THREE YEARS AGO, the fabulous 5000 woke up to invites beckoning them to Palladium pajama parties (bring your own teddy bear), Area science fiction salutes, and Limelight “Downtown Divas” musical revues of cabaret singers and chanteuses singing songs like “Since I Fell for You” and “It’s Only Make Believe.” Today, they’re warmly invited to stripathons, fetish balls, “All-Male Emporiums of Flesh and Fantasy” (with “realistic streetcorner action!”), and Lady Hennessy Brown squirting milk from her capacious ta-tas.
A slight change of mood? Tell me about it. Was it only two years ago that fools in little black dresses started lining up at Nell’s for the privilege of being snubbed by other fools in slightly more expensive little black dresses? Now the air is so charged with sexual shock that Karen Finley’s “Ooh, and I never touch her snatch ’cause she’s my granny” — so embarrassing to some in ’85 — is just a narrative slice-of-life, about as scandalous as a Shari Lewis and Lambchop routine.
All through the clubs, the air is tingling with a raunchiness that’s exciting as a subliminal force, but can turn creepy at the drop of a trou. The yearning masses who can’t have the sex they want because of AIDS come together at night and combust in a mood of horny suggestiveness, releasing all that frustrated energy in the ways that spring to mind through a vodka haze.
The club crowd — a young, creative mix of gays and straights with varying degrees of racial and cultural crossover — is starting to rebel against repression with little explosions of drunken, guilt-free pleasure. Compared to the wildness of past eras — like the revolutionary risk-taking of ’70s hedonism — the current stuff may seem tepid, since it’s usually trapped within late ’80s limitations of health and hygiene. But bubbling out from a fundamentally traumatized club scene that assumed AIDS would end sex forever, it’s a rude reawakening.
AIDS initially made all sex seem lethal, or at best joyless, and among many gays a kind of trench-warfare mentality set in — keep your head down till it’s over. Now that it’s been accepted that AIDS isn’t going to be over any time soon, some sort of sex is inevitably making a comeback. This comeback is fueled by the fact that a lot of straights are — not advisedly — convinced AIDS is staying within certain high-risk groups, so they can have any sex any way. With both safe and unsafe sex on the rise, ’89 promises to be the biggest year for libido in ages.
In this spirit, Rudolf’s new version of Danceteria, probably called Mars, opens this month to cater to unruly energy, and Frank Roccio’s Lift Up Your Skirt and Fly will soon surface as a nouveau pleasure dome. “The AIDS epidemic really damaged people’s perception of not only sexuality, but sensuality,” Roccio, co-owner of the World, told the Times recently, “and this will be a place where we can express that again, where you can come with your girlfriend or date or with whomever you feel safe.” The skirts are already lifted — it’s takeoff time.
Roccio talks as if AIDS were a thing of the past. But what he says reflects people’s sense — accurate or not — that the threat seems measurable now and not total. This point of view can be air-headed and grossly selfish (what, me worry?), but being “sex-positive” — pro-sex, as long as it’s safe — is something few AIDS activists would oppose (though they might argue with Roccio’s failure to put condom dispensers in the World’s bathrooms). As both straights and gays change their sexual attitudes, they’re further blurring the lines of gender and preference: all kinds cheer for male and female strippers with typical pansexuality. September’s ACT UP benefit at the World had porn star Robin Byrd presenting semi-nudes of both sexes even though the audience was predominantly gay. Horniness is a great leveler.
It’s also a big draw. Susanne Bartsch’s Wednesday night club at Bentley’s is a tacky, ’70s disco version of a Berlin cabaret, with acts like Lady Hennessy Brown; a troupe of obese sadomasochists; or Chi Chi, who blows smoke rings out of her vagina, titillating a crowd that’s always wearing either far too much or far too little. Larry Tee’s Celebrity Club, which took place every Wednesday at the Tunnel and will probably resume at Mars, had a wet T-shirt contest that invariably resulted in some kind of lynch mob-style sexual assault, often provoked and enjoyed. Dean Johnson’s Rock’n’Roll Fag Bar at the World on Tuesdays not only has those BVD’d go-go boys strutting, posing, and playfully interacting onstage, there’s a new “Testosteroom” for J/O action if the boys get customers so hot and bothered they need a quick release.
