Sunday, March 22, 2020

Prime First Reads | The Club King: My Rise, Reign, and Fall in New York Nightlife

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Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

You can imagine my excitement when for the month of March, Amazon First Reads had a non-fiction title! Even though there were a couple fiction titles I was marginally interested in, I knew I had to snap this one up because it is about NYC and the Club Kid scene in the 80s and 90s. I knew Gatien's name but did not know much about him and boy, was this book a real roller coaster.

The book was kind of a slow start for me, only because Gatien detailed his early years growing up in a working-class town in Canada. It is not that this part is boring, and it certainly helped in shaping Gatien's life, but I wanted to hear about NYC. We'd get there eventually, but not without stops first in his hometown with his very first club. Then came Florida, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and London. But it was in New York City that he truly shined, running multiple clubs and at work seven days a week to make sure everything was ready come opening. I almost get dizzy thinking about the sheer amount of work that went into planning each theme night, day after day after day. The behind-the-scenes look definitely gives me a greater appreciation for the bars and clubs I frequented in college. Though obviously not on the scale of a NYC club, there was certainly much work to be done during the day to prepare for the doors opening that night.

Though Gatien had clubs in all the cities mentioned above, it was his four in New York City that truly made him into the ruler of nightlife. He would not have gotten where he did had he not opened his first club while still in his hometown, and each club along the way helped Gatien gain the experience and confidence he needed in order to be successful on the big stage. At his peak, Gatien was operating four clubs - Club USA, Limelight, Palladium, and Tunnel - simultaneously. He employed a staff that ran like a well-oiled machine and that is what made him so successful for so long. They were professionals who took their jobs seriously and did what they were paid to do. That does not mean they didn't screw up, but they were a family and they took care of one another.

It was truly astonishing to me to read about all the musical acts who appeared in Gatien's clubs over the years before his fall. Jay-Z, Biggie, 50 Cent, and so many more that it would take forever to list them all. And it was not only future hip-hop stars and icons who regularly took to the stage, but musical acts from all genres - grunge, techno, rock, and of course house. Gatien and his team made his clubs The Place to be, and this was also done in no small part thanks to the Club Kids who thrived in the spotlight, enjoying every moment of terrifying suburban housewives being interviewed by Phil Donohue.

All good things must come to an end though, and end they would. As the district attorney, Rudy Giuliani made it his personal mission it seems to completely bring down and destroy Gatien's livelihood. Naturally there are two sides to every story and we can only trust that all parties are telling the truth. When there is discrepancies and contradictions, someone is lying. They may not know they are lying, but they are nonetheless. Keeping the weapons out of his clubs was obviously a lot easier than the drugs, but I would have challenged Guiliani to find ANY club in that era where there was zero drug use. It would have been impossible, because no club like that existed. There are so many conflicting stories and Gatien maintains he was not selling drugs or hiring dealers to sell in his clubs. Others who were there at the time say otherwise. The claim that Gatien was pushing the sales seems like a bit of a stretch because he was already making so much money. On the other hand, it is super easy to always want more money and providing drugs right there in the club was a good way to get it. Instead of cleaning up the streets and going after the dealers literally standing on the street corners and in the parks, Giuliani's singular focus is on Gatien, which in itself is highly suspect. It was almost as if it was personal. Even so, I have a hard time believing Gatien was nearly so innocent as he claims and there is likely truth to both sides of the story. Unrelated: never forget that Rudy Giuliani is a despicable human being and bat-shit crazy.

Gatien is the first to admit that some of his success had to do with the sheer luck of being in the right place at the right time. But even so, he was a born hustler who worked his ass off to climb higher and higher, to create the Next Big Thing. Also on display is his business acumen, and the amount of attention he paid to detail in order to keep things fresh and new in each of his clubs. He was involved in every aspect of the club, from the designs to the construction, choosing the right sound and light systems, the perfect artwork, the locations of the bars, and more. Gatien did not rely on the same gimmick for each place, and when he finally sold off his interests in all other clubs, sticking only to his New York playground, this is even more obvious. Gatien was willing to gamble and take chances that others might not have been, and it paid off in spades. He found unique buildings for his clubs to call home and that in itself was huge - abandoned buildings that served other purposes before became the places to be on any given night where the music pounded and the alcohol flowed. He also made some very astute observations early on that served him well over his a career - number one being that hiring a DJ to spin the music would cost far less than band fees. Another facet of the story I found especially interesting was that of how Gatien realized he could welcome the crowds that typically enjoyed hip-hop and rap, while also keeping the clubs free from violence. In that time, many clubs would not play this music because of the men and as a result, the violence that came with the male-dominated crowds. Gatien figured out that if he were to let women into the club for free throughout the early evening, and he put a limit on the amount of men let in at a time, then he could make bank on these hip-hop/rap nights while keeping everyone relatively safe. It definitely helped that Gatien employed great security teams, and patrons were searched before entering the clubs.

