The nightlife in New York City is dying

When The Party’s Over - Warhol's children and the end of Manhattan's nightlife

by Isabella Caldart


New York: city of dreariness? It was only a few days ago that the TIME read that the corona pandemic took New York back to the eighties. The “glittering world metropolis” has become “an emptied, hypothermic, littered, dangerous backdrop” again. But what does that mean? How was New York in the eighties? The story of the Club Kids, who revolutionized the Manhattan nightlife at the time - until a murder ended the scene in the mid-1990s, provides an idea of ​​this ambivalent city. How could it possibly come this far? A story of drag, drugs and Drano. In the supporting roles: Siri Hustvedt, RuPaul and Rudy Giuliani.

Tale of a Young Man

In the 1980s, Manhattan was widely recognized as a hotbed of crime. Bankrupt New York has not recovered from the major blackout in 1977 that paralyzed the entire city, resulting not only in looting and vandalism, but also in many owners burning their homes to get insurance money cash in. Years later, some quarters are still partly in ruins, the crime rate is high (it should have peaked in 1990 with 2,245 murders), as is drug use. In Manhattan, Time Square and the East Village are particularly no-go areas.

Downtown lives

But the East Village in particular is a magnet for artists and outsiders. In the late summer of 1984, a tall, slim 18-year-old with street-pooch-blond hair moved into the midst of the chaos and dirt of these streets. Like so many others who come to New York from Ohio, Iowa or Wyoming, as a gay boy he fled his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, to finally belong in the capital of the Misfits. Michael Alig, as his name is, has more than just this goal: He wants to become the king of Manhattan nightlife.

Downtown Manhattan was populated by artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Madonna at the time. The great times of Factory and des Studio 54 but are over. When Warhol dies in February 1987, the well-known underground journalist Michael Musto treads in the Village Voice the "Death of Downtown". Michael Alig, however, who has made a name for himself in the meantime, takes advantage of the gap that has arisen; and with him other, often underage party-goers * (in 1984 the minimum age for alcohol consumption was set at 21 years), who called themselves Jenny Talia, Richie Rich, DJ Keoki, Freeze or Gitsie, as well as RuPaul, James St. James, among others , Amanda Lepore and Walt Cassidy - the so-called Club Kids.

With the material that the club kids produce - queer subculture, New York nightlife, hedonism and excess - it is hardly surprising that not only are numerous articles and documentaries published about this scene to this day, but that it has also been processed literarily. Jarett Kobek, for example, leaves his protagonist Baby in the little-noticed novel Our wonderfully short future (2018), the prequel to the very successful I hate this internet (2016), met Michael Alig several times; Baby feels dislike for him, but cannot help feeling fascination. He becomes a participating observer of the nightlife: "[Andy Warhol's] death left a vacuum, and then came this vicious creature Michael Alig, desperate and drooling for light and glamor."

Queer scene

Looking back at 2020, the Club Kids could be described as influencers or it people who are famous because they are famous. They stand out primarily for their extravagant, gender-fluid, but also ironic outfits - a look that is somewhere between Culture Club, Slipknot and Ronald McDonald and that is perfected 20 years later by Lady Gaga. James St. James, one of the most famous club kids and a friend of Michael Alig, published his memoir in 1999 Disco Bloodbatha few years later under the title Party monsters with Macaulay Culkin as Michael Alig, Seth Green as James St. James and Chloë Sevigny (themselves Club Kid later generation) and Marilyn Manson in the supporting roles. "Yes, the looks were pretty lame in the beginning - just cheap homemade costumes," is how James St. James describes the evolution of the style - with a strange distance, as he was part of the scene himself.

Their sense of style got better as the years went on, but you could always spot a club kid in the wild if there was something glued to his or her face: sequins? feathers? lug nuts? a Virginia ham? Yup. That's a club kid.

While at the same time Uptown in Harlem the ballroom scene of queer blacks is developing as an emancipatory movement - with no less flamboyant, but glamorous instead of funny styles - the white club kids lack the political element. However: At a time when the fear of HIV is at its peak and is still viewed by cishet society as a “gay disease”, the club kids bring drag and openly lived, often performative homo- and bisexuality to the clubs Manhattan and later through numerous talk show appearances in living rooms across the country.

