This is the first installment in HuffPost Gay Voices Associate Editor JamesMichael Nichols' 30-part series "After Dark: NYC Nightlife Today And Days Past" that examines the state of New York nightlife in the modern day, as well as the development and production of nightlife over the past several decades. Each featured individual in this series currently serves as a prominent person in the New York nightlife community or has made important contributions in the past that have sustained long-lasting impacts.
HuffPost Gay Voices believes that it is important and valuable to elevate the work, both today and in the past, of those engaged in the New York nightlife community, especially in an age where queer history seems to be increasingly forgotten. Nightlife not only creates spaces for queers and other marginalized groups to be artistically and authentically celebrated, but the work of those involved in nightlife creates and shapes the future of our culture as a whole. Visit Gay Voices regularly to learn not only about individuals currently making an impact in nightlife, but those whose legacy has previously contributed to the ways we understand queerness, art, identity and human experience today.
The Huffington Post: For those who may not know, how did you make your entry into the nightlife scene in New York, a move which led to the formation of the iconic Club Kids as a community?
Michael Alig: I moved to New York in 1984 to go to college at Fordham University. One of my roommates was very good friends with the artist Keith Haring and he started taking me out to clubs. The first club I went to was Area. I’d just come from Indiana and it was like this magical world, the air just felt electric. It was like all of the people in the world -- or New York City (that means the world) -- were doing something. Writers, movie producers, photographers, models, designers -- they were all in this club and I could just feel that everything in the world really was coming out of this place. And I had to be a part of it.
Within months I dropped out of college because I felt like I had to be a part of this world. I felt so accepted. It was really the first time I felt like I could be myself and be kind of celebrated for my kookiness.
So I moved across the street to a regular apartment and quit college. I knew I needed to get a job so I got a job as a busboy as Danceteria. I started talking to the director of the club, Rudolf, and basically camping out in front of his office every night after work, begging him to let me be a promoter. Those were the people that I saw that were making money and being popular. They really had all of the power in club land and were making $500-$1000 dollars a night which, to me, was almost an unbelievable fortune for anybody to make in one day. He just kept saying “no,” so I befriended some of the promoters like Andy Anderson and The Fabulous Poptarts, who are now Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey at World of Wonder. I just became friends with them and through sheer persistence convinced Rudolph to let me have a party. He told me later that he let me do it because of the showbiz rule that if somebody is consistently persistent than you give them a chance because it means they’re going to try really hard.
Was there a moment when you realized that what you were creating was bigger than yourself?
Yeah, but it wasn’t until after I came to prison. It was when the movie came out, because even when they were making the movie it didn’t seem real to me. People were always telling me they were going to make a movie or write a book and it never happened -– even when Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey said they were going to make it I kind of never thought it would happen. But then when it came out that’s when I realized –- when I saw somebody else playing me I realized I had lost control of my own story and that’s the definition of bigger than me. I had no control over it anymore.
Was there anything not represented in “Party Monster” that you wish had been part of the film?
I wish it would have portrayed more of the positivity –- kids coming from Kentucky and having the forum to be themselves –- how really life-changing that was and is for people. I’m still getting 100 emails every couple of days from kids in Louisiana or whatever who are 17 and they’re being picked on at school or their parents want to kick them out because they’re gay. They see “Party Monster” and then they start googling Club Kids and they realize there’s a group of people where you can feel comfortable being yourself and you can be celebrated for you kookiness. A lot of people think it’s superficial but it’s life-changing for these people -– I wish the movie had focused a little bit more on that. Of course you need the downside, but in order for the downside to mean something I think you need the upside.
Right. That’s one of the reasons I value nightlife so much is because I feel like it provides spaces for queer and marginalized people to live authentically while commenting on and creating culture -- all within a community that actually values and celebrates their identity and talent.
