Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
A scene from Limelight: a DJ performing at Peter Gatien's club.
A scene from Limelight: a DJ performing at Peter Gatien's club. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
On Friday, a documentary ostensibly about the rise and fall of a one time club king named Peter Gatien opened in New York (it opens around the country next month). In the early to mid-1990s – the height of rave culture in the U.S. – Gatien owned the biggest clubs in New York City, including Limelight, which lived in a deconsecrated Episcopal Church in the Chelsea neighborhood. Today Gatien lives in Toronto, where he was deported in 2003 after pleading guilty to tax evasion. And Limelight has become a mall. It calls itself a "Festival of Shops."
Much of the story told in Limelight will be familiar to readers of Clubland, a book chronicling mid-'90s nightlife written by Frank Owen, who covered Limelight at its height and followed its scandalous end in the pages of local alternative weekly the Village Voice. It certainly was to the documentary's director, Billy Corben, who read the book as he was pursuing another documentary about the man who ran the biggest club in Miami in the mid-'90s. Owen appears frequently as a kind of expert witness in Limelight.
"I had read Clubland because of our interest in Chris Paciello and Liquid in South Beach, and the Miami angle," says Corben, best known for 2006's Cocaine Cowboys. Corben and producing partner Albert Spellman still intend to make a movie about Paciello. But first, they've made Limelight, which focuses on Gatien, the eye-patched Canadian nightclub impresario who owned Limelight, Palladium, Tunnel and Club U.S.A., who was brought to trial by the City of New York under mayor Rudolph Giuliani's mid-'90s crime crackdown, alleging that Gatien was overseeing a massive drug ring in his clubs.
It was a questionable charge, given the sheer size of Gatien's venues. "Peter's smallest venue, Club U.S.A., held 2,500 people," says Corben. "The Tunnel, which was a city block, held 5,000. I walked through that building when we were making the movie and said, 'I can't even imagine trying to shut this place down at closing time.'" Gatien was acquitted; the government, burned by the verdict, eventually deported him.
Gatien's story has been overshadowed by the scary drama of Michael Alig, a Limelight promoter currently serving a 10-to-20-year bid for murdering his roommate, drug dealer Angel Melendez, which was made into the 2003 drama Party Monster, starring Macaulay Culkin and (as herself) onetime New York club kid Chloe Sevigny. Corben's Limelight, with its fast pace and outrageous storyline — the case against Gatien was dismissed because the government's witnesses were so thoroughly unreliable — should help redress the balance. Owen, Gatien, a surprisingly healthy-looking Alig (filmed in New York state prison), promoter "Lord" Michael Caruso and DJ-musician Moby all appear to tell the tale.
Gatien's daughter Jen, an independent film producer in New York, approached Corben and Spellman about making the film. "The project really originated with her," says Corben. "We made no secret of our collaboration: she came on board with access to certain key figures, obviously including her father. We certainly had our differences. [But] she appreciated the objectivity we had displayed in Cocaine Cowboys and [gave us] final cut." And although several law-enforcement and government figures declined to be filmed, Corben spoke with "almost every single witness the government called to testify against Peter Gatien, on-camera [or] off-camera," he says, including two of the three prosecuting U.S. attorneys. "The information they gave me definitely influenced how we put together the movie," he says. "Their off-camera influence was important."
Limelight arrives at a time when interest in electronic dance music is at a peak in America — "The New Rave Generation," as the cover story of the current issue of Spin puts it, referring to acts like Skrillex, Deadmau5 and Afrojack, who thrill teenagers just diving into the music and send longstanding electronic-dance fans into fits that make LCD Soundsystem's lampoon of cred-mongering, "Losing My Edge," sound like a Protestant hymn. And like the current giant wave (this year's Electric Daisy Carnival, which took place in Las Vegas in May, outstripped Coachella's ticket sales this year, according to Spin), the Limelight-era rave scene was a decisive break with dance music's neater past.
"They were too young to know about the history of house music. They just wanted to go forward."
Rave was, of course, built on the innovations of Chicago house and Detroit techno — themselves extensions, in many obvious ways, of disco and funk traditions. But the sound that fired the neurons of early-'90s New York was far less concerned with soul than Chicago or with nuance than Detroit. While there were early American rave hits — "Go," by New Yorker Moby, was a top-10 U.K. hit in 1991 — most of the music was coming from overseas, and much of it was referred to as "hardcore."
"Hardcore" means something different depending on the musical context, but in rave it took on two separate meanings. The British definition of hardcore meant sped-up breakbeats — tracks like the Prodigy's "Charly" and Sonz of a Loop Da Loop Era's "Far Out" fused sped-up James Brown drum patterns with equally cartoonish piano riffs and voices, acting as precursor to jungle and drum & bass (not to mention the slower but even harder breaks the Prodigy utilized throughout their U.S. breakthrough album, The Fat of the Land).
In mainland Europe — particularly Belgium, Germany and Holland — "hardcore" referred to increasingly punishing tracks built on brick-like four-on-the-floor kick drums; eventually this style would be rechristened gabber. "We Have Arrived" by Mescalinum United, a.k.a. Frankfurt producer Marc Acardipane, put the style on the map in 1990. It hit U.S. shores when Brooklyn's Lenny Dee licensed the track a year later as the inaugural release of his harder-than-hardcore label, Industrial Strength Records.
