NEW YORK CLUB KIDS
Walt Cassidy is the tall, muscular and handsome New York City artist, who was formerly known as a Club Kid named Waltpaper. But we first met Walt as the latter; a thin, beautiful, and androgynous, alien creature. Walt donned the most outrageous hair and makeup, and wore the tallest rubber bottomed platform boots at New York clubs like Disco 2000 at the Limelight and Club USA.
A quote from Walt Paper on The Jane Whitney Show, circa 1993: “Yeah, well, basically we get paid to show up at nightclubs, run around, and even though drugs aren’t required, a lot of times they come into contact with what we do, because, I mean, our job is to run around and have fun and be glamorous and look good; and so a lot of times when people run around and have fun, of course drugs, you know, are a part of it. But it’s not a major part of it. Basically our jobs are as entertainers and attractions at nightclubs.” Walt always brought a smile to our face and still does with his sweet and generous nature. Below is our interview with Walt, who brings an insightful recollection of his eclectic and colorful New York City youth with his book, New York Club Kids by Waltpaper, set to be released November 26th, 2019. All photographs courtesy of Walt Cassidy. Walt Cassidy portraits by Alexander Thompson.
PONYBOY: Walt, we first met you during the Club Kid heyday, probably early 90s, well over 25 years ago. We can’t remember exactly where. That time was such a blur. Anyways, what brought you to New York? Please tell us about your upbringing.
WALT CASSIDY: I arrived to NYC in 1991 at the age 19. I was a transfer student from Kent State University en route to School of Visual Arts. I was a Painting and African Studies major, with an intention of moving to Eastern Africa. I met a fellow student at Kent, a ceramicist named Ivan Samuels, who was from the Bronx. He invited me to NYC during Spring Break and took me to BUILDING nightclub. We spent the days downtown in the Village. I realized that all the culture that I craved, and imagined I could find in Africa, was just a few skips away in New York City, so I took the leap.
PONYBOY: What was life like for you when you first moved to New York? Were you a Club Kid right away? How did you fall into the Club kid scene?
WALT CASSIDY: I knew nothing about the Club Kids when I arrived. I had not seen the famous Geraldo show or any of the press that was beginning to circulate around the early Club Kid developments. My roommate at SVA, an illustrator named Ricky Zia, was an avid follower of Details magazine and Interview. He was familiar with all the personalities of Downtown NYC. The first event that we attended upon arriving was Wigstock. This was the year it was in Union Square. Deee-lite was at the height of their fame and performing. We had seen the street posters designed by Scott Lifshutz with all the drag queens heads in a circle, which I was really impressed by. The energy at that particular Wigstock was incredible. It felt like we had just landed in OZ.
I grew up in the Hardcore Punk scene. I evolved into Industrial music and was heavily impacted by all the 4AD bands, like Dead Can Dance, as well as, the Modern Primitives movement that I would read about in RE/Search magazine. During my early teens in Virginia, my mother and aunt Ernestine worked as bartenders in the local gay bars. Drag queens would come over and cook Christmas dinner at my house, but these were classic drag queens, spawned from the 70s and specializing in Diana Ross and Bette Midler impersonations. My father had frequently taken me to plays, as a child. I had seen La Cage aux Folles, and was well aware of drag. At Wigstock, I saw a more contemporary breed of performers, like Flloyd, who did a This Mortal Coil number. That really caught my attention, because it hit on my own personal vernacular and familiar reference points.
While attending the BUILDING, Ricky and I met Linda Simpson, who became a drag mom of sorts, introducing us to the East Village queer community . Linda gave me my first club job, doing illustrations for the VIP lounge at BUILDING, where I got to know the Club Kids. The drag queens that we were meeting through Linda’s party, Channel 69 at Pyramid, were a wee bit older than us, but the Club Kids were our age. These were people like Desi Monster, Pebbles, Christopher Comp and Sacred Boy. We instantly connected, and I felt that I had found my tribe. There were older Club Kids too, but they were occupying administrative positions within the clubs, working in the offices, running Project X magazine, and staging events, like the Style Summits.
PONYBOY: We fondly remember Michael Alig’s infamous Outlaw parties, which we attended. One was in a park on the Upper West Side, and another at a McDonald’s that maybe lasted all of 10 minutes. Ha, ha! What would you say was the most fabulous one that you attended?
WALT CASSIDY: My favorite was the one on the Highline, which was still abandoned at that time. It didn’t have an eventful end because it was so isolated that the police never came, which was usually the peak of an Outlaw Party, but I enjoyed the obstacle aspects of having to cut through a wire fence with bolt cutters, and then scaling the concrete structure amidst rusty pipes, broken glass and needles. It felt highly illegal and there was a beautiful view. The evolution of Outlaw Parties is quite interesting, beginning with Vito Bruno’s latin themed parties, which were very different from the Club Kid versions. Many people believe the Outlaw Party as a concept was Michael Alig’s creation, but it was an idea that he appropriated from Bruno. It’s one of the many things I unpack in the book.