Sometimes these scenes are hot and uninhibited and oh-so-playfully naïve. But there can be darker elements as well — undercurrents of rage and despair. And, whether charming or alarming, what we have here is inchoate rebellion. The return of wildness to the clubs is a reaction against repression.
In America ’88, practically everyone to the left of Donald Trump feels a little helpless, with Bush’s election seeming to ratify the repression and malign neglect of the last eight years. Whether we drown in acid rain or shrivel under the newly cancerous rays shining through that gaping hole in the ozone layer, the boys at the top are too busy playing with $500 million fighter planes to pay much attention to either problem. No one in charge is doing much about AIDS either, though a lot of homophobes are seizing on it as a chance to gay-bash. (Witness the rants of such disparate horse’s asses as radio “personality” Howard Stern, alleged political columnist Patrick Buchanan, and supposed comedian Sam Kinison.)
Faced with the bleakness of the future, Americans seem willing to settle for temporary promises and inevitable long-range dismay. Selling their tomorrows down the river translates into a subterranean anxiety that festers more and more scarily as each nightmare comes true. With everything going to hell, an “I’m gonna get mine while I can” mentality has come out in people — and the Republican regime caters to this by promising to institutionalize selfishness, both domestically and internationally. In the process, they’ve institutionalized something else — hypocrisy. We’ve had eight years of “Just say no” from people who don’t seem to have said no to anything in their lives (the possibility of putting Dan “Buy it for me, Daddy” Quayle in charge of the so-called war on drugs epitomized this).
It’s in the face of such hypocrisy that frustration has evolved into overt anger. A couple of enthusiastic partiers recently paid tribute to El Morocco — which is courting a younger crowd now, but is still a symbol of old society — by swinging from the chandelier and hurling a heavy, standing ashtray down the stairs. They were tossed out the door just as rudely as they’d flung the ashtray, but they’ll make it back — one of them had a burn-victim mask on and was unrecognizable. Of course, a mild trashing of El Morocco has its metaphorical possibilities — a gesture against elitism, a refusal to be wooed by tradition. But occasionally, things get a lot uglier. Unshaped by any coherent purpose (or, sometimes, even the most basic info), rebellion can turn into the thing it’s rebelling against.
THE SCENE NOW is one of club kids who don’t even have a “fuck the rules” mentality — they don’t know any rules to fuck. Bursting with ignorant energy, willing to try anything in the name of a good time, they traipse around in their BVDs (the girls) or bras (the boys), squirting each other with Silly String, pathologically in search of fun. They manage to combine a youthful, energetic wholesomeness with a jaded sense of decadence, as typified by their major domo, 22-year-old Michael Alig. Alig’s birthday party last April at Tunnel featured a Mickey Mouse “moonwalk” — a giant trampoline-like air mattress — on which scores of kids gleefully bounced as if in Disneyland. But one of his other prize events was a Child Pornography Ring party. He’s a walking paradox of glad-handing hostility — giving you a big hello as part of his networking agenda, then pulling you down a stairway into a pool that just happens to be there.
Like him, the club kids are defiant, but mostly against whatever stands in the way of a fun evening or some free publicity. They’re also largely unconcerned with sexual definition. If many of them are gay, that’s partly for lack of the gay-disco scene young people came out into 10 years ago; today they enter the mixed world of clubs, where eccentricity is king, regardless of gender or sexual leanings. Their mentors are pleasure-seeking, middle-aged entrepreneurs juggling 17-year-old glamour-babe girlfriends and, when the kids complain about having to pay $5 to get into an AIDS benefit, ultimately deciding it’s wise to “pamper” (i.e., comp) them, because they’re just so “fabulous,” moral flaws and all.
