It’s somewhere between 2 and 4 a.m. and everyone is wasted. It could be any night, any club, anywhere.
But tonight, it’s a freakishly cold March evening during the Winter Music Conference in Miami, at a club called the Pawn Shop. Beyond the main dancefloor, where hundreds of revelers groove, in the darkened corners of the gargantuan club, you can see people doing drugs. Their heads bob over their hands as they take a sniff off a key; they scamper behind the DJ booth for a quick bump before going out for another grind. In the V.I.P. section — an actual school bus — if you know where to look, cocaine flows almost as freely, if more discreetly, than champagne. In the side room, where a band named Booka Shade plays, girls dance in ecstasy, clearly on Ecstasy, their eyes rolling in the back of their heads, their mouths fixed in a clenched-jaw, pleasure-filled grimace.
Though it’s Miami, the club is filled with familiar faces from New York’s club scene. DJ Justine D. of Motherfucker, one of the most notorious nightlife events in Manhattan, carries a clipboard and walks briskly through the crowd. Princess Superstar, the bottle-blond bad babysitter cum rapper cum DJ, climbs into the booth and gives German superstar DJ Hell a friendly bite on the head. As the French DJ duo Justice pummel the crowd with the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” promoters Michael Cohn and DJ Patrick “the Captain” Rood literally whoop it up on the dancefloor, shouting and hollering.
Around 4 a.m., DJ Tommie Sunshine turns up just in time for Hell’s set. The crowd has started to thin and you can sense the collective comedown. Sunshine is hard to miss: Standing over six feet tall, he has long blond hair and a bushy beard that makes him look like a disco Jesus, his ever present suit and sunglasses completing the look. He’s dancing furiously in the center of the room, his hair flying in his face, his hand gripping a bottle of water.
There’s a quote painted on the wall above the bar. It reads: “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.”
“Oh yeah,” Sunshine says, his voice simultaneously registering sarcasm and sincerity, “Dean Martin. I used to live by that.”
Correction: Not everyone is wasted. Sunshine, like Princess Superstar, Justine D., Cohn, and Rood, is stone-cold sober. Sunshine, after nearly 15 years of drinking and doing drugs, quit a year ago, just after the last Winter Music Conference—a marathon of debauchery that followed a trip to the South by Southwest rock festival in Austin. Princess stopped a few years before Sunshine, and the other three have never really been partiers, imbibing once or twice a year—if at all.
They are sober hipsters—flipping the image of a nondrinking person as a boring, uptight Goody Two-shoes on its head. They host the best nights, spin at the choice clubs around town, and book the post-gig after-parties that start at 11 and end at 4 a.m. Fashionable and popular, they are the epitome of downtown cool. They are the people crowds pay to be entertained by—the same crowds ironically are getting lit while watching sober DJs, cabaret performers, and burlesque stars.
The sober hipsters are the minority in a world where drinking and doing drugs are par for the course. They are people like comic performer Murray Hill, clean since September 2004; the bodacious burlesque performer known as the World Famous *BOB*, a New York club veteran who quit nine years ago; Mike Nouveau, a 22-year-old promoter who’s never touched a drop of anything. Elhaam Yavari, 24, who works for addVice, a marketing division of Vice Publishing Inc. (whose very name invites you to think about getting smashed), has never used drugs or drunk more than twice a year. Kenny Kenny, a renowned club doorman turned promoter who survived the ’80s, the ’90s, and Michael Alig, has been dry as the Nevada desert for 11 years. Actor, DJ, and sometime drag diva Michael Cavadias, who spun at decadent parties like Squeezebox in the late ’90s, finally excised the excess in his life. Larry Tee, the elder statesman of New York’s dance world, who lived through the Atlanta club scene in the ’80s, the Disco 2000 era in the ’90s, and electroclash in the ’00s, has turned eight years of sobriety into nine nightlife nightlives.
My life is so much more exciting,” says Larry Tee. “I get to travel around the world. I get to make music with my idols. Really, I can do whatever I want to now, but I’m not high. It was just the opposite of what I thought. Because the culture said, ‘If you’re cool, you get really high, and if you’re lucky, you get can get high all the time, because then you’re really living.’ But I found out that that was the big lie. Once I got clean, my life really started.”
Some of the people interviewed never drank or did drugs in the first place, or maybe they’d dabbled here and there before deciding it wasn’t for them. Others— ex-ravers or refugees of the mid-’90s club-kid scene—hit a bottom so deep, they’d reached Middle-earth. All of them have the commonality of being one of the few straight people in the room—even though it’s their job to show people a good time, in an industry where a good time is usually equated with being wasted. “It’s just such an occupational hazard that after a while you just either stop or something bad is going to happen,” says Cavadias.
Hill, who cribs from Dean Martin and makes alcohol a part of his shtick, adds, “When your social life is your business, there’s no separation of boundaries. It’s all mixed together. I never thought I’d be able to quit. It’s so part of my show.”
In John Leland’s book Hip: The History, he writes about the connection between hipsters, counterculture, and drugs. Hipsters deliberately set themselves apart from society: They dress differently, listen to edgier music, and do drugs. Writes Leland: “Drugs are the product, hip is the marketing plan. Decades before the advent of lifestyle advertising, hip linked drug use to a lifestyle that is sexy, rebellious, and streetwise. . . . To be hip or high is to be outside the authority of church, state, work, school, and the law. . . . It is the elitism of last resort.”
But what if everyone is doing drugs? What if being high becomes the status quo and loses its mystique? In the club world, it’s the clean kids who are the rebels.
“My life is so much more exciting,” says Larry Tee. “I get to travel around the world. I get to make music with my idols. Really, I can do whatever I want to now, but I’m not high. It was just the opposite of what I thought. Because the culture said, ‘If you’re cool, you get really high, and if you’re lucky, you get can get high all the time, because then you’re really living.’ But I found out that that was the big lie. Once I got clean, my life really started.”