If you were not among those chosen few who lolled in benumbed splendor alongside the likes of Liza and Halston and Andy and Bianca during the late-1970s heyday of New York City’s Studio 54, don’t count on those who were there to tell you what fun you missed beyond the velvet rope. On the evidence presented in Anthony Haden-Guest’s the LAST PARTY: STUDIO 54, DISCO, AND THE CULTURE OF THE NIGHT (Morrow, $25), most of the Beautiful People don’t remember much themselves. Seldom has an epoch in pop culture produced as woozy a group of oral historians as the drug-addled sybarites who try to recount just what it was like in the glitter-ball demimonde that, for a time, defined New York’s gossip pages, social scene, and pharmaceutical ebb and flow.
Life in what Haden-Guest calls ”Nightworld” didn’t really crystallize until 1977, when a former steak-house chain operator named Steve Rubell and his partner, lawyer Ian Schrager, opened 54’s doors just wide enough to admit the famous, the stylish, and the connected, while keeping out the wrong kind of people. The irony was that Rubell — short, scrawny, bug-eyed, Brooklyn bred — was the wrong kind of people. ”Just make sure you don’t let in anyone like me!” he once told his own club’s doorman.
If Saturday Night Fever, which opened the same year as Studio 54, was the ultimate expression of disco as the orgasmic release of pent-up working-class sexual energy, Rubell’s club and its many imitators were about something else: snob appeal, particularly to people who could feel ”in” only by walking past those who were ”out.” But, recalls one observer, ”if you got in, you were in a world that was completely safe for you to do whatever you wanted.” For some, that meant sex; The Last Party adroitly traces the roots of New York’s orgiastic club life to the first stirrings of urban gay liberation, a sensibility that shaped and energized the city’s nightspots. And for many, it meant drugs: The history of Studio 54 is a chronology of mood alteration that takes readers from Tuinal and amyl nitrite through quaaludes, cocaine, LSD, mushrooms, heroin, Ecstasy, and finally, in the mid-’90s, the horse tranquilizer ketamine (Special K), all gobbled, snorted, injected, or inhaled in the hope that the party would never end.
It ended sooner than anyone had predicted. By 1980, Studio 54 was closed as Rubell and Schrager found themselves in big trouble with both the IRS and the DEA. Both men wound up in prison briefly on tax charges, and although the club they had made famous was to reincarnate itself more than once in the next decade — as a haven for private-school wastrels, slumming socialites, even networking yuppies — its moment was over.
A book investigating this world demands the lucid clarity of an outsider, and Haden-Guest, a British journalist/night crawler/banquette dweller who arrived in Manhattan in 1976 and promptly dove with excessive appetite into all the vulgar glamour that clubs had to offer, is not that man. Despite the occasional waspish observation, he’s too content to let his narrative follow the thrumming crowd from one hot spot of the moment to the next. But why we should trail along behind him remains a mystery. The animating forces of the throng he writes about were greed, elitism, insatiability, and boredom. Their restiveness is barely worth memorializing.
Eventually, The Last Party becomes as muddled as you might expect given that many of the interviewees, even those whose memories have not been glazed by chemicals, are self-dramatizers, grudge holders, and ax grinders. Almost none of the famous names whose presence made Studio 54 so headline-worthy for a time talked to the author, nor did Schrager, now a hotelier whose Royalton (New York) and Mondrian (in Los Angeles) shimmer with the same celebrity glow as his club once did. Without those key sources, the book is forced to jump back and forth in time, skittishly searching for a protagonist amid the promoters, denizens, and hangers-on. Unfortunately, while Haden-Guest tends to every infight and invite, he all but ignores the music itself and thus gives short shrift to the massive influence of black and Latino culture on the disco scene, and to the largely white ”Disco sucks” rebellion that made the word an epithet by 1980.
Still, there’s no denying that the miserable revels recounted in The Last Party exert a dank, mournful fascination. As the 1980s went on and AIDS began to cast its long shadow over the festivities (Rubell died of the disease in 1989) some partygoers were given a choice — they could go home and sober up, or they could die. The unlucky ones didn’t get to choose. No wonder, then, that this scattered chronicle seems so bleary and bloodshot. It’s been one hell of a long morning after. C