The vernal equinox is once again upon us, and in New York city, this means that thousands of gay men will gather in the cavernous Roseland ballroom, many of them donning guises made of tanned animal skin, and revel in abandon in what has become the greatest bacchanalia of the gay party circuit: The Black Party.
The Black Party began over three decades ago as one of the major annual events held at The Saint nightclub, one of the most legendary discos from yesteryears which shut its doors in the late 80′s. Much has been said about the significance of this illustrious establishment, especially in the context of the then developing AIDS epidemic which took a dramatic toll particularly among the patrons of The Saint. The heydays of the Saint came on the heels of the sexual revolution and the blossoming gay rights movement of the late 70′s, which fueled a sense of invincibility and an ethos of hedonism within New York’s gay community. But just as the scene was at its peak, the AIDS epidemic struck and the revelry turned into a danse macabre, until the plague eventually overcame even the most relentless party goers. As The Saint club closed its doors, it spawned The Saint At Large, an organization entrusted with the mission of preserving and perpetuating the legacy of The Saint. Since then, The Saint At Large has continued to host the annual Black Party, which has now settled in New York’s Roseland Ballroom – a far cry from the magnificence of the original Saint club, but still a pretty impressive venue by today’s standards.
Looking back, it is not surprising that The Black Party carries a quasi mystical aura. When it started, it was conceived as an event inspired by immemorial rites, drawing from pagan European folklore such as certain supposedly druidic traditions according to which men would don animal skin and took to the forest to perform various rituals in celebration on the sun’s return. At the time, this probably made for a good back story to throw a party and channel the overflowing sexual energy New York’s gay men from the early 80′s, and the spring equinox then become an excellent pretext to party with even more abandon than usual.
But as the party began to die down, taken away by the ravage of AIDS, The Saint and its parties became the stuff of legends, in a world stuck by death and grieving. The Saint era came to be regarded as a short lived utopian moment in time when everything seemed possible and gay men could enjoy with unbridled exuberance the pleasures of life. Tapping into these feelings, and in sharp contrast with the conservative revolution that swept through mainstream America, The Saint At Large positioned the Black Party as an exclusive underground event for discerning gay men, eager to experience for a fleeting moment the intensity of the celebration of a bygone era. The former Saint crowd who continued to attend the Black Party and other events tied to the burgeoning gay circuit came to be referred to as “the tribe”, denoting the spiritual bond that united the tight knit community of party goers.
For several years, the Black Party maintained a firmly underground positioning, and cultivated its aura of mysticism and exclusivity. But eventually, its profile grew and the event began to attract the attention of the world beyond New York and old The Saint crowd. In a controversial article published in the village voice in 2002, Steven Weinstein chronicled in vivid – and sometimes sordid – details the goings on happening at Roseland Ballroom on Black Party night. It seems like in the years that followed, the Black Party grew significantly in popularity and in appeal, and at the same time cleaned up its act (slightly). Long time attendants have lived to tell fantastic tales of the unspeakable sights gleaned at the Black Party. If those accounts are to be believed, what is advertised with undeniable euphemism as “strange live acts” actually have turned out to be outrageous spectacles of flesh (and sometimes blood) in all their grotesque splendor. In contrast, the much talked about live shows appear to have become quite tame compared to the over the top descriptions of scenes observed in prior years. Yes, one still can encounter a bevy of porn-stars fooling around here and there, including the occasional watersport demonstration, but gone seem to be elbow deep fisting performances. In fact, some performances in recent years have involved scantily clad aerialist dancers which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Crique du Soleil show in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, the general admission price has climbed to reach $140 this year at the door, and for that price, it’s understandable that attendees expect to have their money’s worth of thrilling sensation. And with rising prices have come heightened expectations, and as much as The Black Party has become one of the most hyped and anticipated events of the year, it seems to be also the one that never fails to disappoint. The music is particularly sour subject. Each year, the headlining DJ’s are revealed just a few weeks before the event, and The Saint At Large usually cries to cause surprises by assembling together an unusual line-up of superstar DJs, veteran spinsters, and rising underground talent. Yet for some reason, it seems that many have been left wanting after the lackluster DJ performances of Junior Vasquez, Jonathan Peters, Eddie Elias, Boris and the likes in the past few years. If the visual and audio stimulation have left to be desired, one thing party goers could always count on to get a good return on their investment is enjoying the company of over 5,000 (mostly) intoxicated and horny gay men. And for that, the upper floor and the mezzanine around the dance floor have always offered the appropriate setup allowing party goers to indulge in most of their urges on the premises. This has been something one could always count on… until last year (2010), when the Saint At Large decided to make this most frequented area VIP only, requiring payment of an additional fee to gain access to a space that has been mostly devoted to anonymous group sex as far back as the original Saint days. This bold move on the part of the Saint At Large crew drew enough ire from the Black Party attendees that they have promised this year to make the mezzanine available to the general public again.
