The Sober Bunch
It's somewhere between 2 and 4 a.m. and everyone is wasted. It could be any night, any club, anywhere. But tonight, it's a freakishly cold March evening during the Winter Music Conference in Miami, at a club called the Pawn Shop. Beyond the main dancefloor, where hundreds of revelers groove, in the darkened corners of the gargantuan club, you can see people doing drugs. Their heads bob over their hands as they take a sniff off a key; they scamper behind the DJ booth for a quick bump before going out for another grind. In the V.I.P. section an actual school bus if you know where to look, cocaine flows almost as freely, if more discreetly, than champagne. In the side room, where a band named Booka Shade plays, girls dance in ecstasy, clearly on Ecstasy, their eyes rolling in the back of their heads, their mouths fixed in a clenched-jaw, pleasure-filled grimace.
Though it's Miami, the club is filled with familiar faces from New York's club scene. DJ Justine D. of Motherfucker, one of the most notorious nightlife events in Manhattan, carries a clipboard and walks briskly through the crowd. Princess Superstar, the bottle-blond bad babysitter cum rapper cum DJ, climbs into the booth and gives German superstar DJ Hell a friendly bite on the head. As the French DJ duo Justice pummel the crowd with the Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up," promoters Michael Cohn and DJ Patrick "the Captain" Rood literally whoop it up on the dancefloor, shouting and hollering.
Around 4 a.m., DJ Tommie Sunshine turns up just in time for Hell's set. The crowd has started to thin and you can sense the collective comedown. Sunshine is hard to miss: Standing over six feet tall, he has long blond hair and a bushy beard that makes him look like a disco Jesus, his ever present suit and sunglasses completing the look. He's dancing furiously in the center of the room, his hair flying in his face, his hand gripping a bottle of water.
There's a quote painted on the wall above the bar. It reads: "I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day."
"Oh yeah," Sunshine says, his voice simultaneously registering sarcasm and sincerity, "Dean Martin. I used to live by that."
Correction: Not everyone is wasted. Sunshine, like Princess Superstar, Justine D., Cohn, and Rood, is stone-cold sober. Sunshine, after nearly 15 years of drinking and doing drugs, quit a year ago, just after the last Winter Music Conferencea marathon of debauchery that followed a trip to the South by Southwest rock festival in Austin. Princess stopped a few years before Sunshine, and the other three have never really been partiers, imbibing once or twice a yearif at all.
They are sober hipstersflipping the image of a nondrinking person as a boring, uptight Goody Two-shoes on its head. They host the best nights, spin at the choice clubs around town, and book the post-gig after-parties that start at 11 and end at 4 a.m. Fashionable and popular, they are the epitome of downtown cool. They are the people crowds pay to be entertained bythe same crowds ironically are getting lit while watching sober DJs, cabaret performers, and burlesque stars.
The sober hipsters are the minority in a world where drinking and doing drugs are par for the course. They are people like comic performer Murray Hill, clean since September 2004; the bodacious burlesque performer known as the World FamousBOB*, a New York club veteran who quit nine years ago; Mike Nouveau, a 22-year-old promoter who's never touched a drop of anything. Elhaam Yavari, 24, who works for addVice, a marketing division of Vice Publishing Inc. (whose very name invites you to think about getting smashed), has never used drugs or drunk more than twice a year. Kenny Kenny, a renowned club doorman turned promoter who survived the '80s, the '90s, and Michael Alig, has been dry as the Nevada desert for 11 years. Actor, DJ, and sometime drag diva Michael Cavadias, who spun at decadent parties like Squeezebox in the late '90s, finally excised the excess in his life. Larry Tee, the elder statesman of New York's dance world, who lived through the Atlanta club scene in the '80s, the Disco 2000 era in the '90s, and electroclash in the '00s, has turned eight years of sobriety into nine nightlife nightlives.
Some of the people interviewed never drank or did drugs in the first place, or maybe they'd dabbled here and there before deciding it wasn't for them. Others ex-ravers or refugees of the mid-'90s club-kid scenehit a bottom so deep, they'd reached Middle-earth. All of them have the commonality of being one of the few straight people in the roomeven though it's their job to show people a good time, in an industry where a good time is usually equated with being wasted. "It's just such an occupational hazard that after a while you just either stop or something bad is going to happen," says Cavadias.
