Tone… I can’t go in there wit’cha. The joint creeps me out. I walked down the hallway and there’s nothing but Wicca broads, goth bitches, and gypsy types. The joint is crawling with dangerous-looking snatch… I’m too fucking high for this… The whole place gives me the willies.”–The late Ricky Vee, on a New Year’s Eve at the Limelight, 1987 Chicago
Some time around 1985, New Yorker (by way of Canada) Peter Gatien blew into town and opened a Chicago franchise of the Limelight, the notoriously cool New York nightclub that attracted such downtown luminaries as Blondie, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and a host of other famous and near-famous denizens of the downtown, Lower East Side demimonde.
In New York, the club was fabulously cool and featured art by Julian Schnabel, Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and others who were hot during the mid-eighties. The Limelight in New York was a less avaricious and toxic place than Studio 54. Oh, it had a VIP room like 54—it was just full of cooler VIPs than Barry Manilow, Sylvester Stallone and Liza Minnelli, who were your dipshit-cousin-from-Long-Island’s VIPs.
Studio 54 ruled the night-time club scene of the previous decade. At Limelight, there was no shortage of drugs, there was plenty of sex of every variety—boy/girl, girl/girl, boy/boy—you name it; plus a lot of guys getting down with women who were men. Even with the alarming rise of AIDS cases, it was still pretty wide open. There was more heroin than cocaine–the boy drug never having fully lost its cachet in the go-go eighties. It was exciting, dangerous, culturally polymorphous and strangely necessary; a kind of last hold-out of bohemia, before the real estate creeps started carving up the Lower East Side in earnest.
The Chicago Limelight wasn’t quite the same. We don’t really have movie stars or rock stars in as evident abundance as New York. Who wants to notice the local weatherman getting blown in the VIP room, or the Morning Zoo radio guy puking up his toenails over the balcony?
Christ. There are just some things one cannot UN-see.
They tried women dancing in glass booths and cages, art exhibits, cool liquor promotions, lingerie nights, book parties and a cool revolving art project in the Dome Room.
The place didn’t die for want of creative people trying to make it cool. Very good nightclub people ran the joint. Solid veterans like Russell Brunelli and Tom Doody, who both went on to great success in the nightclub and P.R. business. Gatien had hired well. There was no shortage of talent in the Limelight’s management and they worked like sled-dogs promoting events there, hiring artists to do murals in the Dome Room, drag parties and in a good way they reached out to the creative community the way no other nightclub had. Eventually, none of it worked, and for one good reason: We don’t stand in line like assholes.
For some reason, in New York, people will stand in line for hours to spend their money. They will also endure being looked over and appraised like a veal shank at Whole Foods. They’ll put up with being talked to like assholes and condescended to by half-wit stooges whose lips move when they read the comics. All a club needs in New York is a velvet rope and a couple of hipsters with sneers and clipboards to start a line. Never mind the joint can be a low-lit sewer that smells like cat piss. In New York, this is cool.
I went to a joint called the Blue Angel there one night with the collector, Mickey Cartin. It was a faux-Brechtian kind of deal with strippers and a guy dressed like a rabbi who, at the appropriate time, would whip out his joint and tell jokes.
People waited like assholes, for hours, to get in this place. We knew somebody there, so we just walked in, but what a shithole. It was the kind of place I was always afraid I’d be found dead in back in my drug and alcohol days, yet here they were, lines of New Yorkers, the women skimpily dressed in keeping with the thematic premise of the “Blue Angel,” standing out in ten-degree weather waiting to get in.
When Limelight opened in Chicago, we weren’t used to standing in line and being looked over. Most of us didn’t bother with the place. I had carte blanche to come and go because I was an artist and they sought out this community for their events. Actors, artists, media creatures, the walking catalogs of the Ford and Elite Model agencies—this community was always welcome.
Joe Sixpack wasn’t. Regular, everyday working people were herded outside behind the rope and Chicagoans were creeped out by it. Standing in line to spend your money was for douchebags and pretty soon, if your friends spotted you standing outside of Limelight, you were pegged for a sucker and an overreaching poseur. It didn’t last here, and in some ways it was a shame.
The New Year’s Eve party alone brought out the freak in everyone—naked girls lying wrapped in snakes, acrobats, crazy vampire girls, transgender, other-world girls giving hand-jobs to confused LaSalle Street brokers—it was a bacchanal worthy of New Orleans, or the way-out-of-hand Halloween parade in New York.
I brought my friend Ricky Viscosi. This was not his scene. He liked biker bars and blues clubs, but Limelight on New Year’s Eve freaked him to no end. He was just not ready for this. For about an hour he’d been making eye contact with a beautiful girl who wore a shimmering dress and was drinking her cocktail seductively—all the while locking eyes with my pal Ricky—finally she finger-waved him toward the men’s room.
“Tone, I was in the Piss-te-jool (men’s room) and the broad walks in an’ whips out her crank. Tone, like a fuckin’ tree-trunk. You could beat a cobra to death with a joint like hers. This broad was packin’ and, don’t tell anyone… but I just kept staring at that beautiful face. Like a Playboy broad and Jesus, I start to stiffen’ up. Fuck! I’m coppin’ wood. I’m harder than Chinese algebra an’, if I’m honest, I’m thinkin’ I want to bang this girl. I want to pound her like milk-fed veal. And this broad is a GUY. I’m fucked up here—my whole arrangement is going sideways.” I asked him in all seriousness, what would be so bad about it? He said if he indulged his desire, he was afraid all of his dead relatives would be able to watch from heaven. I never laughed so hard in my life.
For years I teased him about getting in touch with his wild side.
He owned a pizza place and would regale his friends with stories of that night, always finishing with, “Ya gotta BE CAREFUL. The broads might not be broads. Joint like that? You could fuck up your whole alignment, capeesh? An’ you might find yourself… liking it. Then, whattya’ gonna do?”
Limelight lasted five years here—just long enough to remind us of who we are.