Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The German Invasion

I found this picture and it reminded me of a wonderful night in the early 1980s, when I was running back and forth between Philly and NYC to see shows and keep busy. I went with my friend Otmar to Danceteria - just because I was in the City and that's what one did. I had no idea what to expect that night - since every night at Danceteria was an experience. You didn't go JUST to see a band or such. You just went because you knew that's where you belonged.

So we just went and two hours later - BAM! We were watching a live performance from the legendary Nina Hagen. What a stage presence and so hypnotic.

At this point in time, with artists like Nina, Klaus Nomi, Falco, Peter Schilling, Trio and several others - there was this German invasion of art and talent in the scene. Some referred to it as Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave, often abbreviated NDW) sort of a genre of German music born from the punk and new wave scene of the late 70s. It was odd since it brought raw emotion into the mix at the same time sucking all surface emotions from the performances.

Klaus was very robotic on stage - Nina, albeit a bit more in your face, but they still had a similar quality. You were sucked into their vortex, but not because they were emotionally opening up to you. In fact, to me it was more because they were emotionally disconnecting from you. You want what you don't have, I guess.

So, here she is, cira 1982 or so... Miss Nina Hagen.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Ghost In You

Advance apologies for my lack of entries. Between winter ills, a busy month of work and a few other personal distractions, I've not been as focused as I would like to be.

This past Sunday I had the incredible honor to host Richard Butler live on stage at World Cafe Live. Of course Richard IS The Psychedelic Furs, having been their frontman for some 25+ years. He was performing with two other men in a somewhat-unplugged, chill setting. He sat on a stool and draped his hands over the mic, snug in its stand - and sang one song after another. Some new, some from Love Spit Love and some from the golden years of the Furs.

I introduced him to the audience by telling a story - this June marks my 25th anniversary of the first time I saw the Psychedelic Furs. It was June 26, 1981 at Emerald City, in beautiful Cherry Hill, New Jersey. This club was easily one of the best non-Philly spots in the region for live music at that time. It also had quite a history of its own.

The club was best known as the Latin Casino, then Emerald City, then Gatsby's and some other crap - and now HQ of Suburu America. When it was transformed into the Emerald City, it was in the theme of The Wizard of Oz. If I remember correctly, cover was $12 with two drink passes. Emerald City had a giant dance floor with a "yellow brick" road going down the center.

The Latin Casino was famous for showcasing entertainers like Jackie Wilson (who suffered a major heart attack on stage and lived comatose for 9 more years), Frankie Avalon (whose family owned "King of Pizza" directly across the street), Richard Pryor, (who recorded his 1975 album ...Is It Something I Said? there) and of course, Ol' Blue Eyes, Mr. Frank Sinatra.

The supper club originally resided on Walnut Street at Juniper in Philadelphia; in 1960 it moved to Cherry Hill, directly across from the Garden State Park racetrack. It was widely assumed that the club was mob-owned. Even after it closed as the Latin Casino and became Emerald City, which was in 1978, the word was the mob kept ownership of the land and the building.

Emerald City hosted major acts of the time which didn't have the drawing power to fill arenas and stadiums. It lasted until '83 when it became Gatsby's and that lasted into the 1990s when the building was torn down and replaced by Subaru's North American headquarters.

I had made a copy of the flyer shown here for Richard, since it lists his appearance at the club back in 1981 - when I went backstage into the green room to chat with him and showed him the flyer - he let out a scruffy laugh and said "oh, that place was run by mobsters!" Mobsters!! I love that word - especially said with a rich English accent as Richard has. He told me some fun stories of that tour and then did a great show.

I got to see him the following morning at wxpn as he swung by to record a session for the World Cafe radio program. He is one of a few singers that sounds just fine when he wakes up -- gruff has a place afterall.

I am off to Houston this weekend. Afterwards, I promise myself to get back on track with this online memoirs project. I have a pile of items I want to show you and I notepad full of stories I've jotted down that I want to share. First, it's time for some cold meds and bed. Nite!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Taking The Party Underground

The year was 1982 and, as documented often in earlier posts, Center City wasn't much to look at ... the resurgence of a community was only a few years underway and much of the downtown area was pretty beaten up.

Perfect for a party!

I can't recall the date exactly - but I want to say it was early fall of 1982, since I remember that Au Courant was already up and running. A couple of friends of mine - who have since passed on - were living in their own artistic world. They shared this flop apartment located above an abandoned storefront near I. Goldberg's over at 9/Chestnut streets. The place was filled with storeroom dummies, day-glo art, huge sculptures made from trash and lots of loud music [since there were no neighbors to bang complaints against the wall].

Over the summer of '82 they got this brilliant idea to produce a one-off party in Philadelphia ... to showcase and celebrate the underground scene in Philly. The location: underground.

What many people still don't realize is that one can walk from one part of Center City to another completely underground - away from brutal weather. The catacombs run from Broad/South up around City Hall to 18/Market and down to 8/Market - where they connect with the PATCO catacombs - which head over to Locust and up to 16th.

In a world before terrorists and security, one could access the tunnels under the city all night long, even when the trains stopped running. There was no security, cameras, or care. If you were stupid enough to take a flight of steps underground, you got what you deserved.

Of course - there was no tourism dollar to court back then - so their was no effort to keep the catacombs clean from bums, urine and grafitti. Which meant the only people that walked it back in the day were bums, thugs, punks and the brave residents of Center City.

So, I remember the evening - partygoers had to enter at 12/Locust, taking the dingy red-trimmed PATCO staircase down to the subway tunnel - which sat above a second tunnel which held the train tracks.

A massive boombox was kicking out a mix of punk and new wave tunes - which bounced along the tiled walls creating a cacophony of urban sound. They had two coolers - each filled with booze - although everyone was encouraged to bring their own brown bag. They set up a card table with bowls of snacks along a side area.

