My flirtation with the Bee Gees came not around their early AM hits like “Massachusetts.” I was one of millions to cotton on to the new Bee Gees when “Saturday Night Fever” — the best two-hour promo reel ever for a musical style — took the world by storm. That was 1977, and “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive” jumped out as disco warhorses. In the months and years that followed, my musical tastes became informed by an ever-eclectic mix of sounds: 70s Rolling Stones, early R&B and soul, jazz, and the glamourous funk of disco. When I graduated from high school in 1979, there were two songs that had come to define disco for me: “Le Freak” by Chic and “Ring My Bell,” by Anita Ward.
After graduation, my buddy George and I headed up from North Carolina to New York for a week on vacation. Disco was the soundtrack because the city was in full disco-lockdown. Wherever you went, it seemed like Anita Ward’s bell hook was streaming out of boomboxes, cars and taxis, and shops of all sorts. The other thing that was on our minds was Studio 54. We had clubs in Raleigh, but nothing like the palace we had heard about in the lyrics to “Le Freak.” But George and I were southern preppies at the time, and because of our social rank, didn’t believe we had much of a chance of getting in.
Still, we headed down in our khakis, polo shirts, L.L. Bean moccasins. I recall throwing on a beat-up blue seersucker jacket just to appear slightly up-market. George and I got in the scrum on the sidewalk in front of 54, pressing as close to the velvet rope as possible. I don’t know if it was owners Steve Rubell or Ian Schrager or someone else, but there was the “casting guy” in back of the rope scanning the crowd for the right people to let in. We had been there a couple of minutes, half-heartedly waving our hands like everyone else trying to catch the gatekeeper’s attention. But he spotted us first, and then pointed. “You preppies over there, come on.”
And that was it. We were in. And it was a blast.
Fleeting, free-floating recollections: the dancers on stage in hot pants; a crescent moon that descended above the heads of the dancers, a giant spoon lowering to just below its nose, giving the moon a bump, and the moon’s eyes opening wide; hearing every great disco anthem ever made up to that point; the towel boys in the bathroom wearing only silver lame Speedos and high-tops; the Park Avenue women in white dresses looking as blasé Bianca Jagger, but ready to dance with anyone.
I don’t recall what time we stumbled out of there. We went back for a second dose the next night, and revelled in it again. When my aunt heard that we got in, she figured she’d come with us for a third visit. But as a threesome, we did not make the cut. Maybe because we had a third wheel that didn’t quite look like us or fit in to our age cohort. Maybe it was a different gatekeeper who didn’t like us and our the preppy look. Who knows? It just felt like that bit in “Seinfeld” where George returns to the beautiful people club, but it’s evaporated. There’s no club. It was a mirage.
Less than a year later, I was just starting college. And in February 1980, the disco-dancing mecca of Studio 54 closed. It had been raided, Rubell and Schrager later found guilty of tax evasion (even with Roy Cohn as their attorney), and it felt like its closing marked the end of disco in the way the Stones concert at Altamont marked the end of the 60s.
Studio 54 remained under lease to Rubell and Schrager, and it served as a live music venue in the 80s. But never again did it regain the cachet I got to witness in 1979.