Details have now emerged about the three-tier art crawl honoring Michael Alig that we told you about last month. It remains to be seen whether this veritable Aligpalooza will approach the level of the parties he threw at the Limelight before he famously killed a fellow club kid and was thrown in prison for 17 years; if you’re dying to relive those days, a new documentary screening at the Manhattan Film Festival will provide plenty of throwback footage.
But first, the art show. We’re now told it’ll open June 25 with a private party at Lower East Side gallery Castle Fitzjohns, where some of the paintings Alig made in prison will be displayed for a month. The same night, LESpace will have a public opening of a show of more Alig paintings and memorabilia, up till July 5. The night will wrap up with an after-party at Hotel Chantelle, where attendees can snag a copy of Tonight!, an insta-magazine reporting the night’s activities.
What will those activities entail? Presumably nothing approaching the decadence and depravity documented in Glory Daze: the Life and Times of Michael Alig, a new documentary by actor Ramon Fernandez premiering June 20. Not that the new doc is likely to shock anyone: Alig’s story has already been told in glittery, gory detail in a couple of books (Disco Bloodbath by Alig’s cohort James St. James and Clubland Confidential by reporter Frank Owen), the authors of which both appear throughout the movie. And of course we’ve seen it on screen before, via the Limelight documentary, among others. (In a very meta moment in Glory Daze, Alig is shown watching Party Monster for the first time. At first Macaulay Culkin’s rendering of him makes him feel “vaguely suicidal” because it seems “like a Lifetime movie, like the acting is really terrible,” but it eventually grows on him.)
So, yes: this film probably doesn’t offer much of anything new to clubland obsessives, but those are precisely the people who are going to watch it anyway. After all, the bad old days of Alig’s Disco 2000 parties are still regarded by many as the pinnacle of New York nightlife. This film doesn’t do much to dispel that notion, starting with its images of the shelled-out streets of the East Village and Lower East Side, photos of Basquiat and Haring, and Owen’s painfully cliché testimony about “crack vials crushing beneath your feet.”
It was into this fray that Michael Alig arrived from South Bend, Indiana. Though his brother David is interviewed, we don’t hear much about his childhood, except to be told that South Bend wasn’t any place for a gay kid. Alig was apparently a clean cut, preppy dresser when he stumbled into Patricia Field’s store for the first time (she’s interviewed) and fell in love with the East Village, which he describes as “carnivalesque and a little bit dilapidated and decadent. At that moment I thought whatever college is closest to this neighborhood is the one I’m going to go to.”He ended up getting a scholarship at Fordham but found his decadence nonetheless, by packing underaged kids into the VIP room at Tunnel. “It went on for years,” admits club owner Rudolf Piper, who was the first to dub Alig’s crew the “club kids” after they were briefly known as “the funtouchables.” During this time, Alig was apparently pretty sober – “Michael hated drugs,” St. James says. According to Amanda Lepore (interviewed in a limousine), Alig would, at first, only pretend to be drunk and wasted. He embraced outcasts and encouraged them to dress a la Leigh Bowery (the highlight of the film is definitely the photos of their outré outfits). Many of those outcasts are interviewed, including Walt Paper, the Fabulous Wonder Twins, Kenny Kenny, and Michael T.
Notably missing among the talking heads is Peter Gatien, who gave Alig his true pedestal by bringing him on at the Limelight, a flailing club which was then already being called the Slimelight. But we at least get to hear from “Chief,” the club’s head of security, as well as the people who, in the end, were arguably more effective at keeping drugs out of the club (and, for that matter, keeping Gatien, who was eventually deported back to Canada for tax evasion, out of the country): those being the police investigators.
We hear tales of punch laced with acid, mushrooms and ecstasy; the release of balloons with ecstasy in them; a concoction called XECK (Xanax, ecstasy, cocaine and special K). And of course there are stories of the “outlaw parties” wherein Alig and his cohorts took over a McDonald’s or a subway station until the police more or less immediately busted things up. The Limelight parties included “live chickens and goats running around,” Alig pushing his mother around in a shopping cart, water slides, mini ferris wheels, and of course the man in the chicken costume known as Clara the Carefree Chicken (Ernie Glam, who is now Alig’s roommate in the Bronx, is interviewed extensively).
