“I ended up that day finally at the federal lockup in Brooklyn. The lights went on at 6 O’ Clock the next morning and within ten minutes I was approached for any drug I wanted. Heroin, coke. I’m supposed to be able to prevent it, but meanwhile, in a place where you’re strip searched 6, 9 times before getting to your bed, it’s okay for them to have it.”
— Peter Gatien
“You go to any rock concert, for example, at either The Meadowlands or Madison Square Garden and you are gonna have hundreds if not thousands of people using drugs and you’re not gonna see the management of The Meadowlands or Madison Square Garden indicted.”
“There was a young prosecutor, very little experience. Her name was Michelle Adelman. I mean, she was obsessed with Peter. She had a big picture of Peter behind her desk in her office. I remember going in there one time and saying, ‘This is not healthy. Get a life. This is just a case.'”
“…regardless of how prominent the individual is, I had never seen such a scorched earth mentality.”
“The motto was get Gatien at all costs.”
–John Dabrowski (P.I. & former Nassau County Cop)
We understand Peter Gatien’s criticism of Billy Corben’s 2011 documentary, Limelight. The legendary club owner was hoping that the film would be less of a monument to him than a cautionary tale of governmental overreach, or so he told the New York Times in September of 2011. We’re not sure if Corben meant it to be, but the early minutes of the movie nearly present Gatien as both the finder and the founder of the club scene. We would think, even in a movie about The Limelight, that Corben has some obligation to at least mention the genesis of the club scene. The creator of the modern dance hall/dance club genre was Bill Graham, a holocaust survivor and transplanted New Yorker to San Francisco. Graham had observed the radical success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and his crew, The Merry Pranksters, with their Acid Test parties, held during the mid 60’s at roving locations in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and later, Mexico, when Kesey became a fugitive from the law for violating his probation (he was arrested for possessing approximately 3 grams of marijuana). Graham rented out San Francisco’s old Fillmore Auditorium in 1968. The Fillmore was depicted in the Hunter S. Thompson book and subsequent movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in a most memorable scene, when Thompson, played by Johnny Depp, drops part of a hit of LSD, paper form, onto the sleeve of his coat in the Fillmore’s bathroom, where another club patron seizes on that opportunity, and proceeds to suck the acid off of his sleeve.
Bill Graham, who was born Wolodia Grajonca, was unpopular with some of the celebrities of the Haight-Ashbury counter culture movement, like the Pranksters, because he didn’t deem them worthy of free admission. Graham, who earned a business degree from City College, understood invariably that The Fillmore was a business. He was an excellent businessman who also gained prominence as the manager of Jefferson Airplane. When some Haight-Ashbury residents pressured the police to crack down on his establishment because of the notorious hippie element, Graham bought a suit of clothes, slicked his hair, and went door to door to all neighborhood businesses, to explain to local businessmen how much opportunity for revenue that hippie element created for the neighborhood. When asked how he was able to persuade the local community not to pursue their complaints about The Fillmore, he replied, “Pressure.”
Bill Graham is well chronicled in The Haight-Ashbury: A History, by Rolling Stone reporter Charles Perry. Perhaps the best work to date on Graham, if less comprehensive, is Tom Wolfe’s amazing nonfiction novel, The Electric Koolaid Acid Test.
We were also left unimpressed with Corben’s depiction of the beginning of Ecstasy culture in NYC. We’d characterize crediting “Lord Michael” for essentially bringing MDMA to New York as a convenient truth for the purposes of this film. While MDMA was first created by German scientists trying to develop an appetite suppressant for plump housewives, it was America who put the chemical on the map, thanks to our good friend Dr. Shulgin, in large part. Ecstasy scenes in California and Texas were thriving throughout the 1980’s and a great deal of their Ecstasy made its way to NY, though Lord Michael seems to be the only chump to get himself on the map for transporting a substance, and in small numbers mind you, that was not yet illegal. But Lord Michael’s tales of bringing in several thousand hits from England, if we can agree that such piddly “smuggling” is small potatoes, is an argument which would refute Gatien’s criticism about the essence of the film.
We love Corben’s body of work, which includes Cocaine Cowboys and the lesser known Square Groupers, a compelling collection of stories from 70’s era marijuana traffickers. We’d have to applaud Corben for Limelight as well–especially for Limelight–because this was an establishment very near and dear to our hearts, and because any governmental over-reach is too much. In fact, we feel no need to be as diplomatic as star club owner Peter Gatien. This movie is about tyranny to us in a very obvious sense, and the subject of that tyranny is our very demographic–the liberal intelligentsia.
