The ecstasy and the agony
Paul du Quenoy reviews The Club King, Peter Gatien’s memoir of New York nightlife
“If you were there, too, you know the truth. Those were the days when the party never ended, and it was goddamn fabulous.” So ends Peter Gatien’s recounting of his prime years in the 1990s, as chronicled in his fluent recent memoir The Club King: My Rise, Reign, and Fall in New York Nightlife. I was there, and it is the truth. It was goddamn fabulous. That era unfolded in all its surreal glamour long before anyone cared about partying in places that were “safe” and “inclusive.” No IDs were scanned, no bags searched. Nobody had to wear a wristband to prove they were of the legal age to imbibe spirits. Hardly anyone had mobile phones, and none of the primitive models then available had cameras or could connect to the internet, itself still in relative infancy. Sharing photos or videos in real time was neither possible nor desired. Social media did not exist in any form. It was possible, even second nature, to be elusive and incognito.
The uncomprehending older generation could not have been “helicopter parents” if they had managed to get their anxious Boomer hands on the entire fleet of the U.S. Army’s Air Cavalry Brigade. They wouldn’t have known where their children were because just the mere suggestion of living with your parents in adulthood was a searing humiliation one would do almost anything to avoid. No one knew what you had done the night before, or who you had done it with. You could literally dance like nobody was watching for the good reason that nobody was. Without supervision, there was no judgment. Without judgment, there was no shame. Hard though it may now be to believe, people were still innocent until proved guilty. Gossip was for your boring aunt Karen and her squad of depressing single friends. Those who lived through it were certainly the last generation of human youth to be truly free, and probably also the last generation of human youth to understand what true freedom even was.
More than anyone, this last gasp of unbridled nightlife was the gift of Joseph Jean Pierre Gatien, a French-Canadian who left behind unpromising Québecois provincial life to embrace American entrepreneurship to its fullest, in the process Anglicizing his given name to “Peter” and more comprehensibly pronouncing his surname to rhyme with “station.” He was endowed with the natural businessman’s restlessness, and, he admits, a fair amount of luck, which propelled him from a small retail business selling blue jeans to ownership, at age twenty-one, of a derelict local club. The first act he booked turned out to be Rush. A random glance through the old “Business Opportunities” section of the New York Times clued him into a disused venue near Miami, whose owners were so distressed that Gatien found them literally in fisticuffs with each other when he arrived to discuss sale terms. Rebranding the place as “Limelight,” he opened its doors just in time for the disco era. It made an instant splash with a young public who just wanted to have fun after the traumas of the 1960s. Gatien made a killing and opened a location in Atlanta before finally taking on New York, along with forays to London and Chicago.
Fashion industry types who wanted to catch the vibe of the street and had no Instagram to hide behind came to take notes on what was new and hip at Gatien’s clubs
Limelight’s New York incarnation proved the most enduring of his creations. Opening in November 1983, it came in the wake of the outré Studio 54, which has become so emblazoned in the American cultural landscape that we rarely remember that its original incarnation disappeared in less than two years. Limelight was, to put it mildly, different. Its venue was a desacralized Anglican church in Chelsea, at 20th Street and 6th Avenue. Historical preservation rules protected its exterior, which imposed a looming Gothic façade over what happened inside while an ambitious renovation repurposed its interior. At its opening, which drew a handful of religious protesters alongside Andy Warhol and le tout New York, its best publicity came from Manhattan’s Episcopal bishop, who, when told what was about to occupy the premises, declared with pathetic WASPy understatement, “We are horrified.”
