In contemporary America, gay culture has long been linked to the club world. Bars and nightlife venues have historically been sacred gathering spaces, shadowy save for the flickering strobe lights, where members of the LGBT community could find new friends and allies – or even, if they chose, simply be alone together. When I speak to older gay folks for stories I write (even about seemingly unrelated topics like political campaigns and whatnot), I’m struck by how often the conversations lead back to a favorite club: because they met an important contact there, maybe, or because the atmosphere captured the greater climate. And I’m equally struck by the way those memories can radically change a disposition. Even when talking about otherwise troubling, contentious times, a flood of reminisces about a night at Chaps – or Buddies, or the Napoleon Club – often have the power to replace pained, misty eyes with glinting ones happily lost in a special kind of reverie.
Now gay clubs are few and far between, even (maybe especially) in progressive cities like Boston. So like a lot of guys my age, I think, I sometimes feel I got gypped. Like I didn’t fully experience the unique, liberating abandon of such communal space. You could certainly argue that’s a specious complaint for a generation to have. And to be sure, we missed some of the harder struggles. But did we also miss some of the greater joys?
After this weekend, I’m not so sure. Gay clubs are dying. Gay nightlife, on the other hand, still lives. We just have to work a little bit harder to make it happen.
Let me backtrack. On Friday night, after returning from almost a week away, I was catching up on the news. (And by that, I mean the trivial updates on my various social media timelines.) It was then I discovered that 48 year-old DJ Peter Rauhofer had died from a brain tumor. Rauhofer was a prolific producer and remixer, and his club-land twists on Whitney Houston and Madonna hits were mainstays in my Discman when I was growing up in a small, rural town. Long before iTunes and Spotify brought instantly available music to our fingertips, I spent my middle school years poring over dance music magazines and thumbing through albums on those rare, blissful days when I had a chance to hit up a record store in the city.
It took concerted effort to “discover” new music then, especially when you were a sheltered suburbanite trying to dig the clubby subgenres; I couldn’t just leave Pandora playing in the background like aural wallpaper. So I paid attention to everything: cross-referencing liner notes like a sonic sleuth, trying to find recurring names and deduce relationships. Rauhofer was part of a pantheon of names – alongside Barry Harris, Junior Vasquez, Hex Hector and more – who popped up again and again like dance floor demigods. At the time, I had no idea what they looked like. But I knew that they sounded like: excitement, escape, solidarity, sex and, I hoped, the future.
Except (bummer!) once the millennial clock chimed and I was old enough to finally go to clubs, the scene that they embodied was beginning to fade. Big room nightclubs and the flamboyant parties they fostered, both gay and straight, were on the decline. Sure, I snuck in a few fleeting years at, for instance, pre-family friendly Lansdowne Street. But I was dancing there when it was beginning to take its final breaths – which was disappointing after so devoutly admiring its heyday from afar.
Before (a very early) bedtime on Friday, I read a Huffington Post piece by gay theology scholar Jay Michaelson that summed up perfectly my grief over the passing of Rauhofer – someone I never did get to see live. He wrote: “Rauhofer’s sound offers the possibility of transcendence and community – experiences that are usually polar opposites… but which find their union in dance clubs, churches and similar luminal, spiritual spaces. When combined with the right setting, lighting, and, yes, intoxication, the endless one-two-three-FOUR that Rauhofer helped pioneer becomes a kind of shamanic ritual.”
He elaborates eloquently about how clubs can cultivate a communal experience that is similar to a fit of religious ecstasy; and about the uniquely melancholic quality of circuit party music, not coincidentally dubbed “tribal,” that “reflects the dark darkness that is often part of the communities in which it is played.” “Somehow, the beats include the pain,” wrote Michaelson.
But I was stuck like a needle on that other phrase: “shamanic ritual.” Ritual. That was it. I missed out on a rite of passage – or at best, got the Diet Coke version.
But I was wrong. On Saturday night I had a party to go to at the Revere Hotel. My boyfriend is the hotel’s publicist, and had organized a big blowout hosted by a NYC nightlife doyenne – the type straight out of that fabulous, over-the-top era I had wished was mine. She brought with her a cadre of colorful characters and live performers: club kids, drag queens vogue dancers, leather-clad Goth types – even transgender nightlife icon Amanda Lepore. I broke out some eyeliner, fingerless gloves, a fedora, and a feather boa. The vibe reminded me of my Manray days, but with the sunnier side of, say, Avalon. The DJ played a lot of pop, particularly those ‘90s club tunes that I whirled around to at high school dances – but were relegated to passé “guilty pleasure” status by the time I was able to cross those glamorous velvet ropes.
The crowd was mixed. It wasn’t a gay party, and it didn’t need to be. The kind of club culture it reflected was largely queer, but those who came to celebrate it were bound by a common taste and sensibility – rather than a common sexuality.
And for a night, I got the best of all worlds. Of a past I had always wanted to experience, of a present community of friends and colleagues I enjoy here in Boston, and of a future where parties like these are able to retain their gay roots while broadening to welcome all. It was the most freedom and fun I had experienced on the town in a very long time. Informal polling of attendees revealed that to be a common response.
I knew it took my boyfriend a lot of work to pull together, but in the morning I had one request from him: “Do it again,” I said, scrubbing off some blurred eyeliner. I didn’t miss the glory days. Now it just takes a little extra work to make a good night happen.