“Thoughts flash in your mind of incredible nights here, whether it was Jay-Z, or Junior Vasquez, or the thousands of people inside and outside, waiting in line,” said Peter Gatien, the nightclub impresario who lorded over the 1990s club scene in New York City.
It was a brisk Wednesday in early March, a few days before the city shut down because of the new coronavirus, and Mr. Gatien was at La Colombe, a cafe inside the brick warehouse that once housed the Tunnel, the massive nightclub on West 27th Street that is now celebrated as a crucible of hip-hop.
“Just the raw energy, the exuberance,” he said, sipping an iced tea. “You don’t see it anymore.”
Times change. The Tunnel, a former warehouse where Biggie Smalls and Busta Rhymes once barked out raps to frenzied throngs, is converting to offices and luxury retail, blending seamlessly with the gleaming Hudson Yards to the north.
And Mr. Gatien, with his icy demeanor and swashbuckler eye patch, is no longer the “King of Clubs,” as he was hailed by The New York Post in his ’90s heyday. His spectacle megaclubs in the city — Limelight, Palladium, Club USA and the Tunnel — were raking in more than $1 million a week at the time, he said, before a drug trial, which he ultimately won, cost him, well, basically, everything.
With his memoir, “The Club King,” published on April 1, he hopes for a degree of catharsis after an epic rise and fall, but also to celebrate a lost New York, when clubs felt mysterious and transgressive, luring the misfits and outcasts from the city’s creative underground, and every night felt like a Mardi Gras on Mars.
“It was the last of an era: predigital, pre-social media,” he said. “People didn’t even have cellphones. You really had to go out to find out what was happening.”
End of the Party
Mr. Gatien, too, no longer looks quite so swashbuckling, his razor cheekbones now softer, his eye patch (worn since childhood, after he lost an eye in a baseball game in which a broomstick was being used as a bat) now replaced by dark glasses. Wearing a vintage Gaultier spring coat over a black hoodie, with oversize white headphones cradling his neck, he seemed at ease just to blend in.
“I like being anonymous,” he said.
Over the past two decades, he has certainly accomplished that.
Mr. Gatien was acquitted of his drug-racketeering and conspiracy charge in 1998 but was deported to Canada after pleading guilty to subsequent state tax-evasion charges. He now lives a quiet life in a three-bedroom apartment in Toronto with his third wife, Alessandra, and has spent the bulk of the last two decades trying to put his life back together.
Over the years, there were attempts to break into boutique hotels, and write an “Entourage”-esque series about a 1990s club kingpin. His splashy 2007 return to the nightclub business — a four-story club in Toronto called Circa, with a campy space-age theme — lasted only a year.
But his cultural imprint remains.
The actor Dylan McDermott played Mr. Gatien in the 2003 film “Party Monster,” about the gruesome murder of a club kid by a Limelight promoter, Michael Alig (played by Macaulay Culkin). The Tunnel was lionized as rap’s lost city of Atlantis in the 2016 documentary “The Hip-Hop Nucleus.”
And a 2011 documentary, “Limelight,” offered a kaleidoscopic look back to that sordid netherworld, but Mr. Gatien was not exactly effusive in the film. “Perched palely on a tall stool, rocking dark sunglasses or his signature eye patch,” the New York Times review read, the gangly club kingpin “remains largely an enigma.”
Even so, the memoir provides Mr. Gatien a chance to set the record straight. Portrayed over the years as a genius and a hustler, a megalomaniac and a Sphinx, he is looking forward to the chance to control the narrative for a change.
“If you only read The New York Post from 1996 to 2000, then I’m a villain,” he said. “It hurts. I was a hard-working guy who spent nearly 20 years in nightlife in the city.”
But, he added, “I was an easy target. I was the guy in the eye patch.”
An Empire of Excess
Whatever else you may say about Mr. Gatien, who is 68, he never aimed small. He opened his first club in the mill town of Cornwall, Ontario, when he was in his early 20s and managed to lure a young band from Toronto band by the name of Rush for its opening week, he says in the book.
He later moved to Miami, where he converted a nightclub called Rum Bottoms into a discothèque called Limelight, and booked rising acts like Grace Jones and the Village People.
In following years, he opened Limelights in Chicago, London and Atlanta, where, he writes in his book, a live panther briefly roamed beneath a tempered glass dance floor. The stunt prompted the ire of a local animal rights organization, but the buzz also lured the likes of Rod Stewart and Andy Warhol, he writes.
The New York Limelight, of course, had to go even bigger. When Mr. Gatien first glimpsed the former Church of the Holy Communion in Chelsea, the empty church seemed beyond resurrection. Plaster was peeling off the walls, and dusty mahogany pews were scattered on warped floorboards.
It was, in other words, perfect. “I fell in love with that building,” he said. The Gothic Revival church also provided a bump in publicity when a handful of picketers showed up on opening night carrying placards with messages like “Don’t Dance on My Religion,” alongside clubgoers hauling a life-size cross carrying a Jesus figure in a loincloth.
