Disco Bloodbath: A Fabulous but True Tale of Murder in Clubland , by James St. James. Simon & Schuster, 286 pages, $23.
Disco Bloodbath is, among other things, a chilling reminder of the lengths people will go to get their hands on a few lousy drink tickets. Michael Alig glued blue dots on his face and embellished and exposed his genitalia. He was, however, not the first drink-ticket exhibitionist.
Rollerina threw on a wedding dress and a pair of roller skates and suddenly free drink tickets rained down like the coins in the coronation scene of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible . The Studio 54 management lubricated her with drink tickets because she made their less adventurous patrons feel good about themselves: In her presence they could experience vicarious kookiness–and ultimately relief that they were not obliged to spend their evenings roller-skating around a dance floor in a smelly old wedding dress. Rollerina was a Dada party catalyst, a court jester with a schizo wardrobe. She was the precursor of Michael Alig.
According to my Disco-Sociology research files, it all started in the early 80’s, when clubs became huge and numerous (the Palladium, the Tunnel) and there were not enough groovy people to fill them. Naff people started hanging out at the groovy clubs and outnumbered the groovy people and the groovy people went to Nell’s instead. So rather than risk losing the naff people as well, club entrepreneur Peter Gatien employed renta-freaks–a.k.a. the Club Kids–and then plied them with the aforementioned free drink tickets. The Club Kids “shoved strawberries up their nose and ran around swinging an alarm clock above their head–and called it ‘a look.'” Everything was fine until they became dope fiends, which was the death knell for the great tradition of drink-ticket exhibitionism: Now all the Club Kids cared about was getting high and getting on Geraldo .
The Club Kids always struck me as pushy and intimidating and twitchy and negative and desperate for another bump. I picked up Disco Bloodbath with every intention of loathing it. I knew whereof I spoke. I am a disco veteran of the Suzanne Bartsch generation, and, yes, Lady Hennessy Brown had lactated on me at Bentley’s. But, quelle surprise , I was blindsided by the pure poetry
of Disco Bloodbath : It is the best book I have ever read.
Who cares if the Club Kid “looks” were phoned-in and ersatz? James St. James’ take on the whole Michael Alig epic is so hysterically funny that I, an Evelyn Wood reject, finished it in a weekend. It’s Our Lady of the Flowers with thigh-slapping humor. It’s Liberace’s Last Exit to Brooklyn . It’s an appalling account of what happened when exhibitionism and drugs collided with 80’s materialism, celebrity culture, and general piggy behavior. What can possibly be funny about such an appalling milieu? I have a list.
Bloodbath is basically about James St. James, not Michael Alig; more specifically, it’s about the author’s addiction to ketamine hydrochloride–”Special K,” the animal tranquilizer and funster drug. Mr. St. James spins a heartwarming yarn, taking us from his 1984 arrival in New York (“I was a kicky, corn-fed lass, with a song in my heart and a rosy hue on my cheeks”) to the point where he “had vomit chunks in [his] underwear.” He provides endless insights into the initial joys of Special K, which makes everybody look like Mrs. Butterworth–”all clear and brown and syrupy slow.” Gradually things turn horrid, and Mr. St. James spends too much time in a “K-hole”: “[W]ho knew there were so many reasons to just start sobbing? And You and Rational Thought parted ways some time ago–probably before the three peyote buttons, but definitely after you sucked off the crack dealer on the corner.”
The author forces us to watch as he and the Club Kids claw their way to the bottom and become manipulative K, smack, crack-addicted lunatics. “For almost nine months in 1990, I wore a bloody wedding gown and glued flies to my face.” He decides to keep a K-diary and agonizingly scribes the entries while high. The next day he is appalled by the Jenny Holzeresque minimalist insanity of his sentences: “If letters had eyebrows, these would be arched” ; “Evil must be baked at 650 degrees.” You think he’s weird? Wait till you meet the other Club Kids.
The Alig acolytes are indescribably unsavory, but Mr. St. James describes them, anyway. Christina, “an abomination of nature, like those frogs born with eyes in their throats,” has “testicles falling well below her hemline” and “pointy stretched-out boobies from past hormone dabbling.” Ida pushed a battery pack up her bum into her small intestine. Why? Why? Mr. St. James will tell you why: “Ida stripped naked and pulled a full string of LIT CHRISTMAS BULBS , one at a time, out of her ass.”
