Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture
by Frank Owen
St. Martin’s Press
I get a call last week from my old buddy Ryan Ranspach. I’ve known the guy for years, we met near the tail-end of high school, and he’s a good friend. After his moving to the west coast for a bit last year, I finally get the call last Thursday saying he’s moved back to South Florida, staying with his old roommate in West Palm. After shifting around a few plans, we get together last Saturday for a night of catch-up, having some fun and engaging in wacky “Miller Time” style antics. Of course most of our time is really spent retelling our old stories, every other sentence starting with, “Hey, remember that time when we…”
We eventually get to talking about our times spent at a now defunct after-hours nightclub here in Miami. Little did we know back then, but we were catching the end of a much vaunted era of hedonism; the nightclub/rave scene of the mid-to-late ’90s. It was a new take on the age-old ideas of free-love and music, albeit aided by copious amounts of mind-altering chemicals.
Still relatively young at the time, Ryan and I didn’t exactly know the details of what was happening, nor did we care. Walking through the doors of this club for the first time seemed like stepping into another world (and as I look back, we might just have). The ‘duff-duff-duff’ of bass set the rhythm of the place; a rhythm being used to dance to, a rhythm to have ambiguous public sex to, to drink to, and ingest obscene amounts of drugs to. With bouncers more inclined to eject an unsanctioned drug dealer or someone perceived to be a narc, the fact that we were two painfully under-aged kids who told our parents we were each spending the night sleeping over at the other guy’s house didn’t seem to bother anyone. As long as you had the cover charge and a smile, everyone else looked the other way.
Frank Owen’s new book Clubland: The Fabulous Rise And Murderous Fall Of Club Culture, delves into this world with a wealth of detail. And is so doing gives weight to the adage of “the truth is stranger than fiction”. The stories told in Clubland reflect the journalistic style with which they were observed and written. Owens is a former writer for The Village Voice as well as Spin, Details and other rags. A wonderful balance is achieved between first-hand personal observations, insight, and reflections which keep the book personable and the reader interested, as well as objective facts-based news gathering. This is useful in lending believability to some of these over-the-top stories, which may seem unlikely to have taken place in modern, civilized society.
The beauty in Clubland evoked from this mix of reporting and storytelling is mirrored in its outstanding handling of multiple, intertwining storylines. Writing off Clubland as a “just a book about clubs” is like saying Pulp Fiction was “just a movie about a few gangsters”. In fact, its breadth of subject is one of Clubland‘s most admirable qualities. The book revolves around four main characters in the ’90s club scene; techno party-promoter Lord Michael Caruso, one-eyed club magnate Peter Gatien, gangster-turned-high society socialite of South Beach, Chris Paciello, and the king of the club-kids Michael Alig (who is now the focus of a recently released film entitled Party Monster, featuring Macaulay Culkin as Alig). However, to say the story stops at these four scene-makers would be a gross understatement, as we’re introduced to and follow the lives of countless other notable players. Clubland features a cast consisting of but not limited to: Undercover DEA agents dressed in drag, federal snitches selling information to both sides, murdered dealers, their vengeful brothers, mob families muscling in on the lucrative nightlife, D.A.’s and defense lawyers. All wrapped up enough drama for a full season of The Practice. Not to mention our narrator, the journalist in the middle of it all, documenting the facts which constantly remind us that this is not fiction.
As in the aforementioned Pulp Fiction, in Clubland, Owen sports an almost Tarentino-esque method of timeline jumping, leaving a series of effective cliffhangers at the end of each chapter.
This yields two effects. First, in order to effectively follow multiple plots while maintaining an overall sense of the story, it’s necessary to hop from storyline to storyline. This keeps each character’s respective rise in time with their falls; while it seems to be an invitation to disaster (a disjointed storyline with possibly too many threads to keep sorted in the reader’s head), Owen handles it with ease. He playfully hints at the underlying connection between all introduced characters (and there are many), while jumping through years of back-stories and biographies.
Second, this method of storytelling affords the reader the chance to see the same situation from different angles. While reading through a chapter detailing Gatien’s (the one-eyed club magnate) point of view on the chaos occurring in his own establishments, Owen will leave the reader hanging. With the climax of an unresolved DEA raid on the club in the balance, Owen rewinds two years, and re-tells the tale from the perspective of the federal task force plotting the takedown. With many other authors this might have been a recipe for failure, dooming the reader to repetitively read the same tale over and over. But again, Owen pulls it off with such style each perspective offers a truly three-dimensional feel. Not just main characters, but every character is fleshed out with their own personality, motive, and history, no matter how small their part in the overall scheme of things.
This is a culture criticized (rightfully so, I might add) for its superficiality, for the vapid, trite, meaningless lives, of its participants. But Owen puts personalities behind these vacant club-kid eyes, reminding us they are still real people. Even a slain house drug dealer is still a person with caring family, and a life prior to a descent into the darkly colored underbelly of New York and Miami nightlife.
Owen is first seen praising the utopian ideals of the club culture, a world of living in the moment and damning all inhibitions. Later, this praise converts to scathing bitterness as these actions lead to the downfall of both the “good guys” (who are pretty bad) and “bad guys”(who are worse) alike, leaving Owen disappointed at the waste of life harbored by these scenes. So is there a point to all this? I don’t think there has to be. Clubland explores life, non-fiction, and the fact is that life doesn’t always have a point, or a definitive Hollywood ending. The body count at the end of the party doesn’t have to have justification. This isn’t a tale of morals garnered from ancient history, it’s a story of a failed cultural tapestry woven just a handful of years ago.
Eventually the lifestyle catches up with people who choose to lead it. Collapsing under its own bloated, foundationless, decadent weight was the true downfall of the ’90s club scene. Unlike Owen, I’m not sour, although my expectations have changed accordingly. As he mentions in an interview with the Miami New Times, “There’s no culture in this culture, unless your idea of a meaningful event is paying $500 for a bottle of champagne and hanging with the Hilton sisters.”, or as written in Clubland itself (in reference to Miami Beach), “Models still clogged the streets, but they were B-list and C-list girls, not the Kates and Naomis who used to flock there. What was once the sandbox of the stars, by the start of the millennium seemed more like a freak fest for drunken frat boys.”
My own night-life is still very much active, and I’m just thankful clubs can get along without worrying about A-list models or horse-tranquilizer being sold as a recreational drug in order to have a good time. There’s still enough tacky neon light and velvet rope clubs left for those drunken-frat boys to parade around in to worn out trance music. But with mass-indulgence out of the way for the time being I hope creativity will come to flourish in this scene once again. What can I say? I was always about the music.
St. Martin’s Press: http://www.stmartins.com/