Yes. It’s an uninhibited forum where you really can do anything you want and not be judged for it. It’s important for a lot of reasons, including for society and culture in general because nightclubs are kind of like a testing ground for things like new clothing designs -- designers will bring out models in a bunch of their clothes and get feedback or get ides for their next line. Or musicians will come to listen to the latest music and build on that and make it something else. Nightclubs and nightlife in general help push culture forward. Without nightclubs we wouldn’t have jazz, we wouldn’t have disco, we wouldn’t the new techno stuff, trance, EDM. None of that would have happened without nightclubs. Even artists -- Keith Harring was a nightclub artist. Andy Warhol was kind of a nightclub artist.
Do you have any perception about what nightlife is like now or how it’s changed since you went to prison?
Only from what other people tell me, which is sort of nothing. It’s kind of depressing because it seems like –- and this is a weird thing because it’s going to contradict what I just said. But it seems like nightlife hasn’t really evolved in the past 15 years. I have a whole theory about that. My theory is that we are witnessing the end of our Western cultural dominance in the world and that we’ve gone as far as we can with our Western lifestyle as far as decadence, fashion, style, stuff like that. We’ve done every kind of fashion imaginable from miniskirts to maxi skirts, from peg leg pants to bell-bottoms, from black lipstick to glossy lipstick --everywhere in-between. The only things we can do right now are kind of different variations of the same model and we’ve even done that already. We’ve done retro like three times by now! So there’s really nowhere else to go except “Mad Max” territory, which is kind of the end. And so I think what is going to happen now is how you’ve seen all of these trendsetting people going in the direction of Eastern culture, like Zen and meditation -– things like that, which is the exact opposite extreme. What will probably happen is emerging in the middle, which is probably best for everybody.
Is that a theory you’ve been formulating for awhile?
I have been. I’ve noticed that we’ve stagnated in every area from fashion to music. When I moved to New York in 1984, if I would have looked at a photograph of New York City in 1964 the people would have looked so completely foreign that I couldn’t even imagine hanging out with them. It’s the same thing in 1994 looking at a picture of 1974. Even 2004 looking at 1984. But now, in 2014, if you look at photos of 1994 they’re maybe not exactly the same but those people would certainly fit in now. And it’s the same with the music. The music from 1964 to 1984 is like night and day –- 1974 to 1994 night and day. 1984 to 2004 night and day. But 1994 to 2014, it’s still trance, electronic, hip-hop and EDM. We haven’t moved anywhere.
Do you feel like the culture is creatively exhausted or do you feel like we’ve reached a point of everything cycling back through itself?
Well, it cycles but it didn’t used to cycle and that’s the whole thing. In the 1960s when women wore miniskirts, that was the first time they did that and it was very shocking and exciting time, the sexual revolution. And then in the 1970s, the disco and the nightlife thing had never really happened before like that. It was this very decadent, cocaine-fueled time. Then in the 1980s you had new wave, men in make-up. That had never happened. But now after the 1990s, it’s sort of like we can do it all over again but, yes, I feel like it’s exhausted.
Well that kind of goes along with something you said on HuffPost Live while talking about how gay identity is almost normalized in the modern day and boring. Do you feel like that parallels what you’re talking about with this theory about nightlife?
I do. By the very definition, to be cool is to be separate from everybody else. So if everybody’s cool -- and right now everybody is cool -- when I walk around the streets of New York City it’s like out of a fashion magazine. I think it comes from all of these style shows and fashion police and Joan Rivers and the red carpet things that weren’t around 20 years ago. Everybody is much more style-conscious. And once everybody becomes style-conscious, by definition, the cool people will no longer be cool. I think that because of the Internet and all of these other things, the whole idea of cool and underground has been flipped on its head and I don’t think it even exists anymore. A subculture needs time to germinate and build in the petri dish of nightlife. At this point that can never happen because the second something starts to happen it is online and assimilated instantly into, I don’t know, Illinois or someplace. So there is no way for anything to be secret or underground anymore.