Hill, who cribs from Dean Martin and makes alcohol a part of his shtick, adds, "When your social life is your business, there's no separation of boundaries. It's all mixed together. I never thought I'd be able to quit. It's so part of my show."
In John Leland's book Hip: The History, he writes about the connection between hipsters, counterculture, and drugs. Hipsters deliberately set themselves apart from society: They dress differently, listen to edgier music, and do drugs. Writes Leland: "Drugs are the product, hip is the marketing plan. Decades before the advent of lifestyle advertising, hip linked drug use to a lifestyle that is sexy, rebellious, and streetwise. . . . To be hip or high is to be outside the authority of church, state, work, school, and the law. . . . It is the elitism of last resort."
But what if everyone is doing drugs? What if being high becomes the status quo and loses its mystique? In the club world, it's the clean kids who are the rebels.
"My life is so much more exciting," says Larry Tee. "I get to travel around the world. I get to make music with my idols. Really, I can do whatever I want to now, but I'm not high. It was just the opposite of what I thought. Because the culture said, 'If you're cool, you get really high, and if you're lucky, you get can get high all the time, because then you're really living.' But I found out that that was the big lie. Once I got clean, my life really started."
photo: Nikola Tamindzic/ambrel.net
Sunshine, there are only three reasons people go to clubs and bars: "They either go out for the music, which is incredibly rare," he says, "they go out to get laid, or they go out to get fucked-up."
As we talk in a café near Union Square, George Michael, the formerly pretty pop star who once crooned "I Want Your Sex," is on TV after being arrested for alleged possession of pot and GHB in London. He looks bloated and is nearly unrecognizable.
Everyone who's quit drinking or doing drugs has a bottom. Michael may not have reached his bottom yet, but Sunshine recounts his: "After doing five days of South by Southwest and seven at the Winter Music Conference, bumper to bumperafter 12 days of drinking till you black out and snorting half of Bolivia, when you feel like a piano has been dropped on your face every morning for 12 morningsat what point is it enough?"
For Princess Superstar, it was after a three-week tour. She'd stopped drinking but, using some perverse reasoning, still did drugs. "I was like, 'I'm an alcoholic, but yeah, pass the blow,' " she says. "I did drugs every day. I was on codeine, all this shit, and mushrooms. I recorded fucked-up. I played live fucked-up. I DJ'd fucked-up."
Larry Tee calls himself "a classic garbage head"somebody who does everything. Combining "ketamine and crystal meth is a recipe for the inside of Satan's bowels," he says. "I literally ran to St. Vincent's once all the way from Twilo. Literally ran."
Addiction is the white elephant in rooms filled with white lines. Not even the recent drug-related deaths of two college students, Maria Pesantez and Mellie Carballo, or the passing of high-profile hipsters like skateboarder Harold Hunter give clubbers pause. Murray Hill, who calls himself "the hardest working middle-aged man in show business," unsurprisingly counted beer as his vice of choice. "I hit rock bottom eight, nine times." he says. "I would tell my therapist, 'Oh, I had seven, eight beers. It was a pretty light night out.' And she was horrified. But that's normal for us in the nightlife scene. You lose sight of the real world. You're going home tanked in the cab and the sun's coming up and everyone else is waiting for the bus to go to work."
BOB*, who started drinking when she was 14, says that after a while, partying loses its luster: "By the time I was 25, I felt like I'd been waiting in line for 12 years for the same ride."
So nine years ago, she stopped waiting in line. Now she goes to "meetings." Like Princess Superstar,BOBtook a structured self-help path to sobriety. Murray Hill, Sunshine, and Kenny Kenny went their own way. But whether they did it themselves or in support groups, going out sober means relearning how they live and work. For some people, getting sober means leaving bars behind, but DJs and promoters don't have the option of staying home, nor would they want to.
"I go to bars to socialize. I go to bars to celebrate life, to see my friends perform. I go to bars to perform, myself," saysBOB*.
