Beyond Hip and Unhip, There’s the China Club

With a drink in one hand, a cigar in the other, and various critical parts of his body glued to a dark-haired woman with whom he is ostensibly dancing, Michael Barrett looks like a happy man. It’s 1:30 in the morning and we’re on the VIP deck at the China Club, the raucous, legendary staple of New York nightlife, which Barrett owns with his partner, Danny Fried, who’s standing several feet away.

While Fried watches the crowd with the eyes of a Secret Service agent scanning a rope line and spends much of the night pacing, smoking, and prowling the club, Barrett has more immediate business. It’s not hard to see why he’s probably the only guy who’s ever been thrown out of his own club.

“I almost never do this anymore,” Barrett says, screaming the words directly into my ear so I can hear him over the pulsating thump of the music. “I really don’t. There’ve just been too many nights and too many years. Besides, I’m married now and I have absolutely no self-control. If I’m here, I’m gonna get into trouble. So most nights, I leave the club by 6:30.”

On this night, however, he is in no hurry to go home. He’s moved around behind the mystery woman now, grinding his hips with the enthusiasm if not quite the dexterity of Ricky Martin. She is sheathed in a silvery slip dress that covers her leopard thong only when her arms are at her sides. Barrett glances at me and shrugs, and a big smile spreads across his face.

In truth, Barrett has a lot to smile about these days. While he may not be the unrelenting wild man he once was – now that he’s 51, his pants almost never come off in public anymore – maturity has clearly not hurt business.

“Bowie’s group got up and played,” Barrett says. “The whole music thing was an accident. It was total luck.”

Sure, there are better-known club owners, and there are certainly hipper places to go. But in a business of highly perishable commodities, a business in which the average life span of the latest, of-the-moment club barely seems longer than the shelf life of a quart of milk, Barrett and Fried have accomplished something extraordinary: longevity.

It’s Monday night, which has been the China Club’s signature phenomenon for years. Tonight, the place is packed with more than 1,200 people, dancing, screaming, drinking, talking, mating, and smoking. Downstairs in the club’s Shei Shei lounge, which has its own D.J. and its own bar, several hundred more people take advantage of the slightly less frenzied atmosphere. Upstairs, amid the controlled chaos, nine bartenders work the 60-foot-long, oval-shaped mahogany bar where the crowd is three deep all night long. Twenty security guys provide the peacekeeping beef, four waitresses ensure the uninterrupted flow of Cristall around the VIP deck, and a Vanilla Ice look-alike wearing a headset over his postmodern DA hairdo controls access to the VIP area. Out on the street, at two in the morning, more than 50 people are still standing in a soft rain waiting to get in. The club is full.

The China Club’s VIP deck sits several steps above the club’s main area so everybody can see everybody else. What’s the point of having celebrities if they’re sequestered in a back room? And on the deck this night are Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada, Tyra Banks, the guys from ‘N Sync (Joey Fatone, in a sleeveless T-shirt that says freak-a-zoid, desperately wants to meet Jeter, which he does), and assorted other notables. Along with the stars, there are people like Lenny “Häagen-Dazs,” a homely middle-aged guy who owns a dozen or so ice-cream franchises around the city and who’s been a China Club regular for years. There is no shortage of pretty women in leather pants, a clutch of topless dancers out on their night off, and a sprinkling of guys who look like the losers in a Sopranos-sponsored Big Pussy look-alike contest.

China Club has never been a hypertrendy, downtown kind of place, a club that makes all but a handful of people feel inadequate. It’s less judgmental, a place where different kinds of people can find a comfort zone, where regular guys feel like celebrities and celebrities feel like regular guys. “The whole universe could be stone-cold dead on Monday night,” says Geraldo Rivera, “but you know the China Club is gonna be packed with attractive, energetic people. It’s a place where you can let your hair down with a reasonable expectation of privacy. I’ve never once gotten into the papers for anything I’ve done there.”