What’s most germane to this story is that Rudolf Giuliani, whom Gatien supported in his bid to become mayor, whose first wife was also his cousin, made a target of Gatien when Nicholas Marinelli supposedly died the night after supposedly purchasing drugs at The Limelight. Marinelli, from a privileged background, whose family had the personal ear of then NJ governor Thomas Kean, called Giuliani personally about Gatien, who then unleashed the DEA upon Gatien, an easy target because of his success, notoriety, and villainous eye patch. We also do not think it helped Gatien’s cause the way the club was portrayed in the 1992 movie, The Bad Lieutenant, starring Harvey Keitel as a dirty cop who went to the club to score drugs (frankly we are surprised Limelight made no mention of that, though Corben may not have had permission to use that movie for this film.)
If you read that as a joke, it’s not how we meant it, though we get how preposterous that should be to you. There is no greater danger to our liberty than inbred mayoral scum doing favors for mush mouthed cronies along political back channels that seek to destroy the lives of people according to their looks, lifestyle, and progressive attitudes. And oh, by the way, Marinelli committed suicide, and the official cause of death is listed as death by asphyxiation. But the government was not about to let a good scapegoat be obscured by mere, actual FACTS. In making the case against Peter Gatien, the state was also putting a sinister face on Ecstasy, a “new” and little known drug, giving our great nation a leg up in the Machiavellian propaganda machine that is the war on drugs.
While on the topic of facts, how about USADA Linda Lacewell’s oh so ignorant claim that Ecstasy commonly contained heroin and PCP? Frankly, that may be our “favorite” bit of drug war propaganda of all time. Ecstasy databases like DanceSafe, EData, and even the woefully disgraceful PillReports have thousands of lab results including chemical compositions, Reagent test results, and failing those, user reports. When one searches those databases by chemical, or should they even go report by report, dating back to the 1st published information on specific Ecstasy, there is approximately 1 pill per 1000 (0.1% of all Ecstasy) suspected to contain PCP. We’d estimate an even smaller percentage suspected to have heroin. Granted, the Ecstasy information available is still flagging, but only because the establishment prefers us to believe what they want us to believe as opposed to what’s true. A person like Linda Lacewell, a Draconian moron of her ilk, would like us to believe that there are serial killers out there whose modus operandi is death by Ecstasy, preying on people by giving them heroin or PCP, which, are not even deadly drugs necessarily. When pressed however, Lacewell and those from the same school of drug war propaganda, attempted to connect MDMA with cardiac arrest, before the weak declaration that MDMA causes…heat exhaustion. Ecstasy has been classified as non lethal, and benign by main stream medicine. Please recall Peter Jennings’ ABC special called Ecstasy in which Jennings declared on national television that a person could use MDMA sporadically throughout their entire life while suffering zero long term effects.
Now, can an Ecstasy pill contain heroin? Absolutely. Have they? More myth than fact, and we’ve never seen a legitimate composition report of a pill sold as Ecstasy that contained heroin, in 2 decades of analysis, but it is possible. It’s also possible that the Jets can win the Superbowl. But can we all appreciate the chances of it happening are about the same as a snowball’s chance in hell? For we are not able to call it a reasonable assertion that heroin and PCP routinely make up Ecstasy with statistical significance based on scientific data. Then again, how much scientific data is really being consulted by men who marry their blood relatives? How much scientific data was used in consultation with the Salem Witch Trials? And how often really, does this government tell, we the people, the truth as opposed to crude distortions?
On Giuliani’s marriage to his second cousin, which lasted 14 years, FYI, before being annulled, in grand Roman Catholic style reminiscent of the warrior popes of the middle ages, which were just about on Giuliani’s same wavelength:
Or Google it yourself. There are only 722,000 search results that pop up when one searches “Giuliani married cousin.” We thought it a very interesting use of device the way that Corben pulled the story of Gatien’s drug case together. Raconteur indeed. At the very outset of that portion of the movie that gets into the drug charges levied against Gatien, the first round of charges that is, Brafman, the best criminal attorney in the country, bar none, who has won acquittals for Gatien, Sean Combs, a laundry list of mafioso, as well as sweetheart plea arrangements for Daphne Abdela (“The Baby Faced Killer”) and Chris Paciello (who participated in the home invasion murder of Staten Island housewife Judy Shemtov), in addition to other star clients like Michael Jackson and Plaxico Burress, released a statement saying that Gatien ‘at no time in his 20+ year career owning clubs ever condoned drug use.’