I arrived around the 11pm start time and, by the 2am peak - there had to be at least 150 people downstairs - everyone was dancing and laughing and singing proud and loud! At one point I walked up the staircase and crossed the street and stood there and experienced what, to this day, is one of the coolest moments I've had.

I'm standing at 13/Locust - it's 1:30am and the city is typically quiet (since, unlike today, no one really had a destination at 1:30am on any night in Center City), and wafting up from the subway entrances - and through the grills on the sidewalk - were the sounds of the party.

Almost as if the city itself was oozing with laughter, music and joyful emotion. Being in Philadelphia at that time - as the city was so dark and dingy - and hearing such levity drift from underground -the location of the 'heart and soul' of Philadelphia - provided me with hope that things were going to only get brighter in the years to come.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Springtime for Hitler: Swimming in de'Nile

When thinking about Philadelphia's nightclubs in the early 1980s, there are several that came and went without much attention. From Ray's Place on Locust to The Monster Inn on Quince Street across from The Bike Stop ... but one that was around for some time, always lived under the radar and provided some of the best, dark, sweaty house jams ... The Nile.

The Nile was a barely-legal dance club located at the corner of 13/Locust (where the "gentleman's club" is today). It was Philly's premier black dance bar and featured some of the deepest house tracks of the day. The decor wasn't much - but the sound system was. The place thrived during the week, when Catacombs was closed. Sadly many felt that it attracted the 'wrong' crowd and there was a constant push to close the space. Some felt it was owned by the mob. Others just felt that something else could be done with the space - of course, this was at a time when South 13th Street was no-man's land. Only those en route to a desitnation dare stroll down that strip.

Of course almost all the gay spots were on or near that strip, so it quickly became the main road for the community. Hence the attention to clean things up, I suppose.

I mentioned Ray's Place - it was owned by this poor sap but nice guy [Ray] who was a true nobody: middle age, overweight gay man (i.e. invisible to the crowd). Then one day he won the Pennsylvania Lottery and was rolling in money ... everyone wanted to be his friend and sadly the one most convincing was Jerry Vitelli.

Jerry was Philadelphia's Max Bialystock (of The Producers fame). This man got people to invest in the craziest projects and constantly drained the resources of others and quite often would avoid any bill as long as he could. It got to the point that we at Au Courant would not take any advertising from anything Jerry was involved with unless he payed cash in advance. He was just that slimy.

Well, once Ray was known as the lottery winner - Jerry became his friend and business partner. Quickly, an old building at 1305 Locust - was renovated and turned into Ray's Place - which probably holds the record for the 2nd fastest closing of a new gay bar ... to my knowledge, the fastest closing was another Ray/Jerry production on Walnut Street.

It was located where Nick's Roast Beef used to be on the 1300 block of Walnut. Its name escapes me, perhaps because I never had the time to actually learn it! The place was a male go-go bar and had a few fun parties but quickly died. I recall the story that one day Ray went in to open the joint and, upon turning the doorknob, walked into a stripped property. Not only was the cash register and liquor gone - but so was the bar itself. Overnight everything had vanished. Of course it wasn't a robbery - but either those items on rental or loan were reposessed thanks to Jerry never paying a bill or Jerry just gave it all away to pay off some debts.

Who knows.

Last I heard Jerry was finally caught with his financial wizardry and behind bars. Not sure if that is true - but it has been a quiet city since those days, 20 years ago.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Just Say OH!

Oscar Night 2006. Sitting here with the Oscars in the background reminded me of a memory of my past.

It was tradition to spend Oscar Night at The Black Banana in Old City in the early 1980s - the annual Oscar Party held there was off-the-hook! TV screens around and a large selection of costumes! Oscar Night was second only to Halloween for those in Center City and we all marched over to 3/Race in full garb in the middle of winter to just celebrate Hollywood.

From those that dressed to celebrate those nominated that year, to those that wanted to remember and showcase that time when Hollywood was classy ... it was nothing to be sitting between Lucille Ball (as in Mame) and Diana Ross (as Dorothy in The Wiz) while ordering a drink at the bar!

The funniest memory of those parties was watching someone dressed as Nancy Reagan doing lines of coke near the upstairs bar!

Funny times over there at the BB :)

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Catching Up


This month has been a series of work deadlines and personal developments - mixed with a stubborn bug that stayed with me for most of February. This explains my lack of entries - since when I would finally find some free time, I used it to sleep.

But there has been some incredible developments, in regards to this website! As you know, I have met a new friend who is working on his thesis - which happens to involve much of the gay nightlife scene in the 1970s and 1980s. Together we've compared notes and have helped each other in various ways.

The other big news is that - thanks to the magic of the internet - I heard from Hunter's mother after 15 years or so. Her son stumbled upon my posts of Hunter and sent them over to her. Naturally, reading my posts was quite an emotional experience for her, as it was for me to compose them ... but it was so exciting to read an email from Ahavia and then to come home from a long day of work and hear a voicemail from her on my phone. She sounds as warm as always and we're planning to meet up for lunch sometime soon! It will be so good to see her again after all these years.

Another cool thing was that I have connected with Scott Briefer, who was the creator of The FUNhouse, which was a wonderful queer cultural center in SF a decade or so ago. Turns out that Scott was a good friend with Aaron Fricke, the author of "Reflections of a Rock Lobster", which this blog is named for.

We had a wonderful back-n-forth chat about the past, its people and its power. Both of us came away with some new energy and it was great to connect with someone that has been involved with the queer cultural scene for as long as myself.

So - myself. There are still plenty of stories to share... I'm still deep in the 80s with memories and I will post again later today. But, I just wanted to give those that care, an update as to what's been going on in my world the past 30 days.

Back shortly :)