HELLO AGAIN MR. LEWIS
Anyone who's lived in New York and gone out in the city has at some point come across the legend, Steve Lewis. He's been called the "Godfather" of the nightlife industry and has literally seen it all. The idea to interview him came to me while I was looking at some very old photos from a night at Save the Robots, ( in my opinion the best after- party club of all time). I immediately thought of him and how wonderful it would be to discuss the evolution of the nightlife industry from his perspective particularly as he's been writing about it for years.
Steve Lewis got his start in nightlife as a club operator in the " Club Kid" days at Limelight, Tunnel, Club USA, Palladium and LIFE, ( another favorite in the 90's), but eventually turned his eye to design. He found acclaim and more success as a designer developing concepts, including Butter ( those Monday nights were incredible), Marquee, Guesthouse, Webster Hall, SPA, and Hotel Chantelle, just to name a few. I remember him always heavily involved in all facets of the venue, sometimes by the dj booth and even outside in the cold making sure security was running smoothly. Still a night owl he is currently managing ex-Sound Factory DJ, house legend, Jonathan Peters. Thank you for the interview Mr. Lewis.
Tell us about yourself Steve, about growing up and how you came into the nightlife industry?
When I was a child the Empire State Building was framed perfectly in my bedroom window. It was my nightlight and a big part of my dreams for the future. I always felt I didn’t belong in Jackson Heights. I questioned all the rules, hung out where I wasn’t supposed to with people of questionable character. With all their flaws I identified more with them than the straight edged crowd from school and the streets. They and I had a lot in common… we questioned rather than accept. One day some friends and I went to the East Village to buy bongs and we ran into Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi hanging out on St. Marks. We engaged them and my friends saw freaks and I saw brilliance. My friends split but I never left. I had found people who questioned things that I had never thought of. They opened my mind and Queens wasn’t my home for long. I started hanging out in the East Village, hanging with those that lived on the edge and I grew into the person I was meant to be. I modeled my nightlife persona on Bogart from Casablanca. I was always him until I became me.
The fashion shows I produced happened quite by accident. Some friends of mine asked me to help out because I was organized, An hour before the show, at Bonds Disco, after a full day of rehearsals, the director of the show stormed off in a fit after a fight with the designers. They were in a panic. I told them not to worry that I had watched him all day and that I could put on the show. It went well so they hired me for their next show and I went on to do about 400 more. That took me to London and Paris. I formed my own small modeling agency and PR agency and landed my first wife. I did many shows in clubs and soon learned how they worked and started doing promotional events at the hottest spots. I packed the places out and soon was running joints.
What was club culture like in those days?
The fashion shows were my foot in the door and got me through the doors of many clubs but it was my friendship with the Ramones that gave me that bit of edge to get me into the best places. Arturo Vega who was their lighting designer and artist, he did their famous and brilliant logo, and I bonded and he and I and our merry crew of punks and misfits hit all the hot places and met all the hot people. Arturo was gay and so I was welcomed in by the underground gay scene and that was instrumental to my growth. The clubs back in the day could be dark and dangerous and extremely sexy. They were invariably illegal and often found in the armpits of Manhattan which at the time was gloriously rotten. The regular hours clubs emptied into scores of after hours spots where anything could happen if you were… open minded. We were “woke” long before the current generation of revelers were born. It was such an amazing time that I barely remember it. I was not a drinker nor a habitual drug user so I do have dreams of yore. It's not to say things were better then its just that I was younger and never needed sleep. i went on for days.
Where did Club Kids go in those days?
Before the infamy of Limelight and Club USA there was the wonderful Danceteria and RedZone and The Palace de Beaute. There were many other places that embraced the club kid culture. The idea Michael Alig and I had when we directed these places as well as Tunnel and Palladium was to create a home where cast outs from all over the world could come and find themselves as we had. Michael was on TV and jumping in front of every camera and when the kids came to find him we gave them jobs as coat checkers, busboys, flier distributors or gogo dancers. Soon there were thousands. They worked in boutiques and restaurants and copy centers besides the clubs but they lived in the night. We made money on them. Club Kid culture was a business.
There is little difference between now and then. Go to House of Yes. Enjoy the show. We are 30 years removed from the Alig era and maybe some of the kids think they are reinventing the wheel and maybe some of them are but to me, what I see is young people being creative and exploring and discovering who they are and expressing it in nightlife. These are the best of times.
What are your greatest inspirations or influences?
I have had many mentors.
- The Ramones with their dedication to their audience were great influences on my point of view on entertainment, I am still great friends of Marky Ramone and Dee Dee’s widow Vera.
- Arturo Vega, Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi who I mentioned turned me out. Chi Chi Valenti and Johnny Dynell taught me everything I know but not everything they know so I still try hard.