Along with goths, drag queens, rockers, leather boys and slumming socialites, the Limelight became the home to the ’90s club kid moment. Arty outsiders and fashion iconoclasts favoring lip piercings and pancake makeup reframed dance-floor revelry as an art movement of sorts — a swirling blend of techno music, Carnival-level costumery and, yes, drugs (particularly Ecstasy).
“I’m a good shepherd,” Mr. Gatien said. “I was a shepherd of talent. I always got a lot of gratification standing in the back of the balcony, seeing 3,000 below waving their hands in the air.”
At Limelight, he added, “we had people in sequins showing up alongside people in tuxedos coming from a dinner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. If everybody is dressed in Armani, it’s boring. If everybody is super-sequins, it’s boring. The most important thing you can do in a club is to draw an eclectic crowd. In the end, they entertain each other.”
Mr. Gatien found success in his adopted city, but he did not find universal love. The Village Voice called him “a bit of a cold fish.” New York magazine described him as “a provincial money man who didn’t make the scene, but made a fortune off it.” Even his staff nicknamed him “the Ghost.”
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a small-town Canadian kid,” he said, “but I’m much more comfortable in the shadows.”
The Tunnel, too, served as a clubhouse for a marginalized population in need of one, he said. Located in a neighborhood that was then an industrial backwater, the club provided a safe space in downtown Manhattan for large groups of young African-Americans.
As Datwon Thomas, the editor of Vibe, wrote in 2018: “You couldn’t go to the notoriously badass function that took place on Sunday nights if you were faint of heart. Meanwhile, you weren’t a top-tier rapper if you didn’t perform at the perpetually packed venue.”
With Funkmaster Flex wrangling talent, big names including Dr. Dre, Lil’ Kim, 50 Cent, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Nas and Snoop Dogg all played Sunday night at the Tunnel. And they played for free, Mr. Gatien said, because, well, it was Sunday night at the Tunnel.
It was the days before bottle service, and the Tunnel was also a place for the elites of rap to scale the heights of conspicuous consumption. Leaning over the massive bar at the center of the room, Sean Combs and Jermaine Dupri used to compete to see who could line up more empty Cristal bottles, Mr. Gatien writes in the book.
“Everybody was dancing,” Mr. Gatien said. “Even the security girls, once the rush was over. And when everybody was leaving the place, there were so many smiles.” He remembers thinking, he said, that everyone who had been at the club was going to have sex that night.
It would not last, however. None of it would.
Losing It All
“The owner of three of Manhattan’s largest nightclubs was accused yesterday of turning two of them — the Limelight and the Tunnel — into virtual drug supermarkets,” The New York Times reported on May 16, 1996, “peddling the drug known as Ecstasy to a clientele made up largely of college students and teen-agers.”
Mr. Gatien does not deny the Ecstasy use in his clubs; the drug was everywhere in the ’90s nightlife, he said. “Was it looser than it should have been?” Mr. Gatien said. “Truthfully, yeah. Was it looser than anywhere else in town? No, absolutely not.”
“My mind-set was, the drug wasn’t good for business, in that people don’t drink on Ecstasy,” he said. “But people don’t fight on Ecstasy, either, so it’s not like you’re having blood baths like with people drinking too much tequila.”
Nonetheless, his own drug use was starting to spiral.
Mr. Gatien, who was then living with Alessandra and his two daughters in a handsome townhouse on East 63rd Street, off Fifth Avenue, made a point of staying clean during work hours. But he eventually succumbed to the temptation and business pressures.
At times he would book a $1,000-a-night Manhattan hotel suite and spend a weekend freebasing cocaine naked with a group of “party girls.”
“It was total selfishness,” he said. “I’m not justifying it, but the way I looked at it then, I was in an industry where I didn’t have time to take 10 days to go off to California to unwind. In my mind, I’d just bang it out for two days, then go back to work.”
When police raided the Limelight in the fall of 1995, his empire was living on borrowed time. As the investigation widened, undercover agents were soon swarming Limelight, some, he writes in the book, dressed in highly unconvincing drag, or wearing dog collars.
After his arrest, the legal odyssey lasted two and a half years until he was acquitted of all drug charges in 1998. Jurors “clearly rejected the testimony of a drug-dealing former club director and five other dealers who pleaded guilty to drug-conspiracy charges and agreed to testify against Mr. Gatien in return for leniency,” The Times reported.
Even so, the government found a way to get rid of him, deporting him to Toronto in 2003 after his guilty plea to state tax evasion charges. (He paid some club employees in cash.)
On visits to New York in the ensuing years, he has made a point of avoiding the former Limelight church, which over the years has housed boutiques, restaurants and a gym.
“It’s very emotional for me,” he said. “I had it for almost 20 years. That’s like an eternity in the nightclub business. Most clubs — a year and a half, two years, and that’s it.”
While he has entertained the idea of getting an investment group together and creating a boutique hotel, with the Limelight building as the lobby, he will never return to the nightclub business, he said.
“I’ve been approached by Vegas,” he said. “I don’t even respond to the calls. It’s a young man’s game.”