Rivera became so attached to the club that he thought seriously about investing in it when it moved from the Upper West Side three years ago to 47th Street and Eighth Avenue. Well-known as a guy who likes to have a good time, Rivera says he’s spent many “amnesia-inducing evenings” at the China Club. But he declines to discuss the details of any particular nocturnal escapade. “Let’s just put it this way,” he says. “The China Club is a place that’s never disappointed.”

A couple of days later, the club’s Shei Shei lounge is dark and quiet. It’s the middle of the afternoon, and the large empty room looks like an unlit stage set. Danny Fried and Michael Barrett are sunk deep into the crushed velvet of a wingback sofa. Fried lights a Kool and Barrett dumps his sneakered feet on the table.

Not far from where they sit, in the club’s offices, people are doing the payroll, working on the books, ordering liquor and food, and handling all of the back-office detail work required to run a business. Up on the roof, workers are building a 6,000-square-foot addition.

Perhaps because of their background (Barrett was a cop and Fried a clothing salesman), it is a point of honor for them that amid the glitz and celebrity, they’ve managed to keep their bearings. “I love it when these other guys call themselves impresarios,” says Barrett. “What the fuck is an impresario? I can assure you we’re not impresarios. We’re working guys.”

The China Club’s reputation can be traced to the extraordinary music that’s been played there during its fifteen years. The list of people who’ve jammed at the club includes, to name a few, Springsteen, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Steven Tyler, Prince, Elton John, Don Henley, Rod Stewart, Bon Jovi, and Rick James.

Ironically, given its significance, the music actually happened completely by accident. When Barrett and Fried opened the club in the basement of the Beacon Hotel on 75th Street, their intent was to create a late-night neighborhood hangout. A comfortable place where you could have a few drinks, maybe get a bite, and relax.

Their model was the old Jilly’s, the bar on 52nd Street where Frank Sinatra hung out for years. They even copied Jilly’s menu of Chinese food (hence the club’s name) and bought several huge woks to equip the kitchen – in which not a single meal was ever prepared.

“The one critical thing you have to learn in this business,” says Fried, “is that you have to roll with it. If you’re stubborn and you try to dictate to the crowd, you’re dead. You’ve got to let a place seek its own level. Michael and I laugh all the time because when we opened, we had only three absolutes. There’d be no live music, there’d be no dancing, and we’d never charge a cover at the door. Of course, within no time, all three rules had gone out the window.”

The guy who changed everything was Elliot Randall, Steely Dan’s guitarist. He happened to live a few blocks from the club, and he dropped in one night. He started talking to Barrett and Fried, and they all hit it off. Randall liked the feel of the place, saw there was a piano, and told the guys they should have live music. They said the piano was just for light background stuff, and besides, there was no sound system.

Not long after that night, Randall came back with some speakers for the room and jammed a little. Just like that, a buzz began. Several weeks later, Stevie Nicks came in and at some point someone asked her if she wanted to do a few songs. Though Nicks had to be seduced – she was battling a serious case of stage fright at the time – she eventually gave in and sang for more than an hour, backed only by the piano and a tambourine-wielding Barrett.

“You can let your hair down with a reasonable expectation of privacy,” says Rivera. “I’ve never once got into the papers for anything I’ve done.”

Word about the club got out quickly among musicians, particularly the tight-knit community of session players – the guys who play backup in the studio and onstage for the headliners. The real breakthrough night for the China Club came on November 5, 1985, about five months after the club had opened and a couple weeks after Stevie Nicks had performed.

A local group called Ipso Facto was coming in to play on a Tuesday night. The drummer got sick and couldn’t be there, so he called a friend to fill in. The friend was Steve Ferrone, drummer for the Average White Band. As it happened, that afternoon Ferrone had been in the studio working on a David Bowie record. Ferrone mentioned to Bowie that it was his birthday and, as a favor to a friend, he was sitting in that night with a group that was playing at a place called the China Club.

