Michael Alig's Desperate Third Act

Illustration for article titled Michael Alig's Desperate Third Act
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Michael Alig ripped through culture like an overly loud cackle at a party, and he went out with a whimper. The visionary party promoter and style icon was one of the best-known members of a loose-knit, attention-grabbing group of hardcore denizens of the ’80s and ’90s New York nightlife scene, known as the Club Kids. His 1996 killing of his friend and drug dealer Andre “Angel” Melendez cemented the Kids’ legacy with a horrifying coda, chronicled in James St. James’s acclaimed book Disco Bloodbath and immortalized in a documentary and narrative film, both named Party Monster. Alig served 17 years in prison for killing Melendez (he pleaded guilty to manslaughter), and was released to much fanfare in 2014. He died on Christmas this year in his Washington Heights apartment of a heroin overdose, according to his mother. He was 54 years old.

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Alig told me a few years ago that he never thought he’d live to see 50, so anything that came after that milestone was gravy. But oh, was the gravy lumpy. In 2016, I was assigned to profile Alig for Maer Roshan’s short-lived reboot of the queer lifestyle magazine 429, which is now defunct. The story didn’t interest me initially. I hadn’t really known who Alig was before he killed someone alongside his roommate Robert D. “Freeze” Riggs (who also served a prison sentence) so in my mind, he was defined more by his crime than his creativity. More press felt like an undeserved reward for the attention-voracious Alig—especially since Melendez has always been an afterthought in Alig’s public narrative. As a culture, we tend to care more about killers than their victims, just as we have historically tended to center white voices (Alig was white; Melendez moved to New York from Colombia as a child with his family). The overlap made me wary and a little queasy.

But a mere glance at Alig’s life two years out of prison intrigued me. He was flailing. He was promoting a Monday night party he cheekily named Outrage at the Rumpus Room, a small club on the Lower East Side. The night I went, attendance was sparse, a shadow of the some 5,000 people he could pack into Limelight during his heyday. Few of the creative endeavors he teased upon his release from prison had manifested—no memoir, no reality shows. It seemed to me that Alig was still serving a sort of sentence, that the prison bars he spent 17 years behind were ultimately immaterial.

There’s an advantage to be had in writing about someone that you don’t admire—you feel far less beholden to their feelings. I felt no need to hedge regarding the state of his Upper West Side apartment, a “disaster” by his admission. A mattress took up most of the kitchen, there was barely a footpath in a living room strewn with boxes and piles of clothing, and a broken dresser was positioned near the door so it was practically the first thing I laid eyes on. An overly friendly cat weaved between my legs and then Alig pointed out that she was in heat. I perched on a couch and Alig told me about his life in sentence fragments and tangents—until he asked if we could go to Starbucks because his boyfriend, whom he had met on Scruff a few months prior, was in the bedroom naked. I had wanted to see Alig’s place, and while it had confirmed my suspicions that it would function as a visual representation of a life in disarray, I couldn’t believe that he let an actual journalist see it.

Alig was sad, objectively, like a half-dead bug on its back. I couldn’t quite muster sympathy for him, given his role in his apparent downfall, but I felt bad for him on a human level. He was still trying, his little bug legs kicking aimlessly. It’s tough to watch someone flail up close. My heart broke a little when I asked him if he missed anything about prison and he said without even pausing to think about it, “I miss not worrying about having a place to live or eat.” He told me he wished could be a baby again and do it all over, which I also found depressing. When he talked about the impetus of the Club Kids, he was sharp and efficient, compressing an entire era into a single paragraph. Even if he’d previously recited this dozens of times, it still impressed me when he said it to me:

The club kids were a reaction initially to the AIDS crisis and to the death of Warhol. Studio 54 had fallen apart and people were realizing then that cocaine was bad. People stopped going out, and then when Warhol died, people stopped going out completely. There were these giant clubs like Palladium designed for 7,000 people that had like 200 people in them. It was apocalyptic, it was really frightening. The city was in such a state of disrepair that it looked like Mad Max, with the subways and streetlights out and fires. When AIDS started, nobody knew what it was, but we knew you could get it from having sex. All of a sudden, instead of going out and being sexy and taking off your clothes, we were going out not to have sex with each other, but to look at each other—a look, don’t touch thing. We were the antithesis of sex. We weren’t trying to look sexy, we were trying to look freaky. We didn’t want to have to think about AIDS, so we just got all dressed up and partied like it was the end of the world.

When he talked about killing Melendez, he almost always referred to it with some disconnect, as “the crime”—like something that was over there and not the gravitational center of his life’s then-current trajectory. He maintained he did it in self-defense, something he said he remained sure of even though many of the details were hazy because of all the drugs that were involved. That said, he did discuss his accountability and the role drugs played with insightful ambivalence:

To say [killing Melendez] was an overreaction is beyond the pale. Have you ever done Special K? I’ve never been a big fan but when you’re at that point, it’s like, sure, whatever, I’ll take it. It alters your sense of time and, in this case, we’ll say strength. I’m sure it was one of those I’m on him too long and putting too much force. I don’t want to blame it on drugs because I was sober when I decided to take the drugs, so I have to accept responsibility for what I do on the drugs, but I can say that but for the drugs, it would not have happened. A) He wouldn’t have been there, and B) I’m kind of a cowardly person so I would have run instead of fighting back. Definitely, I would have had my wits about me to know not to sit so long…there were three of us and we were on top of him. And everyone was kind of morphing into each other and melding into each other like goop. It’s hard to separate the two. It’s hard to say what percentage the drugs are responsible.

Alig, nonetheless, repeatedly assured me he was a good person. “I did something really terrible, but I’m not a bad person,” is how he put it at one point. I asked him how he could be sure and he stammered. It took him a few seconds to figure out an answer, which involved citing fan mail from young people who were just coming out that looked up to him as a queer inspiration.

“I know that I’m not a bad person because…because I care too much,” he explained. “I care too much about that girl in Scotland, or about whoever.” And then immediately, he pivoted to self-aggrandizement of his legacy: “The Club Kids were started because we wanted to create a family. That’s why people come to New York—they don’t fit in anywhere. You’re looking for the family you never had. We wanted a concentrated version of that because enough is never enough for us. That made me feel good, that I was providing jobs, we would get places to live—Richie Rich and Sophia [Lamar] and Astro. We got the ball rolling for everybody.”

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Alig waffled between claiming to be off drugs and admitting to doing “a bump” here and there. He told me he’d been on Xanax and drank during the Outrage party I attended. Even his duplicity was telling, and I put it all in the piece, which you can read via the Wayback Machine if you are so inclined. I wasn’t particularly surprised when, about a month after its publication, Alig was arrested for smoking meth in public (outside the Bronx Supreme Court building, no less). I had seen him (or someone using his picture) on Grindr at some point between our interview and his drug arrest, looking to “parTy.” Naturally, I didn’t keep in touch with him, but the report of his death last week didn’t surprise me, either. He never got it back together. Whether he deserved a renaissance, a second chance at cultural relevance, it never happened. And even with the particulars, even keeping the despicable act that defined his legacy in mind, that’s a shame because all waste is a shame.

Some Pig. Terrific. Radiant. Humble.

DISCUSSION

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