After Kenny Kenny swore off his favorites, whiskey and beer, 11 years ago, he went back to work. "It was like hyper-realism," he says. "I normally go to the bar. Now I'm not going to the bar. Now I pass the bar. Now I don't have a bottle in my hands. So now I have to walk to the club without the beer, and now I go to the club, so what do I do? It was like learning to walk."
In the ultimate test of faith, Superstar, after a month of sobriety, had a gig in of all placesAmsterdam.
But the nightlife business can make it almost impossible to stay clean. Professional clubbers are given fistfuls of drink tickets and offered drugs as if they were hors d'oeuvressometimes even in lieu of cash. Justine D., who has seen a guy shoot up heroin in the DJ booth while she was trying to spin, recalls when an out-of-town promoter palmed her a bag of coke as a bonus: "She said, 'This is for you. I don't know whether you do it, but thank you so much.' That makes me feel so uncomfortable. This is illegal and I don't want anything to do with it."
The normalcy of substances can make abstinence, or even moderation, difficult, if not impossible. "If you like Ho Hos and you're sitting at a table and there's a plate full of Ho Hos, you're probably going to eat them," says Sunshine. "If there's a plate full of Ho Hos following you around 24-7, like what essentially happens when you're a musician, you're gonna be eating a lot of Ho Hos."
Over chocolate cake at Le Gamin in the East Village, Superstar says, "I love free things! I get in the fucking car of the promoter, and it's like, 'What do you want? What do you need?' And I'm like, 'Oh my God, a kid in a candy store.' I get backstage and there's like a bottle of champagne and it's always about champagne too. And you know, I'm 10 thousand trillion times more sparkly now when I'm clean than I ever was when I was drinking champagne and I was sloppy. Totally."
She takes a bite out of the gooey center of the cake, mixes it with the vanilla ice cream, and sighs heavenward. "Larry. Larry fucking saved my life," she says. "So I love Larry. He just told me, 'You can do this. There's a lot of people that are sober. You don't have to live like that anymore.' "
Larry Tee is making a cappuccino in his Williamsburg loft. His dog Nelson, a rambunctious white-and-brown rat terrier, bounces like a jumping bean around the kitchen while Tee heats up milk and pours a round of espresso into his mug. The ceaseless self-promoter, known to the most recent batch of clubbers for electroclash, is never one to pass up credit for a trend. "I invented this!" he quips in his trademark squeaky voice, only partially joking. Tee helped Princess kick and lent support toBOB*; he takes friends to NA or AA meetings. Sometimes people ask him about the meetings and never go.
During Disco 2000's heyday, Tee lived above Twilo, another debaucherous super- club of a bygone era, where he enticed pretty straight boys with pills in exchange for thrills. In those days, he'd wake up at two in the afternoon, crawl to the post office, do a bump of ketamine, and call it a successful business day. "I was wasted and pathetic," he says. "I couldn't make music."
Tee says that after he quit drugs, his career went from being on life support provided by the royalties of his biggest hit, RuPaul's "Supermodel"to the kind of career every DJ dreams of: getting songs in movie soundtracks and jet-setting around the world. Now he plays not one but three of the city's biggest parties every week. Those who still indulge, he says, are missing out on the most fabulous moments of their lives. "They won't appreciate it when it's really gorgeous, when life is just sumptuous," he says. "They're sleeping before their big gig in Brazil, like with a million people wanting to meet them and fuck them. And they've got their hands in their heads going, 'Oh, my life is so hard.' "
He makes another cup of coffee. "One of the fears that I had is that getting clean would be miserable, that it'd be like the end of the road," he says. "The party's over, because it's so much a part of being a rebel and all my rock-star heroes were drug addicts."
With that he echoes a common sentiment and an accepted fallacypropagated by popular wisdom and the work of bohemian heroes like William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompsonthat the best art is made under the influence, that cool is derived from drug counterculture. So many musical subcultures are intertwined with drug use; so many records are made high or are best experienced while high. Try to separate the druggy associations from records like Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction (an hour-long love song to dope), Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, the Velvet Underground's "Heroin," and every jazz record ever made. And would the rave revolution ever have happened without Ecstasy? Tommie Sunshine admits that his first drug experience was sitting at home stoned, watching The Wall. "So stereotypical," he says.