The kids come from everywhere, from Soviet Georgia to Atlanta, Georgia, many living with their parents — or “backers,” as they like to call them — others living in apartments they pay for themselves by throwing parties for other club kids (owners pay fees of $500 to $1200 a night for this). Asked what they want to be when they grow up, they all answer, “Famous,” and they consider clubs cabaret showcases by which to get there.
For all the charged-up atmosphere, the kids are more likely to be narcissistic voyeurs and exhibitionists than ’60s-style orgiasts. Wearing Plexiglas hats that announce their names in shiny letters, they’ve been described as being too “fabulous” to have sex — even if it weren’t for AIDS, there’s the equally debilitating threat that it might mess their makeup. But voyeurism isn’t messy, and so sex has become a public spectacle, self-consciously devoured by masses who are afraid to join in and not just because of stage fright. A scarce commodity, it’s gone from something people go to clubs to find to something people go to clubs to see. There’s so little sex to go around now, that whenever anyone has the nerve to have it, it makes sense to share it with hundreds.
The club scene is one of girls who — when they’re not wearing retro undies, garter belts, and other archaic sexwear that’s a bondage-freak’s delight — lie topless on tables for photographer Stephan Lupino, who three years ago had to promise his firstborn to get people to strip, but now merely holds up his camera and waits for the C-cups to fly. It’s one of a 40-year-old store clerk succumbing to the club-kid spell, suddenly flouncing around VIP rooms in a Frederick’s of Hollywood G-string with an elephant trunk sprouting from the crotch. It’s one of a boy who recently ran through the World wearing next-to-nothing and screaming, “Look at me.” When a promoter approached him with an offer to get paddled onstage for $50, the kid jumped at the chance — a big break!
Meanwhile, the new sobriety continues to be just a hype, at least in clubland. The drug of choice is Ecstasy (MDMA), a euphoric, mild hallucinogen related to the MDA of the ’60s. “Every single person is doing Ecstasy,” says Alig, only a bit hyperbolically. “The little kids are scraping every penny to find $20 to get it. It’s really aggravating when a club like Bloodbath has to close because all those kids are so cheap, but I see them inside buying eight hits of Ecstasy off whoever.”
The kids don’t do much coke — it’s expensive, and besides, says Alig, “It brings Ecstasy down, so you want to stay away from that evil scourge.” They don’t do crack, either, Alig explains with his typical elegance of thought and expression, “because it’s dirty and gross and only gross Puerto Ricans do it. It’s not fabulous. Ecstasy — even the name sounds fabulous. People don’t go around saying, ‘Eew, you’re an Ecstasy addict.’ ” But they do Essence, a new form of Ecstasy that costs two dollars more and is therefore two dollars more desirable. Someone not on drugs walking into Save the Robots can’t help feeling a bit like the only person not in on the punchline of a gigantic, communal joke.
The clubs wisely not only tolerate this sex-and-substance-charged frenzy, they throw events that cater to it. Two clubs have had Ecstasy parties recently, at one of which the kids lined up and demanded the promised goods, screaming “Ex, ex, ex!” like deranged halftime cheerleaders.
But mostly it’s the libido being catered to with innovative eagerness. Practically every night at the World seems designed to capitalize on unfulfilled sex drives. A dirty dancing contest had a cigarette girl cavorting onstage with three boys between her legs and one shamelessly working the rest of her body. She won. More was being suggested here than actually happened, but occasionally real, caution-to-the-winds sex breaks out in the middle of the scene anyway, because people really are starved for it.
The club’s Lust party — a Sunday night gay fete which was only supposed to feature two paid strippers posing onstage — turned into a wet dream come true as one stripper spontaneously started sucking the other one’s cock during a photo session in the club office. Within milliseconds, there was a drooling audience, not to mention a Playguy magazine photographer already in place with full lighting equipment. This was not going to be just a two-character production, though. A feisty, male Anita Baker lookalike promptly got naked and joined in the festivities whether they wanted him to or not, acting like a suckerfish with anything he could get his mouth on. A hunched-over guy near the heat of the action, meanwhile, was anxiously scrutinizing this scene and panting with voyeuristic delight. “Get in there,” someone said jokingly, and, amazingly, he stripped down without so much as a second’s thought and did just that. From then on, you merely had to say “next” to attract a new customer and “timber” to watch an old one tumble. Overwhelmed and overworked, the Anita Baker guy fell over and passed out, but someone threw a lame blanket over him — he may have been dead for all they knew, but hell, the show must go on.
