I’d tell you about my many memorable nights at Siberia, the venerable Hell’s Kitchen hangout, but I can’t remember most of them. The infamous den of iniquity, which after many false starts really, actually, finally closed last Monday night (the landlord wants to pursue other businesses), was like a black hole where you went to lose consciousness; it wasn’t a successful night unless you left in the morning.
I once DJ’d a Halloween party there dressed as early-’80s Madonna. (Fittingly, my friend wore a trash bag.) I took French director Gaspar Noé, whose movie Irreversible features one of the most vicious rape scenes on film in recent memory, to Siberia to suss out sleazy bars for a future movie, though we wound up next door, dancing to Donna Summer at Dorothy’s, a briefly successful gay bar that, like Siberia, was owned by the grizzly bear Tracy Westmoreland. A night with Jackass luminary Steve-O inevitably started at Siberia before moving on to Bellevue, another nearby joint also run by Westmoreland. I even met Chris Wilson, formerly of Page Six, at Siberia once, or maybe three times, all sometime between the hours of 4 and 7 a.m. Like how I imagine the real Siberia, the club was usually dark, and time didn’t exist.
I spent the second half of my 30th birthday there, sitting on Siberia’s tattered couches of questionable hygiene in a long black gown, with a fake diamond crown on my head, staring at the birthday cake on my platform shoes. I am sure my lipstick was smeared. Nights—or rather, mornings —often ended the way it did once for a friend: Penniless at the crack of dawn, she was forced to abandon a cab midcourse to ditch the fare, and wound up jumping on a subway going in the wrong direction and eventually doing the walk of shame in the blazing July sun, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge at high noon.
On the best nights, though, Siberia was like a David Lynch movie come to life. Oddball characters doing shady jobs, or important jobs, or a bit of both, populated the place. Winona Ryder once tended bar back when Siberia was located in the subway station on 50th Street. Quentin Tarantino once checked out the joint. And there are many stories involving
Anthony Bourdain and Jimmy Fallon. (Indeed, the Siberia jukebox is probably the only one in town that includes Fallon’s CD.) Some stories involve make-out contests that may or may not have happened between people who should never make out with each other, ever. And then there was the inexplicable Saturday night gay party, which would cause the alcoholic regulars to stumble out confused by the sight of all the cocks and queens.
Other nights, Siberia was just dead, and a little sad. The jukebox played an endless loop of classic rock—the Police’s “Roxanne” and Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” serenaded us on the club’s last night. Sometimes the disrepair went far beyond “dive-bar quaint” and lapsed into “depressing.” Leaky ceilings begat more puddles, adding to the mystery fluids already flooding the floor. Sometimes the smell was so bad, you didn’t even need to get wasted to want to throw up.
All the same, we saluted the end Monday night. Westmoreland was supposed to close up shop at midnight, but at 10 minutes past, he was still there—in breach of contract, he reminded everyone, including his lawyer, who was present. Half the room seemed to be press—photographers, videographers, and writers—sending off the debauched bar. Such well-wishers as Chris Wilson, now a writer for Maxim, joined in the apparent tradition of hurling bottles at the wall. “In the old place, we used to call this ‘Night of a Thousand Broken Glasses,’ ” Wilson said. It was a tradition that once sent New York Observer reporter George Gurley
to the emergency room for stitches, and would cause bar manager Kieran to threaten to quit, because he’d be the one stuck with cleaning up the mess.
Ben McGrath, a reporter for The New Yorker, stood in the corner with a lanky girl and watched the degenerate scene. Jack Bryan, Gurley’s half brother, filmed everything with a small handheld video camera (he’s working on a documentary). Earlier, at dusk, they had wheeled out the bar’s infamous centerpiece, a Victory motorcycle given to Westmoreland by Siberia regular “Jack the Cop.” The owner didn’t want to leave. At least he’ll have the memories. Or maybe not. “They say if you were at Studio 54 and you remember it, you were never really there,” Westmoreland said. “I know I was there at the closing, but I can’t remember a fucking thing.”
I had gotten the call about Siberia’s closure while at Stereo during the after-party for the screening of The Hip Hop Project, a surprisingly moving documentary directed by Matt Ruskin about the hip-hop-focused youth outreach program, started by Chris “Kazi” Rolle of Art Start, which brings together troubled high school kids with a passion for music. The project’s goal—to record a full-length record, to be titled The Hip Hop Project Vol. 1: Are You Feeling Me, showcasing the kids’ talent—is just icing on the cake after succeeding in turning their lives around. The movie follows the journey of Kazi and his pupils, including Princess and Cannon, as over time they each overcome their own personal issues: Princess finds out she’s pregnant, Cannon’s mother dies of multiple sclerosis while he struggles to graduate from high school, and Kazi, a foster kid, confronts his birth mother in a tense meeting. As they progress, so does their rapping, eventually inspiring truer messages than a clichéd bitches-and-‘hos narrative.
Indeed, at the screening, Imus was on everyone’s mind. In the crowd was Reverend Al Sharpton, as well as a rather incongruous group that included Q-Tip, Doug E. Fresh, Ice-T, Busta Rhymes, and, um, Bruce Willis, who along with Queen Latifah executive-produced the film. (Is it wrong that I found Bruce Willis hot? Yes? OK.) After the flick, Kazi took questions, or rather found himself on the receiving end of many impassioned thank-yous from the audience. When the superstar rappers took over the mic, the split between mainstream and underground ideology became clear. “You took what was imparted to me by rappers like
Kool Moe Dee and passed it on—that’s all life is about,” Fresh said, noting that money isn’t everything. But next to him sat Busta Rhymes, his wrists and hands glistening with ice so flashy it could be seen from 50 rows away. “I ain’t gonna front—I wasn’t excited about it initially,” he said of the program. “But I can’t explain how apologetic I am. This couldn’t have come at a better time.” (Unfortunately, a few days later Busta got popped for DUI.)
Later, Ice-T, who noted the irony that he was a former “Cop Killer” who now plays a cop on Law and Order: SVU, explained his gangsta rap origins thusly: “Unconventional enemies require unconventional tactics.” An aside: I once saw Mr. Cop Killer at a bright fuchsia Dashing Diva nail salon, holding his hot blonde wife Coco‘s purse while she got her nails done. He passed the time by watching a Michelle Branch video. Ah, the perils of keeping it real.