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Night Fever

Who better to feature in our annual Nightlife Issue than one of NYC’s premier club denizens, Michael Musto? The TV commentator and culture expert penned the entertainment and nightlife column, “La Dolce Musto” for the Village Voice for more than 25 years, as well as the blog Here, the celebrated author and writer waxes poetic on the good ol’ days of Studio 54’s unabashed debauchery.

Writer, author and nightlife expert Michael Musto at a Studio 54 holiday party in 1979.

Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” is not a phrase you hear in the NYC clubs a lot these days; it would sound like a foreign language. Dirty, raunchy doings—you know, good, old-fashioned American fun—have not been welcome in clubland ever since Mayor Giuliani turned the city into a 24-hour Disney musical aimed at tourists and rich residents who want pleasantries and playbills, not debauchery and decibels.

Some years ago, Giuliani basically stayed in office, but he changed his name to Michael Bloomberg, and the crackdown on nocturnal hedonism got even more aggressive—to the point where it’s become harder to get into a bar than onto an international flight. Customers are carded three times and are practically subjected to a full-body search before they’re let inside, where they’re under more surveillance than mob wives. And finding a dance club? Good luck, unless you happen to be wandering near the Hudson, where zoning allows an occasional disco to pop up where it can’t harm anyone important.

Naturally, I do so, hoping every night that legendary ’70s disco Studio 54 will magically reappear and make denial fun again. It doesn’t, but I still have my clippings (and a couple of unused drink tickets) to prod back the marvy memories. What a time, what a place! Coke in the basement, sex in the balcony, dancing in between. This was your one-stop shopping place for cheap thrills and confetti blasts. I spent all my time on the dance floor—I was addicted to the lush thump-thump fantasy of disco music—but still, it was strangely heartening to know that the wilder indulgences were available and well-appreciated by other people. There were no ramifications to any of it—or at least no one knew of any, and if they did, they simply ignored them. Drug abuse wasn’t a disease, it was something fun to do every night. And sex was available and hot, and the only repercussion was that maybe your spouse would find out about it when you brought home a case of head lice. I know these weren’t exactly healthy attitudes, but looking back, I cherish the willful self-aggrandizement of it all, when no one was watching and the limits were as high as the coke-spoon set piece that would descend around midnight as the crowd cheered.

Today, there’s no sex in the hallways. There isn’t even sex in the bathrooms! People have to either smuggle in their drugs like something out of Midnight Express, or maybe learn to just not do them anymore. And the music? Psy? Please!

I happen to host a semi-regular event at 54 Below—the renovated basement of the old Studio 54—and the crowd comes to hear old disco hits revived in a tame, modern setting. They dance for a while, knowing full well that they’ll be up early and off to work the next day, with scheduled breaks for the gym and the nutritionist. The hardest thing they’re on is Zoloft. And though “I Will Survive,” I wish I could tell the disco mirage of my past “Don’t Leave This Way.”