Lessons of a Lounge Lizard
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."
Over dinner at The Strand on a quiet night, Capponi is in a reflective mood, reminiscing about getting into the life. It is an existence based on hype, but unlike many South Beach club promoters, Capponi shies away from bold declarations and hustles. The talk is heartfelt, philosophical, laced with irony and self-doubt. His manner alternates between spells of irrepressible enthusiasm and a low-key, cool dispassion. "This business is in my blood," he says. "My grandfather on my mother's side, Jean Omer, was a bandleader who owned a club in Brussels, Boeuf Sur Le Toit, one those great, glamourous Forties places with 40 showgirls and a huge orchestra, the girls coming out topless and everything. Jean Cocteau wrote a poem about the place. My father, Fefo Capponi, was a completely self-made success story, a Turkish-born Italian who went out and became an Olympic swimmer."
"My dad ran nightclubs in Amsterdam A Le Scotch, the Golden Gate, Fefo's 2000 A where all the jetset people went, Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot, Jayne Mansfield. I still have a picture of him kissing Jayne Mansfield in one of his clubs. My mother, Danouchka, met him in a nightclub, and her parents met the same way. My mom and dad used to take me to my dad's clubs as a baby; I'd be in my crib until three or four in the morning, checking everything out. We lived in this town on the coast, Le Knokke Zouete, in a big house, and there were always parties with 300, 400 people. I'd have ten clowns at my parties, drive around the house in a little electric car. A total spoiled brat."
The Capponi family moved to Miami, first to the Kendall area and then Key Biscayne, when Michael was six. After a series of business reversals, his father moved abroad, and his mother started over from nothing, building a business recharging cartridges for laser printers. In ninth grade, Michael was expelled from Ponce de Leon Junior High for "fucking with the teachers," and fell into the teenage wasteland/feral child set on South Beach, which meant, among their things, early experimentations with drugs and sex.
"I used to skip school all the time, riding the bus to First Street to surf and ride skateboards," he recalls. "We were all little burnouts; we thought we were pretty cool. Don Busweiler, who's opening the Pervert clothes store now, and I used to ride freestyle on our stunt bikes, doing tournaments with 10,000 people watching, getting written up in BMX magazine and all that. Don was number one in Florida in the thirteen-and-over division; I was number one in the thirteen-and-under category. We'd shoot the half-pipe at the Youth Fair, this tube thing where you'd ride up the side and fly into the air, twenty feet off the ground, and do 180s and 540s. Don missed the edge one time and fell all the way down; he wound up breaking his collarbone. But the pipe was really the basis for me eliminating my fears.
"At fifteen I started hanging out in the [21st Street] parking lot by the Kitchen. It was like baggy jeans, wooden beads, and a shaved head, really into the industrial thing. My friends were saying, 'Michael, what's wrong with you?' But I was already off in a different world. You can see some bad, crazy things in clubs, but they're addicting, just like sex or drugs, although most people are cooler, more comfortable with themselves, after they've been through it. It gives you a new security, you get to be like a regular character, with people coming up to you and everything. You're suddenly someone. Fame is a high, even club fame, and you need to feed that security. That's what people get addicted to, not the action.
At the Kitchen, I'd drink beer, play with the girls in the back of vans, try to climb the back wall and sneak in. My only worry was being ID'd by the cops. You can't imagine how many worries I have now. Anyway, I started handing out flyers to help people out, and that's how I got into the business. That same year I went back to school, Miami Shores Academy, a private school. I did tenth and eleventh grades in one year, and then by my senior year, at seventeen, I was doing a one-nighter at the Cameo, 'One,' going out every night to promote it. It was impossible to get to school at 8:00 a.m. after being up all night. So I made a deal with my teachers that I'd show up once a week and turn in all my assignments. That's how I finished high school. Being in the business that young was really difficult. I couldn't get into Le Loft and places like that. Even now, 'Bohemia,' for instance, is twenty-one and over.
"Don and Ruben Pagan had gotten me into 'One.' Ruben, Carl B. Dread, and I formed Global Tribe, which presented the night, mostly industrial and hip hop. The theme was universal unity, blacks and whites mixing together. We'd have a crowd with 70 percent blacks, 30 percent whites, models dancing with Rastas. Eventually the Zulu Nation from 163rd Street moved in and started fighting with the Power 96 Latin crowd and the whole thing collapsed. After that Ruben and I did another one-nighter at the Cameo, 'Eon,' opening with Deee-Lite. We managed to book them right before they got hot, they were like $2000 then, and we did 2600 paid admissions. Then I worked with Avenue A and 'Disco Inferno' down here, and then Boomerang when Gary took 'Disco Inferno' to New York.
