year "honeymoon period," says 31-year-old Bindra, where "you're gonna be packed unless you're really screwing things up. It almost didn't matter who I put on." Self-described bedroom DJ Bindra's first move as the Friday-night booker was bringing in trance superstars Sasha and Digweed, jump-starting the duo's stateside popularity and in turn helping to revive their sagging overseas profile.
In the past few years, with Peter Gatienthe notorious owner of the Limelight, Tunnel, and the now defunct Palladiumbusy fending off federal agents and charges of drug running, and his clubs out of operation or in disarray, Twilo reestablished its prominence in the local scene. But these days, as Gatien and Limelight make a comeback, it's Twilo that's under the gun.