Dancing to Mark Lanegan’s “Gargoyle.”
by Mishka Shubaly
In hindsight, the year 2000 was a sweet spot of sorts, sandwiched, as it was, between the bogus doomsaying of Y2K and the boundless terror of 9/11. I was 22, living in New York City, working as a barback in a huge dank cavern of a nightclub near the West Side Highway called Don Hill’s. I worked TISWAS, the britpop night, I worked Squeezebox, the sleazy 70s glam night, I worked Rock Candy, that corpse-violation of American culture known as 80s night. Yes, 80s night was an abomination, the crush of sweaty bodies, the hair gel, the sickening bath of cologne, the fingering-or-getting-fingered on the dance floor… but it’s not like every night wasn’t an abomination. I recall, specifically, the waning hours of one Saturday night TISWAS Britpop party. Several well-muscled young men surrounded a fallen comrade, facedown on the bar. Were they wearing backwards baseball hats and muscle shirts or is that just the cruelty of my memory? They began shouting along with the melody from The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” but these young man-apes substituted a more poignant refrain: You Can’t Hang, You Can’t Hang, You Can’t Hang. One pounded the object of their attention on the back with a simian paw and he gurgled, then weakly vomited clear liquid onto the bar.
I don’t want to give you the mistaken impression that something at Don Hill’s had soured. It was a west side Manhattan nightclub close to the Holland Tunnel at the end of the millennia. It was exactly like a west side Manhattan nightclub close to the Holland Tunnel at the end of the millennia. One night, a girl asked me if I had coke. I mean, girls always asked me if I had coke, but this night I did have coke, I had found a crusty, yellowed half forty-bag on the floor. I hesitated for a split-second because I wasn’t sure I wanted to share this secret treasure I had discovered. In that split second of hesitation, the girl wordlessly pulled her black half shirt up to reveal her pale white breasts. Like some robotic vending machine, I wordlessly handed her the coke, and she disappeared with it. I never saw her breasts or the coke again. Like I said, it was a sweet spot of sorts.
The club was a cult of youth, reckless youth, kamikaze youth, youth that sprang to life at midnight. We had no fear of death but all the fear of aging. I remember winding up in a girl’s Williamsburg apartment one early morning. I considered her pathetic— she was 26 and still worked as a bartender. I intended to have a book published by 25 and be dead by thirty. I was never even able to hold on to a job as bartender.
But there was this one guy. He was old. Not just older but legit old, fifty or maybe even sixty. At least a hard, craggy, unfiltered Pall Malls fifty. Hepatitis fifty. He was friends with Jessica, the waitress with syringe mosquitoes tattooed on her chest. His hair was thin, spiked— blonde? Gray? Gray blonde? His hair, his flesh, everything appeared an unearthly blue in the lights from the club. His eyebrows were brutally severe and his face looked like it had been carved from a stone. His eyes were soft and deep and sensitive. The eyes of junkies often look like they have been built out of liquid eyeliner. Maybe it’s Maybelline, maybe it’s something stronger.
When everyone came to Don Hill’s in twos or threes or packs, this man came alone. He had a couple of drinks— drinks he paid for— but he never creeped on girls, never made a problem. He showed up, he took his shirt off, he danced alone in a corner in his black leather pants, clumsily but with great feeling, like a lonesome, grinning skeleton that has rented a flesh suit on a lark for an evening out on the town. He swayed and ground to Jesus and Mary Chain, Joy Division, New Order thundering out of speaker cabinets large and impassive as monoliths, and then he quietly disappeared into the night alone. His name was Robert Lund.
And here my memory betrays me, but at least I know it betrays me. Memory crashes over you, it overwhelms you, everything at the same time. Unlike memory, real life unfolds in a linear fashion:
- First you drink too much at work,
- then you lose your night’s wages in just two hands of poker to Gary, the British gangster who beats a customer bloody twice or three times a year,
- then you stumble out into the early morning, furious and stunned that you have worked for ten hours for absolutely nothing
- then a rat runs over your foot in the subway
- then you kick it
- then you stomp it to death
- then you feel sick with grief not for the tiny life you have just extinguished, but for the nearly erotic satisfaction the killing has brought you.