Within a few years, the charismatic Michael Alig (whose mother Elke comes from Bremerhaven, by the way) achieved his goal. He and his club kids represent underground and subculture, but have still made it into the mainstream. Whether in the legendary clubs tunnel, Club USA or that palladiumEverywhere he is required to be present, later he is supposed to go to the badly going one Limelight breathe new life into it with a series of parties. Nothing is too wild for him, too crazy to shock. But even away from the discos, Michael Alig proves that he attracts the masses. In times before cell phones and the Internet, he regularly manages to organize flash mob-like parties and within an hour or two to mobilize hundreds of partiers with whom he can use subway cars or the MC Donalds storms in Times Square. These moments are often well documented. Jarett Kobek describes them with sarcasm in his novel:

Michael Alig came up the stairs with boxes of food. Everyone screamed. Michael! Michael! Michael! He climbed onto the table in a niche and tossed the food to the crowd like an antichrist handing out poisoned loaves of bread. People were pushing and throwing each other just to get their hands on cheeseburgers and Big Macs and fries.

This era continued from the end of the eighties to the middle of the nineties, but in the last few years it has shown strong signs of decline - before it ends abruptly in March 1996. Michael Alig in particular, who is described by many of his contemporaries as highly narcissistic and a sociopath, is slipping deeper and deeper into drug addiction.

Michael the killer

What exactly happened on March 17, 1996 is contradicting each other in the details. The course is roughly known. The 24-year-old Andre "Angel" Melendez, one of Michael Alig's dealers, visits him in his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen because Michael owes him money. A scuffle breaks out during an argument between the two of them. Robert Riggs, called Freeze, rushes to the aid of his friend Michael and hits Angel three times on the head with a hammer. Presumably they then put a sweatshirt in Angel's mouth and throw him into the bathtub. It is unclear whether Angel Melendez is still alive at this point in time or not. Likewise, the question of whether Michael and Riggs passed the unconscious Angel Drano, pour a drain cleaner, in your mouth, or whether they are decomposing the corpse with ice cubes and Drano slowed down or wanted to mask the smell.

One thing is certain: Michael Alig and Riggs steal drugs, money and clothes from Angel, leave the body in the bathtub and go out to party. The corpse lies undiscovered in the bathroom for about a week, while Riggs and Alig are even throwing a party in the other rooms of their apartment. When the stench got too strong, Riggs bought a large kitchen knife Macy’sAlig used to saw off Angel's arms and legs. They sink the body parts in the Hudson River.

Over the next few months, Michael Alig will tell numerous people that he murdered Angel. Some do not believe him, consider it a macabre joke or PR gag, others are afraid of falling into displeasure with Michael and being rejected from the select group of club kids. It's an open secret downtown that Michael Alig killed Angel. Most people understand what that means: Michael's unstoppable downward spiral has come to an end - and with him the entire scene as soon as this murder comes to light. James St. James states in his memoir: "Michael had finally gone too far [...] he destroyed [...] everything he had worked so hard to create." The fact that a person was murdered hardly plays a role for him, as for many others who find little friendly words for him after Angel's death. Meanwhile, the police are also not interested in Angel Melendez's disappearance. Latino, gay, dealer? Not a priority for NYPD investigation. It wasn't until Michael Musto rumors in the Village Voice and Angel's torso was washed up in Staten Island, the murder had ramifications for Alig, who was finally arrested in December 1996.

What is missing from the testimony of witnesses and the descriptions of these scenes in almost all articles, books and documentaries or is only mentioned in passing: At the crime scene where Robert “Freeze” Riggs and Michael Alig murdered Angel Melendez, there is another one Person present - the son of Paul Auster.

The fourth person on the scene

On a Sunday in March of 1996 I was at home in my bedroom with a friend", Quoted James St. James in Disco Bloodbath Riggs' confession and adds in brackets: "This is Freeze’s only mention of Daniel." Daniel is Paul Auster's son from his first marriage to the writer Lydia Davis, with whom he was married from 1974 to 1977. Even today, neither Paul Auster nor his second wife Siri Hustvedt or their daughter Sophie Auster speak publicly about Daniel. There are also few articles linking him to Angel's murder. Jarett Kobek sums this up in Our wonderfully short future dry together:

Paul Auster's son will plead guilty to stealing $ 3,000 from Angels' money. Morganthau will not call Paul Auster's son to the stand to testify against Michael Alig or Freeze because he believes junkies are unreliable witnesses. In 2003, Siri Hustvedt, the stepmother of Paul Auster's son, will write a bluntly autobiographical novel entitled What I Loved, which touches on Angel's murder. Hustvedt's fictional counterpart will speculate that Paul Auster’s son’s fictional counterpart never told the truth about the murder. Four men are in Michael Alig's apartment on March 16. The poorest of them is hit three times on the head with a hammer. The one with the best relationships gets five years probation. This is how the world works.