Almost everyone else was delighted. Limelight became the “in” place and lasted for eighteen years as Gatien enlarged his empire to include three other Manhattan venues: Tunnel, Palladium, and Club USA. At his height he employed about a thousand people, all engaged to “create a culture” that entertained as many as twenty million customers. He even fell into film production courtesy of Chazz Palminteri, a Limelight employee with acting aspirations who persuaded Gatien to finance a staged one-man show that became the film A Bronx Tale. Each of Gatien’s clubs was open six nights a week with a dizzying array of nightly themed parties, all popularized to overflowing capacities without any form of electronic media to advertise them. Word of mouth, postcard-sized fliers, and the occasional print media coverage were enough. A-list celebrities crowded in to party alongside “club kids,” eccentrically dressed young people with few principles and no definite occupations whose ranks could with equal ease brush up against my seventeen-year-old-fresh-from-prep-school self, Donald Trump, or a transvestite drug dealer. Fashion industry types who wanted to catch the vibe of the street and had no Instagram to hide behind came to take notes on what was new and hip. The standard wait to get into Limelight was two hours, so long that Gatien’s door people reported stories of girls who preferred to piss themselves rather than risk losing their places “on line,” as New Yorkers uniquely say.
Just a month’s experience with his first venue, curiously called “the Aardvark,” had taught Gatien probably the most important lesson for any nightlife entrepreneur: never party with your customers. He stuck to this rule throughout his career, carefully managing operations, putting in sixteen-hour days, seeing that no detail was left untended, and making sure his team was exactly right. When the stress got to him, he kept his personal booze-and-drug binges offsite and out-of-sight. Overtime he even became something of a family man, raising four children over three marriages with a vision of himself as a good provider.
Aloofness certainly gave Gatien an aura of cool, helped to an inestimable degree by his signature eye patch, which covered an eye lost in a childhood baseball accident. I remember seeing him once (and only once) at Limelight, perched literally above it all, alone and expressionless, surveying our overcapacity mob raving to some DJ at a time when no DJ had anything approaching celebrity status.
Gatien’s aloofness also played a role in his undoing. As New York began to address its gritty reputation in the 1990s, a high-earning foreign nightlife mogul who looked like a pirate stood out as a prime target. Gatien blames his downfall squarely on Rudolph Giuliani, then New York’s newly elected crusading mayor, who had built his reputation as a stern U.S. federal prosecutor busting mafia bosses and executive-level financial criminals. Nightlife was almost totally free of violent crime, but the drug trade flourished to the rapid beats of what we now call EDM. It is perhaps to be expected that Gatien would deny much knowledge of it. He claims to have been so puzzled the first time he ever saw someone do a line of cocaine that he had to ask what was happening. He frankly disapproved of ecstasy because it makes customers less interested in drinking, thus reducing profits. Nevertheless, rumor, informants trying to get out of their own legal problems, and a couple of tragedies conspired to bring down the firm hand of the law. After a raid on Limelight turned up a small quantity of marijuana among patrons, the club was shuttered for a time under rarely used public nuisance statutes. Gatien was arrested for conspiracy to distribute narcotics, but the prosecution failed to produce any durable evidence against him. Acquitted but virtually bankrupted by his legal fees and asset seizures, he still faced tax evasion charges that led him to plead guilty and accept a 60-day prison sentence and probation. Relentlessly persecuted nevertheless, his felony conviction served as grounds for U.S. immigration authorities to deport him back to Canada, where he is now a grandfather pushing seventy.
In pandemic conditions in which no one can party anywhere, serious partying may well remain the stuff of memoirs
Manhattan nightlife never recovered. After Gatien’s fall, it became a dull morass of uninspired lounges that packed in douchebags who ordered dramatically overpriced bottle service to hide the ugly truth that they could not afford to be seen enjoying themselves. Apart from the stray warehouse party, the tame middle-class kids who overran Brooklyn straight out of their moms’ minivans never really got it before turning their bleak borough into a revoltingly kid-friendly sleeping quarter. Reminders of the freer past migrated to South Miami Beach until that balmier locale also fell to the gentrification and noise ordinances that made it safe for dull-eyed suburbanites with no concept of joy by which to measure it. Abroad one could still get into the zone on the ever receding outer rim of globalization, in places like Berlin, Ibiza, Mykonos, St. Petersburg, Beirut, Goa, and Saigon, but the safety brigades are there, too, watching relentlessly over hordes of tired millennials afraid of risking their hard fought professional careers on a pill, post, or sex act that does not reflect the values of the corporation to which they have sold their waking lives. In pandemic conditions in which no one can party anywhere, serious partying may well remain the stuff of memoirs.
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