At the end of the session, Bowie proposed to the other musicians that they go keep Steve company. It’s his birthday, Bowie said, he’s doing someone a favor, and he’s not getting paid. So Bowie showed up at the club with bass player Carmine Rojas, guitarist Carlos Alomar, Iggy Pop, and Steve Winwood. When Ipso Facto finished playing, their instruments were still onstage, and Bowie said to his group, let’s do something. Just to make sure they had enough guitar power, he called Ron Wood, who walked in twenty minutes later.

“The whole music thing was just an accident,” Barrett says. “It was total fucking luck. So Bowie’s group starts up and they played for an hour and a half. Everybody stopped working. There were about 200 people in the place and I locked the doors. I said, whoever’s here is here and will witness this. And they start pumping out the hits, ‘China Girl,’ ‘Reeling In the Years,’ ‘Gimme Some Lovin’. ’ When Stevie Winwood started doing ‘Gimme Some Lovin’, ’ I had like shivers going down my spine. It was just a monster night.”

In New York, one celebrity sighting can often be enough to jump-start a business, and the club had gone way beyond that. Barrett and Fried were so thrilled by what had happened, they wanted to do something to show their appreciation. Thanksgiving was only a couple weeks away, and they decided to throw a dinner for all those people who might have no place else to go. They invited mostly musicians, bartenders, and waitresses. About 150 people showed up for the dinner, including David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Cher, Ron Wood, and Sean Penn and Madonna. This gesture cemented the club’s relationship with the music community. (It also cemented the reputation of Fried and Barrett as guys who treated people the right way. Every ambitious bartender and waitress in the city now wanted to work at the China Club.)

“Going to the China Club wasn’t just going to a club in the old days,” says eighties rocker Billy Squier. “You always knew something could happen, because musicians felt like it was our place, our hang, so anyone who was in town would go there. Jimmy Page would come in and we’d get up and play. If I was having trouble with a song, I knew I could go down there and find somebody to work on it with.”

For Squier, who lived only a couple of blocks from the club, it was also like his neighborhood place. “When I went to China Club, it was like my club, and everybody there – the people at the door, the bartenders, Danny and Michael – was thrilled to have me. I remember I was home one night and I got a call from the club. ‘You gotta come down. Axl Rose is here and he really wants to meet you.’ So I go over and Axl says to me, ‘I gotta thank you, ‘cause the first time I got laid it was to one of your songs.’ “

“We became family with these people, with the rock-and-roll community, and it’s lasted to this day,” says Barrett. “But at that point, we still didn’t understand what would happen. The studio guys brought the headliners. The headliners brought other headliners. And all of those people brought the stars and politicians and everyone else. We didn’t realize it was the beginning of a twelve-year onslaught.”

Barrett stops for a minute, appearing almost reluctant to continue. “Look,” he says, “I don’t want to sound like I’m full of shit, but I still can’t believe it. I could name 25 guys who opened a really hot club for two years. And they’ll tell you for two years it was so unbelievable and so amazing. Well, we’ve been doing it for fifteen years.”

The old club on 75th Street had a small private office that became a sort of inner sanctum; it was the place where everyone wanted to be. Celebrities hung out in that room, and there have always been rumors of sex, drugs, and general debauchery. “Wherever people can’t get into is where they want to go,” says Barrett. “There was plenty of craziness in that office, but the idea of it, what people imagined went on, was much more exciting than the reality.”

“In nearly sixteen years,” Fried points out, “we’ve never had a bust.” True, but it was the eighties and attitudes were different. “Yes, there was a private bathroom in that office,” he says. “And yes, we used to joke that if we put in a turnstile, we’d make more money from the bathroom than the rest of the club. So you figure it out.”

Barrett and Fried are nothing if not discreet, and it’s one of the reasons well-known people have always been comfortable in their club. Barrett steadfastly believes in what he calls honor among partyers. “In this business, you get to be a shrink, a parent, a cop, and a priest.”