But these recent developments do point out to the undeniable commercialization of this formerly exclusive underground event. These days, the Black Party is announced with a heavy promotional artillery. Prospective attendants are offered different pricing options, allowing to circumvent the full door price tag. The young crowd (under 26) can usually get in for a mere $40 if they show up early (before midnight) or late (after 4 AM). Seniors (who still are in possession of their original Saint membership card) are extended a lesser discount ($60) but can join the party at any time. The late crowd can also opt for $50 tickets valid after 9 AM. And the rest of us can choose from various levels of pre-sale discounts depending how early they can make up their mind about attending. We can see that The Saint crew have become masters at yield management pricing. What’s more, this year, The Saint At Large has gone as far as to advertise the later part of the event, headlined by popular crossover DJ Danny Tenaglia, to straight club goers, modestly re-branding the event as “Danny Tenaglia Afterhours“.
In addition, The Saint At Large has jumped on the opportunity to extend the Black Party brand and also make the best use of their costly rental of the Roseland Ballroom space by introducing the Black Party expo, a sex themed business exhibition involving various escort companies and purveyors of porn peddling their gears and services to discerning shoppers who may find here a good occasion to pick up their outfit for the big night, with various live performances punctuating the day. And for the die hard party goers who can’t get enough, or the more tame souls who’d rather skip the main event, The Saint At Large is also throwing a closing party, the evening after at club Amnesia ($40 admission fee), dubbed “Asylum” (which is probably where some
We have mixed feelings about the whole Black Party phenomenon. Coming from Europe, we have a very liberal mindset and when it comes to sexuality and other earthly pleasures, our motto is live and let live - so we’re not particularly offended the no holds barred debauchery going on at the Black Party. But we’re perplexed by the sharp contrast that exists between the highly sanitized mindset that has taken hold of this worldwide metropolis of over 8 million inhabitants in which almost no bathhouse or sex club is in operation today, and the extreme - and sometimes grotesque – expression of sexual energy takes place on rare occasions such as during The Black Party.
We’re not breaking any news by reporting that New York’s gay scene – and its night life in general – has experienced a significant clean up in the past decade. We’ve chronicled on numerous occasions the incessant police raids that have forced many clubs and bars to shut down, and we’ve also lamented few times on the disappearance of New York’s queer party culture, as trends and social practices evolved within the gay community. Yet, as the rowdiness and exuberance of every day life in New York are waning and people are adopting more policed and orderly forms of entertainment, events like The Black Party have grown in attractiveness. It’s almost as if the more New Yorkers are taking upon themselves to conform to mainstream standards of decency and (relatively) appropriate behavior all year long, the more they need to flip their lid, blow off steam and act out on all their urges which had been kept in check.
It’s quite telling to contrast this phenomenon with the gay scene in large European capitals. Cities like Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin all play host to a myriad of sex clubs, bathhouses and many of their bars and clubs are equipped with a “backroom” where sexual activity is welcomed. They also have a few fetish oriented establishment, but those usually cater to a more narrow niche of patrons than regular bathhouses which are patronized by guys from all walks of life. In these capitals where sexual activity is embedded within the fabric of mainstream gay establishments, we haven’t seen a major event similar to the Black Party emerge with such a strong sexual connotation. Whats more, the select few kinky events that take place in Europe (eg: Fist, Hard On in London…) typically draw mostly a serious fetish crowd, and have limited appeal within the mainstream gay community (and the happenings at The Black Party can even be considered fairly prudish compared to what goes on at those events…) . All this does seem to indicate that the more sexual expression is tolerated within a culture, the less need there is for a major, one time, blow-out event where anything goes. On the contrary, a culture in which sexuality is highly policed (at least in appearance) calls for moments where those rules of conduct can be thrown out the window and where everyone can come play dress up in fetish gears and binge on sex and drugs (because they won’t be able to do it again for another 365 days…).
Lastly, the thing that’s been puzzling us the most is how they’ve managed to get away with all this for over thirty years. We keep hearing about bars being shut down because a patron has lit up a cigarette, or a gogo dancer has shown a little bit too much skin, yet the Black Party has been allowed to go on uninterrupted, from Saturday night until late Sunday afternoon, right by Times Square, in the middle of the most touristy area of New York. And it’s not like we’re talking about some confidential affair that’s been flying under the radar. No matter how many euphemisms are used on the promotional material advertising the event (“strange live acts”), they’re not fooling anyone, especially not the NYPD and the various agencies tasked with policing our night life. But for some reason, the part has been allowed to go on, preserved from the crackdown that’s affecting other bars, nightclubs and parties. This fact is so puzzling that we have to wonder if there hasn’t been some kind of tacit agreement between the city and the gays, by which the authorities will turn a blind eye on the goings on at The Black Party once a year, in exchange for a year of obedience to common decency standards.
These remarks aside – to anybody who hasn’t been to the Black Party yet and is debating whether to take the plunge this year, we can only encourage you to go and experience it for yourself what the fuss is really about. Everything and anything has been said about the event, and the only way to find out what really goes on and whether it is for you is to immerse yourself in the bowels of the Roseland Ballroom, on that hallowed equinox night, and meet your destiny… If you’re not interested in part taking in some of the common activities going on there, at least you still should get some entertainment and education value out of it by witnessing what happens when over 5,000 otherwise respectable gay New Yorkers (and their friends) decide to lock themselves up together and throw caution to the wind…