"I allowed myself to be an addict because I saw it advertised as part of the counterculture that was part of my being an outsider," says Kenny Kenny. "Really, in the end, that was a fool's game."
If drug addicts want to suspend time, as Leland purports, sober hipsters want to make as much use of it as possible. They are making up for lost time. Once they quit, their careers take off: "Opportunities have opened up for me that I couldn't have imagined before I got sober," saysBOB*. "I went from being a nightclub personality to a performer. I used to go to Squeezebox and go-go dance and be drunk out of my mind and have so much fun. But in the middle of the night, when the drag queens got up and sang with the band, I was sitting there thinking, 'I wish I could do that.' But I could never remember a song. I could never sing with a band. I could never practice. It was too much of a commitment. I'd be too hungover. I'd be too scared."
The best part of clean living is the next day. Promoter Patrick Rood, 25, who's never drank in his life and goes out as many as five nights a week, says, "I don't know what a hangover feels like." Like Rood, promoter Mike Nouveau never drank and has no regrets. "If I see someone passed out on a cold sidewalk in their own vomit," he says, "I'll be like, 'And people ask me why I don't drink'or when my female friends end up naked on Last Night's Party."
While their partying counterparts are nursing hangovers by sleeping in all day, taking more pills, resorting to hair-of-the-dog strategies, and downing greasy burgers, sober hipsters wake upif not exactly bright eyedclear minded. "I go out so much for work, and I see the same people every time I go out, and they are all drinking and doing drugs," says Yavari. "How do they do it every night? I come to work so tired and exhausted and feeling like crap, and I didn't even do anything."
Murray Hill cautions, "There are kids, who shall remain nameless, that haven't got off the express train and they don't look so good after six years. You notice that. The kids that are doing the cokethere are a few more wrinkles than I remembered."
Patrick the Captain and Michael Cohn
photo: Tricia Romano
Nouveau, he was holding a tray of Jell-O shots. He was at the Lower East Side bar Fat Baby for one of his parties, called Nouveau, where Larry Tee was DJ'ing. Nouveau works in advertising atRolling Stone
and has to be at his desk by 9 a.m. He's like the younger version of Steven Lewis, the nightlife veteran who designed clubs like Marquee and ran Limelight in the '90s, who says, "I think it's important to be sober. Many people disagree, and if many people didn't disagree with me, I would never have made any money. So I'm glad that nobody agrees with me." Ironically, Lewis served nine months for conspiracy to traffic narcotics (he maintains his innocence).
Like Nouveau, addVice's Elhaam Yavari, who is of Persian descent, never tried drugs. When she was a teen, her semi-strict parents grilled her after she came home from parties. Today, she goes out an average of three nights a weekincluding her DJ gigs at East Village Radio and the Dark Room. A teetotaler surrounded by people who partake, she says, "I have so many really good friends and they just equate coke with a good night. I think doing coke is like admitting defeat. It's like a drug to keep you awake. Like, are you that old?"
When she first started her job at addVice, bands would ask her to find drugs, but she was useless: "Dammit," she remembers thinking, "I'm going to lose a client because I can't get them high?" It never happened, but she quickly learned what 53-year-old Steven Lewis has known for yearsthat being the only sober person in a roomful of drunks has its advantages. "It's a business," he explains. "And if you're a business person, no matter what the job is, if you're selling doughnuts or tropical fish, if you're drunk and on the job you're not going to do such a good job."
Justine D. got her start working for Lewis at the club Life in the '90s. After getting sick for several weeks, she decided she wasn't going to drink anymore. "If I wanted to be taken seriously I had to be sober," she says. "I was coming across so many casualties, nightlife casualties, fucked-up party dolls." She imbibes a couple of times a year, usually on vacation, but never on the job. "I'm not falling off a wagon," she says. "I mean, I don't even own a fucking wagon. Some people don't even have that luxury."