True, it almost didn’t; it was a panicky moment when all the spontaneous combustion was spent and the sofa/stage emptied out, devoid of a second act. But Barnum — or at least Al Goldstein — would have been proud as the promoter and company coaxed a couple of pretty boy lovers standing around to start in by promising them free drinks and club stardom. Another opening, another show.
And such performers they were! Lover one blew lover two, who hid his face with his hand, before all coyness went out the window and he started doing other things with his hand. When he came — outside his partner’s mouth — it got another hand (the crowd applauded). Anita Baker, somehow, was up and (after having apparently peed all over the lamé) getting a blow job in another corner of the room, but few noticed. All eyes were on another climax — a gay activist who was jerking off as the entire room counted down his blast-off, cheering the big moment as if it were the popping of a champagne cork on the stroke of New Year’s. “That was always my fantasy,” he said, on leaving. “I have no regrets.”
Stuff like this, of course, used to happen nightly in discos and in backrooms — darkened, pre-health-crisis clubs, where gays forged a new sexuality with communal abandon. At the Mine Shaft in the ’70s, dozens gathered around the infamous sling to watch people get fistfucked. In the balcony of the Saint, they push, push, pushed on the beat into everything the disco song instructed them to. But except for a few hidden bastions of anonymous sex, that scene now exists only in transmogrified form in the safe sex clubs, the gay community’s conscious effort to resolve the need for sex with the need to survive. The rules at such places are the same as in the ’70s, except one — keep it safe.
The orgy may have broken the rules — whether oral sex is high- or low-risk is the subject of, well, hot debate. No one came in anyone’s mouth, and the big no-no, unprotected anal sex, didn’t even come close to happening. But someone could probably deliver a sermon on the perils of pre-cum and gingivitis. When the rules break, it’s for any number of reasons: people are uneducated; they don’t buy the rules; they feel invulnerable; they feel doomed; they feel the risk is worth it; or the world is going to end anyway (the place, not the club). Rationality and the pleasure principle have little to do with one another. Pushed down, tucked away, sex is popping back in brightly lit public places where it’s not supposed to be happening, out of the sheer force of inevitability; it’s Freud’s return of the repressed.
The Lust party, thrown by promoter Chip Duckett, was the second of a series of Seven Deadly Sin events (Brecht and Weill, anyone?). The series also included Gluttony, at which madcap partiers nibbled and toyed with hundreds of obscenely sweet Sno-Balls, and Greed, at which a thousand dollars in singles was thrown from the balcony to a frantic crowd of money-worshippers. “You want food, sex, and money?” these parties seem to say. “Well, we’ll give them to you — but you’ve got to crawl for them.” Downtowners will eagerly do this as a spoof on Gekko-era greed — plus they need the money.
The Susanne Bartsch approach is less participatory and more esoteric — her audience doesn’t squirt milk, her star attraction does — but it’s still very much a group experience, a shared exercise in pushing the limits. Instead of the straightforward musical talent of a few years ago, Bartsch is proud to present Lady Hennessy Brown with her legs wrapped behind her ears, stroking her thighs and privates with fiery torches (don’t try this at home, kids), and shooting milk out of her tits at the clubbies, as if they were so many hungry kittens. (“A lot of men are offended when I squirt them in the face,” says Hennessy, “but most people love it.”)
A trained dancer, Brown changed career course several years ago because “the nightclub crowd wasn’t receptive to the modern dancing technique. I had to make the switch to exotic.” The Bentley’s crowd is very receptive to exotic. Bartsch sets the mood with her blinding array of temporary tattoos, her Bo-Peep-gone-berserk plethora of extensions, her maddeningly loud whistle, and her scantily clad young boyfriend Ty Bassett, who’s the ultimate attention-getting accessory. (“When I first met him in Coney Island, I thought, ‘He’s a girl,'” she says, admitting she later changed her mind.)