Hold the thought. Because when informant, murderous scum like Michael Alig and Sean Kirkham brag to the Feds that Gatien personally binged at drug parties that he organized, the law, having caught Gatien in an apparent lie when he wasn’t even under oath, expanded their charges to include ones that claimed that Gatien used such parties as a reward for his employees for allegedly excelling in his alleged criminal Ecstasy drug distribution operation. Brafman had a responsibility, pre-trial, to counter the massive public relations blows coming at Gatien, rapid fire, from the inbred mayor, the NYPD, the DEA, and the federal government. If Brafman was indeed correct in his exchange with ADA Adelman (“this is just a case”), then we may conclude that tactics like the pile on effect–creating a litany of tack on charges that give the appearance of guilt–is standard operating practice for “the people” (*cringe*). Trustworthy prosecutors (oxymoron) may charge people with multiple counts where truly applicable, but the pile on effect does, as Gatien said, run counter to a most basic right of the actual people, which is the presumption of innocence. For is it not more difficult to maintain the presumption of innocence when a person is facing 5 charges as opposed to 1 or 2?
What about Gatien’s specific remarks about the charges that connected his sporadic drug use to racketeering? Isn’t he right when he says that a jury of working class, middle class people, tasked to deliberate on his freedom, will be pre-prejudiced by the fact that on occasion he binged on cocaine while frequenting prostitutes, if they were in fact prostitutes? How is Peter Gatien, multi-millionaire/captain of industry/playboy/hotel drug partier, going to get an unprejudiced jury of his peers, in a drug case, when somebody like that has no peers? Peter Gatien as the original Peerless Price. Precisely why it was so imperative that Gatien retain Brafman in the first place. An attorney like Brafman can create peers from the unlikeliest jury pools, and only one steadfast juror who follows the judge’s instructions closely, is needed to render a not guilty verdict. As Brafman said in Limelight, after inquiring as to a possible plea arrangement, the best option was to represent Gatien in court and take their chances with the jury system. Brafman:
“I went down to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and said, ‘this is like, crazy. If we wanted to resolve the case, what would be the sentencing guidelines that you would think was appropriate?’ They looked at me and said ’11 years.’ They assessed Peter Gatien criminal responsibility for every pill sold by anyone that they seized in the course of the investigation. They multiplied out the math and it came to 11 years. I looked at them like they were nuts to suggest that Peter Gatien, who was running 4 venues at the same time, could be criminally responsible for what went on at any given moment at any one of the venues was something that I thought I could win in a court room.”
To keep suit with the very logical Brafman, should any crime be committed in a club, the club owner is not automatically criminally responsible for conspiracy to commit such a crime. The nuisance abatement laws in NYC which permitted the police to shut any business’s doors in which there were 3 incidents in one year, if applied to strictly to clubs, would see every club shuttered. Let’s be completely honest. There are thousands of drug deals going down on any given night in any major venue, club, concert, festival, and so on. The irony is, The Limelight was not nearly the drug supermarket, “a drug buyer’s paradise”, that it would become after Gatien had relinquished ownership. Drug use should be an indicator more as to what is likely in a free society, not an indictment on that society, and never an indictment against the operator of the venue, unless truly warranted.
Sean Kirkham, in fact, conspired with the authorities (who, by the way, were so unreliable and were guaranteed to be ruined on the stand by Brafman that the prosecution could not allow their testimony) for the purposes of creating the charges against Gatien. As Gatien explained, “the only way to prevent those drug deals from happening on those nights was to not open the doors.” How do you, after all, prevent the DEA from running their own drug ops at any given place at any given time? One has to consider exactly why then, do the nuisance abatement laws exist if not as a tool for tyranny, which is defined as an arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic use of authority. But then, Sean Kirkham re-flipped, and claimed that prosecutor Eric Friedberg, who was brought in to buoy the government’s case as it headed to trial, because Adelman and her little crony were essentially amateurs not fit to duel Ben Brafman, was someone with whom he had had a homosexual relationship. Friedberg, who was the chief of the Federal Narcotics Bureau. LOFL. Though probably not a guy who hooked up with a gay club kid who dabbled in counterfeiting, a clown nontheless, so that was a nice laugh which came around the one hour mark of the film. But when the trial began, it was Michelle Adelman, who in the opening statement, admitted to the jury that the government had exactly zero evidence linking Gatien financially to any of the crimes he was charged with.
