Sunday, April 26, 2009

Derek Jarman: gay clubbing in the 70s and 80s

In his 1984 autobiographical text Dancing Ledge, Derek Jarman wrote about gay clubs in London and New York in the early days of AIDS:

The dungeon redoubts of the gay world are its clubs with names like the Asylum, the Catacombs, the Mineshaft. The gay Heaven is also deep underground; though the 9th Circle is above. Exotique foreign names abound - Copacabana, La Douce. Down in the dungeons the inmates shout themselves hoarse against the disco music and lasers, which furthers a delicious alienation. This world eschews the overground reality which rejects it, and seeks perfection in an ideal favoured by low lights, denim, leather and the rest. Signs are important - rings on fingers and limp wrists are replaced by running shorts and vests, work-out muscles and moustaches. These in turn fall to the Haircuts.

The next day, as I look down from my window in the sunlight on Charing X Road, I see these drained, pallid faces of the night on their way to the YMCA; the fetish for 'health' the guilty reverse of the night before. Today the gay liberation march winds past. This has an air of festival. Two immaculate pink nuns with moustaches neat as clipped box take the prize. A 'lady' in a ball-gown drops out and rests languidly on the City of Westminster salt bin in front of St Martin's... A pink balloon escapes and circles high in the blue sky.

In the Mineshaft, New York City, the microbes take a Charles Atlas course - and a famous and very old man drifts past quite in the pink and into the shadows. I make a mental note of a 'decent' retirement age - but know I won't bring myself to put myself out to grass. We all know these habits arc possibly damaging, but you pays your dues and takes your chances. In Ron Peck's film Nighthawks I played a very creditable cruiser, so lost in myself I burnt my fingers instead of the cigarette.

Usually self-preservation prevails and I'm home by two. The disastrous late nights are wrought by the unattainable barmen whom the wicked managements spread like jam.

I know the arguments against all this and am certain they have their own fair share of the truth. But I live and work in a single room which I share with some books and large sheets of blank writing-paper; so unless I make some foray into the night I could spend twenty-four hours alone

... In the dungeons pure anonymity prevails and the opening line is much more likely to be, 'Can I get you a drink?' - vodka with ice: much more comforting. And what else? Well, dressing is Fancy Dress. Down here this COUNTS. It's the real test of a person's sexual orientation - the styles forged in the dungeon slip over into the world outside. But here they are a code - the jeans with that exact-tear, the leather jacket and white T-shirt. Why not go to Heaven in a suit and tie? In the Mineshaft they turn you away for wearing aftershave. Elsewhere, a dress is OK, but the suit and tie of the real world is for punters with stuffed pockets. The HAIRCUTS buy theirs second-hand.
I consciously adopt the denim/leather look most nights. I'm assured I don't look like a clone. I have a phobia about moustaches like some people have for spiders - I couldn't conceive of touching one.

Back in 1965 La Douce opened its doors on Friday evening and closed them early on Monday. We danced through the weekend 0n purple hearts. Those without a bed slept in the Biograph Cinema before starting out again.

Drugs are never far from the scene. After the hearts came Acid and quaaludes; then amyl, and something called Ecstasy. Someone always managed to roll a joint in a dark corner, and dance away into the small hours. It's certain that nobody who had taken the steps towards liberation hadn't used one if not all of them. The equation was inevitable, and part of initiation.

Now, from out of the blue comes the Antidote that has thrown all of this into confusion. AIDS. Everyone has an opinion. It casts a shadow, if even for a moment, across any encounter. Some have retired; others, with uncertain bravado, refuse to change. Some say it's from Haiti, or the darkest Amazon, and some say the disease has been endemic in North America for centuries, that the Puritans called it the Wrath of God. Others advance conspiracy theories, of mad Anita Bryant, secret viral laboratories and the CIA. All this is fuelled by the Media, who sell copy and make MONEY out of disaster. But whatever the cause and whatever the ultimate outcome the immediate effect has been to clear the bath-houses and visibly thin the boys of the night. In New York, particularly, they are starting to make polite conversation again - a change is as good as a rest. I decide I'm in the firing-line and make an adjustment - prepare myself for the worst - decide on decent caution rather than celibacy, and worry a little about my friends. Times change. I refuse to moralize, as some do, about the past. That plays too easily into the hands of those who wish to eradicate freedom, the jealous and the repressed who are always with us...

... Raids on gay clubs follow different patterns. The last full-scale raid that I was involved with, in the mid-seventies, closed down the Gigolo in the King's Road. Saturday night, the place is packed to capacity. In the darkness at the far end people are making out. One tall, very handsome boy wades into the throng. He seems oblivious to the attention his presence is causing. He doesn't have a hard-on. I give up and stand at the bar. Three minutes later, whistles. It's a police raid. At the back the unreceptive one is in a fist-fight with a couple of leather boys. The panic is so great that I am carried at least ten feet by the surge of the crowd. Quick thinking: I empty my pockets deftly. We wait for hours in silence while each customer is given a body-search... they know they've got you, this riff-raff in uniforms. The Gigolo is closed down for ever after ten years'.

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