The 37-year-old Swiss miss made the consoling leap into nightlife when she fell out with the backers of her Soho boutique — a marble marvel in which she showcased the work of Leigh Bowery, Bodymap, and her other favorite up-and-coming British designers. Bartsch went from throwing Tuesdays at Savage — a retro disco, mirrored balls and all — to throwing Wednesdays at Bentley’s — a retro disco with mirrored balls and a Bentley — always making a point of excess and exuberance, the opposite of the pseudo-Victorian constipation that was threatening to stifle New York nightlife. Being cool at Nell’s and M.K. had an all too literal meaning — no sex, please, we’re skittish (even on M.K.’s canopied bed). In Bartsch’s clubs, people are encouraged to scream, dance, rub each other, and make utter idiots of themselves in the pursuit of laughs. (Nell, never one to miss a trend, has lately taken to wearing Bartsch-style bodices and Voguing on tables.)
Regular folk who just happen to have an affinity for form-fitting attire, Bartsch and Bassett, like the club kids, combine wholesome warmth with sleazebag razzledazzle. Their employees and customers suit them well. Sequined and boa’d drag queens, oiled bodybuilders, and other colorful, poised-on-the-brink, painted sideshow escapees are the core crowd (and made for a dazzling, but totally redundant, Bartsch Halloween party at another sprawling disco, Emerald City). A fun-loving bunch of young, often foreign designers, DJs, fashion victims, and lip-sync artists, they attract a large crowd of colorless but open-minded yups and bridge-and-tunnelers who revel in their manic style. Many of the Bentley’s core crowd are filled with anxiety about their place in the body politic, but even more don’t seem aware that there’s anything to be anxious about. The unaware ones just want to party to the max, seeing that it’s the frantic, fashionable thing to do. The others party harder with the sense that in America ’88, they’re being pushed off the map, and every moment brings them closer to the edge. But as with Bartsch, their trashiness is a surface display; instead of doing It, the crowd watches It, cheers It, and wears It, making themselves as sexually extreme-looking as possible, either to-die-for or drop-dead absurd.
“I think I’m wholesome,” says Bartsch. “I just love letting go, it’s an important form of relaxation. I loved at the Copa [where Bartsch throws last-Thursday-of-every-month parties] when Anthony Haden-Guest was go-go dancing forever on the go-go box, and Richard Johnson was dancing all night — he told me he hadn’t danced for 20 years. They let their hair down, and I’m so happy that I’m the place where they can do that.” She’s brought stripping to her clubs, she says, because, “I go to the Gaiety sometimes, and it’s so sleazy — you have to watch some old wanker jerk off, and it’s such a shame. It’s good to take sex out of the sleazy surroundings and put it in a trendy place where it’s also about watching bodies, but not for you to have a wank. Of course watching has become more important because doing has to be much more thought-out now. But that’s not the reason I brought stripping. I did it because some of these strippers are just so genius. I admire their courage to take off their clothes and say, ‘Look at my gorgeous cock, or ass.’ It’s an art form.”
Hennessy herself is, for all her shock value, supremely wholesome, the very image of nourishment. She told me she couldn’t show her mother my column describing her act because the word dick was in another paragraph. The woman — a six-foot-one black Amazon goddess — is an endless fount. “I’ve lactated for 19 years,” she claims. “My well never dries up. It diminishes sometimes — like I’m not going to have a full supply to squirt tonight because I’ve been doing doubles [playing two clubs a night]. But I’ve just continued to flow all these years.” The mini-interview comes to an end when Hennessy asks, “Is there pay in this?” “No,” I say, “but it’s a big story.” “It would be even bigger if there was pay in it,” she seethes.
