Smoking dance floor at New York, NY. © Toby Old.
When I told Fran Lebowitz—the cosmopolitan wit and author of Metropolitan Life and Social Studies—that my editor had suggested we discuss nightlife while out in a club, she said, “Tell him, You know how difficult Fran is, and let’s just do it someplace we can actually talk.” That turned out to be Fran’s book-packed apartment on West Fifty-Seventh Street. We spoke after dark but before dinner, on a hunter green leather couch, while Fran sipped Evian and smoked one Carlton after the other. The ensuing conversation was originally published in the March 20, 1990, issue of the Village Voice.
When I mentioned the idea of an interview on the subject of nightlife, you said something like, But I never go out anymore. Yet we always see photos of you—in Vanity Fair, Vogue, W, and other magazines—out at night. Is that not nightlife?
No. That’s not nightlife. That’s social life. There’s a difference. Nightlife is fun. Social life is business. I thought you meant clubs and things. I thought you meant fun.
Don’t you go out after these social events?
To clubs? Very, very rarely. There are tons of clubs that I have never been to—because I have been to their recent predecessors. I don’t think they’re fun anymore. And I think there are a couple reasons why. I don’t, by the way, consider this an opinion. I consider this a fact. I don’t think they’re fun anymore—at least for people of my age—because of sex. Or lack of sex.
You mean lack of its availability or possibility?
Yes. I suppose there’s both availability and possibility if you’re a kamikaze, but if you’re not, there’s neither. Because that was the whole point of going out. I mean, during the time that I went out every single night of my life, it wasn’t that you had sex every time you went out, but that’s why you went. That’s what propelled you out the door. So at least if you didn’t actually have sex, it was sexy. There was a sexual atmosphere. That’s what dancing is, I suppose. But now, even if I was young enough to dance, it still wouldn’t have that charge to it because there isn’t that sexual atmosphere. I know people still go out and pick people up, but there’s no way anyone—I don’t care how old they are—can do it the same way we did it, because they have some shadow over them, and it must certainly cast a pall over the proceedings.
I imagine so, but go-go boys and strippers seem to be increasingly popular in clubs, and I keep hearing about places where people take their clothes off and fool around. Maybe it’s mostly a voyeuristic kind of thing.
Well, that’s a big difference. There have always been strip shows, and they were places middle-age businessmen who didn’t get laid went to watch and think about sex. Now, do you want to be in that position? I’m not surprised to hear that there’s a resurgence of strip shows, but who wants to live that life? I’m not saying that voyeurism can’t be sexy, but not in that square atmosphere. I used to go to all kinds of sex bars and watch kinds of sex that I would never want to have, but it was part of a life that included a lot of casual sex, which is, of course, the best kind. So I think that no casual sex makes it not fun to go out at night. That to me is the primary element in the lack of fun.
But I also think that clubs have become extremely institutionalized and so mainstream. Everyone knows about clubs now. When we started going out to clubs, it was really a small number of people who even knew they existed. They were covert, and that of course added to the fun. There was no such thing as a door policy. You didn’t need a door policy. Anyone who knew about it was all right. Now they read about it in the suburbs, and it’s just like going to the movies. It’s the same people—the general public. And I’m not a general-public fan.
New Orleans dance floor. © Toby Old.
What do you think were the major changes along the way? Were there any signals or milestones?
Yes, there was a moment when I had an epiphany, when I knew it was the beginning of the end, and it was when a club called Infinity opened. I can’t remember what year it was, probably around ’74. But I remember walking into this club on lower Broadway—it opened Tuesday, we went Wednesday—and it was so elaborate. It had those things—I don’t know what they’re called—that came down from the ceiling and had lights on them and twirled.
Studio 54 had them later.
Much later. I didn’t know what they were, but I knew what they meant. Because I knew they were expensive. Infinity seemed to be a club that was owned by gangsters, but with a real eye for making a lot of money. I could tell the second I walked in that nightlife in New York had turned inside out, that it was no longer covert, that other people knew about it, that the people who started this club knew—in the wrong way—about it. That was definitely the beginning of the end, and it coincided with that awful line dance.
The bus stop. It’s come back again.
