A great man once wrote:
“Once upon a time in New York City, when the city finally went to sleep, a magical place opened its doors and invited people in to have the time of their lives. Studio 54 was a magical place that made you forget all about your troubles, trials, and tribulations. It was heaven on earth.”
That man was Gene Simmons of KISS, who lent his quote to Mark Fleischman’s book, Inside Studio 54: The Real Story of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll from Former Studio 54 Owner.
Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager opened Studio 54 in 1977 and made it a legendary nightclub by the time they were charged with tax evasion and sent to prison. The first generation of the disco threw its last party in 1980. In 1981, the infamous Roy Cohn brokered a deal from the jailhouse phone and Studio 54 was sold to Mark Fleischman, who ran it for the second and last iteration. Fleischman renovated the club and made it easily convertible for live music performances on the floor or the giant moving bridge twenty feet above the crowd. The new 54 not only remained the place to be seen, but one that hosted a wide array of entertainers, designers, artists, socialites, and even prep schoolers, like me, on a few occasions.
The Manhattan club scene was wide and varied in those days. There was a spot for everyone, from hip-hop uptown to tony midtown and the rougher environs of downtown. Just blocks from my house on 57th Street were the Red Parrot for Latin dancing, Ice Palace 57, and the big daddy of them all, Studio 54. You just needed a connection to get into some of the more elite joints.
It was a particular set of kids at my school that acted as the gatekeepers to this nightlife. They knew all the best dance spots as well as crash-worthy debutante balls, house parties, after-hours spots, and when the hip young Maitre d’ was seating the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel. Fortunately, I signed on with their social network–my calendar was never as full as my last two years of high school (1982 – 1984) after I started visiting the cool girls at their secret hangout.
They could be found, before homeroom, in the upstairs level of a donut shop around the corner from St. Hilda’s, with their Marlboro Lights, coffee cups, and half-eaten muffins. In a high school with just over a hundred students, the group was a fluid organism, including different classes and ages. Their membership was refreshed over the course of any summer when young women suddenly left behind plaids and Peter Pan collars and returned in gray flannel skirts and crisp white shirts draped as short and snug as the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Spirit allowed. The torso was to be concealed for chapel services with sweaters or jackets. Boys’ uniforms were boring: banker’s gray trousers, white or blue oxford shirt, navy blazer, necktie, and penny loafers. The Reverend Mother also allowed Levi’s corduroy jeans. Whether that was a lapse in judgment or an attempt to modernize, it was providential because I looked awesome in those pants. With this simple yet versatile wardrobe, I cobbled together nearly all my daytime, party, and formal looks.
Teen clubbing and barhopping might seem foreign now, but back then, the drinking age was 18, which meant that a 14-year-old could buy alcohol provided that the man behind the counter, bar, or velvet rope didn’t ask for ID. Besides my Social Security card, I had no other identification and didn’t need any, especially when I obtained party passes at the donut shop. Promoters funneled their club tickets into schools through various channels, and the cool girls who allocated them were the first hurdle to disco nirvana before doormen made final decisions.
There’s been a lot of ink spilled on the restrictive door policy at Studio 54, but it was forced social equality, and, if you were admitted, you could mix with a diverse crowd of gay and straight, young and old, rich and poor, fabulous and basic. Everyone was welcome and safe from the world outside that was overcoming backlashes against disco. By the end of the 1970s, some rock fans started rioting and burning dance records at public events as part of the “Disco Sucks” phenomenon, something I never understood. In the Saturday Night Fever era of New York, disco was just part of the city’s ambient noise along with subway trains and sirens. It demanded no musical loyalty and offered nothing but freedom, fun, and dancing. I could see why people wanted to go to places like Studio 54.
The first time I was allowed entry, I felt like I had crossed a threshold into an alternate universe. Once past the door and down the glitzy chandeliered hallway, I was swept into an ocean of light, sound, and bodies. It was so much more exciting than sitting in some lousy theatre watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the twentieth time, or eating Chinese food at a friend’s house and stealing incremental portions of liquor from their parents’ cabinet. The people at 54 were stylish, worldly, and beautiful, and I guess I was one of them. I couldn’t wait to rub elbows with the crème de la crème of society and find my seat next to Halston, Liza, and Warhol.