PONYBOY: Would you say Disco 2000 at Limelight was the center for Club Kids at the time? We also remember the Tunnel and Club USA, which was super fab with it’s slide and the Mugler mannequins.
WALT CASSIDY: Disco 2000 was the flagship party for the Club Kids. That was the venue where the identity of Club Kids became fully realized. The term was first coined in 1988 by New York magazine. The book traces the period that I refer to as “The Era of the Mega Club”. I begin in 1988 at Tunnel and The World, where the concept of the Club Kids germinated, and then move through the 90s and the decade’s most prominent venues until the end of that era, at the last incarnation of Tunnel in 1996. It was at this time when Rudy Giuliani began aggressively pursuing his Quality of Life campaign, which successfully sterilized the thriving nightlife industry of New York. The idea of a “mega club” can be traced throughout history, most immediately into the 1970s with spaces like Hurrah and Studio 54, but my objective was to keep the book focused on the 90s.
PONYBOY: All of the club kids had such wild looks. We just couldn’t get enough and were always in awe whenever we went out. Did you make most of your clothing? Where did you get your inspiration for the Waltpaper look?
WALT CASSIDY: The 90s Club Kids were different from our late 80s elders in that we were all about DIY and disposable looks. Most of us were not into collectible fashion like Sprouse or Gaultier. I used the notion of deconstruction as the over arching metaphor that defined the 90s perspective, within the book. We were all about ripping things apart, putting them back together again and letting all the scars show. This applied to fashion, Techno music and even our exploration of drugs. Everything was created to be worn one night, then broken down and used to make something else or thrown away. Materials would often be shared amongst other Club Kids. Many of us lived communally in giant triplex apartments, or Club Kid houses, and then later at places like the Chelsea Hotel or Hotel 17. We were constantly swapping gear and playing off of each other. We craved tempo, creating things just to destroy them. As a result, the Club Kids, tended to change their look, dramatically and frequently.
Within the inner circle of the Club Kids, we each had very defined personality traits, and our identities reflected these distinctions. I tended to be the more ethnic one, because of my background in African Studies. I was into insects, witch doctors, tribalism, romanticism and mythology. I’ve always had an interest in the metaphysical, past lives, spiritual dimensions, ritual and the talismanic. I did some pretty out there stuff in the 90s, like time traveling experiments. It’s in the book.
PONYBOY: Did you go out pretty much every night during that Club Kid era?
WALT CASSIDY: Pretty early on, I was swiped up and brought into the machinery of nightlife. At that time, the mega clubs were a bit like the old Hollywood studio system. Spots within the inner circle were coveted positions. Nightlife was a thriving industry, and there was a tremendous amount of support behind the scenes, financially and through teams of PR people, security, art crews and so on. Any idea that you had could be easily manifested through the various resources available, which was very exciting to me. I was on salary as a Club Kid, so it was a bit like being under contract. The leading Club Kids were brand representatives. I worked 3 nights a week, and in the offices of the clubs during the day. Before the Club Kid scene fell apart, it was very productive and professional, despite our presentation as hedonistic and flippant renegades. In addition to NYC nightlife, we would go on Club Kid tours to other cities to network with different nightlife personalities around the US and internationally.
PONYBOY: Club Kids made it into mainstream media when they appeared on talk shows. Probably the most infamous one was the Geraldo show. Did you appear on any of those shows?
WALT CASSIDY: Yes, there were many of those shows. We used daytime talk shows the way people use Instagram and social media today. That’s where we presented our identities as brands to the rest of the world. We were quite ahead of our time, in this regards. Even though many of us maintained art and design practices, we presented our identities as our primary medium. There were four Geraldo shows in total. I was on the last one. My first talk show was The Jane Whitney Show, where the Club Kids appeared alongside GG Allin, who would die just a couple days later. Other shows included, the Joan Rivers Show, Donahue, Richard Bey, Ricki Lake and so on. The Club Kids were featured on them all.
PONYBOY: So the scene eventually died, like all scenes do. Do you think that the Michael Alig/Robert Freeze tragedy was what brought the end of that era?
WALT CASSIDY: When you look at the various subcultures throughout history, they all go through similar trajectories, and tend to decline with significant shifts toward conservative politics, scandal and/or tragedies. The Weimar period in Germany ended with the Nazi’s. The Abstract Expressionists and the 50s had the deaths of Jackson Pollack and James Dean. The Hippies had Altamont and Charles Manson. Andy Warhol’s Factory had Valerie Solanas, and various tragic deaths, including Edie Sedgwick. Disco had the arrest of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. Punk had Sid and Nancy. For the Club Kids, there were multiple deaths, including the horrible slaughter of Angel Melendez. Conservative politics took over the city, and shortly after that, 9/11 happened. New York City moved into a dormant period. Mobile technology and the internet took over and shuffled all the cards on top of that. New Yorkers have been trying to find the balance ever since. If the coming years follow the pattern of history, we are likely moving towards another blossoming period. Millennials got dealt some tough cards, as we transitioned into the Digital Age, but I feel that Generation Z is going to benefit from landing on a winning streak that is long overdue.
