If you caught Lady Gaga’s, well, Gaga-esque performance at the MTV Video Music Awards last night, you’d never think to describe her as “very short,” with a “very quiet voice.” But that’s how she was known to Brendan Jay Sullivan, author of a memoir out this week, Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, The Lower East Side and the Prime of our Lives.
Sullivan, a writer and a DJ who goes by the name of VH1 for his love of music scene minutia, moved to New York out of college in 2004 and threw himself into LES nightlife as a teenager — eventually bartending, spinning and booking shows.
Rivington Was Ours covers a year in the life of Sullivan and crew – girlfriend, co-workers, bar owners, transvestite go-go dancers, and Gaga – as they transformed a neighborhood many took for dead. “People would say, ‘You should have been here years ago, you should have been here when The Strokes were playing,’” said Sullivan.
Gaga found her groove at deliberately discreet venues without flashy signs, like 151 and the recently closed St. Jerome’s. “When people looked at Gaga then, she was 20 years old, she had long dark hair, and all they know is that she hangs around with these dirty rock-and-roll boys around the Lower East Side,” said Sullivan. “So, if a record label wanted to come see her, they would have to do it at like 1:30 a.m. on a Tuesday night in the basement of Arlene’s Grocery, which they didn’t wanna do.” According to Sullivan, it was exactly then, when nobody was really paying attention, that Gaga became Gaga.
“Now we’re at a point where people aren’t coming downtown because they wanna be the next Strokes,” said Sullivan. “They’re coming downtown because they wanna be the next Lady Gaga, you know?” With that in mind, we asked Sullivan to give us a tour of the haunts where Gaga came up.
“Most of my nights started at Stanton Social. Stanton Social was like the first real nice restaurant down here. I was dating the waitress and was friends with the chef. All of our friends worked there. The managers were our age. We came and hung out and that’s it. We’d just get hammered and it was great. If it was going to be a while before [my girlfriend] got off, I would walk down to Pianos or Motor City.”
“I worked at Piano’s and we called Sundays Possy Night. I said [to the management], ‘If you let me book any of the acts I want, and the DJs, I can bring in some money on a down night [Pianos used to close at 11:30 p.m. on Sundays]. All of my friends worked all weekend, and Sundays [were] kind of our Fridays. When they heard that, they were like, ‘Yeah, that’s a reasonable thing to do.’ I told the bands, I’m gonna cover the sound guy and the door guy and you can charge whatever you want. You can also charge nothing and basically have free rehearsal space. The first two bands I booked were Lady Gaga and Semi Precious Weapons. We started turning over a lot of money and we kept [Pianos] happy.”
“In 2006 The Killers played Madison Square Garden. I had a friend on the road crew. I said, ‘I’m DJing at Motor City, and The Killers were staying at the Hotel on Rivington [right around the corner].’ I was like, ‘If you can bring them down [to Motor City], I’ll get all of the drinks for all you guys so you can hang out after the show.’
Gaga was at the Killers show. She had gotten really terrible seats and she went with her boyfriend, and [after] they came [to Motor City]. And it was the first night Gaga and I had really connected because my girlfriend wasn’t there. I was playing a lot of Springsteen because the Killers had just done their very Springsteen-ish second album. And Gaga and her father are both huge Springsteen fans.
She was really excited for the show, and I realized she was so excited because she was at Madison Square Garden seeing a band that everybody loves do a great show. And that gave her ideas: ‘I wanna do that, I’m going to do that.’ She’s a very visionary person, even though she was a completely unheard-of go-go dancer who doesn’t have a record out.
But she comes down, we’re hanging out with The Killers, we’re having a great time and it’s not pretentious. I had to plan not only for The Killers but plan the DJs, and Motor City doesn’t go in for celebrity stuff so I said, ‘You only have to pay me if I break the all-time sales record.’ I talked them into it. And we did. It seemed like just another night for us but that night fueled Gaga’s little flame. She wanted that reaction, where everybody is screaming along to Springsteen in a bar, Madison Square Garden, both ends of it.
