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.”
Nearly six feet seven (“six ten in heels”) and sporting a clean-shaven head that makes him look like a white Shaquille O’Neal, Johnson, 41, has made a career out of anti-authoritarianism, from singing with foul-mouthed bands like the Weenies to promoting parties like “Rock N Roll Fag Bar” and “Pubic Hair Club for Men.” His most notorious party was “Foxy,” the Saturday-night get-together at Mario Diaz’s East Village bar the Cock, where amateur exhibitionists strutted their stuff – and did much worse – for money from an eager crowd of voyeurs. “People lined up just to watch someone drop their pants,” he says. “That’s where I got the idea for the stuff I’m doing now. It’s sexual, but with a sense of humor.” And in some sense, Johnson’s mix of music and sex recalls the culturally charged scene at bathhouses in the seventies (after all, D.J.’s Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, not to mention Bette Midler, got their start at the Continental Baths in the Ansonia).
After seeing McGovern in his show The Wrong Fag to Fuck With: The Gay Pimp vs. Eminem in 1999, Johnson knew he had found the perfect cohort for his crusade to liberate gay nightlife. “I thought he was genius,” Johnson says, “and besides, I’m middle-aged and I don’t like to go out anymore. Jonny’s young and he can do that for me.”
Their first venture together, “Triple XXX,” at the dingy Second Avenue bar the Hole, was a smash when it premiered late last summer, thanks in part to audience-participation-encouraged S&M displays. It was the kind of place where, if you were a gay man who liked to go out, you quickly ran into almost everyone you knew – including people you’d rather not have stumbled upon in a basement back room. But the party – which at first benefited from the fact that the NYPD was too preoccupied with Osama bin Laden to care about go-go boys – rapidly became oversubscribed. And by February, they shut it down. “We didn’t want anyone at the Hole to lose their jobs because of our party,” says Johnson.
Like Johnson, McGovern, 25, is something of a postmodern libertine: He seems to send up the very things that turn him on, often wearing a faded red T-shirt that reads THANKS COACH. As “the Gay Pimp” (his performance-artist alter ego), he sings lecherous songs like “Hey Lil’ Raver Boi” and “Soccer Practice” (which will be included on Larry Tee’s upcoming Badd, Inc. compilation) at venues like Luxx. “I’m hoping to become a one-hit wonder in Europe,” McGovern says, “because you know how much the Europeans love their homos – and their soccer.” He peppers his southern drawl (he’s actually from Brooklyn) with the word homo so often that if you closed your eyes, you might mistake him for a pathological redneck.
“We’re not hurting nobody,” he says. “After all, we’re just homos.” A refugee from glam superclubs like the Roxy, McGovern is – all irony aside – bent on returning gay nightlife to its grittier roots. “At our party,” he proclaims, “the VIPs stand next to the crazy homo who wears a lighted-up shirt.” Indeed, at “Magnum,” A-listers like Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana moved comfortably among the cruisey masses. Still, McGovern takes pains to distinguish his events from some of the seedier underground sex parties that have sprung up in recent months. “There’s a fine line between cruisey and frightening,” he says. “We’re not interested in a party where you can’t go ten feet without someone offering you a blow job.” Devotees of Johnson-McGovern parties appreciate the distinction. “What makes their parties fun is that they’re part ‘Squeezebox’ ” – the legendary nineties polysexual rock soirée – “part wild sex party,” says actor-director Jonathan Lisecki. “If you’re not in the mood for back rooms, there’s always good music.”
Downtown at “John Street,” however, music doesn’t seem to be foremost on people’s minds: A crowd of guys inches closer to the stage, where several performers are getting friendly with one another. From his D.J. booth, Johnson is having fun playing raunchy ringmaster – as the live-sex show gets considerably livelier, he intones into the mike, “You’re watching guerrilla theater, people.” (A few days later, he sends out a cringe-worthy e-mail thanking “the cute nightlife journalist who got gang-banged on the pool table, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘eight-ball in the corner pocket.’ “)
But even with such beyond-the-pale antics, Johnson is optimistic that this party will last. “We learned our lesson from the Park: If anyone from the media tries to cover it, they’ll be eighty-sixed from the party.” Then he lets out a big, confident laugh. “Can I put you on the list?”