It was historic. It was built in 1927, designed by Thomas Lamb. It
was originally called the Academy of Music—and in the Seventies, it
filled the gap caused by the closure of Fillmore East (which later
became the Saint). Then, in 1985, Steve Rubell, of Studio 54 fame,
bought the building and it was reborn as the Palladium. It was
magnificent. Designed by Arata Isozaki (roughly, the Philip Johnson
of Japan, and designer of LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art), the
Palladium retained the shell of the Academy of Music, keeping the
original mezzanine and balcony, with a proscenium arch as large as a
building facade. It was huge. It was ornate and mysterious, a
labyrinth of rooms, a warren of spaces with art by Keith Haring,
Basquiat, and Francesco Clemente, and columns—and a grand double
staircase with 2,400 lights suspended in glass blocks. Apart from
the Saint, it was the most phenomenal nightclub in Manhattan.
And in September 1996, the Palladium became Junior Vasquez’s
Saturday night playground, Arena. And for the next year, every
Saturday night became more fierce and dramatic than the Saturday
before. It was legendary.
And who wouldn’t want to return to such a perfect sandbox? Ten years
ago, it was—so why not a tenth-anniversary party? At the
soon-to-be-demolished Roxy? Another club bites the dust—but not
before Junior turns it out one more time.
As soon as we climb Roxy’s flight of stairs, we hear “Follow Me”
with its lyrics “I am the light…” On the dance floor, there’s a long
catwalk-like stage, sheathed in black fabric—with its implied
promises of ki-ki shows and struts, and rumors of Dolly Parton
leading a “Peace Train,” a song which Junior made an Arena anthem.
There’s a line out in front—and the boyz are still making their way
in, filling up the vast Roxy floor, while Junior throws down
choruses of “Your soul is mine – ha, ha, ha” and “Do you want me? Do
you need me?” Apparently, we do—because we’re here, again. And
there’s the chant, “Arena, Arena, Arena,” reminding us of the year
that Kevin rode the Arena Gay Pride float—and all down Fifth Avenue
yelled little more than that one word.
Junior’s playing x-tremely percussive. The kind of music that feels
focused and tight as it moves from your feet to your pelvis. You
pick it up on the floor and carry it upwards. And then major chords
as he throws down “Can’t Drive You Away,” which provokes cheers from
the crowd that has now conquered the floor. It’s the old Roxy mixed
up with pieces of Palladium—and Arena anthems. The crowd catches
them all. “Din Da Da”—which were Kevin’s first spoken words after
his lip-synching years, back from the days when the video monitors
at Arena would swirl around with glam shots from his soon-to-be
released CD “Box of Chocolates,” back when every Saturday would find
Kevin working those boxes and that stage. Back when Deborah Cox was
singing “Things Just Ain’t the Same.” No, they ain’t, Deb, but don’t
tell this crowd—who’s living it all again, now.
It’s a mixing celebration—and the crowd is having it all. One of
those nights when they cheer in unison—unity achieved. While the man
in control is reminding everyone, “Don’t Say You Want Me, Don’t Say
You Need Me.” And you can’t help but think of the kids you knew back
then—the ones at Arena every Saturday night. Marlowe? Where are you
Junior always plays well during Pride weekend, and maybe because
Junior has a lot to be proud of—and isn’t afraid to show it. As the
song says, “Get some love when you need some”—and the man knows how
to do that.
It’s a crowd that’s less cocky than sexy. Rodrigo and Peter, Kyle
and Corey. Boyz from out of town—they’ve come from South Beach and
Lauderdale, Providence and—there’s my dance instructor. Quick, we
have to spy on him—to see how he dances when he’s not at the front
of a class.
It’s a young crowd, and colorful—and resourceful. One of our friends
from out of town says that his goal for the weekend is to get by
every door of the weekend without paying. “I told Kyle, use what we
got.” Well, good luck, honeychile—you got the booty for it.
Some of the boyz have wandered over from the other parties. Talk
about a plethora of choice: there’s Peter and Offer at Stereo, and
Victor at Studio, and Junior here—all playing in New York on the
same night. Who says nightlife is dead? And Junior’s going, “You got
me so fired up.”
The way he’s playing, it’s music as stream-of-consciousness, a kind
of Joycean wordplay with songs. To listen to Junior’s choices, and
the crowd’s response, is to tweak the subconscious and pique the
memory—and all of it feels totally right for a night celebrating
Pride—and a party called Arena from back in the day.