You also get an introduction to the mob. Though Barrett and Fried are reluctant to talk about it, it’s a fact of life that if you’re in the club business, it’s something that has to be dealt with. “Of course there are going to be guys who try and squeeze you,” says Fried. “You know they’ll come in and say hire this guy or use this supplier or whatever. You have to be able to wiggle out of situations, and we’ve wiggled pretty good over the years.”

For a while, it was a problem. “We’d get guys coming in all the time and saying, ‘Hey, who has this place?’ Or, ‘Hey, who you with?’ And I got a big mouth sometimes,” says Barrett, “and I’d say, ‘I’m with my mother, okay?’ ” Barrett and Fried can joke about it now (sort of) because they got lucky. They had a serendipitous incident almost thirteen years ago that essentially provided them a guardian angel.

On a very busy night near the end of their second year in business, a young, handsome guy was in the club, sitting at a table with three beautiful women. He was laughing and having a great time and buying bottle after bottle of Cristall. “You know, he was trying to play the role,” Barrett says. “He was working it pretty good, with the obvious hope he’d get lucky with one of the women.”

Sitting near him at a table by themselves were four guys who wanted to move in on him. They were much bigger than he was, but one word led to another and when they started to go at each other, security stepped in and broke it up. The night went on, the girls left him, and by the end of the evening he was all alone with a $3,000 Cristall bill. Needless to say, he was not a happy guy.

“It was after four and we were leaving the club,” says Fried. “Michael lived on the West Side and I was on the East Side, so we’d usually get my car and I’d drop him off.” On their way to the parking lot, they saw a confrontation starting in the street. It was the kid and the other four guys. The kid was heavily outnumbered, but he was roaring drunk and angry about the way the night had turned out. They surrounded him and one guy pulled out a knife.

“You always knew something could happen, because musicians felt like it was our hang,” says Billy Squier.

“Michael and I walked over at that point to try and cool things down. ‘Hey, fellas, is there a problem here?’ we asked. And we kind of put our arm around the kid and said they should leave him be, he was drunk. They recognized us as the guys from the club, and they started to leave. We walked the kid down the street and told him he’d better head home.”

Barrett and Fried never gave the incident another thought until about a week later. A package was delivered to them at the club, and inside were two beautiful silk robes from Sulka. There was also a note: “You looked after my kid, we’re gonna look after you.” It turned out the kid was somebody’s son. “Somebody big,” says Barrett. “Not long after that, a guy came in one night and said, ‘If you ever have a problem, just let us know.’ But of course, after that, we never did.”

When you spend time with Barrett and Fried, the stories just naturally roll out. The night they were in their office till 5 a.m. singing Al Jolson songs with Rod Stewart. The overwhelming energy the night the Rangers brought the Stanley Cup in right after winning the championship and did a victory lap around the club with it. Baby-sitting distraught comedian Sam Kinison the night his brother committed suicide. (Barrett ended up staying with him around the clock for three full days before he decided he’d be okay.)

Creating a diversion in front of the club at 3:30 in the morning, at the height of the paparazzi craze over Madonna and Sean Penn, so Barrett could whisk Penn, Madonna, and Harry Dean Stanton up a back stairway, through the piles of garbage behind the Beacon Hotel, and into a van, which he drove in reverse all the way down 75th Street and illegally across the Park on 72nd. (“If you don’t get them out peacefully, they won’t come back.”)

Lawrence Taylor running up an $800 bill, not having any cash to pay it, and leaving his $75,000 weekly paycheck – which he didn’t pick up for months. Hanging out in the club till seven one morning, sitting on the VIP deck and singing old R&B songs with the Four Tops. Staying open one October night in 1998 just for the Yankees, who came straight from the airport to celebrate winning the World Series.

But after all the stories are trotted out, jazzed up, and entertainingly told, the most compelling one of all may be that of Michael Barrett and Danny Fried. The Irish cop and the Jewish garmento who started a historic New York nightspot. Two guys as different from each other as the classically drawn stereotypes would indicate, who forged an unlikely, Kevlar-tough, fifteen-year partnership.