No, in memory, everything happens simultaneously. When I recall Robert Lund, when I say the name “Robert Lund,” I recall everything I know about him, everything I later learned about him, everything related to him, and instantly it shrouds him: Robert Lund played the bouncer in the movie Suburbia, Robert Lund was married to the actress/ musician/ screenwriter Zoe Lund who wrote 1992’s Bad Lieutenant, my second favorite movie after The Wizard of Oz, Bad Lieutenant which closes on Schooly D rapping over “Kashmir” which led to a lawsuit and badass Abel Ferrara calling out the greatest rock band of all time, Led fucking Zeppelin, direct quote “Oh yeah, I’ll strangle that cocksucker Jimmy Page, as if every fucking lick that guy ever played didn’t come off a Robert Johnson album.” Bad Lieutenant with magnificent terrifying full frontal male nudity Harvey Keitel weeping and squawking like some horrifying featherless bird, the bottom of the bottom, the end of the end of the end, Zoe Lund as Keitel’s alluring toxic oracle in the movie, pencil thin in a black leotard, her red hair piled on her head like a coil of serpents, incandescent Zoe Lund who some anonymous shithead on Youtube deigned to describe as ‘modern day hot,’ you fucking Philistine, don’t you qualify her, don’t you even gaze upon her, you Judas, you scum!
Zoe Lund, dead at 37 in Paris, even cool and gorgeous in death. Her eerie widower Robert Lund I met in 2000, less than a year after his estranged wife’s death, Robert Lund, harmless as he was sinister, the Robert Lund I would run into ten years later in Greenpoint, his head shaved, a dent in his skull from— what? A bullet? Some dumb Long Island cop’s truncheon? A trepanation experiment gone awry? That dent in his dome overflowed with narrative as I crawled home in Thursday morning clothes on a Sunday afternoon after snorting morphine and Opana for days and sleeping in my band’s rehearsal space. Robert Lund. As I have said, my memory betrays me.
Smash cut to 2001, after my friend Jacob has overdosed on speedballs and died but before the towers have fallen. I am still working at Don Hill’s. It is less of a sweet spot. One night, I take too many painkillers at work and black out. I have recalled the events of most of my blackouts eventually, but never this one. I woke up on a dusty red velvet Chesterfield in Brooklyn in a home belonging to Robert Lund. I had fallen down at work, then began crying. When Jessica the junkie waitress tried to help me up, I tried to kiss her. This is a tidy little sketch of the shitty sub-man I was in my 20s.
Jessica and Robert Lund put me in a cab and brought me back to his place in Brooklyn because I couldn’t tell them where home was, I couldn’t tell them where I was supposed to go.
When I woke up, Robert Lund brought me a glass of water and we sat on his stoop, looking out at Manhattan.
“I was here for the blackout in ’77,” he said. “The whole city went dark, man. The skyscrapers looked like fucking tombstones. It was amazing, like the end of the world.” Then he laughed. His laugh sounded like massive charred timber dragging on concrete.
I did not become close friends with Robert Lund. He did not get me sober, he did not teach me the power of tai chi and poetry and forgiveness. He did not transform my life. But I have never been able to forget the sight of Robert Lund dancing alone in the darkness of Don Hill’s.
If you, like me, endure the slow exsanguination of the soul that is social media, you are chided, you are implored, you are commanded several times a day to “dance like no one is watching.” But when we are hollowly admonished by friends and strangers to dance like no one is watching, what they mean is “dance like no one is watching… if you are a white female ectomorph between the ages of 17 and 23 at the cultural wasteland of some overpriced festival like Coachella or Burning Man or South by Southwest when you are quite sure not just that everyone is, in fact, watching, but also that your dancing like no one is watching is being shot on an iPhone 7.”
Robert Lund actually danced like no one was watching. By accident, I was open to it, I bore witness to it, and I carry that burden to this day. I still struggle to comprehend it. There is no emoji for the way I feel about the memory of Robert Lund’s half-naked body, writhing before me in the dark.
I intend this only as a word of caution. Keep your head down. Hold tight to your cellphone. Do not make direct eye contact. Binge on Netflix and Seamless and Facestalking. Pull the blinds down, turn the air-conditioning up. Do not dance like no one is watching, and do not look at someone who is. You may not be prepared for what you see: a man well-past the flowering of youth, a man lounging towards the abyss, a man who has been crushed without being broken, a man who has lost more than he ever dreamed he would have, not just still standing but still grinding, still spinning, still gyrating, still grinning.