- Rudolf Piper who ruled Danceteria and backed me showed me how to respect the party but make money so the bean counters let you throw another party.
- John Argento, Rudolfs partner emphasized the business end of fun.
- Susanne Bartsch for being better than me at so many things and for inspiring me to be better.
- My wives for putting up with me and my volatile nature.
- My greatest influence are my parents now 95 and 87, whom I visit religiously every Sunday. They taught me to be a man, that honesty and integrity and love were more important than the quick wins and distractions my world would dangle. Their 68 year marriage molded my character.
What was the best period to be partying and enjoying nightlife culture in NYC?
Every era is wonderful if you are young or young at heart. I believe now is the greatest era I have experienced. I am no longer rolling around gin joints looking to do perverted things with perverted people (well not as often) but I see so much fun going on. There is fun everywhere, new music, tons of after hours clubs, sex partiesm people dressing up. These are the best years of my nightlife life. There is far more tolerance of gays and minorities and people of different cultures now than back in the so called glory days. It is important to be aware of how far we have come and realize the past and the victories of youth always look better in that sanitized rear view mirror too often depended on. The now and the new are better.
Do you ever regret having turned down on any projects? and is there a dream project you would still love to do?
I have no regrets. I did more then I was ever expected to. I did more than I possibly could. I used to be Steve Lewis and the current me lives in the now with a healthy nod to my past. I did wonder once for a minute if I should have taken a gig running a club called the Building with Eric Goode, Howard Shaffer, Chuck Crook et al instead of Gatien’s Limelight which ended with my arrest. That regret was short lived. Going to jail was almost a validation. I didn’t do what I was convicted of doing but I did help create an atmosphere where all hell could break loose and it invariably did. I knew I was pushing the edge and I was taught that pushing the edge too far would result in push back. I went into it aware and came out of it with my head held high. I was locked up but they didn’t throw away the key and I came back stronger and wiser and happier. As far as a dream yet to be achieved. I wake up every day a dreamer and work every day trying my best to make that dream happen and go to bed every night laying next to the woman of my dreams and when I sleep I dream of her and a new dream I might chase tomorrow.
Would you mind sharing some of your favorite artists, creatives and spots with us?
- I manage Jonathan Peters but I do so because I think he is grand. I always adore Stretch Armstrong, Paul Sevigny, Little Louis Vega, Michael Cavadias but enough of the older peeps… I love the music everywhere I go.
- House of Yes is my favorite spot. I love its spectacle… all the music and all the people. I love Tilt and, well too many to name. When I went out every night I loved hitting 20 joints. I never went to sleep but I did eventually pass out.
- My favorite place to eat is Peter Pan Donut Shop. I also like Tom’s Restaurant/Diner. I don’t have a favorite artist. I support anyone who takes that path.
What are you currently working on?
I am managing the great Dj Jonathan Peters who just landed a residency Fridays at Freq the new spot where Space Ibiza was. Its Jonathan going late supported by young hot, new Djs on 2 dancefloors. We are hoping it will be a vastly mixed crowd enjoying a big club experience in Manhattan. Everything large and wonderful is of course in Brooklyn. That starts December 1 and I am excited. I am writing a weekly column for Vinepair called Late Shift about the club world. I am designing spaces. I recently finished the restaurant Ms. Yoo on the Lower East Side, am working on converting an old bank into an office in Englewood, New Jersey and I am about to start on a smallish nightclub in Manhattan.
How do you view the industry now?
I see this as the golden age of clubs. People of all cultures and creeds mixed in the legendary clubs but now that NYC society is more accepting and aware there are more opportunities for nightlife to push the envelope to a vaster audience. I think the music and It's worldwide range is bridging the gaps. Brooklyn is a creative cauldron bigger and as important if not more than the East Village explosion of the 80’s. The only thing that seems different and maybe I am just not aware is back in the day it seemed there was more creative spit being exchanged between NY and London than there is now. Sure, the international Dj culture brings music back and forth across the pond but I am not sure of the relationships between clubs. We were always in London and their peeps were always here. Damn I flew to London to get my haircut yet now I cant name 3 nightclubs there. Is it just me?
What words of advice do you have for us left speechless by the state of current affairs?
The world is rotten but it is also wonderful. We are always surrounded by unspeakable evils. We must love and support each other and stand with each other. Despite the cliché life is very long and I believe people can only find happiness through self awareness. You must have the strength of character to do whats right and respect other peoples path. There is too much hate and exclusion. Nightlife at its best is inclusive not exclusive.
Do you have any fantastic memories from the days at Save the Robots?
I was the director of The World around the corner from Robots. I would always go there to unwind but it always succeeded in winding me up again. Robots was the most wonderful spot. Anything could happen and thankfully it did.