Moby on Klaus Nomi, the ’80s Club Scene, and ’90s Rave Drugs

NEW YORK - AUGUST 14: DJ and Musician Moby poses for a portrait at his home on Mott Street on August 14, 1992 in New York City, New York. (Photo by David Corio/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)
Moby in 1992. Photo: David Corio/Getty

As told to Jennifer Vineyard

The clubs that we were going to in like 1980, 1981, were the Mudd Club, Danceteria, Peppermint Lounge. My friends and I were living in Connecticut at the time, and we would borrow someone’s car or sneak in on Metro-North and show up as this pack of scared 16-year-old suburban kids. What was really amazing was how just really odd and eclectic the music scene was. A perfect example would be, you would go to Danceteria to see Bad Brains in the basement, and then you’d go up to the second floor and there would be a hip-hop DJ, and then you’d go up to the third floor and there’d be a gay-disco DJ, and you’d go up to the fourth floor and there’d be someone playing New Wave videos. The Peppermint Lounge, that’s where the Peppermint Twist was invented. By the time I was going there, it was to see New Wave bands and punk-rock bands. The first time I saw Echo and the Bunnymen there, the DJ before and after was playing hip-hop and dub reggae. You look at a lot of the music that came out of this period, and it’s all informed by this bewildering eclecticism. A classic example is the Talking Heads. They moved to New York as this very nerdy, angular, academic, white New Wave band, and then a few years later, there’s ten people onstage and they basically sound like an African disco band.

There were certain people who were just mythical legends. My friends and I would read the fanzines and hang out in record stores and nightclubs, and someone like Klaus Nomi, as far as we were concerned, was a bigger rock star than Mick Jagger. He seemed so completely otherworldly. I think the first time I ever encountered something by Klaus Nomi, there was this very strange movie called Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video. It was put together by Mike O’Donoghue, and it was basically just a collection of weird, random video clips that he compiled into a movie. One of the clips was Sid Vicious singing “My Way.” And I’m pretty sure that he also had a Klaus Nomi video clip in there. I saw it when I was 13, and I went to this weird movie theater in Norwalk, Connecticut, with my mom. My mom and I sat there and watched Sid Vicious and this Klaus Nomi video. All I remember was this otherworldly Nosferatu style; it was like a benign operatic vampire. What I loved so much about the music and the culture back then is that on first glance, none of it made any sense. Part of the criteria by which it was judged was how effectively did it challenge the viewer or the listener. It’s one of the things I resent about popular culture now, is I feel like so much alternative culture now is accommodating. Like there was nothing about Klaus Nomi that was accommodating. You felt like it was your duty to try and understand what he was doing. I was so bored living in the suburbs, and so much of the otherworldly culture coming out of Manhattan seduced me so much, because it was just the antithesis of what I was experiencing on a day-to-day basis in the suburbs.

My friends and I were listening to punk-rock records, and we didn’t know anything about gay culture. We didn’t even know that it existed, because this was the ’70s, and nobody talked about gay culture. I remember one night, we were in the East Village, and we somehow ended up in this club, the Saint, and we didn’t know it was a gay club. It was this amazing, dark, degenerate disco, and at some point, we realized that there were no women in the club. So for us, gay culture was just this fascinating, foreign, and very anti-suburban thing. We couldn’t be homophobic, because the gay culture was amazing and it was also ubiquitous. There was no compartmentalization. The hip-hop scene was part of the dance-music scene, was part of the punk-rock scene, was part of the art scene. That to me was the ethos of the time. It’s the ethos by which I’ve judged every other counterculture movement.

As the ’80s progressed, things compartmentalized. Also, by ’86, ’87, New York had become like Sarajevo during the war. It was really exciting, but it was also incredibly dangerous. I don’t want to overglamorize it, but everything was dangerous. In the ’70s, leaving your apartment was dangerous. But in the ’80s, even just having sex with someone became dangerous. And drugs. All these things that had been relatively benign became life-threatening.

It’s hard to say when the first raves in New York really started happening, because rave culture in New York was an offshoot of the dance culture that already existed. I would almost presumptuously maintain that the first rave in New York took place at a bar on the corner of Avenue A and 7th Street. It was a Sunday night, and there was a DJ named Moneypenny, and she invited a whole bunch of the New York rave DJs who didn’t know each other very well, like Joey Beltram and Frankie Bones and Adam X. Storm raves were the first illegal raves in New York. They were in a warehouse, no alcohol was served, it was all just about ecstasy and techno music. They were a direct offshoot of Keoki playing at Limelight, who was kind of an evangelist for early techno records. At the time, a lot of the DJs in the club world were playing much slower house music, and rave music was a lot faster, a lot more electronic-sounding.

The reason music got more segmented, one of the reasons is really the tempo of the genres. Inner City records, their beats were 124 beats per minute, and house music was about 122 beats per minute. So if you were a DJ, you could very easily play house and techno at the same time. By 1992, the techno records had gone up to 140 or 145 beats per minute, and the house music had slowed down to 118 beats per minute. But there was a very supportive scene, regardless of what genre it was, because we all felt very marginalized. Outside of New York and London and Berlin, we didn’t think anyone was paying attention to what we were doing.

The two big things that led the scene awry were drugs and money. You can’t really talk about dance music and club culture without talking about drugs, but the drug use had been relatively benign. In 1990, a 19-year-old kid would go out to a rave or a club, and take one or two hits of ecstasy and have an amazing time. By 1993, a 19-year-old kid would go to a rave or a club, and take Special K and acid and crystal meth and ecstasy, all in the course of one night. People started getting really damaged by drugs. Every now and then I would run into Michael Alig on the street and I would see the consequences of drug use. In 1990, Michael Alig had been this like light and bubbly and happy-go-lucky club kid. And before he ended up going to prison, he became this vector, just trailing darkness around him.

For me, the apotheosis of the club scene would have been the summer of ’92. It was this event at the Ritz, organized by D.J. DB, and I performed. It was for Lifebeat, which was an AIDS charity, and it felt like the best of all possible worlds. It was before the drug use had started to take its toll. The worlds of house music and techno were cohabitating. Everyone seemed young and happy and healthy. We all felt like we were there for a good reason.

*This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Moby on Nomi, ’80s Clubs, and ’90s Rave Drugs