Clubland, Frank Owen

St. Martin’s Press, 2003, 323 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-28766-6

One of the reasons why I can’t stop reading non-fiction books these days is the renewed realization that the world is vast and contains an infinity of interesting things.  No matter how tightly the subject is defined, there are more than enough interesting narratives out there to keep anyone reading forever.

For instance, you wouldn’t necessarily expect the mid-nineties New York club scene to be be interesting enough to sustain a hardcover book… and you’d be tragically wrong.

Frank Owen was there at the time, and Clubland is a fascinating report on what he witnessed.  He’s not a big part of the story that plays out, but he’s not entirely detached from it either.  It starts as he buys a new popular drug, Special K, from a distinctive dealer.  This scene is important, but it takes about a hundred pages to understand why.

For Clubland is, in many ways, structured like a drug trip.

The first third is the high.  Here, Owen takes his time to clearly identify his subject.  Within mid-nineties New York club culture, he focuses on four different individuals: One-eyed Canadian-born club owner Peter Gatien, imaginative promoter Lord Michael Caruso, unhinged party animal Michael Alig, and shady small-time thug Chris Paciello.  All four men intersect in oft-surprising ways during that time.  But for the first hundred pages of Clubland, everything feels like a great night out: Gatien’s clubs are the toast of the town, and the rave culture of the mid-nineties seems to herald a happy kind of lifestyle the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Disco’s heyday.  Esctasy is the drug of choice, and uninhibited self-expression on the dance floor seems to be without consequences.

Unfortunately, this temporary reprieve soon turns dark.  The second third of Clubland is where the high peaks and transforms itself in an acute case of paranoia and madness.  Gatien’s successful clubs attract enough drug dealers to interest federal authorities.  Caruso helps Alig become his own exuberant self after a repressed childhood, but Alig ends up accidentally killing the very same dealer who sold Special K to Owen during the prologue.  For a chapter or two, Clubland changes gears: After a lengthy stretch of objective reporting, Owen comes back to the forefront as he describes his own efforts as a journalist for the Village Voice to find and expose a murderer.  Nightmares abound as the club culture turns sour, sometimes with hilariously awful results:

…the most notorious of Alig’s outlaw events took place in the back of a moving eighteen-wheel big rig outfitted with a sound system, a bar, and a disco ball. “Rudolph and Michael Alig dare you to ride the Disco Truck,” read the invitation for what would become a nightmarish journey around lower Manhattan.  Two hundred partygoers climbed into the back, and, as they soon discovered, the truck had little in the way of suspension.  As a consequence, the disco ball fell and smashed.  Then the sound system toppled over.  There was precious little air, so people started to faint, while others began to cry.  Partygoers pounded on the wall of the truck, begging to be let out, but the coked-up driver in the front failed to hear their cries for help.” [P.132-133]

As horrible as this excerpt sounds, I can’t help but giggle uncontrollably at the idea of an out-of-control Disco Truck.

While this is going on, Chris Paciello begins his unlikely rise from New York mob relations to the top of the Miami club scene, befriending a number of celebrities (including seemingly-wholesome Sofia Vergara, who even tried to help him pay bail when he was arrested) and changing the nature of East Coast music along the way.  The last third of Clubland feels like the letdown phase of a drug trip as the crazy stories and violent excesses all turn to numbing series of accounts and consequences: Gatien, Alig and Paciello all do time in the courts, some of them landing in jail for what they have done.  Meanwhile, the New York club scene dissolves and the temporary scene that Owen chronicles in his book seems to disperse.  (Whether this is truly the case I’ll leave to the partygoers who were there, and are better able to talk about what else was going on at the time.)

Clubland may not be a deep and meaningful examination of world-changing events, but it’s certainly an entertaining look at a unique culture that briefly blossomed and fell apart.  It’s a terrific read, and a powerful reminder that all sorts of horrible and beautiful events are taking place around us, even when they escape our notice at the time

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