It's late on a steamy Friday night at a totally nondescript, after-work bar in far-downtown Manhattan.
"Don't turn around," says a friend in a hushed, concerned voice. "There's a penis right behind you."
The offending member -- which belongs to a nude go-go boy dancing on the bar -- is swaying back and forth to Eminem's "Without Me." The dancer is just one of many attractions tonight, including a TV playing vintage gay porno like The Hustlers of 110th Street and a back room featuring all manner of stranger-to-stranger sex.
"How great is it to see naked people dancing on the bar?!" shouts a member of Williamsburg electroclash trio Scissor Sisters from a small stage, where they've just finished "Electrobix," a song about a skinny gay youth who transforms himself into a hulking Chelsea boy thanks to electro-themed aerobics sessions.
The crowd, a mix of skinny gay youths and hulking Chelsea boys, roars its approval.
"We're tired of the velvet ropes and the fancy attitude," explains Jonny McGovern, promoter of the party, which is called "John Street" (for its Wall Street location and the rent-boy association). "Niceness is the new glamour." Standing by the door, he checks a name off the guest list. "During the Giuliani era, things were so stiff that people were dying for a change. Now we've got that change." A smile crosses his face as he puts on a deeply fake southern accent: "Our parties ain't 'bout no Prada."
McGovern takes pains to distinguish his events from some of the seedier underground sex parties that have sprung up recently: “There’s a fine line between cruisey and frightening.”
As the economy boomed in the late nineties and the Giuliani administration enforced long-dormant laws against dancing at small bars, gay nightlife devolved into the monochromatic (shirtless bright young things hogging the dance floor at Twilo or the Roxy) and the moneyed (the velvet mafia sipping Cosmos at "Beige"). But with bitchiness having gone the way of Lizzie Grubman, and with Bloomberg (so far) taking a slightly more tolerant stance on nightlife, the moment belongs to McGovern and his partner-in-crime, Dean Johnson, whose raunchy, open-to-everyone parties are reshaping the landscape of (gay) sex and the city.
In many ways, of course, Johnson and McGovern's parties are less about breaking new ground than about returning New York nightlife to its more adventurous and unpredictable self (or, as some have charged, its pre-AIDS self). "I'm too young to remember the early eighties in New York," says one "John Street" regular, "but I imagine that this is what they were like."
The question is whether the city is ready for such a revival. "They've been the first to test the waters of the Bloomberg administration," says Marc Berkley, party promoter and publisher of gay weekly H/X. "Their parties are successful because you go and get your blow job and then go home happy and don't have to worry about waking up next to the guy in the morning." Even rival promoter Rob Fernandez, who runs "Asseteria" at Cheetah, admits that "Dean's parties are the kind everyone wants to throw but are ultimately too afraid to."
The fear is understandable. Even if Bloomberg is no Giuliani, New York is still no New Amsterdam when it comes to tolerating hedonism (never mind smoking). In the past year, McGovern and Johnson have been forced to close two of their parties, "Triple XXX" and "Magnum," under pressure from the NYPD. And now their latest venture -- which is barely promoted, save for small listings in a handful of publications, and whose flier reads shhhhh . . . -- is beginning to feel a little bit of heat from the authorities, too.
Veterans of guerrilla-style club promotion, Johnson and McGovern vow that "John Street" will continue -- and they're even readying the long-awaited return of the phenomenally popular (and profitable) "Magnum" (albeit in a slightly less XXX-rated form). "But you don't need to worry," say McGovern of the new party, which will be called "The Rambles." "It's still going to be fun and really, really sexy."
The original "Magnum" was without question an in-your-face affair. Before its launch in February at the Park -- the gargantuan Tenth Avenue playground best known for hosting movie premieres and J.Lo's birthday party -- Johnson sent out a series of e-mails blasting the city's laws on public nudity in nightclubs. "If the police want to waste their time and money chasing naked, well-hung men around a nightclub, we are prepared to take a stand," he declared. "We invite you to stand with us."
From the outset, "Magnum" seemed like a nightlife stunt of David Blaine–like proportions: an anything-goes Sunday-night party complete with naked go-go boys writhing on the bar and Chelsea boys swimming around in an upstairs hot tub, all at a democratic, very un-Park price ($10). It was Caligula in one of the city's toniest nightspots. And during its first few weeks, "Magnum" reeled in nearly 2,000 revelers every Sunday, leveling the competition, including gay-nightlife vet John Blair's "Drama!" at Centro-Fly.
But the party was over almost before it began: The Park was issued summonses for everything from lewd and licentious behavior to an improperly licensed fireplace, and felt that it had no choice but to shut the party down. (Still, it will be hosting "The Rambles.") Johnson claims that the ticketing was the result of an e-mail in which he called "Magnum" an attempt to "remove the stain of Giulianism from New York nightlife," but an NYPD spokesperson dismisses the charge: "They can challenge the summonses in court if they feel they're unfair."