While Bartsch is play-acting as a dress-up-and-explode club kid, the other sex-cabaret ringmaster, Alig, is the real deal. Bartsch, for all her surface wildness, is a diplomatic businesswoman who frets whenever she thinks she may have accidentally hurt someone’s feelings. But Alig and the kids would be mad if they didn’t offend someone. They bring to the surface everything Bartsch is too good-natured to acknowledge — anxiety, fear, and hostility. Self-conscious, alienated voyeurs, their constant freaking-out state cancels out any possible innocence. Let’s face it: with an unsafe-sex guillotine hanging over your head at all times, truly instinctive or childlike behavior isn’t a possibility, no matter how young you are. Sexual repression has fast-forwarded the club kids into adulthood, and they’ve responded by turning it into a three-ring circus of escapist sexual entertainment.
Alig, who got his club start stripping for dollars and went on to throw Dirty Mouth contests, where the filthiest talkers won cash prizes, looks fondly back on that Child Pornography Ring party at the old Danceteria (he plans to recreate it at the new one, where he’ll be assistant director). “You’ve seen them around, now you can buy them real cheap,” read the invite, which featured Alig tied up with five kids. “Yes, folks, where else but New York City can you place a price-tag on human beings? These fine, healthy, YOUNG souls will be auctioned off to the highest bidder to do with as you please.” At the party, people were able to buy dates with 16-year-olds with play money, the kids getting $50 from Alig to go through with the dates. “There was nothing illegal about it,” he says. “I was paying the kids to go out with somebody else — that’s not prostitution. Of course I got paid by the club for throwing the event.” Alig is a master exploiter, but no more so than Ronald Reagan, whose administration relentlessly whittled away at various forms of aid to dependent children (there haven’t been so many homeless kids since the Depression), while cranking up public hysteria over their sexual exploitation. Alig, in his own jaded way, is trying to make fun of hypocrisy rule while desperately trying just to make fun.
He was also one of the people behind Celebrity Club, which almost always went out of control, to the delight of many. The feeling in the air was always of a bored restlessness that the crowd would take to any extreme for some kicks. One night, Eve Teitelbaum, a poet, asked if she could just step across the stage for a second. They were the sorriest words she’d ever said, as the heat of the moment sparked a pointless cat fight with the emcee, which turned even nastier as Teitelbaum was thrown to her knees and people flung shoes and other sharp things at her while Alig doused her with water. “She deserved it” was the popular consensus as Teitelbaum ran, sobbing, out of the club. “I can’t believe something like this would happen in the civilized world,” she said later, still burned.
The ugliest Celebrity Club came one night during the proverbial wet T-shirt contest — the peak of the evening, during which practically everyone seems willing to show his or her privates at the drop of a fly, and all the energy combust into a big boom. This time, a girl went from being pleasantly exhibitionistic to almost mass-violated. On the sweltering stage, in the glare of disco lights and hundreds of eyes, she started dancing and shimmying to the repetitive throb of house music, encouraged by the salivating crowd. “She was some dumb Jersey girl,” says Alig, “in tapered jeans with feathered, gross, brown hair. She got up onstage and people got carried away — she got carried away, literally. A lot of guys were grabbing at her until it wasn’t fun for her anymore. She started to say, ‘No, no, no’ over and over again. Of course that’s when everybody got interested and joined in. A few guys tried to fuck her in front of everybody. That’s when her boyfriend grabbed her and took her up the stairs naked.” This scene — like something out of The Accused — happened without any supervisor to put up even a feeble “No.” What about Alig? “I watched in horror,” he says. “I ran to get the security guards.” He’s joking. “Actually, I probably helped — not rape her, but push people away so they could get to her.”
On another night, Alig presented a T-shirt winner with a bottle of champagne — actually someone’s piss (he says it came from the drag duo Fashion Patrol; they say it was his) mixed with soda water for fizz. On yet another dazzling evening, one of the Fashion Patrol laid out a cat food buffet spread that everyone there assumed was paté, because, “There are a lot of illiterate people who will take for granted that they know what they’re eating.” This is the same pair that sang “Teenage Enema Nurse” and enacted the birthing process for their pre-Labor Day party. They’re also known for regularly mock-penetrating themselves with blunt objects, and recently caused quite a scene when they stole a bassinet with a typewriter in it from a street vendor, who ran after them with a chain screaming, “I’m going to get you fuckers.” In an upcoming movie called Strung City, one of them — Brandywine — gets chased by an old man wielding a huge wax dildo. “You have to create your own excitement,” explains Brenda A-Go-Go, the other one. “Club-goers are coming there for a show anyway. I wouldn’t want to go somewhere and not see some sort of decadence — it helps the night go by.”