"Boomerang ended, Gary was back in Miami opening The Spot, and I needed something to do. I did one night on my own at Warsaw, 'Pure,' which didn't last A the Warsaw regulars didn't want a straight night then. That Boomerang crowd had nowhere to go, so I suggested to Gary that it might be a good idea to start up Avenue A again, the parties he used to do with Louis Canales, somebody I really respect. Anyway, I teamed up with my man Gary and we did the first one at Les Violins, and then everywhere else: the Institute, Society Billiards, 'Lush' at the Butter Club, which was my big hope, the best of the Sixties and Nineties. Now we're still doing Avenue A stuff, 'Lush' again, and of course 'Bohemia,' which has really hit. Gary has all my respect. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be where I am today. He's taught me so much."
Capponi reaches into his bag and pulls out one of the ambitious, surprisingly arcane invitations that he prides himself on creating, a full-color booklet from a night called "The Origin of the Wooden Drum," with quotations from scholars Joseph Campbell and Curt Sachs. This particular theme involved a tracing of mankind's roots through music, featuring Cuban Santeria drummers, belly dancers, and slides of primitive men beating drums. On other "Bo-hemia" nights, he's used sumo wrestlers, slides of Martin Luther King, Jr., juxtaposed against Ku Klux Klan parades, and choral music at Halloween.
"This quote from Jean Cocteau just sums up clubs for me," Capponi continues. "I'm using it for one of my nights. 'One of the qualities of the dream is that nothing in it surprises us. We agree to live in it with strangers, completely cut off from our habits and friends.' If I couldn't do stuff like this, I wouldn't want to be in the business. I spend $500 to $800 more a week than I need to on invitations. It doesn't help business; it's just something I want to do. Ideally a club could encompass all the arts, and be a subconscious learning experience. When your mind is softened, through music or visuals or whatever, you're able to see beauty. It's frustrating sometimes when I talk to people the day after a party and they don't even remember the visuals. I put my heart into that stuff.
"The Nineties could be better than the Sixties, a mix of that early Sixties love music, the late Sixties revolt things, and Seventies just-have-a-good-time disco. There should be a balance of all three; too much of anything is boring. I'm interested in a movement where everyone could tolerate everyone else, without the separations of the Sixties, everybody thinking they're cooler than other groups. It's an impossible thing, but a little is better than nothing. Now it's all VIP rooms and conversation A dancing and freedom is out, which is something I'm always fighting. When you get a certain beat in a club, it should transcend everything. We have to compromise, use songs like 'Deeper Love,' but sometimes I'll play something strange quietly beneath the music, like choir music or something, just to change the rhythm of the room."
Capponi gets up from the table and demonstrates the power of dance, ignoring the stares of other patrons while quoting form his own writing. "Dance should be in you consistently, you should be able to discover parts of yourself. It's the art in which we ourselves are the true ingredients. It is no mere transition or abstraction from life; it is life in its purest form. When you get the right beat going, everyone should feel free."
He sits down again, fidgeting like a school boy. "It's all a science," he explains, "what music to play, when to turn down the lights, who to let in, how to make people dance without feeling they're being watched, creating a vibe. The darker the room is, up to a certain point, the wilder the party. When one cannot see, one cannot judge. When the self is drowned, freedom is born. And models are like bringing Jesus into the room. The music can suck, the energy can suck, but if you have 50 models, you have a party. Woman is goddess, girls make the power, that's just the way it is. When I first kissed my girl, I walked around Paris until dawn, singing in the streets. My love is so strong. I'd marry her tomorrow. She got me off Ecstasy. Up until then, I could have been watching a sunset with Claudia Schiffer and still wanted to drop some X. People want love; it's not just sex. I hear guys in clubs say stuff like, 'I could marry a girl like that. Look how sweet she is.' It's not a hopeless world.
"The world needs myth, though, and it's unfucking unfortunate that the myths for the youth of today are pretty much rap and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I listen to both myself, but that shouldn't be the sole source of mythology. Clubs can create myths, put people together. I fell into this, and maybe in a few years I'll be making films, writing books, living in a cabin with my love. But for now I choose to live in the heart of pain, trying to create happiness, saying what I have to say through clubs."