PONYBOY: Fast forward 20 plus years, what made you decide to do your own book on the New York Club Kids era?
WALT CASSIDY: I have done quite a few media interviews on the subject of Club Kids, in the years that followed the scene’s collapse. I would talk for hours about the creativity, the cultural impact, and the various components and personalities that intersected to create such a dynamic experience. None of that material ever made the cut. The people choosing to tell the stories were locked on the darkness, and on Alig’s personal narrative. Myself and various people from the scene felt that our positive experiences of the 90s, and being a part of the Club Kids, was hijacked. After 25+ years, and upon realizing that key figures were beginning to pass away, I felt it was my duty to present a vantage point from within the inner circle of the 90s Club Kids. We were on the cusp of losing access to important photographic, editorial and ephemera archives.
After side-stepping out of the Club Kid scene in 1996, I immersed myself in the Chelsea gallery world. I became the Exhibitions Director for 303 Gallery and then moved to London where I curated exhibitions for the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation and filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Upon returning to New York City, I worked with photographer Jack Pierson, staging his exhibitions and developing his books.
In addition to my intimate experience within the Club Kids, I was able to write fairly well, and had a strong curatorial sensibility. I was first approached by Luis Venegas to be featured in Candy Magazine. I admired the quality and vision of his publication, so proposed doing a piece focused on five prominent photographers from the Club Kid scene. It turned into a beautiful 40 page editorial, which was published in 2015. That piece became the seed for the book.
PONYBOY: Do you still keep in touch with any of the Club Kids from the 90s?
WALT CASSIDY: Yes, almost all of them. Many of us got together for a 20 year reunion, awhile back. We are now approaching the 30 year anniversary of the 90s. I anticipate that the book launch at Opening Ceremony on November 16th is going to be a huge family reunion. I know a lot of people are flying in for it.
PONYBOY: Walt, you’re an artist. What mediums do you work in?
WALT CASSIDY: I am a multimedia artist. I established a design brand called Walt Cassidy Studio, which has a strong focus on jewelry and interior murals, at present. I frequently move through different mediums. I am doing the same thing that I did as a Club Kid, always searching for new tools and inspiration, trying to create my own world.
PONYBOY: Of all the different projects that you’ve worked, what would you say has been the most enjoyable for you?
WALT CASSIDY: I am someone who enjoys the challenge of not knowing how to do something. As soon as I master something, I get bored. I feel the need to constantly deconstruct the energy that I create through my work, in order to keep the flow and move on to the next experience. Again, the same thing I did as a Club Kid. I lust for evolution.
PONYBOY: Where do you get your inspiration from for your work?
WALT CASSIDY: I am hard wired for things like Geometry, the notion of finding order in the abstract. Narrative and allegory figure quite prominently into my work, although they are often heavily coded. One of the main responsibilities of being an artist, is to leave behind maps. Art is a series of maps, which guide people into a space of possibility, through the experiences of the mind, body and spirit. Conceptually, that responsibility inspires me.
PONYBOY: Back to the book, we see that you’ve collaborated with Opening Ceremony, where your launch will take place, to design a capsule collection of clothing and accessories. That’s very interesting and exciting. Tell us about this endeavor.
WALT CASSIDY: I worked closely with the artist Gregory Homs on the book. He was a great pillar of support for me throughout the grueling process. He was the person responsible for much of the branding and design connected to the mega clubs, and his work is prominently featured in NEW YORK: CLUB KIDS. We both share a keen understanding of the importance of bringing the elements in the book into the present. Nostalgia is a slippery slope and people often get stuck in it, which is another reason why it took me so many years to surrender to doing a book on this subject. I tend to avoid nostalgia, in favor of present day experiences. The capsule collection is a collaboration between Homs and I, and we subtly interrupted selected archival photographs and ephemera designs with present day references, which is very much in keeping with Opening Ceremony’s brand interests. One of my favorite accomplishments is that we re-drew the Opening Ceremony logo by hand and established a signature “Club Kid” print, which is utilized throughout the collection.
PONYBOY: Do you have any plans to brand the New York Club Kid book with different projects?
WALT CASSIDY: Yes, there are some very exciting activations being discussed. I will take it step by step, and see how it goes. My main focus now is getting the book launched and drawing much needed attention to the photographers, artists and personalities that mentored and inspired me along my journey.
PONYBOY: What’s in store for you in the near and distant future?
WALT CASSIDY: The book has taken up the entire last year of my life. I anticipate that the coming year is going to be heavily saturated with book related stuff.
PONYBOY: One final thought for you, when looking back at the 90s and the Club Kid era, what first comes to mind for you? Was it a happy time, with memories of creative youth?
WALT CASSIDY: It was a beautiful time. I feel very lucky to have been able to experience it. When I came to New York, I made a commitment to myself that I was going to live my life as if it would one day become a great book or movie. I have, and it has. So, I am very grateful and proud. I feel that I have been of service to my city, my generation and the generations to come. I’ve done my job.