By far the most haunting Club Kid is “a palsied old lesbian named Mavis.” Mavis visits New York having read about the Club Kids and wants to get inside their heads and find out what makes them tick. Mr. St. James hatches “a wonderful Life Plan for Mavis. She was going to invest all her life’s savings in a bunch of cocaine. She would quit the job she loved–managing a health food store in Boston–sell her house, move to New York, AND SHE AND FREEZE WOULD BECOME DRUGDEALERS!” And indeed, Freeze and Mavis form “a Mom-&-Pop-type drug cartel.”
Mr. St. James and Mavis spent weeks together, high as kites, talking about nothing . “It turns out Mavis was an endlessly fascinating woman. We spent days exploring the intricacies of each other’s minds. I don’t remember drawing any conclusions, though. But I have dozens of pie charts that explain it all, if you care to look.” Mr. St. James made me fall in love with Mavis, that “spiky-haired lesbian tofu vendor from Massachusetts.” He was unable to make me fall in love with Michael Alig.
Michael Alig and drug-dealer Freeze murdered Angel Melendez in March 1996 and cut his legs off. They stupidly put his severed bits into a cork-lined box, which floated and was found. As if that were not bad enough, Mr. Alig also let his own cats die of neglect. Mr. St. James seems reluctant to paint a glamorous three-dimensional picture of his former collaborator. Is this genteel reticence or the vestiges of a sisterly rivalry? We’ll never know. Either way, Mr. Alig emerges as one of the less compelling characters in the book, and there is definitely something guess-you-had-to-be-there about his unfunny Clockwork Orange -esque language: “skroddle,” “skrink la da,” “slogger blagging,” “scrod-hopping,” etc. What the hell was he talking about?
Mr. St. James does his best to give credit where credit is due: The young, pre-drug Mr. Alig demonstrates a high level of creative, entrepreneurial moxie. His “looks” are amusing, if occasionally derivative of the great dot-wearing Leigh Bowery–”he eventually stopped painting those damn blue dots on his face! FOUR YEARS OF BLUE DOTS! And he is still convinced that it might catch on any day now.” Mr. Alig gave fashion direction to the Club Kids with hauteur worthy of Vreeland, and they took it, and who can blame them? “Butt cracks, areolas, and gangly testicles should all be allowed the same fashion options and subsequent media coverage as the rest of the body!” Mr. St. James allows Mr. Alig a few triumphs: an outlaw party at Burger King on Times Square, which ends in a bloody confrontation with a taxi driver; a Club Kid rendezvous in a homeless village made of cardboard boxes, etc. Mr. St. James stands by Mr. Alig’s innate creativity and originality: “You shone so brightly. You were a genius.”
He professes to be emotionally devastated by Angel Melendez’s demise: “[T]his whole murder thingie REALLY … UPSET … ME … ” It did? “So,” Mr. St. James writes, “if it’s superficial that my response to [the] murder is to stop wearing false eyelashes– then goddamnit –SO BE IT.” Knowing about the murder puts a damper on his nocturnal joie de vivre , and when he tells Mr. Alig about these feelings, Mr. Alig cries. When I read this, I couldn’t tell if the author was being serious or not. But Mr. St. James goes on to present a compelling case for his own emotional unreadiness to deal with violent crime. He reminds us that he is the kind of person who spends hours agonizing over the phrase, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” By this point in Bloodbath , Mr. St. James has already trained us to laugh at the most heinous skroddles and skrink la das imaginable. He has debunked and self-deprecated his way through so many appalling incidents that when he gets serious about the murder, I felt as if I probably needed to be in a K-hole myself in order to fully comprehend his finer feelings about mortality.
Disco Bloodbath is a lovely and horrible discourse on death: the death of Angel Melendez; the death of spontaneous drink-ticket exhibitionism; the death of esoteric style (now everybody knows how to set their pubic hair on fire and the act has lost its resonance); the death and fortunate rebirth of Mr. St. James’ own spirit. The last chapter finds our author rehabbed and fully functional, a resident of California with a writing career in the offing and a bittersweet view of life’s vicissitudes: “Why, oh why , must we always go through pigs to get our truffles?”