Dee was a young music-biz veteran by the time he set up Industrial Strength (which celebrates its 20th anniversary Oct. 1), having worked as an engineer with Nile Rodgers and Arthur Baker out of high school and helped set early Brooklyn rave in motion alongside onetime producing partner Frankie Bones, who began the legendary STORM raves after discovering raves and ecstasy (the drug MDMA) in England and deciding to throw his own parties in the boroughs in 1989 (Los Angeles and San Francisco's scenes were kicking off at roughly the same time, as well).
"We started the parties in Staten Island and Long Island, really," says Dee. "The very stereotypical Brooklyn borough thing that most people in the city frown upon — if it weren't for us 'moes, half these kids wouldn't be dancing to what they're dancing to now. It took a bunch of morons from the suburbs to have faith and bring it to this country."
"I think what fascinated me about the STORM raves [is that] the music was just so ferocious and intense and macho," says Spin editorial director Charles Aaron, a longtime Brooklyn resident who began raving in the early '90s. "It's so much about this wound-up energy. Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island — those guys wanted to go crazy. They didn't feel like they wanted to express it through the pre-existing music. They didn't give a s—- about rock and roll. They were too young to know about the history of house music. They just wanted to go forward. They wanted the most intense, crazy music. It was the same exact thing as seeing Bad Brains in the Basement — crazier, or as crazy."
Young ravers' disinterest in house-music history was reflected right back at them. "[I]n 1991 techno and rave and early jungle were entirely new genres that were really exciting," Moby told Todd L. Burns in a 2008 interview on Resident Advisor. "The house guys kind of reacted against it. They got slower and even more song-oriented."
"They weren't into it, man," says Lenny Dee of veteran New York house DJs such as David Morales. "They have a different perspective, from the '70s, of what DJ'ing is about. All of a sudden, there's another kind of music that's not ripping off disco, that doesn't come from ripping off something from the last 20 years. It already did that — faster — in the early part of the '90s. This is our thing. These are our sounds. These are our influences. [Instead of] saying, 'I want to make an analog record with an analog drummer, as opposed to using a drum machine,' back then it was like, 'F—- that. I want the drum machine.'"
"I've never seen energy before or since like some of the nights at that club."
But by the early '90s, raves had picked up enough mass that Manhattan club promoters could no longer afford to ignore them. "All of a sudden, there's two or three thousand people in some warehouse," says Lenny Dee. "There were all these parties Frankie was throwing in train yards, sucking out hundreds, if not thousands, of people at a time."
The Limelight began throwing its own raves when Alig began the Disco 2000 parties on Wednesday nights. DB Burkeman, a.k.a. DJ DB, a British ex-pat who as a stand in for resident DJ Keoki frequently played Disco 2000, was also the impresario of a seminal weekly of his own, NASA, which ran at Tribeca's Shelter from July 1992 to July 1993.
"It was a moment in time," DB remembers of NASA. "Everything clicked. It was like those Manhattan kids had something of their own and went for it. I've never seen energy before or since like some of the nights at that club — sort of the feeling like it was theirs. The club would open early because it had so many young kids. It went from 8 or 9 [p.m.] until 6 or 7 in the morning."
NASA was immortalized in Larry Clark's movie Kids, from 1995, a film that crystallized the picture of New York rave life as crazy and decadent. "Somebody told me that [in Kids], the drugs were accurate and the sex was not," DB says. "That sounds about right — I think the sex might have been accurate for a few as well. They definitely had raging hormones, an appetite to fill any crevice or orifice. They were just pilling it. Shrooms were very big. I think a lot of it was because they were so young they didn't realize the difference of what they were taking. A lot of kids got hooked on heroin out of that scene, and they didn't even know the difference between Special K and smack. It was just total crazy innocent scariness."
"It's far from true that you have to be on drugs to hear what's good about [the music]," says Aaron. "Yeah, every time I went to one of these places, it was better because I did drugs. That's not untrue of punk rock, either. When I've been to Lincoln Center, [I wasn't] just rolling out of bed and standing around being comfy. There [are] a lot of trappings you either have to sign onto or be interested in or not."
"Peter Gatien [was] the face of this culture war."
Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York City, was mainly interested in rave's trappings insofar as he could get rid of them. Elected in 1993, he halved the city's crime by upgrading the police department's computer systems, enabling law enforcement to better monitor emerging crime patterns. It was a process Corben details in Limelight.
"I remember New York being a pretty dreadful place when I was in single digits, like in the movies: people casually being mugged at gunpoint or knifepoint on a corner," says Corben. "It was generically unsafe." That all changed by the time he visited again in the late '90s: "I walked 30-plus blocks at three in the morning in Manhattan. 10 years earlier, they would have found me in the Hudson, or on the street in a puddle of my own blood."
But once New York's streets were safer than they'd been in decades, Giuliani kept going—after squeegee men and nightclub impresarios alike. The result was (and remains) like something out of Footloose: the city that never sleeps could suddenly no longer dance, unless it was in a venue with a cabaret license — a law created in 1926 "to crack down on multiracial Harlem jazz clubs," as Tricia Romano noted in 2002, and resurrected by Giuliani to crack down on raves — part of a nationwide effort exemplified by the 2000 bust of New Orleans rave promoter Disco Donnie.
"[In] the Giuliani revolution in New York at the time, Peter Gatien [was] the face of this culture war, in a way," says Corben. "This one-eyed pirate was the face of this changing New York." And now, in Limelight, he's the face of the old one.