So why then would a person conspire to distribute Ecstasy and throw parties to reward his Ecstasy salesman, if not for profit? Because Gatien had an overwhelming interest in seeing club patrons high? High people do not spend money. But that’s besides the point, really, because not only couldn’t the government make any sense as to what Gatien’s possible motives could be, but also, by the time of the trial in 1998, there was exactly one major witness left to their case trying to implicate Gatien, the infamous Michael Caruso (“Lord Michael”), whom Ben Brafman not only exposed for the scumbag he was on cross examination, but also, raised the spectre of possibility that Caruso was a murderer, when Caruso broke down in tears on the stand, begging the court to believe that the questionable circumstances surrounding Caruso’s roommate’s suicide were indeed true, and to believe him that he did not participate in that roommate’s death. The government’s case was essentially blown in the course of that cross, if not by Adelman herself during the opening statement, which is precisely the reason why Brafman is known as the best attorney in the world at cross examining witnesses. Brafman, who has made an extraordinary career at criminal defense, is practiced at exposing liars, breaking down snitches by the dozen in your average mafia case. And it all begs the question, as Village Voice reporter Frank Owen (who authored The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture) put it in the film, “then what the hell are we doing here?”
But you had an overzealous prosecution emboldened by a hell bent, inbred mayor, who had essentially struck out with their over-riding strategy, which was, as Gatien said, ‘to break him and make him plead’, and now had to take its chances with a couple of sketchy, unscrupulous criminals, against the Ben Brafman because there was no backup plan (*at that time*). Brafman should have won a dismissal, but we’re sure he was happy to settle for not guilty on all counts. But at the end of the day, those not guilty verdicts read by the Gatien jury in 1998 were not by any means the end of the government’s persecution of Peter Gatien. Also, it was where Corben’s film takes a stunning turn in complexity.
One of Michael Caruso’s allegations, shoddy as they may be, gave us pause for consideration. Caruso alleged, and though it was not even illegal at the time, to have once given Gatien 20 hits of Ecstasy, as a “display of respect.” It was not necessary for Brafman to disprove that statement, and, it could very well have been true. Gatien was an imperfect man, a real human being, and we thought the film did an excellent job of presenting a very complicated figure in Gatien, in a way that did not sanctify him. Gatien said he had never used drugs in his clubs, ever. Okay. So maybe he got some drugs at the “massive drug supermarket” that was The Limelight, or Tunnel, or Palladium, or Club USA. Again, he’s not under oath when he makes a statement like that, and it’s not unreasonable to think that he may have gotten drugs from Caruso. I mean, who didn’t get E at a club like that at some point, if you are in the scene?
The implication, whether true or false, does “dirty” Gatien, and frankly, one of the things that drives us here on this page and in our other projects and in life is to legitimize the use of psychedelics, so a Gatien or his patrons, people like me, do not face damage to their reputation for using them. But we aren’t there yet. We aren’t even close. So there is Gatien, the deceptive drug user, but also, Gatien, the irresponsible business man. In watching this film, who out there feels that Gatien’s explanations about how much it cost to run his empire were valid? I do believe they were true but at the same time, not valid, if that can make sense. Hiring teams of artists, architects, and decorators to constantly transform and remake the club, from party to party, is not the way to run a successful club. We hate to malign Gatien, but we are compelled to be honest. Every successful non Vegas club we’ve ever seen has put on the show with minimum frills, save for the act. You must spend on the music and the sound, and not necessarily on the decor. Gatien’s style was garish which happened to work well in Atlanta where he had a campy dance floor built over a shark tank and whatnot, and for the 80’s and 90’s in NYC we see why a similar approach helped attract patrons. But at the end of the day, you are there for the music.
Bill Graham understood the importance of keeping costs down, something that Gatien doesn’t get. Had he gotten it, he would not have had to sell his clubs for what amounted to a song, even in the face of mounting a 5 year defense against the federal government. To do $25M in revenue a year for ten years or whatever the numbers were, is ridiculous, and very hard to sell to me when it’s done and there’s no money that it wasn’t wasteful. Also, hard to sell to the owner of Circa in Toronto, which Gatien ran for a while, before the ownership tired of his wasteful spending practices. And why was NYC’s King of Clubs relegated to Toronto in the first place, having hit a home run against the government in his drug case?
