“Can’t read my, can’t read my, no he can’t read my poker face…”
“Lemme guess, ya went to the Lady Gaga concert tonight at the Roseland Ballroom.”
“How was it?”
“It was greeeeaaaatttttt!”
The last few weeks were notable in the annals of Gotham’s nightlife for two seemingly unrelated reasons. The first of which was the closing of the Roseland Ballroom and although it had been around since 1919, it called 52 Street home only since 1958. I attended one concert there and aside from the girl I was with bailing on me, the most memorable part of the night was that like every other attendee there, I had to stand for the entire show that Hot Chip put on. Given that the building’s prior use was as a skating rink, it only made sense that even after it was renovated in the early 90’s, that the giant floor remained without seats and column-free. Long gone were the days of ballroom dancing there as big acts coveted the space in recent years, due to the site’s location and mid-sized capacity. Sure, the Garden and the Barclay’s Center are the top-of-the-line spaces today but as was the case with Lady Gaga, performers loved playing at the Roseland because it was “homecoming” of sorts as many of them attended concerts there when they were growing up.
What many people didn’t notice was that right before the Roseland shut its doors for good, none other than the Godfather of House passed away. Francis Nicholls passed on at the age of 59 but to nearly everyone, he was known as Frankie Knuckles. Frankie was a DJ and I mean a real, innovative, groundbreaking, DJ…and not someone who took a device, plugged it in, and let it play his favorite songs for 3 hours. Like David Morales, Todd Terje, and Junior Vasquez, Frankie provided the soundtrack for so many people that needed to let off steam via the radio or at one of the city’s late night wonderlands. I passed by many of them during the day when I was growing up but since I was (and still am, to some extent) the shy, suburban brainiac that has dance moves worse than Elaine Benes, I never saw the inside of the establishments that helped make New York the glittering Oz that lay off to the east of my humble abode.
Growing up in the ’80’s and ’90’s meant that house music was the soundtrack to my Friday and Saturday nights. See, in those days, we didn’t have the internet. No cell phones either. Just a radio next to my bed and some videos on MTV sprinkled amongst the Hair Bands, 3rd British Invasion groups, and still-emerging genre known as hip-hop was all I had to get my fix. Once in a while, I’d get the cassette tapes synced up right and record American Dance Traxx, which counted down the top dance songs in the United States each week. Once I started driving and staying up late, I had Hot-97 going constantly (it didn’t flip over to hip-hop until 1993) and later on, the new ‘KTU. The ups, downs, heartbreaks, agonies, lonely rides home, and everything in between took place with 120 bpm’s of soothing grooves in the background, until the night ended or the next misadventure began. Somewhere, I had aspirations of manning the 1 and 2’s but that never happened and a short-lived stint on WRVU in Nashville was as close as I ever came to running the show myself.
“Oh, it was real good. Maybe even better than the Halal Guys on 6 & 53.”
“They’re out all night, right?”
“Well, I see them there late on weekends but on Monday night, I got there around 2:50. Grabbed my chicken and lamb, sat down in the cab to eat because it rained and when I got out to throw the container away, they were gone.”
“But that’s a busy spot.”
“Not on Monday. Marquee wasn’t open. Neither was Greenhouse, The Box, or any other club in Manhattan for that matter. That’s why I ate there when I did.”
“Tunnel and Twilo used to be right on that black.”
“Not anymore. Now it’s the Hotel Americano and the McKittrick there.”
Nightlife drives so much of our business. Not just taking people to and from the clubs but seeing what’s open, what’s closed, and what areas of town are “it” among the nightcrawlers. Wanna find out what ‘hoods are jumping and desirable? See where the impresario’s are plunking down their hard-earned money into a place that will probably have a shelf life of 5-10 years. New York is littered with the shells of venues that would write books if they could talk but are no longer relevant to the 20something looking to impress a date. Chelsea had the Roxy, Splash, and the Sound Factory but one by one, they closed as the scene moved further west. Tunnel and Twilo were huge a few years later and soon, Bungalow 8 and it’s fusion of celebrity, food, drink, and decor set the scene for the Lavo’s and Standard’s of today. Now, the Meatpacking District holds sway when it comes to where New Yorkers spend their hard-earned money, but that statement alone is an indicator of how much the scene has changed in recent years.
Back in the day, dance clubs were much more inclusive. All walks of life came out in their Monday, Saturday, or Sunday best to party until the wee hours of the morning. Although house is widely known to have started in Chicago, it was in New York that it took off. Around the same time, people sampling James Brown, Motown and Stax records up in the Bronx were sowing the seeds for the shoots that later blossomed into rap and ultimately, hip-hop All that was needed was a good set of Technic 1200’s, a stack vinyl, headphones, a mixer, and a venue.
