Rave Robbers

Feds Steal the Fun From Nightlife

It looked like any other vigil: Flowers and candles littered the sidewalk, handwritten screeds and love letters for the lost friend covered the door. People gathered around and took photos, hugging each other and bidding farewell. A few cried, and some danced to the music booming from a silver car parked at the curb.

But this vigil wasn't for a dead rock star: It was for a club—Twilo—which, after a three-year battle with the city, was finally shut down on May 24 when the State Supreme Court Appellate Division ruled that the city did not have to renew its cabaret license. The closure capped a tumultuous year for the club: Last July, 21-year-old James Wiest died of a drug overdose at Saint Vincent's Hospital after a night spent partying at the venue. His mother, Linda Wiest, is suing Twilo. And earlier this year, allegations arose that the club's security personnel were instructed by management to hide OD'd patrons in a small back room, and that the club hired on-site private ambulances, allegedly to avoid alerting 911 and the NYPD. The city had had enough.

While the notion of 40 or so folks mourning the loss of a club is more than a little overzealous, the attendees would do well to shed their tears for what may soon be the biggest casualty yet: the superclub, the trademark of New York nightlife.

Just a few weeks after Twilo shut its doors, its rivals, the Limelight and the Tunnel, also faced possible closure when owner Peter Gatien—no stranger to Giuliani's unrelenting war on clubs and ghastly "quality of life" campaign—had his clubs' liquor licenses revoked by the State Liquor Authority. Though Gatien was granted a stay of revocation on June 21, he has filed for bankruptcy, owing $1 million to the Limelight landlord and $700,000 to the Tunnel landlord, as well as $3.5 million in federal, state, and city taxes. He is now looking to get out of the business. "At this point, you feel like you're playing Russian roulette when you open a nightclub," says Gatien.

Still, with the Canadian club-owner facing possible deportation based on his 1999 guilty plea to grand-larceny charges, cheating the city and state out of $1.3 million in taxes, Gatien says that the Tunnel's landlord is not keen on keeping it a nightclub. "[The city] goes after larger clubs," says Gatien. "They get more press out of it, and the busier you are the more exposed you are."

If the Big Three—arguably the largest and most famous of New York's dance music halls—are all shut, they will leave a massive void that might not be filled. In baseball, they'd call this a home run.

Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington, who heads the city's Multi-Agency Response for Clubs and Hotspots, did not return repeated phone calls asking for comment, but recently told the Associated Press, "We've been closing these little buckets of blood for about three years and paralyzing them."

"No one wants to open up a new venue, the rope has been set so high," says promoter Matt E. Silver, who organized the electronic-music tents for the last two Woodstocks.

Most disturbing, however, is a renewed, national campaign against nightlife. If Giuliani's weapons for fighting clubland are frustrating and archaic, like his enforcement of the 1920s Prohibition-era "cabaret law," which limits movement by more than three people without a license, the new national strategy is even more daunting. Giuliani and his successor will no longer need to rely on such local laws. The remainder of New York's increasingly anorexic club scene now has an even bigger demon to deal with: the feds.

In January, as part of the DEA's new Operation Rave Review, promoter James D. Estopinal, a/k/a "Disco" Donnie, and Robert and Brian Brunet, part owners of the State Palace Theater in New Orleans, were indicted under a 1986 "crack house" statute created to target drug dens where owners "knowingly and intentionally" allowed drug use to take place. The feds claimed that the sale of overpriced bottles of water (which keep a person on Ecstasy from dehydrating) and the presence of drug-information groups like DanceSafe and on-site private ambulances (like Twilo used) were evidence that the State Palace Theater operated as a crack house. In March, the indictments were dropped when the prosecution believed at least two of the three defendants would plead guilty.

"If the government is right about what the law means, it would cover so much of what goes on in the country. You could apply it to colleges and dorm rooms," says Graham Boyd, head of the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Litigation Project.

