“Sunset people, doing it right – night after night
Holding on to the last breath of life
On sunset, on sunset”
–Donna Summer “Sunset People”
Writing about nightlife isn’t easy. Something about that transcendent dancing and substance-fueled atmosphere gets lost in translation when put to a page. Not that many academics and fellow writers haven’t attempted to capture the rhythmic, sweat and glitter-drenched disco ball-illuminated utopia. But, staid and stodgy academics that haven’t stepped foot in a club in the past 20 years (or maybe ever) don’t typically spin captivating tales of after-hours debauchery.
Sociologist Victor P. Corona knows the somewhat pathetic terrain of nightlife studies all too well. As he writes in the conclusion of his own Night Class: A Downtown Memoir: “But despite fun titles, the goal of most academics’ nightlife books isn’t really to understand scene people and why they do what they do. As [Ashley] Mears pointed out in an essay reviewing Richard Ocejo’s Upscaling Downtown and Rueben Buford May’s Urban Nightlife, ‘They describe wet streets with conventionally dry academic prose.’ Parachutists used the spaces to make grandiose points about the big, huge patterns that so many sociologists love to criticize and discuss among themselves” (286).
With Night Class, recently published by Soft Skull Press, Corona offers his own contribution to these investigations of nightlife, but instead of maintaining a critical, anthropological distance, Corona centers his own experience both within and outside of clubs. Part-memoir, part-oral history, part-academic analysis, Night Class, in its intimacy, illustrates the attraction of nightlife, particularly the possibility of self-fashioned identities within the darkened walls of clubs and parties. Positioned somewhere between a nightlife insider and outsider–more insider than out at this point, though Corona does take us on his early cringe-inducing attempts to get into parties, he examines the drive to “make it” in these small subcultural scenes, articulating the heights and the pitfalls of this fame game.
Rather than focusing on the clubs themselves or attempting a comprehensive history of nightlife in Lower Manhattan, Corona’s Night Class takes readers through the dazzling, determined and sometimes, demented characters that populate Downtown nightlife. Like the disco names of some of the figures like Ernie Glam or Desi Monster, Corona seemingly creates his own vocabulary throughout the text from “up there”–the climb to stardom as described by Andy Warhol–to “memory hole”–the proverbial abyss populated by those left behind by social climbers. Not only are these phrases peppered throughout the book, but the patterns they describe–the rise to notoriety and the eventual slide into bitter obscurity–become a well-tread territory, a sob story repeated by numerous club-land travelers.
For those of us who know the various (strong) personas in NYC nightlife, Corona’s observations read as a published version–and confirmation–of stories normally sneakily whispered between fellow colleagues. Just check out his description of Penny Arcade: “The issue though is that only Penny’s version of downtown history gets to endure and avoid the memory hole. Penny appointed herself the Erasure Sheriff and now she decides. But in the wild maelstrom of downtown culture, not everything is worth remembering… Penny has criticized me for writing about Gaga or other downtown figures, basically anyone not named Penny Arcade” (30). From these honest yet at times, unflattering depictions of nightlife figures to his account of working as notorious Club Kid killer Michael Alig’s assistant to numerous examples of club pettiness, Night Class delivers some delicious page-turning gossip fodder. In fact, I often wondered how Corona got away with it without fear of being slapped with some lawsuit or just slapped in general, but I guess once those contract slips get signed…whoo, watch out.
And this matters because many books present overly romanticized versions of nightlife, preferentially portraying only the glamorous highs. Sure, it makes nightlife more alluring, but that’s not the whole story. Beyond the anal retentive academic texts, nightlife publications can also come in the form of nostalgic firsthand narratives like the recently published The Mudd Club, by its doorman Richard Boch. While Boch extensively documents the staggering drug and alcohol consumption in and around the storied Tribeca club, including his own, Boch still makes those cold nights standing on White Street or huddled snorting coke in the bathroom seem like a whole lot of communal fun. While this allows for an engrossing, “I was born in the wrong time” existential crisis-inducing read, dramatic divisions and personal rivalries can also proliferate in nightlife as Corona shows in Night Class, particularly when certain stars rise above the rest.
Corona doesn’t shy away from these Downtown stand-offs, detailing a litany of complaints from put-upon former Factory superstars and brushed-aside House of Field members, who weren’t invited on Patricia Field’s journey to Sex and the City infamy. Corona observes, “Downtown cradled the old bohemia that incubated icons whose reach is now global, as well as the delusional has-beens and bitter nearly-made-its who are always ready to tell you what went wrong for them” (9).