Barrett the free spirit, always in a T-shirt and jeans (generic, not designer). The guy who spent eight and a half years on the police force walking a beat in Chinatown and Little Italy, and then in the 20th Precinct on the Upper West Side: “So, instead of Chinese and Italian, now I was eating at Victor’s and going to the ballet.”

Barrett the renegade, refusing to write tickets and getting disciplined for not meeting his quota: “You know what the punishment was? I got sent to patrol Central Park in the summer. I mean, who’d wanna be in the park in the summer, right?”

Fried, on the other hand, is a jittery, tightly wound ball of enthusiasm; always in a blazer and jeans and a shirt opened several buttons down the front, he seems every bit the salesman he used to be. But neither man is what he first appears to be. The vaguely Ed Norton-esque impression given by Barrett (the Honeymooners character, not the young actor) couldn’t be more wrong. Though he is a nightlife-hall-of-fame-caliber wild man (“I can describe a hundred nights when we were on the bar at four in the morning dancing and taking our clothes off and getting crazy years before any of this Coyote Ugly or Hogs & Heifers crap”), he also collects antiques and Chinese art and designed the current China Club as well as the old one: interior layout, décor, everything.

“Michael is this really complex character,” says record producer Nile Rodgers. “There’s this part of him that’s just nuts. The guy who’ll do anything at night. But even in the course of doing the heavy nightlife hang, you can see the depth of his personality. Sure, you love him at three in the morning, but you also want to be with him at one in the afternoon. And that’s what keeps you coming back. All the really great club guys have had that.”

When they met in 1970, Barrett was from the Upper West Side and Fried was a kid from Queens. Both had joined the Army Reserves to avoid Vietnam. Once they got through four months of basic training, it was, to put it mildly, pretty light duty. About the worst thing they had to do was wear wigs to cover their long hair. “You had to do two weeks every summer,” says Fried, “and it was as much fun as either one of us has ever had. The summer Michael and I met, we were headed to Camp Drum, upstate near Canada.”

The guys were given specific instructions before the trip to Camp Drum that they were not to bring boom boxes, sports equipment, or their girlfriends. “But I’ll never forget the view as the bus pulled away,” Fried says. “Out the window behind the bus, you could see a line of about 40 cars with girls in them and golf clubs sticking out the windows. One car was even pulling a boat. It was unbelievable. And they followed the bus like a caravan all the way to Camp Drum.”

The two men stayed friends as their lives went in different directions over the next decade. Fried worked for his father, whose company made children’s sportswear. Barrett knocked around for a while, working construction until joining the NYPD in 1973.

When he worked in the 20th Precinct, he hung out at a place called Cafe Central on 75th and Amsterdam. “This was the hottest bar in the history of the city. It was like an incubator for young actors. Bruce Willis, De Niro, Pacino, Treat Williams, Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn, Tony Danza. All these guys hung out there, and I was the cop in the deal. The place was my second life and I got to know all those guys.”

Eventually, the owners opened another place, this one called Chelsea Central, and Barrett bought a small piece of it. He also left the force. “Where I came from, nobody quit the department. It was absolutely unheard of,” Barrett says. He was, however, too independent, too willful to thrive in such a regimented environment.

“You know, part of my leaving the department was financial,” Barrett says. “I’m hanging out with Willis and Rourke and these other up-and-coming young guys, and I was making what as a cop, 25 grand a year?”

Fried, meanwhile, had quit the sportswear business and was trying to write screenplays. One day, Barrett told Fried he had an idea for a business and took him to look at a basement space in the Beacon Hotel. The place was called the Game Room, and it was essentially a dumpy chess club with a few pinball machines where weathered-looking Russian immigrants – some of them grand masters like Boris Spassky – played chess.

Barrett found the place because it was barely 100 feet from Cafe Central, and after closing time he and some of the young actors would go to the Game Room, which stayed open all night. “The place was a dump,” says Barrett, “but it was a dump in the right spot. Plus I’d developed these relationships with the celebrities and I figured I could pull them in, so I thought it could be a good little business.

