Tuesday nights in the late ’80s meant Dean Johnson’s Rock and Roll Fag Bar at the World. Getting near the corner of Avenue C on 2nd Street back then involved passing a gauntlet of thin, aggressive guys offering heroin and it’s accoutrements: “need works?” they asked, “horse?” Or, “scag?” It wasn’t uncommon to see society’s dregs lying in doorways with a syringe dangling from their arm, blood dribbling out of the puncture. Dodge a crack head or two on the way, some beggars, a guy pissing against a tenement, and for your effort a gay paradise awaited.
Once past the Goth chick who demanded five bucks, The Chandelier Room (sort of a chill out lounge) lay ahead, with a stairway to the right leading to the dance floor. Michael Connelly was above in the DJ booth spinning New Wave, danceable rock tracks and old glam favorites. Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part Two” segued nicely into a Sweet track, followed by some Blondie or Plastic Bertrand’s ”Ca Plane Pour Moi.” The floor was filled with hot guys of all types, as this was right before New York nightlife became dominated by promoters and the fracturing of gay life between the East Village and Chelsea, uptown or down, hadn’t yet begun. Chelsea wasn’t even a gay destination yet and Act Up was just forming. Punks mixed with guys in Izod, nascent club kids with the working class and drag queens among those like myself, an assistant at The William Morris Agency.
Rock and Roll Fag Bar was presided over by Dean Johnson, described in the Village Voice as “a six foot six inch bald drag queen rapper.” Sarcastic and full of raunchy humor, Dean would careen around in a metallic cocktail dress with dangling mirrored disco balls as earrings and command the mic from the DJ booth, introducing the go-go guys (a phenomenon not seen much before then), or warming up the crowd for his band Dean and the Weenies. A decrepit old Yiddish theater, The World was good-sized by today’s standards and one could always retreat upstairs to peek over the horseshoe balcony to watch the cuties shake their groove thangs.
A large club room was off the balcony where Larry T had his “It Club” on another night, presided over by DJ Andy Anderson, who also played every Saturday night upstairs at the Roxy and in the inner sanctum of Limelight’s notorious Disco 2000 on Wednesdays, which spawned the Club Kids Michael Alig, James St. James, Richie Rich and their minions. It was in this low ceilinged space where one evening Dean introduced what he called The Testosteroom, a darkened section with ceiling to floor drapes that smelled of poppers, cigarettes, lube and stale beer, where the anonymous sex went down.
Dean had taken a liking to me at The Pyramid Club (where he danced in a jockstrap on the bar) and invited me to his birthday at an outdoor courtyard next to The World, aka an abandoned lot. Hot dogs (Weenies!) were being prepared and the grill master said to all, “Spread your buns and I’ll stick it in.” A garbage can was filled with ice and beer and after he arrived Dean was presented with a huge bouquet of flowers. Peering over his shades he laughed when I told him he looked like big little Miss America. Seeing everyone in the relative daylight was a bit of a shock but the boombox and free beer made everyone feel at home.
For me this was the era when I perfected the disco nap. I’d get to work in jacket and tie by ten am, blast through business, hangover notwithstanding, go home, have a greasy burger and then crash out until about ten thirty or so and have a shower. Rinse and repeat until the weekend arrived, when it was time to rest up, as those nights were when the bridge and tunnel crowd appeared [admission: I'm from Jersey so I can say that].
Time’s a slippery thing so here’s what I recall was the schedule: Sunday night, Feathers at The Pyramid, hosted by Hapi Phace. Monday, Sugar Babies at Sugar Reef, or in later years Gant Johnson’s Salon at Flamingo East. Wednesdays was Disco 2000, where Andy put me on his permanent list and plied me with drink tickets. Though I never sported a clown nose I was amused by the antics and was equally so when I spotted Gloria Vanderbilt (Anderson Cooper’s mom) hand in hand with a sexy guy half her age. Linda Simpson’s Club 69 was also happening and Thursdays was probably something at the Michael Todd Room of the Palladium. If the invite I pilfered from the mailroom didn’t read 13th Street entrance, open bar 11-1am I rarely bothered unless something worthwhile was going down in the big room like a live show by Art of Noise, Trouble Funk, or Act Up benefits starring Jimmy Sommerville or Grace Jones.
Michael Musto was about to publish his first book, a thinly-veiled account of his perspective on the evenings, which I’d read in galleys while working in the story department, so I approached him in the lobby of The World, using the name of his character. Shocked I’d read it as it wasn’t even in release we riffed a bit, just as we do to this day when we run into each other. He’s a treasure. Speaking of treasures, one fond memory from Rock and Roll Fag Bar was when Tabboo! presented a rather incisive dissertation on the platform heel. Armed with boxes piled up, the illustrator and drag legend (“it’s natural”) broke down the merits of about a dozen pair of women’s shoes, regaling us with style tips of which platforms go with what kind of outfits, divas who sported which type and during what era they were popular. Shame there’s not a YouTube of that…
Years later I was smoking a joint at a film party with Ted and Amanda Demme when we reverted to an in-depth discussion of old nightclubs when Amanda asked if I ever went to Rock and Roll Fag Bar, “You remember there was a girl who sat at the front door collecting money, that was me.” The Goth chick, I asked? ”Yeah, well, I was a crazy, punky chick experimenting with being a radical dyke,” she laughed. ”That’s so bizarre,” I told her, “you know I used to chuckle to myself each time I handed you a fiver as my friend Kristen was a bartender and she’d give me all the free drinks I could quaff (and for whomever I was with), would check my coat under the bar and was all sheepish when I tipped her ten or twenty bucks at the end of the night, of course I remember you! I got so fucked up there I’d take a cab back to my place at First Avenue and 5th street and suffered many an ugly morning after that place.” She was stunned with my recall and in later years went on to become one of the biggest promoters of club nights in Los Angeles.
So, these days I’ve vowed not to sound like an old vaudevillian with a nostalgic glint in my eye who tells the younger set, “Ah, back then we had so much fun, more than you kids’ll ever know, yadda blah blah,” and occasionally can find where the freak flags are still being hoisted high. Yeah, there’s not quite as many choices of where to go, but parties like Spank, Judy, and Pussy Faggot seem to be carrying on the spirit of Rock and Roll Fag Bar. Rest in Peace, Dean, there’s certainly no one who’ll ever fill those size thirteen knee-high boots. But your naughty, playful vibe is still being imitated, and this ‘ole club geriatric appreciates that.
When trying to sum up The World I keep reflecting on graffiti I’ve never forgotten from the downstairs men’s room, a takeoff on the Streisand song, which read PEOPLE WHO NEED PEOPLE ARE ASSHOLES. That simple declaration spit in the face of popular norms, our parents generation – hell, even the Dietrich, Judy and Liza queens that preceded my era – so that little bit of genius sums up a more promiscuous time for me perfectly. Serve chilled with a dollop of the arrogance of youth, combine with a great DJ, and shake not stir your moneymaker. Garnish with an MC introducing a mind-blowing performance, top with cheap booze, a cigarette puffed quickly and stomped out before security eighty-sixes you, and, well, you get the idea…
Perhaps we can vote David Dinkins in as Mayor again, but let’s leave out the AIDS and crack epidemics this time around.