Lady Gaga, especially, emerges as someone who drew on, surpassed and then sometimes, dropped her queer Lower Manhattan influences. Gaga sucked up the charisma of these figures like “Lady Starlight, responsible for nurturing Gaga’s embrace of the weird and outré. And genderqueer cool kids like Darian Darling, Breedlove and Justin Tranter, who taught her about music genres, street styles and underground performance, only to watch her ascend way on high while so many stayed behind” (15). Of course, this is a tale as old as time–a pop star appropriating the more radical performances held within nightclubs and while diluting it for Midwestern audiences, becomes astronomically popular. Just ask anyone who partied in the 1980s about Madonna–those wounds are still fresh.
Like the similarities between Madonna and Lady Gaga’s questionable behavior, Corona, throughout the book, makes these cross-generational historical connections. He traces a lineage of a certain subset of nightlife from Warhol’s Factory to the Club Kids to Lady Gaga and her Lower East Side cohort. Other well-known figures like burlesque terrorist Miss Rose Wood (who serves up an awe-inspiring, (bowel)-moving performance in the final chapter on The Box.), RuPaul and Susanne Bartsch drop in along the way.
Admittedly, this genealogy is anything but comprehensive. And that’s a good thing–other studies that have attempted an overall view like Tim Lawrence’s Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983 suffer from an overwhelming narrative overkill. Rather than trying to force everything that happened after midnight in Downtown New York for the past 60 years into one book, Corona focuses on a certain line like one branch of a very tangled, frequently trashed tree.
What connects these generations of starry-eyed, makeup-smeared night owls, perhaps even more than the communities formed within clubs themselves, is their unwavering devotion to constructing self-fashioned, self-conscious and at times, self-involved identities. As the benchmark for fame-obsessed Manhattanites, influencing the Club Kids who, in turn, inspired Gaga and co., “Warholia celebrated the glorious artifice of a malleable identity, eager to cast away notions of a monolithic self hiding somewhere deep inside us. This freedom to explore various identities or eschew the burden of a single ‘authentic’ one–to occupy and live in the interstitial–was paramount” (79).
This celebration of malleable, multiple selves becomes the book’s main and most powerful theme–one that connects both the history of nightlife in Lower Manhattan and Corona’s own experiences. Taken together, these two seemingly disparate threads act as a moving tribute to the possibilities that nightlife can provide for the queers, the weirdoes, the misfits and the outcasts to experiment with fluid, ever-changing identities.
This argument becomes strengthened by the interjection of Corona’s personal history into the text. Born in Mexico and growing up undocumented in Westchester, New York until obtaining legalized status in the fourth grade, Corona was no stranger to having to mold his identity depending on the situation. Witnessing how these events led him to sociology and eventually, nightlife, Corona recalls, “In Westchester, growing up between categories meant that I never had a sturdy identity to define me. And so I’ve spent most of my life in search of one. It’s no surprise that I ended up in a profession where its my job to study other people’s identities. This null sense of self makes me really curious about people’s mannerisms and lingo in certain settings, the ease and flourishes with which some speak” (18).
Beyond just his childhood, Corona recalls navigating the racial politics at Yale, delving into activism, transforming into Ghandi in khakis with a shaved head while researching with the US Army and finally becoming a professor fascinated with nightlife. Juxtaposing these experiences with nightlife history, Corona shows readers just how freeing the fluid identities found within clubs can be.
And in so doing, he makes a case for nightlife’s significance. Speaking as someone who also has an enduring interest in nightlife, it is often difficult to convince others that nightlife is worth serious study–brushed off as too superficial, too decadent and too frivolous. However, as Corona shows, the ability of nightlife to provide a space for play with identities is crucial, particularly for those alienated by dominant culture. Corona describes in his introduction, “Identity is so very malleable. My nighttime instructors included over 80 artists, performers, and impresarios who collided downtown, hungry for fame and glamour. The common thread among them is a transformative power offered by New York, one where you can author your own sense of self and test the limits of human ambition and appearance. Downtown is a petri dish for growing identities. Queer, trans, straight, glam, goth, punk, fetish, radical, butch, femme, preppy, spiritual, fairy, ambiguous, clown, absurd and so on. They all mix and mesh downtown…” (12).
Or as James St. James famously quipped, “It doesn’t matter what you look like! I mean if you have a hunchback, just throw a little glitter on it, honey, and go dancing!”