The law carries a possible sentence of up to 20 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. Last month, the Brunet brothers' business, Barbecue of New Orleans, Inc., pled guilty and was fined $100,000. Estopinal, 31, did not enter a plea, and continues to throw parties, to the feds' dismay. "I wouldn't be the one being put on trial," says Estopinal. "It would basically be the rave scene on trial."

Not surprisingly, both sides claim victory with this decision. "I am satisfied with the outcome," says Al Winters, assistant U.S.attorney and lead prosecutor in the New Orleans case. Will Patterson of the Electronic Music Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit agency formed in response to the crack house case, says the Brunets' plea agreement illustrates the numerous holes in the law. "The effect of the law is hard to determine. The DEA has gotten a pretty pathetic plea deal—no jail time, no individual named, basically a dummy corporation that took the fall and gave them their legal precedent," says Patterson.

Nevertheless, the law's malleability makes it extremely frightening for promoters and club owners.

"[The decision] put a damper on their case," says Estopinal. "Public opinion is still very important to them. They might have to rethink their strategy. How can they justify threatening me with 20 years in jail and then letting [the Brunets] go with a $100,000 fine? It's a big difference."

Soon after the New Orleans case, the feds found another target—Club La Vela in Panama City Beach, Florida, which bills itself as the largest club in the nation, and is featured during MTV's spring break coverage. The owners of Club La Vela, Patrick and

Thorsten Pfeffer, were charged with two counts of operating a crack house, which subjected them to potential criminal forfeiture provisions, which, unlike the New Orleans case, opens the door for seizing the club's assets. (The brothers deny the charges and are countersuing the city for illegal search and seizure and for violating their First Amendment rights, and will go to trial this month.)

According to the ACLU, the feds' new usage of the statute raises several freedom of speech concerns. The New Orleans plea states that glow sticks and dust masks, as well as vapor rubs and inhalers—all typically associated with raves—can be considered drug paraphernalia. The feds also nixed massage tables and "chill rooms," or "areas in the theater which are purposely kept 15 degrees cooler than the rest of the theater."

"A glow stick or vapor rub is not, per se, drug paraphernalia. It depends on the context," says Winters.

The inclusion of such normally benign items in the plea is akin to profiling, reminiscent of early-'90s hip-hop dress codes at nightclubs banning gangsta or gangsta-like attire. "[The government's] argument is preposterous and will fall on its own force," says Boyd. "Those items are certainly not drug paraphernalia."

Chris Kausch, co-owner of Stuck on Earth, a New York production company responsible for some of the city's largest electronic events, including the annual pre-Halloween bash Boo, dismisses the DEA's definition, calling the accessories "fashion." "The first time I got a glow stick, I was at Great Adventure," says Kausch.

The State Palace Theater investigation began after the 1998 death of Jillian Kirkland, a 17-year-old who collapsed on the dancefloor. Though it is still unclear what drugs she took, the feds' target is clear: Ecstasy.

Though Ecstasy's been a prominent part of club culture for well over a decade, recent drug busts—like last year's seizure of 2.1 million pills (worth $40 million) at Los Angeles International Airport—and a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reporting a substantial increase in use among high school 12th-graders—from 5.6 percent in 1999 to 8.2 percent in 2000—have raised its profile considerably. The federal government has responded with Operation Rave Review—an extension of its War on Drugs—and a new, lean strategy designed to specifically combat "club drugs," a phrase coined by NIDA.

Last July, agents gave speeches at a Club Drug conference in Arlington, Virginia, on the dangers of Ecstasy, complete with slang terms like "rolling" and "candy flipping," and showed a nine-minute videotape of ravers high on E rubbing vapor rub and waving glow sticks, presumably to accentuate their highs.

But, as Gatien points out, drug-free clubs and raves are an unrealistic, impossible goal. "Maximum-security prisons have a big drug problem. You can't expect clubs to be an oasis where no crime occurs," says Gatien.

"The DEA's really locking into the idea that the underground dance scene and the mass distribution of drugs are linked," says Philip Rodriguez, general manager of the West Twenties club Baktun, who was recently granted a cabaret license after a year-long fight with the city. "They've got it in their mind that these issues are twin cousins. It makes me really nervous."