Yeah, it almost feels like the ability to instantly document and access information has destroyed the capacity to be subversive in a lot of ways.
That’s really interesting because the whole point of the Club Kids was, I thought, to subvert the establishment. But it’s actually impossible to subvert the establishment because once you reach a certain point you become the establishment. Then, by definition, you haven’t subverted it –- it’s just assimilated you. It’s impossible to subvert the establishment.
Did you realize that was what was happening during the actual Club Kids era?
I realized it was happening in 1995/1996 and that’s when I became really depressed and fell into my downward spiral of drug use.
Was there a moment of realization that subverting the establishment wasn’t actually a viable reality?
Yes. In 1995 things had become so utterly decadent -– it really was “Mad Max” almost. Walking through a luxurious nightclub like Tunnel that was decked out to the nines and everybody beautiful, young and high on drugs at 8:00 a.m. –- literally stepping over people laying on the floor and ignoring them like it’s the most normal thing. I can’t think of many things that are more decadent than that. But I really did think, “It really can’t go any further than this. Further would be death.” And it really was for a lot of people.
I have an excerpt from an open letter Michael Musto wrote for you on the day of your release: “You not only killed Angel, you basically murdered nightlife because, as Mayor Giuliani kept looking for ways to crack down on clubs so they became safe for tourists and community boards, you gave him every reason to put further restraints and make going out an exercise in constantly looking back to see who’s watching your every move. In fact, you made it very uncool to go out at all, especially dressed with any flamboyance, because the association was with a hateful, grisly act of violence that was substance-fueled and totally demented.” How do you respond to this? Do you feel any kind of responsibility or feel that it’s fair to have the blame put on you in this way?
Of course, how could I not agree with some of it? Do I agree that I was the sole cause of this? No. I think more that I’m the poster boy for it because I happened to be the symptom for what was happening at the time that everybody is paying attention to. I certainly was not the only one going off the rails on drugs and overdosing every night. It was basically everybody in our scene and I’m just the one to have taken it this far and carried out this crime. I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but what happened to me, Freeze, Angel and Daniel could have happened to any four people who were up for four days on crystal meth, heroin, special k and Rohypnol with all of the different dynamics going on -– it really could have been anybody. And, in fact, it had happened before with Lord Michael, that other kid who died in his house. This guy Philly Dave who was at an after party with Bella Bolski and Freeze, he overdosed and died. So it did happen before, I was just the most high-profile person I think. So yes, I can handle some of the responsibility, sure, but this was all coming around before this crime. The Giuliani thing started in 1993 or 1994 and it came with the onslaught of these new drugs like special k, crystal meth and Rohypnol that were making people overdose.
I don’t want this to be portrayed as me saying “poor me, woe is me,” because I’m not. I deserve to be the poster child for it. I was a very prominent person in the club scene and I did the most horrendous thing in the world. So I can understand why it is the way it is, but I’m not the only one and I certainly wasn’t the first or the cause of it.
Do you feel like you would ever re-enter nightlife in any capacity?
Not anytime soon. And probably not in New York City. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be events. I met with this gallery yesterday to decide where I’m going to have my first art show and for events like that there will, of course, be things like an opening celebration. And I’m guest editing this British magazine called "Baron Mag" that’s coming out in July. There will be an event for that too, Susanne Bartsch is hosting that. So there will be one-off events but I’m not going to be directing any clubs or anything like that, no.
I don’t really have to be throwing a party in a nightclub to be doing what I was doing before. Basically everything I’ve ever done is doing what I was doing then. Even my magazine "Project X" or running a nightclub or helping people produce records or anything – the running theme in all of my projects has been the celebration of the freakiness in yourself. Don’t be ashamed of who you are and love yourself kind of thing. That’s kind of what I’d like the rest of my life to be -- to utilize that idea in everything that I do.
Check out the slideshow below to view the other installments in this series.