It was bad enough the first time around, with those thousands of automatons dancing in unison. But Infinity was, to me, the harbinger of what was to come. Le Jardin was already like that in a sense, except that it was so gay that it didn’t bother me. It was so funny. I remember very well the invitation to Le Jardin’s opening because it was in French, and it was like going into a very pretentious French restaurant in the Midwest. From the outset, it had a very outsider quality to it. A gay fourteen-year-old from Ohio’s fantasy of life in New York. So I always thought it was funny and it was fun, but it was also very calculated. And Le Jardin still had some of the quality of not being accessible to everyone. I don’t mean inaccessible in the sense that some jerk with a very contrived haircut was standing at the door deciding who was coming in—none of those clubs had those. Le Jardin was already going over the edge. It’s just that it was so funny with those fake palm trees that I didn’t really mind. Infinity wasn’t like that. Infinity was cynical. But I think a number of things conspired to change nightlife. Once there was gay liberation, you had those gigantic places. Flamingo.
And 12 West.
I liked 12 West, but I didn’t like Flamingo.
Flamingo was more exclusive. 12 West was open.
Everyone says that. It’s so weird to have the opposite perception. My perception was that Flamingo was really middle class, really striving and full of unattractive longings and desires. Window dressers who wanted to be architects or whatever. I didn’t like Flamingo for that. Flamingo, I thought, was kind of funny because it was really funny to go to a club with eight thousand people, every one of whom looked exactly alike. It was like being at a twins convention. I always thought Flamingo was very corny. 12 West I actually liked in a real way, as opposed to liking it because I made fun of it. 12 West was the height of my dancing craze, and it was, to me, a more fun place to dance. And there were a lot of cute people there. They didn’t all look exactly alike.
And 12 West was not as exclusively male as Flamingo was.
No, and not only was Flamingo exclusively male, it was exclusively one tiny perception of being male, which is why it was so funny. It wasn’t just that it was mostly boys. It was that it was mostly boys with the absolute narrowest notion of masculinity you ever saw in your life. So that’s why it was, on the other hand, entertaining. Where else could you go where everyone was the same height? I felt like Veruschka there because at five feet four inches, I would be the same height of hundreds of men.
Where else did you go during that period?
Well, there were other kinds of nightlife besides clubs then. But first of all, before that, there was Max’s, which was really my idea of nightlife because you could talk and pick someone up. And the other great thing about Max’s was that it wasn’t sexually delineated in any way, so you could be with a bunch of people of wildly varying sexual tastes, and you would have someone to talk to. You could talk to your friends, have actual fun, and then everyone could get laid. What way would you prefer to spend an evening? So that was to me the greatest place. Nothing compares to it now. And Max’s was, to me, a genuinely interesting place, not interesting in an ironic way. Of course, I was very young when I started going there, about eighteen, so more things were interesting to me. But there were more interesting people, and there was talk.
The thing about leading that life is that there were a lot of people I saw five times a week for years and years and never saw in the daytime. I saw them only at night, and I never really stopped to think, What do they do during the day? People didn’t talk about their daytime life, and people didn’t have ambitions like these people do today. We didn’t see ourselves the way kids see themselves now. We didn’t see ourselves in the middle of culture. I certainly didn’t. I always felt really on the periphery. But the main difference is that we weren’t doing business. And I really feel that they are today, and that makes for a totally different environment.
And they weren’t the same phalanxes of people who write about other people who go out.
Because it was real. It’s ersatz now. It’s a lifestyle. Ours was life. That’s really a difference. We all lived downtown—there was no “downtown.” Downtown the way it exists now, with a capital d, is to me like a boutique at Bloomingdale’s. You see ads for magazines that say “the hippest magazine”—we assumed that. It was an assumption, not an ambition. What these magazines write about is a market, not a life. And those clubs like Heartbreak, those square places, they could have been in a mall in Atlanta. That had nothing to do with the life that we led—it wasn’t even a natural progression. The nightlife written about in those novels of “downtown” life has as much to do with my life as the life of a farmer in Czechoslovakia.
Drag queens mugging. © Peter Hujar Archive.
A lot of my sense of club life now is that there’s this crew of people who go out in a sort of professional way and promote themselves as partygoers.
That didn’t exist then, except in the sense that there were characters around. I suppose you might say that people like Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn were like that, but in a much different way. First of all, they were genuinely entertaining and, in the case of Jackie, actually talented, which seems now not to be a prerequisite. There were people then like the ones you’re talking about, I suppose, but not only those people. They were peripheral. The difference is that someone like Andrea Whips, or a lot of people around Andy Warhol then, genuinely thought they’d become movie stars. These people—I don’t know what they genuinely believe they’re going to be. I think they genuinely believe they’re going to be in Details.
When discos went into high gear, in the Studio 54 period, weren’t you there?
Studio 54? Yeah, I went all the time. I think it’s the last place I really frequented. Studio 54 I really liked.
Did you dance?