She came home that night, and what she really wanted to do was write a song like the Motley Crue song ‘Girls Girls Girls.’ Because we would throw on that song and people would just go nuts. She went home and wrote a song called ‘Boys Boys Boys.’
It’s structurally similar to ‘Girls Girls Girls.’ It’s about a girl who goes on a date to see The Killers, they have nosebleed seats, but they can’t wait to go to the party later because her buddy’s the DJ.”
HOTEL ON RIVINGTON
“The Killers stayed at this hotel, which is the night that Gaga wrote about for ‘Boys Boys Boys.’ We got to hang in their rooms. There were space-age showers.”
WELCOME TO THE JOHNSONS
“This is where I saw Gaga through someone else’s eyes. She transformed into the girl everyone ignored – very short, very quiet voice – into kind of the center of attention, and it was mostly the way she started dressing. She’d wear like leotards and fishnets as an outfit. I was with a friend of mine and she just looked across the bar and goes, ‘Normally I’d think a girl dressed like that looks like a slut, but I think she looks fantastic!’ And I turned around and it was Gaga. It was crazy.
I still thought of her as the shy girl who was dating a friend of mine. She was almost too brilliant for her own good and she learned how to break things down for people.
She had more talent than anybody, more drive than anybody, too, but what was interesting was to watch a woman go through [the transformation]. Everything she did she had to be nice about, polite. No one cares how pretty the DJ is but they would care how the singer on stage looks. So she learned how to sort of manipulate what people received about her, the way she dressed and the way she spoke on stage.”
“[This was an] intentionally nondescript location. There were no signs. There’s no kitchen, there’s no dinner special, you would have to be brought there to go there. That was done on purpose because [the owners] wanted bars that wouldn’t be headaches, places where you wouldn’t have to hire a manager to just stand around. They wanted the bartenders to have the keys and they put the bartenders in charge of it. Brilliant move.
On weekends, though, we could walk down Rivington Street, almost all the way down to the housing project; we could go to Rivington 151 or St. Jerome’s and it wasn’t douchy, it was the kind of thing where – if you’ve ever gone to a party at a friend’s house, and you don’t know everybody, but because it’s your friend’s party – you have free reign to just talk to anybody there. Those parties are great.”
“St. Jerome’s is like the clubhouse for the characters in my book. It was me, it was Lady Starlight, it was Gaga. And we started using St. Jerome’s as a sort of breeding ground for things we wanted to do [in the future]. For me the goal was never to work at St. Jerome’s. The goal was to DJ in bigger clubs, to DJ at Mother Fucker.
It was just fun. It was like no one gives a fuck. It was not for people who weren’t gonna go to the Hamptons on a three day weekend. And I think that was the first time most of those people saw a drag act like Amanda Lepore. The DJ would do the track and she would come out and sing this track called ‘Champagne,’ which is like ‘I drink champagne in the bubble bath, I drink champagne in the dressing room, I drink champagne.’ Just about how fabulous and how great she is.”
“So, that scene is germinating in me and it’s germinating in Gaga. And we weren’t even working together, we were just friends, but we had a vision that we wanted to create. We wanted to take the free nature of St. Jerome’s where we were free to be whoever we wanted and we didn’t have to act cool, and help it turn into something.It was just pretty supportive community wise. And then I would DJ and Gaga would be the go-go dancer or Lady Starlight sometimes.”
ABC NO RIO
“I was raised to believe that a music scene is like something you’re supposed to take care of in order to pass it on to the next generation. So there were older guys in bands who you would think they’d be like, ‘I don’t want these 14-year-old kids at my shows, get’em outta here.’ But they were like, ‘They buy records, they pay for shows, they buy merch, they wanna go in and these are the kids who are gonna form bands.’ It was great. And the best venue was called ABC No Rio, which is still across from St. Jerome’s. They have an all-ages show every Sunday, no alcohol.
My crew, we all grew up that year. We really were just a bunch of idiots screwing around, drinking too much, staying out too late. And watching what [Gaga] went through that year became what people love about her. Her songs are complex because she went through complex things. Her songs are simple because she had a simple way to look at it. And that was the year she went from being this NYU dropout, go-go dancer, hanging around with dirty rock boys, to the year she took over the music industry.”