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The Last Party

Studio 54, Disco,

And The Culture of The Night

by Anthony Haden-Guest

William Morrow and Company Inc., New York, 1997, pp. 404, $25.


"Snort" photography by Carter B. Horsley from his "Scratches" series

By Carter B. Horsley

Manhattan of the late 1970's was at one of its historic emotional peaks.

It had survived "Drop Dead" signals from Washington, the oil crisis depression and was in the midst of a new building boom and a new sophistication that was spawned with the rhythmic multiculturalism of "Saturday Night Fever" and the opening of Studio 54.

It was an exciting time to be urban and part of New York's survival was greatly aided by an influx of foreigners who gobbled up real estate that had deflated a bit but remained too rich for most New Yorkers.

It was the onslaught of celebrity society, the tabloids, the gossip and talk shows, the affirmative action programs and the aftermath of Watergate and the Vietnam War - a time for R & R, rest and relaxation, release and relief, before the interiorization of social existence created by the early magic of MTV and the clouds of corporate downsizing that lay ahead.

Studio 54 was a disturbing and important phenomenon that raised dire issues of duplicity, corruption, immorality and media irresponsibility - issues that permeated and reflected a culture change, one whose notoriety would help fuel the fundamentalist upsurge and the coming conservatism of a Ronald Reagan and the country.

Computer graphic by Carter B. HorsleyThis giddy era stopped short of combustion. Certainly not all New Yorkers, to say nothing of the rest of the country, got caught up in the naughty euphoria of decadence that Studio 54 epitomized, but its influence, or at least its tentacles stretched by the media, were pervasive. One could look elsewhere for the intellectual boulders, such as Tom Wolfe's "Me" generation, on the rapids of the country's growing egocentrism, its pell-mell rush to pleasure and escape from "large" responsibilities. The eloquent speeches a few years later of a Mitch Snyder on the homeless did not fall on deaf ears, just overdecibeled ears, drowned out by the ever more violent fantasies of special effects.

Obsessive preoccupation with the tangential, the puffed, the fashioned, the fluffy, was not necessarily a national pastime, but an increasing dominant distraction for many. One could certainly argue that the tawdriness of the major talk shows was far more psychically, or at least culturally, damaging to the millions of viewers than the mere depravity of the thousands of outrés who habituated Studio 54 and its imitators.

Neither the first nor last great disco, Studio 54 was the quintessential New York experience of its era. It radiated a palpable energy that was inescapable, seemingly, as well as an aura of sensuality and "interactivity" that was without peer.

It emanated evil.

It mocked privilege.

It dispensed power.

It crushed egos.

It made heroes.

It was chic.

It was sleazy.

It was outrageous in its raw flouting of the law.

It was corrupt and corrupting.

I resisted going for a while, at least until I was with a group I knew would not be rejected at its infamous, degrading door. I had heard and read plenty of stories already about its shamelessly open drug scene, which held absolutely no enticement for me, but journalistically it was difficult not be a little curious as to how wild a scene it might be.

Having gone to New York discos since 1961, I was not a Puritan as far as nightlife, although I was, and am, a total square about drugs other than regulated ones like alcohol and cigarettes. I did love to dance, however, and once past the cordons and though the long and wide entrance hall, the magnetic rush to the dance floor was strong and quickly thrilling for good dancers, and even bad ones, were not limited to their partners of the evening.

Computer graphic by Carter B. HorsleyFor the first time in my experience, dancing became a solo dare. Who needed a date when you could just boogie, swirl and lean, show off, gravitating towards someone's fine, similar groove. It was communal dancing, but not folksy: more spiritual than sexy, though absolutely sensual. I would kick off my tasseled loafers and kick them to the ledge of the slightly raised bar area and sync with the booming, shaking music and dance, usually with my eyes closed half the time, 'til I was drenched with sweat and feared for blistered feet. I'd recover my shoes, wander off to one of the surrounding bars for a Budweiser to try to cool down and then survey the scene while trying to catch my breath.

In his prologue, Haden-Guest observed that "dancers, washed in the surf of sound, dappled and splashed by light, shed the dull gravitational tug of quotidian life, and lost themselves in what was at once a voyeuristic jostle, like a fairground, and a domain of the self-absorbed, like a ballet for prima donnas only." Ahem, or amen.

Haden-Guest relates the maneuverings and passings through of Vladimir Horowitz, the Rev. Sun Moon, Moshe Dayan, Fred Astaire, Christie Brinkley, Cher, Grace Jones, Diana Ross, Andy Warhol, Barry Diller, Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger, Truman Capote, Halston, Elizabeth Taylor, Betty Ford, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev at Studio 54, but his focus is more on its creators, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, and their competing promoters and occasional collaborators such as Mark Fleischman, Maurice Brahms, John Addison, Arthur Weinstein, Erol Wetson, Uva Harden and Carmen D'Alessio among others.

For decades, my only exercise has been disco dancing, but I would only dance to music that moved me like Steve Wonder's, Michael Jackson's, Gloria Gaynor's, the Pointer Sisters, Marvin Gaye and the like, and I have not been motivated to stray out onto a dance floor and make a fool of myself, letting go, for several years as the dance music lately has been horrible, to my ears, and I therefore have gained weight.

