When Judy Garland, Kirk Douglas, Liz Taylor and the glitterati of the ‘50s wanted to walk on the wild side, they headed to the East Village’s Club 82, “New York’s After-Dark Rendezvous.” The notoriety of the basement club, at 82 East Fourth Street, came from its elaborate stage shows performed by 35 female impersonators. Strippers, dancers, comedians and singers, all men in drag, staged three shows nightly, seven days a week well into the ‘60s, when the novelty wore off and the club’s popularity faded.
By the 1970s, the music of glam rockers like David Bowie and Lou Reed blurred genders and climbed the charts. In 1974, the EV’s own New York Dolls, featuring lead singer David Johansen, were booked to play the Club 82 in an attempt to revive the failing bar. Punk and new wave bands like the Stilettos, featuring a pre-Blondie Debbie Harry, followed and the club enjoyed success for a few more years. Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones launched his ill-fated music club Woody’s on the site in 1990 but by then the magic was gone.
But for those on the scene in the ‘70s, the Club 82 is remembered as a place where new forms of music exploded in an atmosphere suspended in the past.
Marty Thau, New York Dolls manager
I was the manager of the Dolls and I was approached by the club because they were switching over to glam rock bands. The drag crowd had moved on and the Club 82 never returned to the original format.
Here was an opportunity to make a point by playing directly to that issue of “were the Dolls transvestites, were they gay?” Here they were, playing the Club 82, and it would be a big laugh for the audience in town that the Dolls, whom they knew were not gay, were playing the Club 82.
The Dolls were led by David Johansen. He said, “Yeah, we’ll all go there dressed like women. Since they think we are gay, transvestites, let’s play to that.” Johnny Thunders wouldn’t hear about it. He was a little bit too butch to put on a dress. But David did; in fact he was the only one in the band that put on a dress but he was the focal point of the group.
It was funky and dark. The show was sold out and it was a hip audience that showed up. All the downtown hipsters and vintage clothes kids, all the trendy types. The buzz got out on that and they showed up en masse.
It was a one-time shot at making the point that we’re too cool to be bothered by your lack of information. So we’ll hit you squarely between the eyes with this and maybe if you’re hip enough you’ll get the point.
Marty Thau is a rock entrepreneur and founder of the pioneering punk and new wave label Red Star Records.
Tom Wynbrandt, The Miamis
For me, the Club 82’s heyday was 1974, 1975. The 82 all of a sudden was happening. It seemed in 1974 as though it had come from nowhere. But once you were there you understood that it was a drag club of long standing. But for our crowd it was a brand new place. It was just a very decadent and a seemingly adult place to hang out.
My brother James and I put the Miamis together in the mid-’70s. We played with all of them, Blondie, the Ramones, you name them. We shared the stage with the Dolls on that famous gig at the 82. When the Dolls played there, they really inaugurated the place. It took tremendous swagger and attitude to pull it off, to dress like that and still seem like a rock god rather than a swish. You really needed stones to pull that off. And they had ‘em.
The Dolls were always great to play with, they were good friends. Johnny [Thunders] and Syl [Sylvain] lived around the corner from us. It was just a really nice time. Johnny was still Gentleman Johnny.
Butch and Tommy ran the place – two lovely ladies, two wonderful hostesses and the fact that they looked like linebackers was irrelevant. I wouldn’t mess with them, that’s for sure. They understood their role and on occasion would act as den parents. I never saw them pick anyone up and throw them out but you certainly sensed that they could if they had to.
I found them quite friendly and professional and you certainly knew that they kept an eagle eye. There were limits that you probably could not cross but I don’t think anybody ever got to that limit. Perhaps they could conceive of behavior far worse than anything we could possibly do.
We couldn’t believe that we’d found this cave out of time that was just waiting for us. And the fact that it used to have this dangerous drag history only made it that much more louche and desirable.
Guitarist Tom Wynbrandt was co-founder of the Miamis, an underground rock band called too punk for the pop market and too pop for punk.
Martin Rev, Suicide
I think we did two shows there. I remember the first time we played, we played with maybe three, four other bands on the bill, a lot of guys from the neighborhood that had been playing, never recorded. That scene, that kind of a crowd, took us definitely in stride.
It was kind of an after-hours, private club. Of course it has quite a history, going back decades, but I think they wanted to capture this new scene that was happening. From what I could see it was the same club, they didn’t do anything to convert it for this purpose, they just let it go. And it was a great club.
I would go there sometimes when there weren’t shows. It was in the midst of the disco surge and the stage was not very high but very coolly lit. The dancing would be done there and the people would just wander inside the open space in front of the stage and then they could sit at any table they wanted to.
