Nightlife Survivors Reveal Why NYC Used To Be So Much Better!
Keith Haring jacket,1989. Paper archives.
I will only interrupt my own tired rants about how much wilder and more fun New York City used to be in order to hear other people indulge in the same sort of ritualized kvetching. I feel it's imperative to support their grievances in order to keep the old-fogey genre alive. And they really outdid themselves last week at a presentation called New York Stories/'80s-'90s Edition. The invite itself was kvetchily irresistible: "Remember when New York City was a wonderland of fabulous freaks and misfit toys? When there were hookers instead of the Highline and you couldn't swing a Fiorucci jumpsuit without hitting a hopped up hustler? It's still our fabulous home, but behind all the TD banks and Bugaboo baby strollers are legendary tales. Everyone has a great New York Story. Come hear some of the best."
The resulting event -- part of a series of retro bitchathons -- brought a packed house of survivors to Stonewall Inn, a place that could really tell some stories. It proved to be wonderfully bitter, varied, and rich, with lots of love for the pre-Chipotle days, though some speakers boldly suggested that the dangerous element back then made NYC less than consistently stellar. (There's mud in your rose-tinted glasses!)
The host was wiry blonde comic Nora Burns, who remembered dancing at the legendary disco Studio 54, only to have musical oddity Tiny Tim pick her out of the crowd and decide that she should dance for him on his new tour. "That tour," she remembered, "involved us going to three discos in strip malls in Long Island, where Tiny Tim sang and I danced behind him. Behind the scenes, he brought cans of beans with him wherever he went." Still, the chance for a Lana-Turner-style opportunity, however small scale, seemed way more possible in old New York than today. "Beans!" to those who disagree.
Agelessly good looking writer Tom Eubanks talked about some other long-forgotten availabilities back in the day. In fact, when Tom was rushed to St. Vincent's Hospital after getting hurt at an '80s outlaw party, no one blinked over the fact that he had no insurance. "And I never got a bill!" he added, incredulously.
But some casualties were penalized in other ways, apparently. Wearing stylish shades, DJ Anita Sarko remembered a night at the Mudd Club -- the divey haven for rock hauteur in the then-wasteland of Tribeca -- when the overly festive Chrissie Hynde had to be held up by fellow rockers Johnny Thunders and Cheetah Chrome. Chrissie's publicist kept shrieking, "Don't judge her! This isn't what she's like!" whereas Sarko remembers onlookers saying, "We don't give a fuck about Chrissie. We're just in awe that Johnny Thunders and Cheetah Chrome are in an upright position." Coat checker Keith Haring (at the time an up-and-coming artist) later told Sarko that, faced with a stairway, Johnny and Cheetah simply let go of Chrissie and she went tumbling down, which led to a blood curdling yell heard for miles around. Ah, the good old days.
RuPaul, 1989. From Paper's 20 Years of Style.
In that golden age, rock stars were allowed and even encouraged to be messy, as Lucy Sexton reminded us. Sporting her famous British bob, Sexton remembered cofounding Dancenoise with Anne Iobst in 1983, "though we couldn't decide if we were a punk band or a dance troupe. At one point in our first show, Annie took her scissors and started cutting the strings of my guitar. I kept playing. When Annie cut the last string, the show was over."
But not her career. Sexton worked at the edgy Meat Packing restaurant Florent, where one night, a punk sleeping on his plate woke up and vomited his scrambled eggs all over the table. (She remembers a brilliant waiter magically scooping the puke up in seconds and making it disappear. Alas, she poignantly added, so did the waiter -- "from the plague" -- like so many others back then.) An even more amazing feat, said Sexton, happened at the Wigstock outdoor drag festival, when British performance artist Leigh Bowery "gave birth" to a naked woman covered in blood, then proceeded to imbibe her urine. Today, he'd probably just have to do a Katy Perry production number.
Drag star Linda Simpson, looking as stately as a brunette Vanna White, recalled the early '90s Wigstock where a freshly famous RuPaul told the crowd that she used to be homeless in the park, "but now I own a condo overlookin' the fucker!"
SoHo, 1984. Paper archives.
Grey-haired stage director David Schweizer talked about the endless sex that was available in the '70s, whereas curly-topped camp performer Brenda Bergman discussed the fascinating romantic rituals she had with her boyfriend. "We used to take syringes and squirt hydrogen peroxide at our genitals as a pre-prophylactic measure," said Brenda, still awestruck by her ingenuity.
But she wanted to clear up some other old rumors. "Someone said they saw me in a Chanel suit, being serviced by some female," Brenda exclaimed. "I never had a Chanel suit!"
As mature folk kept stepping to the stage, harsh truths unfurled about how back in the day, tattoo parlors were illegal, an East Village murderer boiled his dead girlfriend and served her parts to the homeless, and when you started getting near your low-income apartment, that's when you really needed to start worrying. But the event was basically misty eyed, funny, and very fond -- so much so that I'm already looking back to it and realizing things were so much better a few nights ago!
A portrait of the artist as a young club kid, c. 1984. Paper archives.