"I bet they try to blame that on Peter!" says Peter Gatien's wife, Alessandra, about a record ecstasy bust in Los Angeles. Sequestered in a plush booth at the French restaurant L'Actuel, they're discussing Gatien's plan to revamp the Tunnel and the Limelight when, inevitably, talk turns to Gatien's difficulties with various legal authorities.
Less than a year out of jail on tax-evasion charges, the beleaguered club king is battling not only relentless police and community-board scrutiny but the perception that his clubs have lost their cool. Indeed, the vibe at both Limelight and Tunnel, with their omnipresent bouncers and invasive pat-downs, has resembled that of Riker's Island more than a dance-floor utopia's. Worse, up until a few weeks ago, there wasn't enough excitement to make it worth getting past the metal detectors. With the exception of Funkmaster Flex's Sunday-night hip-hop party at the Tunnel, Gatien's once-proud venues had been overtaken by competitors like Twilo and Vinyl that fill their schedules with superstar D.J.'s.
Betting that club-crawlers are tiring of celebutante haunts like Moomba and Veruka, Gatien is aiming to bring back the dance-music trendsetters who made his clubs an important part of early-nineties nightlife. Limelight is booking adventurous talent like Detroit techno icon Jeff Mills and D.J.'s from the Sheffield, England, trance-music party Gatecrasher; the Tunnel has tapped techno and house D.J.'s Johnny Vicious, Eddie Baez, and Alex Lauterstein for regular residencies, and Lauterstein could compete for the Chelsea crowd with the Roxy's Saturday-night heavyweight, Victor Calderone. "Right now, people are obsessed with models and celebrity," Gatien says. "But I think people are much more conscious and music-knowledgeable than they were five or six years ago. Now the real tastemakers are the people into dance culture, not the model scene."
So far, it looks like he may be right. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but the Tunnel is coming back," said a veteran clubber after leaving the West Chelsea nightspot. "I bet it's going to be really hot in the fall."
The August 19 "Grand Re-Opening" of the Tunnel featured hip-hop blaring in the basement, Brooklyn hard-core techno pounding upstairs, and an only-in-New York crowd of pacifier-sucking rave kids, shirtless muscle men, and curious tourists. A week later, the Limelight's fall season began with a packed performance by Mills, who played a set of the early-nineties techno Gatien helped popularize at legendary parties like "Disco 2000" as a tribute to the club. Sonicnet.com's dance/electronic editor, Eric Demby, views the new Limelight as "a chance to rekindle the spirit of when it was an exciting, mysterious place to be."
Gatien faces some difficulties, including the ever-present risk of quality-of-life-related raids and threats to his liquor licenses, which have been revoked more than once. But just as he did almost a decade ago with the original club kids, he's determined to take New York's nightlife from detached elitism to the democratic pleasures of sweating it out on the dance floor. "Is it possible that they'll screw me again?" he asks. "Yeah. But I'm gonna win."