Where were you in ’92? Steve Eichner knows precisely where he was and has the photos to prove it! On any given night, you could find him chronicling the NYC club circuit, as witnessed in his new book “In the Limelight: The Visual Ecstasy of NYC Nightlife in the 90s” published by Penguin Randomhouse out on October 20. “I’m taking you into the party with me – taking you along on my journey,” he said in a recent phone interview. This coffee table book is the culmination of thousands of pre-digital slides and negatives previously filed away in a Long Island warehouse for 30 years – many never seen before.
As official in-house photographer for megaclub owner Peter Gatien, Eichner’s job was to capture publicity photos for press use and story enticement. Now a veteran lensman with countless fashion weeks and 21 Met Galas under his belt while on staff at WWD, as well as published photos in Vogue, the New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Rolling Stone, People, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, W Magazine, Details, and GQ, Eichner realized early on that he was witnessing history. “I shot way more than I needed for my job,” he admitted, adding that budgeting for his film often meant resorting to rummaging around in his spare change drawer. “Something told me I had to document this time in history.”
If you were a fixture on the naughty ’90s scene, this book will bring back memories of your favorite iconic venues. “King of Clubland” Gatien’s holdings included hotspots: Limelight, Tunnel, Palladium, and Club USA. Written and edited by Gabriel H. Sanchez, photo editor of The New York Times with a foreword by Gatien, this book contains over 200 color film photographs illustrating the nocturnal craze that took over after Studio 54 finally closed its doors. As was said about Limelight, “Going to church has never been so much fun.”
Club Kids in their crazy attire with sky-high platform shoes; celebrities letting loose including Joan Rivers, Kate Moss, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tupac Shakur, and one fairly uptight Donald Trump; drag queens in wild glittery makeup and not much else; as well as your basic nightcrawlers, famous or famous for one night were the diverse ingredients blending and mingling into a hearty stew of party people.
In that last decade of true “freedom,” before life existed filtered through the lens of cell phones and social media, Eichner explains, “you had to go out – you had to be there – to add something to the mix.” Observing the world in your skivvies while posting content online from your parent’s basement was not an option.
A starry-eyed kid of 22 when he left Long Beach, New York, Eichner first learned his craft covering smaller clubs for an independent magazine. He cut his teeth at boites such as Quick, Reins and Glamorama led to nights at the Roxy and the occasional “outlaw party” (impromptu outdoor flash mob events) thrown by Club Kids promoter, ring leader, and eventual infamous accomplice to murder Michael Alig.
If you (like me) somehow slept through this era (TBH I was on the mommy circuit), here is your chance to get a glimpse of the fun we missed. The following is an abridged and condensed version of my interview with Steve.
LM: What was your favorite club?
SE: Definitely Club USA in Times Square. Peter opened it while I was working for him. It brought the grittiness of (90s era) Times Square into the club. It had the best sound system, best lighting system, and a giant slide from the top (3rd) floor down to the bottom. It was an adult playground – Times Square became Disneyland. It was a place to explore sensuality, fashion, and design.
LM: Tell me about a memorable event.
SE: Well, there were lots of events at the various clubs. We had a John Wayne Bobbitt night with a penis-shaped (loaf of) bread –they cut the bread with a knife.(Editor’s note: ouch!) There was a Brady Bunch night and a Don Knotts night at Limelight. I used to have a beeper so they could alert me if anything important was happening. One time the beeper went off, waking me at 3 A.M. so I called the club. I grabbed my camera to get down to Club USA fast – Julia Roberts was on the dance floor! I got 2-3 pictures of her before her bodyguard said, that’s enough. The club’s publicist said ‘take more’ so I went up into the balcony with my zoom lens. At that point, Julia yelled, ‘don’t take one more fucking picture’ while her bodyguard came after me. I ran and hid in the office until someone radioed me that the coast was clear.
LM: Did you have a favorite night of all time?
SE: That’s a hard one – I may have to think about that a bit. One of them was very early on in the Roxy VIP room – it was my first brush with a celebrity. A very young Naomi Campbell, Dee Dee Ramone, Ru Paul, and Michael Stipe (of REM) were there, and the free champagne was flowing.
(Later, as promised, I received this in an email) In 1993 Steven Tyler of Aerosmith arrived at Club USA with his wife and two daughters Liv and Mia. I am a huge fan of Aerosmith and began my career as a music photographer, which was the best. He was amiable and glammed it up for photos with his family, rode down the slide, and stuck his tongue out –his trademark pose. Liv was a model and started her acting career, so the photos from that night got published worldwide once her film “Silent Fall” hit theatres. I made good money on that. Steven invited me to hang out with them in the VIP area, and we drank a few cocktails together. I was partying with a rock star like a rock star.
LM: What was it like working for Peter Gatien? Did he change up the clubs all the time?
SE: Peter is a genius. I never knew what to expect. One night I arrived at the Tunnel, and there were urinals all along the entrance wall. There were pop-up art exhibits and artist Kenny Scharf’s Lava Lounge, fashion designer Thierry Mugler designed a room at Club USA, at Tunnel at one point, there was a rubber room set up like an insane asylum. There was a ball (pit) room; Limelight had a shampoo room. Fashion shows were held at the clubs – it was a cultural moment — Jean Paul Gaultier showed his collection inspired by Hasidic Jews, Marc Jacobs had his grunge collection, Tommy Hilfiger and Stephen Sprouse were regulars too.
Also, each room had a different type of music – Limelight had a room with techno music, the Giger room had Goth music, and in the downstairs library was Disco 2000. The Tunnel had Hip Hop Sundays, the first place to feature that genre.
LM: How did people, especially celebrities (besides Julia Roberts) feel about you taking their picture?
SE: People were a lot less guarded then. I was the only guy in the room with a camera pre-social media. It was how people built their brand. There wasn’t so much image control then. Celebrities got dressed up to get their picture taken. Since it was film, you couldn’t see it right away – clubs were dark, and I didn’t even have autofocus, so I had to learn how to zone focus. I guess they saw me as being in a position of authority.
LM: What comprises a good photo?
SE: There is composition and lighting, and I always like a photo that you see something more each time you look at it. Maybe a little bit of humor, like a photo with a couple making out in a bathroom, while a guy is taking a leak in the background.
LM: What made the 90s club scene so memorable?
SE: It was the mixture of people in the primordial slime. They embraced the diversity –the guy in the suit and tie looking at the transsexual person and vice versa. It all ended when Giuliani decided to clean up the city. He tried to make Peter Gatien into public enemy number one. (Gatien was eventually deported to his home country of Canada under charges of tax evasion). The club scene turned into a lounge scene with $300 a bottle table service. You are there with a group of people you came with instead of meeting new people.
Although Eichner doesn’t expect anything like the 90s club scene to return, he thinks there could be a silver lining hidden amidst the current pandemic cloud. “In the 90s, artists could afford to live in NYC,” he adds. Who knows? Maybe real estate will be cheaper, allowing creative types to flourish making New York’s nightlife great again.