INSPIRED BY THE WORK OF CELEBRITY PHOTOGRAPHER BILL BERNSTEIN, HORSE MEAT DISCO’S JAMES HILLARD REFLECTS ON THE UNTAMED EXCESS OF THE 1970S NEW YORK CLUB SCENE.
A s a nightlife enthusiast, my first trip to New York was something I had always dreamt about. Having planned it for months, I was all set to stay with Adam Goldstone in his Lower East Side tenement—and to those who knew and adored him, Adam was Mr. NYC Nightlife, so I was expecting an exciting trip. My flight was booked for the beginning of October 2001, which, as it turned out, was only a month after 9/11. The tragedy had shaken the city to its core and New Yorkers had far more pressing things on their minds than dancing. I did go to clubs, and was moved by the sense of community, but I would need to be patient and wait until my next visit, almost ten years later, to get a true taste of NYC nightlife.
But it was on my first trip that I would be first introduced to the photographs of Bill Bernstein. Adam loved New York, and in particular its history as a nightlife capital, so he pulled out his copy of Nightdancin’, Bill’s wonderful book of photos of NYC’s discotheques, to show me. It felt just as exciting as going out, and as Adam pointed out, after years of Mayor Giuliani’s policies, that was probably the case! Through these photographs I felt like I was looking into a special world that only a few people had had the privilege of accessing.
I was already familiar with the celebrity goings-on at Studio 54 and the musical genius of Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, but it was the other clubs in Nightdancin’ that were unknown to me that got my mind racing—the underground anti-discos like the Mudd Club, the friendly neighborhood outer-borough roller disco at Greenpoint, and then places like Plato’s Retreat, which celebrated the pleasures of the flesh. The “alternative” scene was created here and has gone on to inspire imitators in every decade since. Hipster kids and club kids nowadays dress to impress, confident that they are pushing the boundaries of fashion, taste and decency, but flicking through books like Nightdancin’, Ron Gaella’s Disco Years, and Allan Tennenbaum’s New York in the ’70s, it’s clear that they owe everything to these halcyon days.
Bill’s images of ordinary, but extraordinary, people were far more evocative and thought provoking than most of his contemporaries, whose pictures largely focused on celebrity. I wouldn’t have been the latest face on the cover of Interview Magazine, in the entourage of an international ballet superstar or an aging Hollywood grandee, but I could picture myself at these clubs. And however much I love looking at pictures of famous people in various stages of abandon, it was the shots of the crowd, the diversity of the dancers and the sense of freedom, not-to-mention the downright weirdness, shown in Bill’s images, that would push me to start a club-night.
These shots capture the very essence of what going out was, is, and should be, all about. They showed the true democracy of the dance floor where anyone could be a star, as long as they had the right attitude and flair. Bill cap- tured a moment in time where liberation was on the minds of not only gay men, but also women, African Americans, and the working class—all which would be instrumental in the success of disco and clubs. Nightlife offered an escape from the reality of the economic woes, social decay, war and political corruption—it was a refuge for those for whom the American Dream was unobtainable. It was also a joyous last hurrah before the terror of AIDS. As Patti La- belle sang in her 1979 club hit “Music Is My Way Of Life,” “This is the way I live. I’m alive and I’m living now!”
It was a moment in time that continues to inspire those of us in the nightlife business and we strive to match its thrill. The pictures in Bill Berstein’s Disco are a document of an in- credibly exciting and creative time, not only in music, but also in social, political, and fashion history too. I wasn’t there, so I can only look at the images with a yearning to be able to go to some of these magical parties. Perhaps they weren’t all great, and perhaps some of the parties Bill shot were as dull as those that spurred me to start Horse Meat Disco, but in these photos the night-world seems to be perfection. I’d give anything to be able to go back in time, and rest assured, if I could I would far rather go to New York in the 70s than to ancient Egypt, the Jurassic period, or even the future.