I danced. I was still dancing then. I wouldn’t say that’s the main reason I went. It’s kind of surprising that I liked Studio 54—near the end, I didn’t like it as well—but I think it was really fun. I remember the first time I went, I thought, Ummm, and I got that kind of Infinity feeling from it, which definitely was there because it was so gigantic. But 54 was a fun place to dance. Even though there was a huge amount of media attention, it still managed to keep a certain flavor to it. I don’t know how. It was very sexy—it was still before AIDS—and there were a lot of cute people there, and it was filled with sexual intent, which I think is very important to a successful night. I know a lot of people went there for the drugs, but for me, it wasn’t drugs, because I hadn’t taken drugs since 1969. For me, it was sex and dancing.
For most people, the whole idea of Studio 54, once it got established, was celebrity.
There were celebrities there—maybe more than one would like to have—but they were a lot of times the better celebrities, like the cuter ones, and there were a lot of other people, too. Why do you think the celebrities went? The celebrities didn’t go just to see each other. They went because there were cute kids there. They had to have cute kids there. You have to have candy in the candy store. So to me, it was fun. I didn’t like the way they treated people outside, those lines and stuff. I don’t even remember seeing that before, someone standing outside with those ropes like it was a movie theater. All those gestapo.
Did you ever have any trouble getting in?
No, but I still didn’t like it. I didn’t like the idea of it. I don’t mean I’m so egalitarian. I guess the thing is that I’m not opposed to privilege. I like privilege to be covert. Before Studio 54, I liked Hurrah’s, even if they did play what we thought of as not the good music. But there were tons of models and stuff when models were still fun, before models became these kind of extremely good-looking executives they are now. When models were still just cute. And I’m sure there’s tons of places I just can’t remember.
What’s your favorite period of New York nightlife?
I would say Max’s and then right after Max’s, with a gap before Studio 54 opened when I can’t remember where I went regularly. When Max’s first closed, we had no place to go—we were like little urchins looking for a place. We used to also go to sex bars, but for me, it wasn’t real sexual voyeurism. It was a kind of anthropology. I mean, it didn’t interest me sexually, but it did interest me. And all my friends were there. Also, we would just walk around. We would hang out in the street if it wasn’t cold out. It was like your dream come true. It was a big fantasy. I’m quite sure that for at least ten years of my life, I went out every single night, all night long.
Until what hour?
I very rarely came home before it was light. It’s the only time I remember seeing the light. I also think another element of constantly going out for me—and I think for all the people I knew at the time—was we had such awful apartments. No one wanted to stay in them. It never occurred to me that staying home could be pleasurable, because it wasn’t. Now I quite like to stay home at night in my nice apartment and lie on my sofa, which I didn’t even have at the time—I don’t mean this sofa, I mean any sofa. Often, when we would see rich people at Max’s—or people we perceived as being rich, which were people who weren’t terribly poor—I would think, Why do they go out? They have heat. I suppose the upside of being old is that we have heat and we have real apartments. I would not, certainly, want to be nineteen now. But I wouldn’t mind being nineteen again then.
The men’s room at G. G. Barnum’s. © Toby Old.
So do you miss nightlife?
I think I miss my youth more than I miss nightlife. There are so many aspects of my youth that I miss. I miss my old face, my old hair. And if all this existed now, I’m sure I wouldn’t be going all the time because I’m too old—I’m thirty-nine. But I would still go. I’m still at heart kind of a juvenile delinquent.
When was the last time you went out dancing?
I think I stopped dancing in my early thirties, not because I didn’t want to dance anymore but because I didn’t want to look like one of those people that we used to look at and say, What is that old person doing dancing? I just didn’t want to be one of those people. And I think, all in all, that I was right, because I think appearances are much more important than actual pleasure. But I’ve never been to most of the clubs that are around now. I’ve never been to Mars or Red Zone or all those other places I get a zillion invitations to. And this isn’t a moral stance—this is just a total lack of interest.
And there’s nothing that substitutes for this club life?
I have my memories, Vincent. Besides, I have a mortgage, and I have a book to write.
Do you write at night?
Yes, that’s my nightlife now.
Vince Aletti is disco’s greatest chronicler, the first writer to cover the emerging scene. From 1974 to 1978, he wrote Record World’s weekly Disco File column, which became required reading in U.S. clubland. Born in Philadelphia in 1945, Aletti began his career in underground papers and magazines, including The Rat, Fusion, Crawdaddy, Creem, and Rolling Stone. He went on to become a senior editor and photography critic at the Village Voice until 2005, when he moved to The New Yorker.
Excerpted from The Disco Files 1973–78: New York’s Underground, Week by Week, by Vince Aletti, published by D.A.P.
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