At the end of a Motherfucker event, Justine D.'s sober state of mind allows her to take over the most sobering of duties: counting the money. Her partners in Motherfucker are all partiers. Michael T., the embodiment of glam-rock decadence, has been quoted in the Voice half-joking about his own habits, usually involving boots, boys, and bathroom lines.
While she finds the act of people doing cocaine "alien," her partners' partying doesn't bother her. Still, she gets a bit of a ribbing for being the odd one out. "Yeah, we make fun of her sometimes, because she can be a little bit rigid," says Michael T. "But I don't like people that are messyand I don't consider myself to be messy."
The sober clubbersno matter how they arrived at living the clean lifehave experienced similar awkward situations. When they ask a bartender for water or soda, they get the cold shoulder. They aren't invited to the after-after-parties. But then, the after-after-parties are a drag anyway. Justine D. recalls one event thrown by a member of a prominent local band. "Everyone was a fucking mess, one girl was puking out of a window, there was wall-to-wall people," she says.
But they say they don't feel uncomfortable around people who drink or do drugsit's the other way around. Lewis once faked doing rounds of grappa to please some buddies of his; Yavari's copped to holding a beer just so she doesn't have to answer questions. "I still have people who still insist on putting their drinks up to my mouth," says Kenny Kenny.
"I think people feel awkward around us sometimes," says Cohn. "They don't say it, but you can tell. Some people are wasted and they apologize. A lot of people apologize. 'I'm so sorry I'm drunk.' And we're like, 'Good, that's what we're partying for. That's what we want.' It was funny, one of the first places we did our night at turned out to be a really big spot to get drugs at. And we didn't know. We didn't care."
The sober hipsters say they are frequently mistaken for being wasted anyway. Says Lewis, "I'm hyperactive, I'm bug-eyed and sometimes prone to fits." Tee describes himself as "a 33 record spun on 45," and Hill says, "I still am a party animal. There's barely any difference except that I'm healthier and I've lost 35 pounds."
When people learn they don't drink or do drugs, the sober hipsters are asked questions that seem silly: "How do you do it?" "You must be so bored," "Why not?" And dumbest of all: "What do you do for fun?"
"I'm a fuckin' lame knitter," cracks Justine D.
Says Rood, "They think it's like we have an extra head. That they think we can't go anywhere without a drinkthat's incredible. That's horrible."
"I probably have a lot more fun than you think," says Yavari. "I'm always having a good time no matter where I am. I'll be at the same places you are. I just won't be having an alcoholic drink. I'll be drinking water. I'll be dancing and meeting people and telling jokesand remembering it."
Michael Cavadias once starred opposite Robert Downey Jr., one of the most public faces of addiction in recent memory. Since quitting a few years ago, he's bloomed creativelywriting a screenplay, DJ'ing around town, and performing with the Citizens Band. Throughout the conversation at Café Mogador, he's nervousit's almost like coming out, publicly admitting that he's sober. After a few fits and starts, he eloquently explains why being dry is the biggest high. "Not doing drugs is the most unpredictable and totally psychedelic experience I have ever had. It's an amazing existence," he says and smiles. "Life on its own is really wild."
Not that there aren't moments of regret and pangs of temptation. Tee can still smell coke at the mere mention of it, and Kenny Kenny says that when he catches a whiff of beer from a tap, he has to walk away. But sometimes it's just the feeling of being left behind that hurts most.
"I went to Paris, and I had a boyfriend, I was dressed up, and the waiters were like, 'Oh mademoiselle, Marilyn Monroe!' and they gave me complimentary champagne," recallsBOB*, who with her curled blond hair, heart-shaped lips, and pink sweater set, looks like a bosom buddy of the late actress. "And I bit my lip and started crying. Because it was in Paris, I was with the guy I was in love with. And I couldn't drink the champagne. When I got home I made a list of why I miss champagne."
She ticks off the reasons on her fingers: "It's celebratory. It's bubbly. It's glamorous. I realized these are things that I am to myself if I don't drink it. Those are things I naturally am." She says trium-phantly, "I am pink champagne."
Research assistance: Ryan McWilliams, Karoline Eriksson, Elizabeth Thompson, Giulietta Verdon-Roe, Laura Buckholz, and Max Berry
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.