It's midnight and the restaurant is clearing out, but Capponi is still chewing on artistic integrity, the very recent past, the wearying road to success that his father followed. "If you were truly happy, you'd be home with the one you love," he observes. "Why are people in clubs in the first place? You're bored, you have nothing else to do, you make yourself into a kind of art. I go to build my business, find a girl to get my mind off the one I love. Nightclubs wear me out, and sometimes the only way to escape is the bottle. You're trapped in these mindless conversations, bored out of your mind, and if you walk away, you're an asshole. It's a lot easier to put up with everything if you've got a buzz on. The business can be fairly debasing. I live in a world where money, sex, and fame is just about the whole thing. I fall into this totally, I play the game, but I try to avoid getting addicted to the luxury. Business is built on who you are, who you know, what you own. True life is exactly the opposite. To stay sane I have to separate Michael from the Michael Capponi at night. My home is in both worlds: the left foot's on one tightrope, the right's on another, and sometimes I feel like I'm splitting apart."
A subdued evening of regular rounds, Capponi having taken the night off from promoting. He still hands out 700 or so party flyers each week, picking out the beautiful, the interesting, the eccentric. He stops in at Les Bains, where he is trying to put together a weekly party. In perfect French, he chats with co-owner Charles Shreiner, shakes hands with a couple of people, moves on to Cassis for the regular Tuesday night party. At the door a waiter insists that the restaurant is closed, but Capponi patiently asks to speak with the owner. "Most people would make a fuss, say shit like, 'Do you know who I am?' That's not my style; no one is anybody, man." Up to Sinatra Bar, pressing flesh like a politician, settling down in the outdoor patio for a rumination on sex: "I have no interest in girls who want to be with you because of the club thing. To me sex is a total effort; I want love. And AIDS is going to be the next civil war; our own people are dying. Most of the early Beach pioneers are dead, but it hasn't really even started yet. People still don't want to know about it."
On Washington Avenue he stops a dozen times, kissing and schmoozing. Apropos of nothing, he asks how old I am. He is momentarily, absolutely stunned. "I'll bet you've forgotten everything I'm just learning. God, man, I hope I die before I get that old."
It's showtime, "Bohemia" in full swing, and the night-world Michael, the showman, is everywhere at once. Another trademark outfit: black pants, black Miles Standish shoes, and a blue crushed-velvet shirt, a fabric someone describes as "looking like something from a sofa in a Cuban grandmother's house." Still, Capponi is impossibly cool, although very ragged. In the dressing room, he picks at his stubble and recites an allegorical poem about the sun blinding itself with love for a woman, rhapsodizing about the passion without limits, a love freed from banality. He's beyond reason, terminally young, hopelessly romantic.
Swaying to the music, drinking Moet champagne, Capponi drifts around Warsaw awhile. Tonight he's got it down: rock star mumble and attitude, clownish gestures undercutting grand moves, wallowing in pain and the romance of self-destruction and death, the Sixties free gestalt, the escape of drugs, liquor, and sex. But Capponi seems to recognize the absurdity of his position, a pop-culture artist glamorized by the potency of fame and power, his better nature being gradually chipped away by the jagged edges of nightlife. In this soulless environment, love and art are nothing but chump stuff.
He saunters outside, dispensing favors like the Pope, walking arm and arm with a couple of models, jumping on the hood of a passing car for a photo opportunity. The night wears on, more pointless conversations, more hustles, more battles for club fame. By 4:30 a.m. Capponi is toying with a club dancer and sex magazine model. The girl is perched on his lap, whining steadily: "How come you don't call me any more? I guess it's because I'm not a model, right?"
"You live in New York now, I'm incredibly busy, and I'm still in love."
There is, briefly, a hint of comprehension on the girl's face, a sign that she has glimpsed something bigger. The Pied Piper, the man who has led the children into dissipation, is momentarily a beacon in the darkness, leading the soiled into the light.
"Michael, where's the old gang? I don't recognize anybody. Who are these people? Is this your world now?"
Capponi, the ultimate post-MTV child, looks off into the distance, smiles sadly, and answers with a question: "Do you think I'm aware of what it is? Or am I just caught up in it?
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