Chemical Cowboys: The Club King Of New York
The New Frontier
NEW YORK HAS LONG been an electric cultural intersection, a place where artists and civilians come together to indulge in poetry and poison as they write the era's next social chapter, from Harlem's Prohibition-era speakeasies, drunk on jazz and bootleg whiskey, to the mournful heroin-steeped blues clubs of the Village in the forties and the bohemian hippies at Woodstock in 1969, who smoked pot and prayed for peace as they swayed to folk and rock music on a rain-soaked muddy farm. In the seventies, New York gave us disco.
New York's Studio 54 made $7 million in its first year, 1977, by courting celebrity and mastering the art of the velvet-rope rejection. At Studio 54, disco was the feather-haired muse of the lip-gloss set and cocaine coursed through the blood of the satin-and-glitter fashion victims on the dance floor. When the club's owners went to prison for tax evasion three years later, New York nightlife was ripe for the taking. Enter Canadian-born club entrepreneur Peter Gatien, who staked his claim just in time to cash in on the impulsive 1980s-era Wall Streeters and yuppies who believed in spending their hard-earned money in conspicuous fashion.
Peter Gatien was a six-foot-tall willowy figure who dressed in black, chain-smoked cigarettes, and wore an ominous black eye patch that covered a hollow socket. Gatien had lost his eye in a hockey game at the age of sixteen and used the $17,000 insurance settlement to open a discount jeans store. The young businessman soon realized that alcohol earned better profits than jeans. He could make $4 on a pair of $8 jeans or sell 25-cent beers for $1.25, a 500 percent markup. At nineteen, Gatien opened his first club in his hometown of Cornwall, Ontario. He took a dilapidated country-and-Western tavern, painted the walls black, put up a disco ball, and transformed it into a rock-and-roll club, with Rush as the opening-night act. (Rush was also, incidentally, [DEA Agent Robert] "Bob" Gagne's favorite band.) Gatien went on to open successful clubs in Hollywood, Florida, and Atlanta, Georgia, where patrons danced on a glass floor with live sharks swimming underfoot. New York City was the next frontier.
Excerpt from Chemical Cowboys by Lisa Sweetingham