Monday, September 14, 2009

In the future: my take on "Club Kid" promoter Michael Alig and the club kids scene


I had a very warm and friendly chat with Michael's mother Elke Blair just last night--it was like talking with an old friend. I'm just two years junior to her son Michael, who was also born here in South Bend in 1966. My first experience noticing the club kids was in 1994 (I'm pretty sure it was the Joan Rivers show) when I saw some of them on a talk show. I also saw the Geraldo broadcast with Michael and Elke and was pretty impressed with the creativity of their look, their decadence, their style, the flippancy and devil-may-care side of it. It looked like a lot of fun. They seemed to be having a good time and a sense of humor about themselves, what more can a subculture ask for? Everything has a beginning...

South Bend/Michiana is a peculiar place, a hotbed of dysfunction. During the 1980s, South Bend had the highest unsolved murder rate in the continental United States, a little known fact. We created Dan Waters, the writer of the black comedy "Heathers"(1988). Waters went to Penn High School, the same place that Michael went to, and it was the same kind of brutal environment as depicted in the film minus the more fantastical parts of the plot. But the homophobia was very real during 1970s-80s when Alig and Waters attended Penn. I can attest to the fact that the other schools in the area were no different. In fact, if you were "different" from the clearly molested and physically abused rednecks and white trash that unfortunately populated the majority of the school bodies you were a target, it was up close and personal, and violence was always simmering beneath the surface.

Michael was harassed, I was harassed, and most all of my friends were too. I can literally remember witnessing a major fight every day of school from about 7th grade until my junior year in high school at John Adams (I graduated in 1986). Racism was also endemic and went both ways (but the black kids tended to like me).

I can recall being stopped in the hallways at John Adams and being asked point-blank, "Do you like rap?!" You were supposed to answer "no," I answered "yes," and was rewarded with a swift punch to the arm. I'd say that was typical, but usually the response was significantly more violent. What I'm getting at here is that my and Michael's experiences weren't especially different, and I'm not even gay. In my case, I had the misfortune of being from a "broken home" (Michael was as well) in a Catholic town in the early 1970s. Notre Dame was literally just down the road from my house. Was I discriminated against? Was my brother and my family? You bet, and it's even worse than it reads, there was a lot to it.

I am going to be discussing some of these issues with Elke in the future on this site. When I first saw the "Party Monster" documentary on Cinemax in 1997 (practically fresh out of an extended college stint) I nearly fell off of my couch. Why was I seeing footage of downtown South Bend on television, and on Cinemax of all channels? Naturally, I was riveted. And then they showed Michael and the club kids and it all began falling-into-place...and it depressed me. I cannot say that it's a "bad" documentary, but it's too short and there was so much of the story left out that it should never been viewed as the last word on the decline and fall of Michael Alig and the club kids. At under an hour, this just wasn't going to be possible, so Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey (originally of the techno dance unit the Pop Tarts who once worked for Alig) had to focus on what would fit easiest into the cramped running time, and it shows.

As crazy as it sounds, it's too sensationalistic and spends far too much time on Michael Alig when it should be focusing on why chaos came to the club kids scene at the Limelight and Peter Gatien's other clubs, their environs. Yes, it was drugs and misbehavior, but what about the role of the DEA, the FBI, and the NYPD? What was the role of organized crime? What about the drug informants within the scene? Why is Peter Gatien running around free and operating a new club up in Toronto (rumor has it that he no longer runs Circa)? What was their contribution of these players to the disaster? How many of the talking heads in the documentary were informants? We may never know, but I frankly don't think that the Party Monster documentary gave us much depth or understanding. Worse, it didn't show us much of the glory of the club kid scene, a movement that outlasted so many others by several years, a major feat.

Barbato and Bailey's films are more of a very brief overview of things, and that's not slamming it or dismissing it outright. What of Michael's childhood? That section lasts barely five minutes. They were "in love" with their subject?
What of Michael's side of the story? Nearly all there is comes from James St. James and a little from Elke. It's not so much what's in the documentary as what isn't. But one thing's certain: the entire story is still untold.