CLUB 57 WHERE ARE YOU?
Harvey Wang's Photographs of the Legendary East Village Club 1979-1983
Recently I was talking to a friend about the 80s East Village scene, a scene we had both been too young to take part in. "Where do you find that kind of thing now?" My friend asked. "Williamsburg, I guess--kind of" I said. But that answer didn't quite satisfy either of us and we were left with the question: "Club 57, where are you?"
In the opening shot of this show, Harvey Wang captures the iron-wrought gates of Club 57. It's summer, the gate is open, the door beckons. The movement from the slow shutter speed hints at the energy inside the club.
Although it was in the basement of the Holy Cross Polish National Church on St. Mark's Place, Club 57 had an amazing life. Ondine, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Lypsinka, John Sex, Wendy Wild, Klaus Nomi, and many others were regulars there. Ann Magnuson helped run the place in the role of performer/hostess.
I wasn't there. So I see it through Harvey Wang's eyes. A place where experimental fashion, music, performance, and the weird ones from small town America could find a place. The dirt, the youth, the surprisingly low ceiling, and strange tile floor all caught by Wang's camera.
Here in the photos, for instance, it's still Elvis Memorial Night--August 16, according to the flier. We get to peek into the club and we see people amused with themselves, amusing each other. The fun is in the entertaining--being part of the spectacle. With Wang's photos we relate to the spectacle and not to the audience--we are being included in the action just by looking at the photos.
In another group of images, it's Lady Wrestling Night. Notice the fake camera crew with lights and microphone in the background. The manager with his disinterested wrestlers steps into the ring, then there's Magnuson down for the count, and the winning girl wrestler raising her arms in triumph while Keith Haring drinks a beer in the audience.
In the late 70s and early 80s, nightclubs were the staging ground for all sorts of cultural experimentation. Make-up, hair, and clothing styles were gleaned from pop and subcultures, mixed and matched. The club scene was also a space for collaboration. As Ann Magnuson explained, "We cross-pollinated: Artists played in bands, musicians made films, performers made art, and everyone turned themselves into fashion icons. The main objective was to remain perpetually creative and avoid getting a real job."
We see this in Wang's photos, like the one of a cowboy dude at the mike dressed in fake cowhide-print chaps and a fringed shirt. It's Country and Western Night and club-goers are channeling Dolly Parton, and old western movies, recreating the great American myth of the cowboy East Village style.
Or, at another extreme, we find Klaus Nomi looking so new-age he's practically animatronic. A dry ice fog wells up, his arms are raised in a benediction. The air-brushed makeup almost makes arabesques at his eyes and cheeks. The geometric look was strange at the time, but in a couple of years the look became hip thanks to the influence of the newly formed MTV.
The nightclub was the place to pose and be seen, to network, find drugs, and meet friends and sexual partners. I've heard people say that if you remember Club 57 past midnight, you weren't there. Even when overindulgence in drink and drugs made everyone's memories unavailable or unreliable, Wang's camera recorded the events. So we can see John Sex burying his face in a bunny girl's buttocks; a line of riotous dancers joining together to form the skyline of New York; and Ann Magnuson spinning the wheels of steel as the Club 57 DJ.
Can Club 57 be found in Williamsburg? The late 70s/early 80s East Village club scene was a harbinger of things to come. By the beginning of the second Reagan administration in 1984 it was in the process of being co-opted by the media--something that now happens instantaneously, seemingly before the scene has even hit the street. Now media-hype--whether in blogs or magazine--is part of the strategy. We still have an "underground," but it's no longer a small scene--it's now large and well-networked--and it's not a surprise to find it emerges full-blown with its own clothing label, website, and record, book, or television deal. Of course, the city itself is substantially different than it was in the late 70s and early 80s. New York is now fairly safe from street crime and filled with chain stores, cell phones, and no smoking policies.
For some, the memory of Club 57 has become a "paradise lost"--and perhaps there has been a loss. A loss of some of the dirt and danger, a loss of a certain type of innocence, a loss of a scene that wasn't about being simultaneously co-opted. But here, in these photos, the fantasy of an art underground where musicians, performers, and artists are free to mess around in each other's heads and see what happens with no market pressure and no plays to the bottom line--here Club 57 still exists.