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For those of us whose club-heyday compilation starts a little later, the kickoff track on this cheesy-but-enjoyable tie-in CD, Material’s version of “Busting Out,” seems to shamelessly borrow the bass and skronky keybs of Yazoo’s undeniable “Situation.” It’s bound to make us West Coast cusp-of-30ers, among other nightlife subsets, rather pissy: 1.) We didn’t sweat the politics of New Wave melting into discoit was always all dance musicand showy gender-bending pride was hardly a New York exclusive. And 2.) There’s something fakey about a record that would purport to carry a Studio 54 vibe and kick off with Material doing anything.
Ever jot down a list of the hits from your booty-shaking prime? Lord, is it embarrassing. (Mommy doesn’t have to be funky, sweetie; she’s dancing to Bauhaus.) No matter how meretriciously compiled (Robbie Nevil? Sorry, never heard of him) or how promiscuously reissued the singles are, the list is bound to be peppered with lost nuggets and sterling classics just by dint of its nature.
Such are the stealthy delights of The Last Party, the CD. Not always accurate or terribly honestthe set list seems to have been more inspired by what’s already in the PolyGram vaults than what got the coked-up elite groovingit is at least faithfully danceable, if robotic 128bpm grooves are your thing. Songs bleed into each other as if a DJ were at the controls, and no red-blooded human being could get tired of hearing a digitally remastered “Funkytown.” On the other hand, Anthony Haden-Guest’s book of the same name isn’t interested in music at all; like disco itself, The Last Party, the book, is mostly about money.
Among stylists working in the English language today, Haden-Guest ranks as perhaps the worst. Who else would verify an observation of Jean Baudrillard’s by exulting, “Bingo!” or crow, “A new Nightworld, as I shall call the culture of the night, had indeed been born”? And boy does he preen over that coinagethroughout the story Haden-Guest strikes a note of bogus sagacity with the rueful, dramatic bonggg of his pet word as that-says-it-all one-word paragraph: “Nightworld.” And what the hell kind of structure is, “Nikki Haskell still remembers the panicked look on people’s faces. Among them would have been that of Geoffrey Holder”?
Still, in no other true-life chronicle this side of the Baroness Sherri’s breathtaking 1993 autobiography could you read lines like, “The body was identified by Diane von Furstenberg.” The Last Party is extensively researched, and Haden-Guest interviewed a large number of subjects to glean information about the scene and its godfathers, Ian Schrager and the quixotic, fascinating Steve Rubell. Much of that information is not of the kind that anyone involved would want publishedthe financial ins and outs of party promotion and club owning, the debauchery famous folks got up to on the Studio 54 dance floor (never mind what they did in the basement), various back-stabbings, betrayals, and reprisals. (One caveat: According to one frequently cited subject, Haden-Guest has allowed himself some leeway in reprinting certain quotes.)
Don’t be fooled by the title or the book’s wan and desultory foray into ’90s Club Kid territory; it is Studio that Haden-Guest cares and knows most about. Although The Last Party purports to be a chronicle of New York’s “culture of the night,” the later, harder clubs such as the Mudd Club, Harrah’s, and CBGB’s existed so that his like should not see, nor wish to see, their interiors. But clubland offers the same refuge for the same types of crowds whatever their specific naturea rules-free debauch in which an artistic elite can enjoy both exclusivity and communality. Paul Rudnick’s adorable first novel, Social Disease, about a fictional club-of-the-moment in mid-’80s New York, nails this atmosphere: “The dancers were enchanted by the effect, but tried desperately not to show it. Their expressions said, Oh, but you should have been here Halloween, when we bobbed for emeralds, or Tuesday, when we molested the twins.”
