Fascinating Photos Reveal The Truth Behind 1980s NYC Club Life

Photographer Patrick Gries roams the best nightlife haunts of a decade past.

Ah, yes, I remember it well—1987 was an intriguing year for NYC nightlife. The big boom of Felliniesque, bohemia-laden events at large dance clubs had pretty much imploded, but some clubs kept going, including the gargantuan Palladium, the multi-level rock haven Danceteria, and the hollowed out train station turned dance club the Tunnel. This was well before Internet and apps, back when people had to leave the house to have social interactions and hook up (though AIDS was in a particularly terrifying period, when it was a gruesome death sentence, numbers were soaring, and President Reagan didn’t seem to care.

Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

But visibility had been rising since screen idol Rock Hudson’s death in 1985 and the formation of the activist group ACT UP in March ’87, which gave a voice to the rage). As everyone braced for the ascendance of young, bratty hedonism, grownups clung to their status, wearing bold, colorful Stephen Sprouse patterns and trying to keep making a scene.

In 1987, I wrote a Village Voice cover story called “The Death of Downtown,” about the demise of the fun due to hype, commercialization, and fizzling inspiration. What’s more, Andy Warhol had died in February, leaving a gaping hole at the center of the scene, since Andy was the one who validated a party just by entering the room and bringing his satirical avant garde presence with him. But I ended the story on an optimistic note, and, looking back, as devastated as the landscape was, it was nothing compared to what happened later, in the Giuliani ‘90s, when the mayor targeted nightlife as the enemy, an approach we’re still recovering from.

Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

In 1987, the prevailing creatures clinging to clubbing were still an eyeful, like John Sex, a satirist of Las Vegas lounge singers, complete with shellacked pompadour and busty backup girls. (He, sadly, died of AIDS in 1990.) Also, Mae Alexander, a strikingly bald artist sporting the ultimate drop earrings; leather-clad photographer Marcus Leatherdale (who’d been an intimate of Robert Mapplethorpe); and David Yarritu, a photographer who briefly joined the new wave group ABC to add even more surprise to his resume.

At the time, Patrick Gries was roaming the clubs and other sites with his camera and capturing all those people (and myself) in our defiant finery, as we struggled to stay festive despite the challenges of the time. Belgian born Gries moved to New York in 1984 and proceeded to launch his career in photography. He’s been commissioned for book projects by companies like Louis Vuitton and Van Cleef & Arpels, and he’s done art books like Evolution, a black and white approach to reconsidering art and science. His latest project, In/Visibility, has been exhibited at various festivals around the world. Here’s a sampling of his most memorable images from ‘80s partying, from a splashy Sprouse store bash to a surreal John Sex club appearance. His work zeroes in on a transitional moment, when issues involving health, sexuality, and commercialism collided with the eternal need to ritualistically flaunt one’s fabulousness.

Savage hosted Susanne Bartsch’s bashes for sexy and colorful people.

Patrick Gries

Timeless rocker Debbie Harry and bold designer Stephen Sprouse at a Sprouse event.

Patrick Gries

Michael Musto at the Sprouse fete.

Patrick Gries

Lounge singer John Sex and his bodacious tatas.

Patrick Gries

John Sex’s back was sexy.

Patrick Gries

Keith Haring, artist of the people who got very rich.

Patrick Gries

Socialite/clubbie Nancy Zipkin

Patrick Gries

Marcus Leatherdalde and Mae Alexander.

Patrick Gries

Michael Musto looking airborne at Savage.

Patrick Gries

Treasured doorman Kenny Kenny in a party pose.

Patrick Gries

Fascinating scene regular and musician David Yarritu.

Patrick Gries
Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.
@mikeymusto