AMAZINGLY, and not a moment too soon, the clubbies are developing some sense of outrage, if not exactly what you could call a social conscience. What it is, in a historical sense, is nihilism. An editorial in the new issue of Project X, a club handout, reflects a kind of hyperreal paranoia that’s both mocking and grimly sincere. Politically, if not grammatically, correct, it laments that “Everything will move backwards very fast from now on, and you, wether you think it’s cool or not, you are going to be envolved.” The editorial notes that in the future, “Secret policemen, Undercover Agents, CIA minions and Neo-Guardian Angels may forcefully O-D undesirable people to increase drug-hysteria in the american press.”
Another editorial, by Alig, urges the kids to fight for their right to party and be different. To him, the fight is another act of spitting in the face of authority, done because it’ll help keep the party going. Alig was in the mass of people trying to break down the Christodora Building entrance during the Tompkins Square Park fracas last summer. But though he admits “it was a fun scene,” that’s not the only reason he got involved. “I’m all for the freaks,” he explains. “I didn’t like the idea that the rich people were moving in and making the freaks leave. Those are the people who go to my clubs.”
Alig smirks that he wants to throw events at the new Danceteria where he’ll show partiers films of the police harassing gays and other minorities, “and then set them free in the streets to do violence.” Though he once threw a party to which only HIV-negative people were invited (just his little joke, ha-ha), Alig has recently made noises in the direction of gay activism. It seems he was verbally abused by homophobic cops at a Tunnel raid, an event that startled him into an apotheosis he related to two daily papers.
“People are so blasé and lazy,” he whines. “They don’t want to go out and pillage and burn police cars anymore.” Nostalgia for a more political time — or just for bigger and better thrills? Can the club kids tell the difference? Only knowing the new craziness, they imagine that it was even wilder in the past. “That went on at Studio 54, didn’t it?” says Alig, meaning constant stripping and groping. No, dear, it didn’t. The ’70s sensuality was much more affluent and approved, more of an anything-goes-because-it-can than because-it-can’t. People didn’t wear underwear at all then; it just got in the way of the fun. Parts of the decor dropped hydraulically around them; they didn’t have to throw them down stairs. The only milk squirted was into a glass of Kahlua. The champagne was actually champagne.
In the last years of the Weimar Republic, as the Nazis rose to power and a sense of panic and doom spread through the ranks of the socially marginal, a frenzied, anxious hedonism took over as well. Today, society has its disposables, too, the multiracial, multisexual nonrich, who have no choice but to alternately fight for their lives and to go wild, to party out of control in a pressure cooker of fear and hostility. This mood is being nicely helped along by hate-mongers like Kinison, who’s not all that different from Joel Grey dancing with the girl in the gorilla suit (yes, I studied at the Liza Minnelli school of German history).
The late-Weimar comparison may be stretching it — among other things, our economic mess is quite different from theirs — but closet alarmists like me are finding it hard to resist some parallels: a deceptive prosperity based on foreign funds; the rise of repression and censorship; the proliferation of teen suicides; the ostentatious flaunting of wealth by a handful of people as large numbers spiral toward poverty; the persecution of certain minorities, who take the blame for all sorts of social woes. According to Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture: The Outsider As Insider, the republic was also characterized by
excitement, in part from exuberant creativity and experimentation, but much of it was anxiety, fear, a rising sense of doom … It was a precarious glory, a dance on the edge of a volcano. Weimar culture was the creation of outsiders, propelled by history into the inside for a short, dizzying, fragile moment. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 28, 2020