Well, that’s because Gatien, a Canadian citizen, never naturalized as an American citizen, despite having an American wife and children. One of whom produced this film (Jen Gatien, DeerJen Productions). So when Gatien was convicted of tax fraud, which Brafman and Gatien admitted he was guilty of, the US government, still with a healthy hard on for Peter Gatien some 5 years after Brafman beat them clean in court, exercised the right to deport Gatien, as President Bush, another Republican who does not know who inspector Javert is (we loved the story relayed in the film by former mayor Ed Koch, who told Giuliani “Rudy, you are pursuing people like inspector Javert with an intensity that is not acceptable”, to which Giuliani replied, “Who’s Javert?”) gave some quid pro quo to America’s mayor, who we again remind you, is inbred trash. (After 9/11, the Patriot Act was passed, which allows the government to deport non citizens guilty of fraud.)
Gatien somehow did not see this coming? The government’s war of attrition took a turn in the Al Capone-esque direction, when they couldn’t get Gatien for drugs and racketeering, and frankly, he needed to be beyond reproach having had such a large bullseye drawn on his back, a “scorched earth policy” the likes of which his attorney had never before seen. Then again, when the government crawls up your ass for ten or twelve years, they are eventually going to find something that stinks. Who among us has never broken the law? Then again, are we all out there committing fraud, which in this case, was a willful misrepresentation of his business’s tax records? Would we be stupid enough to do so after seeing our freedom already so vehemently threatened?
The government aimed to get him and they got him, and what difference did it make to them really if it didn’t happen on the first try? Well, the difference it made was that it strengthened their resolve and fortified their approach to where there wouldn’t have to be a trial next time around. They would still find a way to see Gatien go to federal prison and then unceremoniously deport him from the United States.
Though the prosecution admitted that they had no evidence that Gatien had profited from the sale of drugs in his clubs, they hardly needed proof to levy the accusation. It was like this: ‘while we don’t have proof, um, the guy wears an eye patch, for the love of God and country.’ The refute was like this: ‘why would Peter Gatien, grossing a zillion dollars a year, risk his freedom and the life as he knew it in order to make a few extra dollars selling Ecstasy?’
Indeed. So why would he run a tax scam for a few extra dollars then? Is the answer a study in complexity, a testament to human fallibility, or an indicator that the government was right all along that Gatien was indeed a criminal? We think it was two out of three. We don’t think Gatien a criminal. We think, in the end, that this film was such a profile of tyranny, of the arbitrary wielding of might, wreckless and whimsical and incompetent and blatantly sinister and yet successful, all at once. Gatien is perhaps too close to the matter to assess Corben’s film properly. Or, rather, Gatien had a hand in the making of the film, and that in his assessment, the best way to see it to success was to be critical of his portrayal. For why would a man assail the work of his own daughter publicly, if not for a ruse that could lead to financial prosperity?
In the end, the government was not about to get beaten again by the Gatien/Brafman dream team. They have to live with getting beaten by Brafman when they are foolish enough to take him to court, but not by Gatien, who in the end, does get to go down as a criminal in the version of the story as they choose to tell it. Because he “allowed” people to do drugs in a place when we live in a society where people are doing drugs anyway, everywhere, and who do not need our permission.
In the end, Gatien is a phenomenal interview and Brafman a legendary one, and Corben a genius at bringing their story together, and the government’s, the grandest of long cons, a coup d’etat by which they broke a man at a trial they lost so that he wouldn’t have the power to fight another fight. And Gatien, banished, in exile in Toronto, essentially because despite the tremendous opportunities in America, he never loved America enough to join it, always leery of the mechanisms at play which generated those opportunities. With good reason.
We say to Peter Gatien, “THANK YOU!” That the money is no great loss. Can’t take it with you. Gatien not only provided establishments for people like me, but also, for all the people, no matter their color, their sexuality, their age, their dress, what they looked like or spoke like or whether they were from Brooklyn or Jupiter. We hope he truly takes heart in his freedom as he says, and that he isn’t the lonely Canadian outcast, a media distortion to this day. Gatien was a wild success in his industry and in life who conquered NY and embarrassed the government. He may no longer be peerless, but it is only a precious few who has withstood what he has and came out as well, alive to tell.
From a child of The Limelight.