In newspaper articles you have to search specifically for Daniel Auster to find out more about his presence at the crime scene. Meanwhile, Siri Hustvedt - who is no secret that both her and Paul Auster's books are strongly autobiographical - is engaged in the aforementioned novel What i loved (2003), her best-known work to date, with Michael Alig, called Teddy Giles in her fictionalized version. Over several decades, the novel tells the life of two avant-garde couples, each with a son, one of whom, Mark, gets involved with the performance artist Teddy Giles, and repeatedly lies, steals and betrays his parents and foster parents. Mark's stepmother Violet, Hustvedt's alter ego (like the writer herself, Violet comes from Minnesota and has Norwegian ancestors) says at one point about the unpredictable Mark: “I'm afraid of him.” Her feelings about Mark are also a key scene in the novel, in which the title is mentioned:

I'm selfish, Leo, and I've got something cold and hard inside of me. I am full of hate. I hate Mark. I loved him in the process. Not from the start, of course, but I've slowly learned to love him and then hate him later, and I wonder if I would hate him too if I had given birth to him, if he were my own son? But the really terrible question is: what was it that I loved?

While Siri Hustvedt's characters struggle with Mark's behavior, which they encounter differently, Teddy Giles is clearly portrayed as callous, narcissistic and inscrutable. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that he murdered a boy, dismembered his body and dumped it in the river - just like Michael Alig. The question of to what extent the character Mark was involved in this murder remains as open in the fiction of the novel as the question of what exactly Daniel Auster did in reality at the crime scene.

Even if Hustvedt is silent about her stepson, she said in an interview with the Guardian a remarkable sentence in 2010: "The only monster I've ever really made is Teddy Giles."

The end of the party

"And now: the party was over." No sentence in James St. James over-the-top, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes very flirtatious memoir is more truthful. The party is over. A good two years before the murder, in January 1994, Republican Rudy Giuliani, now one of Trump's greatest supporters, becomes Mayor of New York City. He counteracts crime with a law-and-order policy, and with his “Quality of Life Campaign” he promotes artificial gentrification by, among other things, cleaning the city of graffiti and banning many street stalls and crooked kiosks, the so-called Disneyfication of the Driving Times Square and doing everything else to give New York the face it has today: that of a “glittering metropolis”.

The New York nightlife has long been a thorn in the side of the neoliberal cleaner Giuliani - and the murder of Angel Melendez the found reason to finally wipe the table clean. Giuliani has numerous raids carried out until one club after another closes. The time of subcultural hedonism is over, and that of lounges with overpriced drinks has dawned. As underground journalist and club kids chronicler Michael Musto puts it - addressed to his Frenemy Michael Alig:

You not only killed Angel, you basically murdered nightlife because, as Mayor Giuliani kept looking for ways to crack down on clubs so they became safe for tourists and community boards, you gave him every reason to put further restraints and make going out an exercise in constantly looking back to see who's watching your every move. In fact, you made it very uncool to go out at all, especially dressed with any flamboyance, because the association was with a hateful, grisly act of violence that was substance-fueled and totally demented. It was years until people were able to dress up and laugh again, and if you find the nightlife still a little too restrained when you reenter it, you mainly have yourself to blame! (Translation below)

The club kids scene has produced some familiar faces, most notably RuPaul (whom James St. James calls "wallflower" in his book) and Chloë Sevigny, but also artist Walt "WaltPaper" Cassidy, who only last year the book New York: Club Kids published, drag diva Amanda Lepore and of course James St. James himself, who is sometimes at today RuPaul’s Drag Race can be seen, have drawn long-term profit from their fame at the time. Robert "Freeze" Riggs came out of prison in 2010 and went to NYU to study sociology.

And Michael? Michael Alig was also released in 2014 after 17 years in prison. In the weeks and months that followed, he gave a lot of interviews (and he still has a small fan base, including many young people, some of whom weren't even born when the club was kids), promoted a few parties and took part with ex-boyfriends and Ex-club kid DJ Keoki on a terrible song. Since then it has become quite quiet around him. Every now and then, when he is obviously short of money, he sells old flyers through his Twitter account. But otherwise no cock crows at him.

Translation quote:
You not only killed Angel, but also basically the nightlife, because Mayor Giuliani, who was looking for ways to take action against clubs to make them safe for tourists and local councils, you gave all the reasons to enforce more restrictions and out Doing a going out task that requires you to turn around all the time to see who's watching your every step. The fact is, partying is now uncool because of you, especially when you dress in flamboyant clothes, because that is now associated with your drug-induced, completely stupid, hateful and obnoxious act of violence.It took years before people could crack up and laugh again. And if the nightlife seems too tight once you come back, you are the main culprit!

Cover picture by Isabella Caldart