“We stole the best bartenders from the best places in the city,” Barrett says. “When we opened, we had the greatest bartending staff in the history of the world. And they stayed with us for years. Jack Pashkin, T.J., and Billy Kelly are historic guys in the New York bar scene – everybody knows them – and they brought a tremendous group of people with them.”

Though Fried is Ian Shrager to Barrett’s Steve Rubell and seems to be a kind of buttoned-up, straight-down-the-middle sort of guy, that’s only a piece of the picture. It was Fried, after all, who risked all of his money, everything he had, at a pivotal point in his life, to go into a business he really knew nothing about. “He was so green,” Barrett recalls, “that when I started taking him to clubs, he didn’t even know why customers left their change on the bar after they’d paid for their first drink.”

Since being hooked, however, Fried has never lost his enthusiasm for the business; even the difficulties they’ve endured have, for him, done little to tarnish the glamour of owning a nightclub. When the government slapped them with a huge tax judgment and the club was in serious trouble in the early nineties, Barrett was the one who raised the possibility that their run was over. Fried, however, refused to even consider closing down. He was determined to make a deal with the government, to file Chapter 11 and do whatever had to be done to save the club.

Similarly, when only a couple of years later it became clear that their time on the Upper West Side was over, it was again Fried who refused to let go of what they’d built. “The crowd uptown was horrible at the end,” Barrett says. “It was the kind of crowd many clubs get after three or four years and we were lucky enough not to get till after ten years. People were coming who’d go to a liquor store first. At the end of the night, we’d find 200 little bottles in the bathroom. The last straw was when a guy wanted to check an Uzi at the door. I mean, they were bringing in bazookas.”

“Danny was convinced the club could move anywhere,” says Kevin Berg, founder of a nightclub-marketing company and a minority partner in the China Club. “Michael, on the other hand, said maybe this is it. Maybe we’re done. It was a tumultuous time. They were at each other’s throats. And no one knew if they’d really be able to relight the fire in a new location.”

But when Barrett found a new space just off Eighth Avenue, Berg eagerly put up the money for the lease. “You know, it’s really funny,” he says. “In the bad times, Danny really saved the club because of his passion. But in the best times, it was Michael who saved the club. Because as crazy as he is, he’s the reality check. He never loses sight of the fact that it’s a business and they’re just a couple of regular guys. It’s because of him that they never fell for the hype, that they never tried to be more than what they are.”

After fifteen years, Barrett and Fried make it look as if they simply throw open the doors and just let it happen. Nothing works like experience. In a decade and a half, they’ve handled every imaginable kind of celebrity, suffered every complaint, heard every story, seen every species of drunk, and dealt with just about any problem likely to come up when running a club. (They’ve even opened and closed China Clubs in L.A., Aspen, Chicago, South Beach, and South Hampton.) They know where all the potential difficulties lurk.

Last Monday, the VIP deck was thick with its usual alchemy of the anonymous and the celebrated (which would be unusual anywhere else), including Bruce Willis, Ice-T, Jay-Z, and of course Joey, Justin, and Lance of ‘N Sync. Fried hovered unobtrusively, keeping an eye on things and making sure they were all getting what they needed. There were no issues. Not even small ones.

“You can’t go back and re-create the old days,” says Barrett, walking off the VIP deck at 3:30 a.m. “And you wouldn’t want to, either. I’m 51, and believe me, in twelve or thirteen years, I did it all, baby. It was an unbelievable ride. But you kind of grow out of that. To continue to do it at this point doesn’t put any more cream on the sundae for me. I have a life outside this place. We both do.”

Fried, in his way, looks forward as well. “Fourteen years ago, we spent a weekend at Steve Rubell’s place in the Hamptons,” he says. “And he told us the most important thing is not to fall in love with your club, because it’s not gonna last. Well,” he screams as the Baha Men wail “Who Let the Dogs Out” to the absolute delight of the crowd, “here we are all these years later, and with everything that’s happened, we think it’s just the beginning.”

Beyond Hip and Unhip, There’s the China Club