Lights, carpets, tablecloths, it had more of a Queens-Las Vegas kind of touch. Booths to sit in, a little more theatrical in a sense, which made it more comfortable in a way. I would imagine that if a girl — and guy too — wanted to wear provocative clothing and look really hot and catch a guy or vice versa, the Club 82 would be the place to go because that’s where they would really shine.
It was a very relaxing place, it was a real club. It was a great atmosphere.
Martin Rev, who plays synthesizers, joined vocalist Alan Vega in 1970 to form the innovative protopunk duo Suicide. Check out Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream” on the Boss’s latest album, “High Hopes.”
Loren Molinare, the Dogs
In 1973 we had the wild-ass idea to move to New York with no place to live, we didn’t know anybody, no gigs, no nothing, just $600 and about 10 people and six dogs. It was complete insanity but it was a great learning experience. It was an amazing time to be there.
It was in the spring of ’74 that we really started going to the 82. Glam was in high gear. We did sound there because we had a pretty large PA for that era’s bands. We did sound for the New York Dolls and the Stillettos, Debbie Harry’s first band with Chris Stein and the guys from Television.
Club 82 was the first place that I saw a guy kiss a guy. I was in the lobby and this guy is with his girl. She goes into the bathroom and when she comes out she catches her boyfriend making out with this other guy. Coming from Michigan, we didn’t know a lot about stuff like that. It was an eye-opening experience, but we learned real quick.
The lighting in there was superb because of the drag queen shows. I remember it being very plush, thick velvet drapes and a lot of maroon. The stage was lit up underneath, it was just very showy, very bright and very gaudy at the same time.
The crowds were very glitter rock, glam rock. Late teens, early 20s, young and hip, just cool. The whole punk thing hadn’t even really happened yet. It was definitely a Ziggy Stardust, glitter, glam kind of vibe. Platform shoes, all that.
It was such a historic, seedy, decadent place, it was a great home for glam rock. The tone of the place for me was set when you walked down the stairs and there was that picture of the Stones in drag on the wall above your head.
Detroit punk rockers The Dogs, who have opened for everyone from the MC5 and Kiss to AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses, are still performing their raw brand of Detroit rock.
Harold C. Black, Teenage Lust
As a drag club it was nearly dead. So that’s when they opened. I played there with Teenage Lust and I also played as a guest with a band called Legs. We played at least three times with Lust.
It was a classy little place. More so than most of the dives we were playing in around town. The stage set-up was like a little theater and the bar was right in front. So when the bands weren’t playing you can get up there and dance.
All over the walls of the dressing rooms were photographs of Frank Sinatra with the “girls” there, Sammy Davis, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, nearly anybody who was somebody had been there.
Pretty much whoever was in town would show up. I remember the Monkees were there, Davy Jones and Mickey Dolenz. David Bowie came to see us. He told me he loved my concept and the name Teenage Lust. He was more interested in talking to the guys in tight pants than he was to the girls.
Club 82 was a great place for the glam scene because it fit in well with the room. The 82 lent a bit a more class than some of the other places that people were going. Very hip. It was well mixed: straight, gay. It was worthwhile getting dressed up for this.
It was nice. It was dark. Dark wood, cheap dark wood and a lot of red.
Harold C. Black founded Teenage Lust, rockers from the Lower East Side who would later back John Lennon at the One on One benefit concert.
Tim Hauser, The Manhattan Transfer
We came up in New York in the cabaret scene during the same time that the whole glam rock scene was happening. My sister Fayette was an original member of the Cockettes in San Francisco and she moved to New York right around the time that we were starting out. She was putting on a bunch of alternative theater shows. The Cockettes, Tomata du Plenty, the whole John Waters crowd with Divine; my sister and that crowd were hanging out with us, trying to help us get started. Even though musically we weren’t a punk band and we weren’t doing what the New York Dolls were doing, we all knew each other.
We were very, very popular with the gay community in New York. There were two crowds that really followed us at the time; it was the gay community and people that were in the fashion business, who owned little boutiques in New York. They all used to hang out with each other. And both of those crowds were very, very loyal and they used to come and see us all the time.
So by spring 1974, we were getting pretty hot in the city and we had attracted the attention of Atlantic Records. We got offered this gig, the one time that we played at the Club 82. It was a very pivotal gig to play the Club 82 because it was considered a very happening, alternative club at the time. It was packed that night. It was a very hip crowd. There was an electric feeling in the air.
The significance of the show was that Jerry Greenberg, who was the president of Atlantic Records, came to see us because Ahmet Ertegun wanted to sign us to Atlantic but Jerry had to sign off on the deal. And after that show, they signed us.
Vocalist Tim Hauser is co-founder of The Manhattan Transfer, the legendary pop and jazz group that has won 10 Grammy Awards for hits like “Boy From New York City.”