And music was never the same after that.
New York *had* to be the place where it took off because it’s where everyone came together – not just through Ellis Island, but in basements, warehouses, converted roller rinks, theaters, and in the case of the Empire Roller Skating Center, a former garage used by the Brooklyn Dodgers. The first dance craze that swept America in 50 years had a brilliant, brief flash in the late 1970’s but once Disco has it’s last dance, the movements that were still bubbling up during it’s heyday came to the surface and left their mark on the following decades.
Rap had it’s MC’s and house had it’s DJ’s and for the first time, *they* were the stars of the show. Other forms of music had a singer, a band, or a singer with a band in the background, playing standards and favorites for the audience. Once everything went electronic, the rules changed. Diana Ross could be mixed with Abba, followed by Blondie or Maceo Parker and people going out loved moving their asses off to it. Just as all history is revisionist, all music that came along only made the mixes better, the nights richer, and the samples that much deeper. No one knew what was next but everyone knew that a skilled mixmaster at the helm could put it all together.
No doubt that the good ones did, including Frankie Knuckles. One of my biggest regrets in life was that I never got dressed to the 9’s (or 8’s) and went out on a Saturday night to hear someone like him work his magic. Slowly but surely, the clubs that were made famous by him and the other DJ’s that I grew up with closed one by one. The most tragic tale of all was that of the Palladium on 14 St. Opened in 1927 as a concert hall, it was renovated by none other than Studio 54’s Steven Rubell and Ian Schrager in the ’80’s. After it re-opened, it was featured prominently on Club MTV and boasted a now-outdated set of monitors that could show videos in various arrays and patterns. While successful in it’s second incarnation, it was bought by NYU, torn down, and replaced with…
…Palladium Hall, which is a dorm now inhabited by students who have no idea why it’s called that or what used to sit on that site.
More importantly, many of those students are now living off of their parents credit cards and giving this cabdriver plenty of headaches when he has to haul them around New York in the wee hours of the weekend.
Everyone will point to Giuliani for cracking down on the club scene in the waning years of his mayoralty but had he not done that, most of them would still not be up and running today. Like malls, roller rinks, and bowling alleys, the clubs that were patronized by the masses is now a relic of America’s Past. Too many people would rather plug into something on a weekend night than go out to hobnob with strangers. Those that do go out do not dress outlandishly anymore or have killer dance moves. Rather, they come equipped with a different form of currency for nightlife.
The black card.
I hear it referenced all the time on the job and it’s usually a giveaway that the person who has it is a douche bag. VIP rooms and bottle service are only recent phenomenon that has made clubbing, like so many other aspects of New York life in the 21 century, a haven for the well-to-do. Every year, the bouncers get bigger, the vehicles that people drive to and from the venues get nicer, and the price of admission and bottles goes higher and higher. I hear big numbers being dropped all the time and one of the craziest stories I’ve overheard in my Taxi involved someone who wandered onto the wrong floor of a new and popular hotel where many flock to get their groove on. Two huge guys guarded the room as someone behind them was counting a massive stack of $100’s, as the wayward imbiber quietly closed the door and went back to where the action was.
All of that aside, what has changed in New York was the movement away from the DJ or the MC. Iphones, playlists, the internet, and electronic mixing have all combined to make the art of in-house music production easier now and with that ease has come a complete lack of cohesion on the part of many who have been entrusted to provide a soundtrack for a given night. I don’t care for celebrity playlists and none of them can take a Top 40 hit and remix it by speeding it up, sampling a beat behind it, or extending it for an additional 3 or 4 minutes. House and early hip-hop emphasized dancing, partying, and a come-as-you-are mentality that made everyone a part of the action. Now, it’s about the scene, snapping selfies, telling everyone that you were there, and moving on to the next “it” establishment, only to repeat the process all over again. Former Village Voice writer Michael Musto explained it perfectly when he stated that “The time is over. Things changed.” when referring to the demise of the club scene in New York when he was growing up but it took a lot of changes in locales, music, economics, and conventional wisdom to put the final nails into the coffin.
Sure, the current club-hopping among the uber-wealthy is good for my line of work but it makes for lousy venues and the lack of true mixmasters today means that I can’t find what I love on the radio anymore. No one’s going to look back fondly when Avenue or 1OAK closes down and everyone has to be spotted at the next hot spot that’s even more lavish, exclusive, and expensive.
Like so much else today, the romance has been sucked out of nightlife and New York is certainly worse off for it.