Studio 54 offered socializing for the social elite, and the social elite is fueled by money and its phantom Nightworld (thanks, Tony) equivalent, comps. It was a has-been’s paradise, where they could feel young and chic and unharassed by fresher faces and hipper styles. The up-and-coming, the dispossessed, and the iconoclastically talented were not on the Studio A-list. The A-list itself reads like a litany of gossip-column Peter Pans, never wanting to grow out of boldface: Bianca Jagger, what was left of Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Truman Capote, Halston, all the bloody von Furstenbergs, bosomy ’70s actresses, washed-up debutantes, and every piece of overtanned Eurotrash to land on the Concorde, worn out and buzzing from Regine’s.
The Last Party’s song list is in that way faithful to its clientele. With some exceptions, disco didn’t make new stars, and kids didn’t make disco. Aside from Grace Jones, who turns in the fabulous “Pull up to the Bumper” (you would if someone hummed it), Evelyn “Champagne” King, who offers the brilliant “Shame,” and the immortal Donna Summer, whose “Last Dance” is now, alas, a funeral staple, The Last Party’s contributors are either camp retro acts or forgotten. The Village People selection is, wisely, the great “Go West,” to which 6-year-olds have not yet developed an accompanying dance. Quick, who did “Now That We Found Love”? The Gamble and Huff tune was recorded bynow don’t you feel silly?Third World. And if the words “I confess to be the Deputy of Love” set off a Pavlovian groove reaction, you are under the spell of Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band.
Disco did make great producers, though, and vice versa, just as the disco scene spawned the ascendance of the party promoter. Nile Rodgers, whom disco invented, after which he repaid the favor many times over, tells Haden-Guest about the night he and Bernard Edwards were shut out of a Grace Jones party at Studio. After trudging home in the snow, loaded on champagne and illegal treats, they started jamming to a riff that ran, “Fuck off! Fuck Studio 54.” With a little tinkering, the obscene, cathartic outburst became “Le Freak.” It sold 6 million copies. Warner Bros. finally stopped production of the single because Chic feared it might cut into album sales. “To this day we feel ridiculous, because who knows what we might have achieved,” says Rodgers.
Stories like this make the mind- and light-bending prism of the ’70s sparkle. The author would have been better off leaving his sizable proprietary feelings out of the equation and crafting The Last Party as an Edie for the ’70s. Just because he was a welcome participant in the debauchery doesn’t mean he’s qualified to reminisce about it. On Page 218, Haden-Guest coyly offers “full disclosure” about how little cash he was asked to put out by his pal Rubellone should hope this book was not written by an outsider, especially since the center of this turning world, Rubell himself, is no longer around to interview. But Haden-Guest was no toddler even in 1979; just read his somber account of The Time I Shot Heroin to hear how querulous and fearful of being out of touch he is.
What Haden-Guest does do well is cover the financial action sponsoring all this naughty fun, but it leaves the reader with an icky, seamy feelingall those near-mob ties, the endless search for a space, the depressing image of the nightclub in daylight, its glitter dusty and cheap as, hey, an old cliché. And his prose is punishment. He’s the kind of faux-genteel writer who calls people “persons,” uses “inflatable” as a noun, and tries on elaborate cinematic tropes, such as opening a scene on “Two astoundingly tall young women” who say, do, or cause absolutely nothing.
Studio’s decline was as inevitable as its owners’ downfall. Gossip columnist Baird Jones offers a wonderful description of the end: “People like Bianca Jagger just didn’t get it. They kept showing up and what they were like was beached sea monsters, and the tide had run out, and they looked so peculiar.”
The CD winks at the end of the great disco years as well, with Kid Creole and the Coconuts’ 1980 “Darrio,” in which spoiled Long Island girls cluster around the swinger of the title and beg him to get them into Studio, while he complains, “They tell me the place is just about through.”
What the place was by that time was a nightclub space boutiqued each night to attract a different audience, whether preppy kids or thrusting businessmen. Like Rudnick’s Club de, it finally began hosting the people who used to be kept outside. “Where were the people who created themselves painstakingly from magazine photos and sheet music and irony?” his characters wonder. “Where was everybody?” At the club of the moment, of course, where another version of frivolous, inexplicable magic was being made.CP