In the 1980s, I never left the house without at least three cameras in my face, and one of them always belonged to John Simone, the frisky clubland photog who regularly aimed his lens at the glamorous oddities and fabulous freaks of NYC nightlife.
It was a time when the city was a rich mix of economic brackets, sexualities and anger modes, AIDS activism colliding with club kids in the last gasp of fringe-y Manhattan living. And part of being on the scene involved being documented by the truly dedicated chroniclers for club mags that treated us like the real Brat Pack, the ones worth celebrating, just in case we happened to change a hair design or move an accessory to the other side of our homemade ensemble.
Back in the ’80s, the underground was below 14th Street, no one stayed home thinking they could mass communicate by other means, and chain stores were in the minimum, as clubs beckoned us to bring whatever flavors we’d created to the table, then take it all in with a bemused exuberance. Looking back on the fun, I wish I’d stopped and complimented people on their outfits more!
Patrick McMullan was a burgeoning young photographer on the scene, as were Wolfgang Wesener and Ben Buchanan, plus Nelson Sullivan was a regular, filming all the glam minutiae for epic documentaries that would find their way onto YouTube years later. Pushing himself into this mix, Simone was always fearless, enthusiastic and game for anything. The twinkle in his eyes spoke volumes about his love for capturing the ruling class of clubs, who had the power because they were the most creatively beautiful and culturally daring ones for miles. He still has that twinkle.
On request, he has shared with me a smattering of the vivid images that characterized this time of hopes and hallelujahs, mayhem and moxie, posing and middle-fingering. Go slowly through them, or you might find it all a bit much by todays more stringent red-carpet aesthetics.
Me at Tunnel, an elaborate, industrial club on the site of abandoned train tracks by the river in Chelsea, in 1987. In case my loud blouse, blowsy hair and impenetrable shades weren’t enough, I carted that oversized fan to the club to make a real statement. It’s always helpful to bring your own fan.
In keeping with the bigness of all things ’80s, Dean Johnson was a 6-foot-6-inch white rapper in a dress, a pearl necklace and combat boots, barking, Fuck Mary Tyler Moore! while also dabbling in biting commentary on everything from politics to celebutantes. Dean brought humor, sexiness and a healthy sense of rage to his Rock and Roll Fag Bar party at The World in the East Village, where sex appeal made a BIG comeback. 1988.
The newest club is opening up Whenever that happened, there was Nina Hagen, a vision of beauty in all her trilly, kooky, lusty rhythms of the night. Why she never worked with John Waters is beyond me, but she was so cinematic in her spandex outfits and blonde tresses, she probably didnt need a director. The World, 1987.
Before he became a fine-feathered diva, RuPaul was a gritty riot who was arrestingly rough around the edges. Im speechless here as to what look this might be, but I can say this: Its definitely a look. Work, supermodel.
Susanne Bartsch. Its an honor for me to host for Susanne Bartschs On Top party on Tuesday nights. Since the ’80s, shes the one whos kept picking up downtowns freak flag and waving it, even as oppression, gentrification and community boards try to put a stop to the madness. Simone took this photo at the glitzy club Savage, Bartschs first foray into weekly clubbing, and she started with a bang. Her bashes brought together rich mixes of every strata of NYC society, from the most outrageous transsexual dancers to the most conservative Wall Street bankers (though by 4 a.m., they had usually switched roles and outfits).
Bartsch is here shown at the opening of another weekly party she did, at a joint called Bentleys. Shed find these shiny, off-the-beaten-track places that no one would normally be caught dead at, then shed invite the VIPs to such places and watch them flock, perversely making them the must-attend boites of the whole town. Magic! And her outfits which were always Punch-and-Judy-meets-Pinocchio on a spaceship far, far away crossed with a Swiss ballerina always led the parade. Bartsch trademarked the idea that the host sets the tone for the party by dressing and acting like theyre having fun! Imagine that!
John Sex was one of downtowns most glittering entertainers a Vegas lounge spoof with wide-lapeled, animal-print jackets and basically the hairdo of a unicorn. One of his backup singers was Wendy Wild though that was just one of her many incarnations. Basically, she was just your everyday rocker/comic/performance artist/clubbie/satirist. In tiger print.
Michael Musto is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.