I was not all the enamoured of Studio 54's lighting poles and the Man in the Moon with the Spoon was not a turn-on for me. My stays rarely lasted more than an hour and a half.

I would usually see some familiar faces, including that of Anthony Haden-Guest, the omnipresent observer and nocturnal reveler who has authored this fascinating and very perceptive book, a splendidly devastating "phoenix" histoire of Studio 54 and the city's subsequent nightlife.

There were other discos that I liked much more at various times: Shepheard's in the former Drake Hotel on 56th Street west of Park Avenue was elegant and plush; La Boite on far East 72nd Street was appropriately comfy; L'Interdit in the basement of the former Gotham (now Peninsula) Hotel was marvelously decorated with international signage and international ladies; and, of course, Le Club, the private disco in its original incarnation on East 55th Street, palatially proper in a hunting lodge manner. (Haden-Guest does not mention L'Interdit or La Boite in his otherwise encyclopedic tour of what he aptly describes as New York's Nightworld, but then they were before his merry arrival from olde England.)

What Studio 54 had that was sensational was frisson and immediacy.

It exuded communality.

It manifested humanity, in most of its guises.

It kindled liberation and independence while mocking convention and sociability.

It. It . It.

You attended Studio 54, became immersed and mesmerized by its hordes of ins, outs and betweens, its immensities and excesses.

You were bewitched also by its intoxicating airs, usually the inescapable waftings of popped amyl nitrate, which had a rather pleasant medicinal smell. As a dancing fool, I did not wander, nor was I invited, to the disco's inner sanctums where one suspected beer was not the major comestible.

There were weirdoes all over, of course, but they were not a majority and generally conduct on and around the dance floor was within relatively normal bonds, especially for those late hours.

What I missed, however, Anthony Haden-Guest did not. His contribution to the legend is fascinating in its shocking, explicit details, but far more impressive in its extensive, revealing interviews with virtually all the major players of the time and place. Indeed, Haden-Guest's overview of the Nightworld is overwhelming. He has turned over most of Manhattan's stones, unearthing creatures that are rather unbelievable, but true and not always gossip-page-picture-perfect.  (The book has 55 black-and-white photographs that are not alluring, just historic.)

His book is an important sociological study of an urban pathology that is dark and dank, secretive and seductive, wearying yet wild.

What disturbed me about Studio 54 was not so much the place as the patronage it received from the media, of which I was then, as now, a very minor member. Big media personages frequented its major parties and their presence was construed by me, and perhaps part of the public, as a condoning of the Joint's mores/morality/legality.

I was not naïve enough to think that all was perfect in this best of all cities, but there was little question that a lot of laws and regulations were not being enforced at Studio 54. Indeed, there was a general impression that the place was above the law, or so it seemed for a very, very, very long time.

Just as major league baseball players should be role models for their fans, so should the press and the "leaders" of society be vigorously vigilant in their morals, and I'm not even right wing!

I am guilty, of course, for I did not just make one "investigative" visit to Studio 54, but quite a few, but then I was a relative nobody, just another correspondent covering the social war zones of the city one might be tempted to rationalize, which is not quite a good enough excuse. But shame on those media hobbobs of social influence who fawned at Roy Cohn's birthday parties and achieved bold-faced gossip column status.

The cavalier anecdotes in the book are devastating documentation to the madness that was Studio 54: sex in the basement; sex in the balcony; treats for "special guests" of Quaaludes stuffed into their pockets and "silver packages of cocaine tucked into the ashtrays of the limousines that were sent" to pick them up, and cash tucked into the walls, a lot of cash.

Haden-Guest covers the ups and the downs of not only Rubell and Schrager but virtually the entire Nightworld of New York, ranging from Studio 54 to Crisco Disco to Plato's Retreat to the Underground, Palladium, Area, ad infinitum/nauseum. His uncensored tour is revealing, exhausting and tinged with energy, not nostalgia. It stops short of blurring, and one is left with the notion that a handful, relatively, of not so distingué entrepreneurs of the Nightworld were remarkably resilient in the face of the occasional, actually rather rare, crackdowns by the state liquor or drug authorities, or plain old bankruptcies. Even more interesting are the plans for projects that came to naught.

This is an unsavory tale of hustlers and whistle-blowers and not too many innocents. Euphoria? Fun? Binges? Yes. Lack of decorum. Yes. Criminality. Yes. Murder. Yes.

Haden-Guest does not pontificate. The assorted, if not sordid, thrills and threats and treats and tantrums and treatments of the tempestuous times in New York since Haden-Guest's propitious arrival in 1976 are fascinating, exciting and hopefully for most people vicarious. His "Inferno" is exquisite agony for many, weaned on the gossip trash of our times.

He does not wax poetic about his characters, his scenes. His interviewees are surprisingly eloquent and capture much of the spirit of all that excitement, excitement that is a very real component of major cities, the confluence of diverse energies that often results in rare, titillating moments of memorable intensity.

Don't fire until you see the red of their eyes, eh?

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