When voguing legend Willi Ninja and house music DJ-producer Adam Goldstone, both longtime fixtures in the downtown club scene, died two weeks ago, they left two very unique but loosely connected legacies.
Ninja—made famous in Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston‘s monumental 1990 documentary about gay drag balls—died Saturday, September 2, three years after an HIV diagnosis; in the end, the famous dancer had lost his sight and become paralyzed. But that didn’t stop him from being fabulous. “He was weak, but let me tell you, he was running the show,” says Livingston, recalling how his acolytes did his hair in the hospital room.
Ninja himself had worked hard to take care of his mother, Esther Leake, 70, a wheelchair-bound woman suffering from Parkinson’s. (Benefits to help support her now are currently in the works.) One of Ninja’s best friends, fellow dancer Archie Burnett, says that Ninja was always grateful that his mother took him to the ballet and the Apollo, which inspired him to become a dancer; taking care of her pushed him to work even harder. “In New York City, it’s very about ‘What have you done lately?’ ” Burnett says. “In Europe, it’s ‘What have you done?’ That’s good enough.”
Like most independent artists, Ninja did not have health care. “You can make a film about people that reveals their uniqueness and splendor—that’s a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t change the underlying inequalities,” Livingston says.
Goldstone’s death Tuesday, August 29, was unexpected and shocking. The 37-year-old had traveled to Burning Man with local DJs Small Change and DJ Shakey (Jim Dier and Julie Covello, respectively); shortly after the trio split up upon arriving, he collapsed in the shower and died of heart failure soon thereafter. Goldstone had a congenital heart defect, which required two operations as an infant.
As a producer, Goldstone was best known for the song “The Sky Is Not Crying,” released under the moniker Tiny Trendies. Goldstone’s recordings on esteemed house label Nuphonic gave him buzz and gigs, as did his quintessential studio record, Lower East Side Stories, which M3 festival co-founder David Prince called “a real classic from a classic New York guy.”
Goldstone had moved to New York from San Francisco to study film at NYU in the late ’80s but dropped out, perhaps sidetracked by his new obsession, dance music. He worked as clubs editor at Time Out before handing it off to best friend Bruce Tantum. When not playing overseas, he’d play local haunts such as the infamous after-hours club Save the Robots, the Sapphire Lounge, and Love, where he had a party with Tantum called Whoville.
He was a musical purist regarding New York nightlife. “He envisioned it being like the mid ’80s, from Paradise Garage up through Jackie 60, the last party he really loved in New York,” Tantum says. “Like the rest of us, he despised the whole bottle service thing. His whole goal was to try and bring that feeling back. It was frustrating to him to no end that he couldn’t do so.”
Steven Lewis, the former club director for notorious nightspots like Life, fired and rehired Goldstone many times. “Adam Goldstone was often difficult,” he recalls. “As a DJ he played B sides before all the rest, and he was often satisfied when he cleared a room. He’d tell me, ‘I didn’t want those people to be comfortable anyway.’ He’d point to the 10 or 15 remaining trendies and explain that they were far more important to please. I’d agree. Then he’d clear them out too. Still, I’d bring him back because he was way ahead of the curve. I’m real sad now because there’s one less artist trying to be an atlas.”
Younger brother Stefan Goldstone (a/k/a DJ Sake 1) says that Adam enormously influenced his musical education, showing him that house and hip-hop shared roots. He regrets that in the last few years they weren’t as close, a standoff born of a long-ago rift both were too stubborn to repair. “It was weird, walking in his shadow as a little brother,” Stefan says. “Now, I’m having a broader view. I’m really lucky to walk in his shadow, because his shadow was such an amazing one.”
Goldstone was also known for his impeccable fashion sense and razor-sharp wit. With reddish-brown hair, the lanky DJ was often seen strolling around his East Village neighborhood wearing clothes by designer Paul Smith, with an ever present ascot tied around his neck. His jaunty style became such a trademark DJ Larry Tee wore an ascot all weekend in honor of Adam; Tantum says that at Burning Man, they threw an Adam Goldstone tribute party, where “everybody fashioned pieces of cloth into ascots.”
This strictness didn’t end with his taste in clothing or music. “You could say he was a man of standards,” Covello says. “He had arranged to pick up a bike from an independent repair person rather than a chain store. He strongly urged us not to shop at the Wal-Mart, ate a vegetarian lunch, had meticulously prepared a large CD book for his gigs at the festival, debated at length about which single-malt scotch to buy for the week, and all the while profiled in his custom-tailored safari outfit.”
Indeed Tantum and Goldstone’s father both relay what were supposedly his last words. When he fell for the second time shortly after arriving at Burning Man, his friends slipped him into a pair of pants before rushing him to get medical attention. Goldstone took one look at their choice and said, “Oh, those won’t do.”
Longtime club maven Chi Chi Valenti remembered both fondly: “The weirdest thing is that these two people will forever be eulogized together, ” she says. “The last time I saw [Willi] was at Motherfucker. I’m very glad that the last thing I saw him do was just dazzle an audience one last time. I still saw him as he wanted to be seen.” She adds, “I danced my last dance with Adam, to (Donna Summer‘s) ‘Last Dance,’ at the last night of Jackie 60.”
Ironically, just a few weeks before Goldstone left for Burning Man, he’d gone to visit Ninja in the nursing home. “Lo and behold, they were carrying on and cracking jokes,” Archie Burnett says. Ninja’s easygoing, accepting demeanor helped him become a success. It’s one of the reasons Livingston felt so comfortable when filming Paris Is Burning. Burnett told stories of Willi performing impromptu on the streets of Paris or Amsterdam, sashaying down the street like it was a catwalkwith model Beverly Peel or climbing a rope that hung from the ceiling of a club and voguing from the rafters. “I thought, ‘Boy is crazy, and on beat!’ ” Burnett laughs.
Until his death, Ninja outlived many of his co-stars in Paris Is Burning, including Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, Angie Extravaganza, and Avis Pendavis. At the end of the movie, the late Corey says, “You’ve left a mark on the world if you just get through it and a few people remember your name. You don’t have to bend the whole world.” But Adam Goldstone and Willi Ninja both did just that. R.I.P.
A Willi Ninja memorial/benefit is slated for November. Thursday, friends of Adam Goldstone can go to Sin Sin, 85 Second Avenue, from 6 to 11 p.m.; a memorial party at Cielo will be held November 14.