However, I spent most of my time wading through crowds to the restrooms and waiting forever to be served by the shirtless bartenders – my tipple back then was Sambuca (with three coffee beans, please!). It would have been faster to accept free drinks from the older clientele perched by the bar, but I always had the money I earned from my after-school job. And I knew exactly what was going on: my uniform by day was often misconstrued as a “hot Episcopal schoolboy” outfit as I walked home from work at night. Eventually, I had to change my route to avoid the rich businessman hotels along Central Park South. With a double snifter of Sambuca and six coffee beans, I walked around 54 studying the light system, locating the speakers from the bridge, and peering into the DJ booth to see which decks they were spinning. “Oh, look at that,” I would think to myself, “Thorens TD-125s and not Technics SL-1200s? Hmm, that’s really interesting.” I might also muse aloud, “I wonder if they’re JBLs or the giant theater Altecs? Maybe Cerwin Vegas like I have?” Precisely the subjects no woman cares about–fresh from the beauty salon in her best dress waiting to hit the dance floor with a capable partner. She certainly wouldn’t appreciate that the sound system was custom-built by Richard Long and Alex Rosner, and the lighting designed by Jules Fisher and Paul Marantz [n.b., no relation to the audio companies].
I really wanted to fulfill my 1970s fantasies of making out with models in the balconies, snorting cocaine on the couches, dropping Quaaludes in the toilet, and huffing poppers on the dance floor, but the opportunities never seemed to present themselves – and I didn’t know how to make any of it happen among those sophisticated partiers. I was also disappointed to never see anyone famous: no Brooke Shields, Bianca and Mick Jagger, or Calvin Klein. It leads me to think they might have packed the club with people like me when there weren’t too many A-listers scheduled.
It wasn’t Mark Fleischman’s fault that I wasn’t having the best time of my life. Everything was there for me: loud music, pretty women, liquor, and dancing. Sadly, I couldn’t dance then. I can’t dance now. I can’t foxtrot, Charleston, or waltz, nor do the frog, jerk, or Watusi. I can’t hustle, salsa, or tarantella. I’m too shy to freestyle in any public setting and I easily embarrass myself at home if a groove should sweep me away.
In my youth, I was scarred by a woman nearly thrice my age who tried to teach me a folk dance at a wedding in Slovenia. She looked like Sophia Loren, and she was clearly the beauty of the village. It got awkward fast as she used her firm hands to guide my waist – gentle at first, then increasingly commanding – while my mother and the rest of her witches’ coven urged her on. After catching my breath, I pointed out the stunner in a tight turquoise dress to my grandmother and asked who she was. “Annika?! That’s your aunt from Stuttgart!” she replied in a language I barely understood. I should have run as soon as the seemingly innocent hello-hug turned into a Freudian dance nightmare.
Stuff like that happened all the time. These women didn’t realize that a boy sitting alone, slack-jawed, and staring into space at some family function could just be an amateur musicologist trying to analyze a piece of music. He’s neither lonely nor wanting to boogie. But I always got roped into boob-level dance embraces with the neighbor lady, a friend’s mom, or someone’s older cousin. My mother never explained the difference between dancing and going steady, so I’ve had to take all these awkward memories and sublimate them into aggressive head-bobbing and throwing devil’s horns in the air whenever I like a song, no matter the genre. It looks more tragic with each passing year, I assure you.
I bet I was one of the few guests at 54 who actually scrutinized the playlist, and I wanted to hear the great old 70s tracks amid the latest drum-machine driven cuts and recent rock-to-disco crossovers which seemed to anger many devoted hard rock fans. Just ask a veteran of the KISS Army how they felt about “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” (1979), one of their biggest hits. I wasn’t bothered; I generally liked the pseudo-disco songs by my favorite bands. The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” (1978) and “Emotional Rescue” (1980), and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” (1980) were all fine, but nothing like the gold standard of campy rock departures, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” (1978) and its associated sexy video. Written by Carmine Appice, Duane Hitchings and Rod Stewart and meticulously produced by Tom Dowd, it incorporated disco-fashion instrumentation and an excellent bass line by Phil Chen to build a solid dance tune. Were these decent pop songs? Absolutely! Were they bona fide disco tracks? Absolutely not!