"Rave and rapare bad words in the concert industry," says Matt E. Silver. "If you say you have a rap show, your insurance goes up threefold. If you say you have a rave, you're going to have a community battle."

The DEA's campaign is in some ways just the tip of the anti-club legislation iceberg. Across the country, city governments are using new methods to stem raves and electronic music events, which they see as havens for the use of Ecstasy and other drugs. In Chicago, an ordinance passed in May 2000 subjecting promoters of events in unlicensed venues up to $10,000 in fines (written so widely that even the DJ could be hit); in Saint Louis, Missouri, promoters are now required to end events at 3 a.m.; and, says Patterson, cities like Detroit are using local laws similar to the crack house statute to go after club promoters and owners.

So it's no longer a matter if the feds will use this law in New York, but rather, when. And the biggest question is, Who's next?

"If they succeed with electronic music," says Patterson, "then hip-hop and rock-concert promoters have something to worry about."

If anything, Twilo's closure signifies the end of New York as the clubbing capital of the world. New York's nightlife gave birth to countless fashion, musical, and cultural trends via places like Studio 54 and Danceteria, which existed in a golden era predating task forces and quality-of-life campaigns. Even Madonna, who was a dancer at Danceteria, is a product of New York's club scene. "Clubs are cultural venues in some ways, and they don't get seen as such," says Rodriguez. "Rudy has such a hard-on for our industry, I don't think he knows the difference between the Tunnel and the Knitting Factory."

"It's been rough for all clubs in the last five years, with all these task forces," says Gatien. "The time and energy that used to be put towards creativity is now being put in the defense of the nightclubs."

Matt E. Silver contends that Giuliani's tactics have killed the culture of nightlife. "There were important deals made in clubs. Who knows if there'd be LL Cool J or Run DMC?" says Silver.

The remainder of the New York's superclubs, among them Vinyl and Centro-Fly, are taking a keep-your-head-down, keep-your-chin-up stance. Trying to fly low on the radar, even DJ Danny Tenaglia urges his fans in e-mail posts to keep the glow sticks at home.

While the hard-line tactics presented by Giuliani have resulted in a "safer, better nightlife," according to Twilo attorney Peter Sullivan, it's leaving club owners and promoters caught between a rock and a hard place. "Either way, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't," says Estopinal, echoing a common sentiment.

"It's gotten to the point where you implement all sorts of invasive security," says Gatien. "While it's more fun than a prison, there's a sort of big-brother type of feel when you go to larger clubs."

Likewise, big event promoters are keeping an eye on new developments and reconsidering their security measures, thanks to the DEA's new warfare.

"I've had DanceSafe on the premises, but I would think twice about that," says Silver, who calls the DEA's excising of the chill room an "irresponsible approach by the government." He maintains that hiring private ambulances—which caused an uproar over Twilo—is necessary for any type of large event. "All concerts have ambulances on standby, any festival situation, that's just what you do," says Silver.

"We used the same medical staff as Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium," points out Sullivan.

Many club owners and promoters say that Giuliani's zero-tolerance approach may have the opposite effect, driving kids to small, unlicensed, and unsafe venues. "It's going to go way underground," predicts Kausch. "It's not going to stop drug use."

530 West 27th Street, once the site of New York's most internationally famous techno nightclub, where thousands of glittered patrons eagerly lined the block, is now deserted but for the few hangers-on. A dark gray sky casts an ominous pallor over the street. Empty Red Bull cans roll across the sidewalk, and "mourners" pass out glow sticks in a cheeky wink at the ravey origins of the club.

The car that had been bumping techno pulls away and the crowd thins out. In a few days, the signs will be torn down, the flowers and candles removed—and with Twilo's infamous awning up for sale on eBay there will be few physical reminders left of the club.

Across the street, a sign flashes "No Vacancy" in the front of a small, nondescript building. The sterile facade belies its glamorous patrons.

"Oh, that's Bungalow 8," sniffs a Twilo-ite, nodding toward the new hot spot where models like Kate Moss cavort. "It's an uppity celebrity joint."

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