While I have few complaints about the book, there is one that has bothered me quite a bit. I can push aside the glossing-over of Gatien's surface-scratching-only drug-use that he managed to control for the most part, and even ignore the repetition of him needing to find the next big thing, getting restless whenever he achieved a new level of success. I can not though, overlook the relatively little space given to the Club Kids in general who made New York City nightlife into what it was. He does discuss Michael Alig and the murder of Andre "Angel" Melendez; it is interesting that he is very quick to distance himself from Melendez and say he was not welcome at any of Gatien's clubs. While doing so, he does maintain he worked with Alig for quite some time. It is interesting to note all the discrepancies related to the murder of Melendez. Some of those discrepancies have come from Alig and his roommate Robert Riggs. The stories range from Melendez being killed in self-defense by Riggs when he attacked Alig in an argument over a debt, to Riggs killing Melendez for Gatien because Gatien was under investigation for the rampant drug-use in his clubs. We will never know the whole story and I certainly did not expect it to be covered in-depth here. But I did expect much more about the Club Kids, the larger-than-life personalities who brought bodies back to the clubs after the initial scare of the AIDS crisis, when young men were dying at alarming rates and people were terrified to go out. It is quite flummoxing to me that a book about Peter Gatien and his clubs would not include significant amount of attention given to the scene at the time. They helped MAKE his clubs into the hot spots they became.

Gatien discusses at length the case built against him. It all really began when a teenager from New Jersey killed himself and club life was blamed for his tragic choice. From that moment, Gatien's days as the king of NY nightlife were numbered. He also discusses informants working against him, and does his best to discredit all of them, which he is pretty successful at. It became Giuliani's obsession, to bring Gatien down. The Feds were willing to pay many who themselves were still dealing drugs, breaking the laws themselves, in order to get Gatien. Lots of shady stuff all around going on, but I will leave that for you to discover. While Gatien was not found guilty of drug charges, he was charged and plead guilty to tax evasion. For that, he was deported back to Canada, unable to stay in the country he loved so desperately.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. It is not without its problems, but the vicarious experience of club life in the 80s and 90s is worth the time. Here are a couple quotes I really liked, or had an impact on me as I read.

"The week after Biggie Smalls died at the tender age of twenty-four, Flex cued up 'Hypnotize,' and I watched as three thousand people in the club chanted along or silently wept. That night of mourning deepened the bonds of the community, getting beyond neighborhood rivalries or the East-Coast-vs.-West-Coats rap wars. The heartrending scene epitomized Tunnel Sundays for me. By design or by accident, we had managed to generate a real sense of kinship, an impression that everyone present was part of something great" (67%).

"I could have survived sleeping on a concrete shelf for a bed and eating shitty prison food. I could have faced being pummeled by repeated legal proceedings. But getting exiled from the land that I loved killed a part of my soul" (98%).

"A blackened shroud, a hand-me-down gown of rags and silk, a costume fit for one who sits and cries for all tomorrow's parties...Like Lou Reed and Nico, I'm feeling elegiac for all the good times that will never be. They won't come around like they did in the golden age. I was there, and if you were there, too, you know the truth. Those were the days when the party never ended, and it was goddamn fabulous" (99%).

Highly recommended.


  1. wow so much in the real world that i'm clueless about

    1. I have an obsession with all things NYC so that could be why this is not a familiar story to you!

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you so much, I appreciate that! Sometimes I feel like I am just rambling.

  3. I'm not a big non-fiction reader, but your review has somewhat piqued my interest! That's more my husband's preferred genre, and he'll ask me to read something from time to time so we can talk about it. I usually try to find an audio version, since that's helpful with non-fiction titles.

    Lindsi @ Do You Dog-ear? 💬

    1. I agree, audio is a huge help if non-fiction is not usually your thing. This book was definitely a trip and it is almost insane to imagine just how wild it would have been to have lived this story. If you get around to it, let me know!

  4. Replies
    1. It was definitely a thrilling read - how one can go from so high to falling so far. Of COURSE Guiliani was involved, blech.

  5. Gatien's name was unfamiliar to me, but this sounds quite interesting.

    1. His name was not familiar to me at first either, but once I got into the chapters focused only on his life and career in NYC, I remembered reading bits and pieces about him in other books or articles. I'd love to know what you think if you get around to reading it!


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