Rock bands can’t help but superimpose their natural performance sensibility over another genre, but the best disco is not driven by complex lyrics, guitar solos, or extraordinary vocals. All it needs are good hooks, beats, and loops to create a trance-inducing escapist medium built on a foundation of synthesizers as well as traditional rock and orchestral instruments. Though the rock crossovers struck certain style marks, they lacked the groove, joy, and authenticity of the music that grew out of R&B, Motown, funk, and Philadelphia soul. There are dozens of great hits by major acts like the Village People, Donna Summer, and certainly the Bee Gees’ juggernaut, but there are a few exemplars from the 1970s that truly represent classic disco:
Starting way back in the early days, Barry White conducted the Love Unlimited Orchestra to weave his satin-smooth “Love’s Theme” (1973). The instrumental piece is accented by chicken-scratch and wah wah pedal guitar by brilliant session man Melvin Ragin (aka Wah Wah Watson). Even if the title isn’t familiar at first, you’ve probably heard it many times over the last 50 years.
The next classic is “More, More, More” (1976) by The Andrea True Connection. Andrea True sings in a breathy, warm, sultry-night voice against a background of piano, acoustic guitar, and horns. Whether you vacationed on Fire Island or the Jersey Shore, this dreamy song is reminiscent of a first summer crush. Not only is it sensuous, but the cowbell is outstanding.
Finally, “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (1976) by Thelma Houston and “I Will Survive” (1978) by Gloria Gaynor – two of the best closing-time anthems which also address relationship issues: Houston begs her good lover to stay while Gaynor tells her bad one to go away. One would sing along with the tune that best described their own romantic journey.
My clubbing experience at Studio 54 spanned two visits. After being turned away the third time, I decided my streak was over – twice admitted is pretty impressive considering most people never got in. As a celebutante, I wasn’t pleased about standing in line and waiting to be chosen. I still liked to see shows at Madison Square Garden whenever I could, even with all the inherent violence. Nothing initiates you into manhood faster than having fireworks thrown at your head or dealing with the repercussions of accidentally spilling beer on some metal fan’s spandex unitard. Typically, I hung out at a college bar once frequented by the Beat Generation. Located just one block down Broadway from the donut shop, the West End was old, broken-in, and the very opposite of glamorous, but it was where I could always be with my friends from school – even the cool girls and the lay faculty stopped by. We could stay at the bar all night, popping out occasionally for a bite at the diner or a classmate’s house nearby, before heading back into the smoke for more canned music and drinks, no passes required. Don’t bother going up to 114th Street now. The spirits of the Beats were evicted in 2006.
Studio 54 closed in 1986, but disco never went away – it was just absorbed into newer forms of dance music: hip-hop, EDM (electronic dance music), house, and techno. Then, the next generation of club kids came along and sloughed off the oldsters from Studio 54 to reinvent New York City nightlife in their image at clubs like The Limelight, Danceteria, and Pyramid Club.
When the world is back to normal, I hope discos, clubs, and bars come roaring back. Not for me; I go to bed at 9 pm, so my club days are long over. I mourn for today’s youth who spend too much time at home with smartphones as companions. It’s true that minors are safer in their rooms and not running around city streets like we did, but there is also a lack of spontaneous adventure that can’t be scheduled in among soccer practice, Mandarin lessons, and Rock School. In the early 1980s, our future was blighted by a possible nuclear conflict, a war on drugs, and a looming pandemic called AIDS, so making the most of every moment was more important to me than homework and studying for the SATs. At least, I could leave the house.
Now, kids face a similar situation but with the added stress of isolation and quarantines. I don’t care what kind of dreadful new hybrid of EDM they’re dancing to, or exclusive clubs they’re hiding in, as long as they can escape once again to magical places for some unsupervised bliss. While we all deserve a little heaven on earth, young people should have it guaranteed. Wherever they’re partying in the future, I just hope the DJ plays some slow make-out music. May I suggest “More, More, More” by the Andrea True Connection?
Header image courtesy of Pixabay/Julian Tuca Siminiciuc.