The stories are paired with footage from the likes of Scotto Osman, but there isn’t nearly enough of it to satisfy the nostalgia-prone (you can find more at Scotto TV). For that matter, there aren’t nearly enough stories: at one point St. James tells us “I remember Michael stealing a city bus one time,” but we don’t get to hear what the hell actually happened. Despite titling his film Glory Daze, it’s clear Fernandez, who also edited the film, doesn’t have much time to linger on the those days. After all, we have to get to what Kenny Kenny calls the “gradual progression into darkness” brought on by the use of harder and harder drugs, culminating in the killing of Angel Melendez.
In chilling detail, Alig recounts how his roommate, Robert “Freez” Riggs, struck Angel with a hammer as Angel attacked Alig during an argument over drug money. At first, they didn’t know he was dead, since “it was a normal situation to have unconscious people around the house.” They eventually cut off his limbs, masking the smell with Calvin Klein “Eternity” (“we didn’t see the symbolism in that till much later,” Alig half-laughs). But even after they boxed up the body, they were slow to actually get rid of it. Kenny Kenny remembers a visit to Alig’s reeking apartment during which he unwittingly rested a cocktail glass on the box and wondered why Alig was wearing his missing roommate’s boots. When they finally got around to it, their attempt to dispose of the body was something out of Dumb and Dumber: in a drugged-up haze, Alig and Freez tipped a cabbie $20 to help them dump the box into the Hudson River, only to watch it float (not sink) away.
Many years later, Alig can look back and laugh: “What a nice place to dispose of a body,” he deadpans to St. James while revisiting the scene.
St. James is quick to explain away such comments: “When Michael and I are laughing and joking and stuff like that, people don’t realize that it has been 20 years and that any emotion we’ve had over everything that’s happened has long since been dealt with.”
To be fair, Alig does show emotion at one point, breaking down while he talks about Angel. But it’s up for debate (and we get a lot of that here) and whether or not he really feels remorse, and whether he killed Angel because he was drug-crazed or whether he’s a genuinely depraved person. Evidence of the former includes a poster for a “Blood Feast” party that — in an eery bit of foreshadowing — showed a hammer, a bashed-in head, and the words “legs cut off!”
This much is certain: Alig might have gotten away with it if he hadn’t blabbed to everyone in the club world about it, causing an item to end up in Page Six. It was only after reading that item that a detective on the case realized who the body might belong to.
But again, all of this has been pretty well hashed over. What’s new here – at least, to those who haven’t read the many articles published in the wake of Alig’s release from prison, including the one that appeared on Bedford + Bowery – is Alig’s post-incarceration life. Fernandez is there to film Alig’s first day out; during the van-ride home, he reads an open letter from St. James telling him how much has changed since he went in. In the ensuing days, he revisits the Limelight, now a marketplace, and Tunnel, now an office building (“I feel vaguely like these people are invading,” he says of the latter). For better or worse, we’re spared a visit to Melendez’s grave.
Because the film tries to pack so much into its two hours and 15 minutes, Alig’s post-prison days occur in a blur, and feel a little tacked on. In addition to telling Alig’s story, the film also aims to show us how New York nightlife evolved as Giuliani started closing down big clubs using the Nuisance Abatement law. But still, even with the dawn of bottle service lounges, we’re assured that younger types like Kayvon Zand, who also makes an appearance, are keeping things weird.
Will Alig have any part in that? It’s clear he has a lot planned beyond the art openings later this month, but it’s uncertain how much of it will resonate. This music video in which he parades around his old East Village stomping grounds might give you some idea.
“Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig” screens June 20 at 9pm at The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal St., Greenwich Village; tickets $14
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the director’s surname.