Lessons of a Lounge Lizard

Oh, sweet youth! The pain, the suffering, the heartbreak. The champagne, the nightclubs, the women.

Rebar at four in the morning and a night of heroic drinking with club promoter Michael Capponi, the twenty-year-old prince of South Beach, is winding down. The place is packed, grunge rock pounding over the sound system, a madhouse of lust and degeneracy. A Saudi fighter pilot earnestly raves about the greatness of America and hits on a club kitten, who is obliviously talking about her most recent drunk-driving arrest: "I said, 'Chill out, pig. It's not my problem you didn't get laid tonight.'" One of the bartenders gets up on the bar, downs a huge gulp of vodka, lights a match, and blows a fireball above the crowd. Two club girls, one black and one white, both beautiful, are on either side of Capponi's best friend, a nineteen-year-old club veteran. Without missing a beat, the kid reaches over and kisses each girl in turn, luxuriously rolling his tongue around their mouths, and then offhandedly resumes talking: "It doesn't mean anything down here. We'll see each other on the street tomorrow, wave hello, and not even think about it."

Capponi is centered in the maelstrom, toting his usual bottle of champagne, surrounded by his people. Like the early Phil Spector, or the nonprocessed rock stars of the Sixties, he is one of those rare individuals who has, as Lord Byron would have it, "sprung fully formed from the womb." He worked for nightclubs at fifteen, ran his own one-nighter (a special event coordinated by clubs and outside promoters) at seventeen, and then linked up with Gary James of The Spot and the Avenue A traveling parties. Their regular Saturday night at Warsaw, an affair called "Bohemia," attracts 1500 to 2000 people, most of whom pay ten dollars for the privilege.

Like a rock star, Capponi has accomplished at a very young age the neat trick of having money, celebrity, and the attention of beautiful women without the sacrifice of abandoning his personal style or buying into a corporate structure. But his nature is essentially lyrical, a kind of surfer mysticism, a jumble of references from Led Zeppelin to Joseph Campbell to his own poetry. A promoter with a higher calling, a nightlife star alternately attracted to and repelled by the world he inhabits, a creative, spiritually minded individual in an ugly business devoid of much sense or sensibility.

Capponi is innately cool in an eccentric way, exuding a hipness that can only be truly understood by the young. To anyone over 30 he can seem goofy, scraggly looking, simply strange. He lopes around, a nasty stubble on his face, long hair seemingly unkempt but actually professionally styled, smoking clove cigarettes, singing snatches of old Doors songs, dancing by himself. On his arm is a tattoo: "Truth" written in Japanese. He will greet an endless parade of people, most of whose names he can't remember. Generally, unless he's meeting someone from the adult world, it's street talk, complicated handshakes, and perfunctory exchanges: "Wass up? Nothing, man. Chilling." When he's working, he carries a leather shoulder bag and hands out flyers to parties like Johnny Appleseed sowing the earth. At one point in his career he was distributing 5000 flyers a week. He figures he's met 50,000 people. His Filofax, the one with "Love" etched on the cover, bulges at the seams. He operates by beeper and cellular phone, seldom giving out his number to anyone. "Do you know," he asks incredulously, "how many people would call me on Friday night, trying to get into parties?"

Nearly every girl at Rebar gets a kiss on the cheek. Capponi is tanned and lean, though by the standards of South Beach, he's not especially eye-catching. But whether from his general amiability, power, circumstances, or some other mysterious quality, women seem attracted to him. He'll put his arm around some stunning model, completely at ease, and she's Capponi's for the moment, all warm and buttery. A moment later he makes an introduction, and the model's mask descends, the freeze-out look that says: I'll be cordial, although normally we wouldn't ever talk. On this night, the women are slithering around him like cats in heat.

The cruel fact is these lovely women, according to Capponi, mean nothing to him. He is in love. His obsession, his noble Juliet, is a Paris-based model who is not really part of "the model life," a goddess radiating an unearthly glow. Listening to him, drinking cheap champagne in a companionable way, is to be drawn back to youth, to hopeless despair, and aching lovesickness. She is the touchstone of his romanticism, a symbol of his yearning for something more pure. In a candy store of pleasure, fate has pulled a fast one on him. Capponi has everything a twenty-year-old could want, and is surrounded by more women than he can keep track of. (He once brought a girl home for Thanksgiving dinner at his mother's house, and when pressed for her name, confessed he'd never learned it.) But somehow, with much effort, he has managed to make himself miserable. By 5:00 a.m. he is leaning against the bar is in the throes of pain: "She's killing me, man. And this life is killing me even more."

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