This out-and-proud Bensonhurst native became a columnist for The Village Voice in the 1980s, and basically put New York nightlife on the world’s radar while practically inventing nightlife reporting as we know it today. So if you’re queer performer in the scene or simply admiring it all from a safe distance, you owe a great deal to Michael Musto. Thotyssey is honored and privileged to chat with Michael about his career and the changing media he helped create, as well as his blossoming stage musicality and a huge upcoming gig at the new Club Cumming!
Michael, hello! I read the debut of your new column for NewNowNext, “Musto Unfiltered.” It’s basically the reincarnation of “La Dulce Musto,” your long running Village Voice column that covered both nightlife and theater as well as entertainment gossip in general. And the blind items you published in those columns were like atom bombs filled with tee! I couldn’t be more delighted to see a return of the format, given how much joy I had gotten from “La Dulce Musto.” How does it feel to be back on this crazy weekly beat again?
People sometimes say, “Where have you been?” but the reality is, before the Voice even laid me off in 2013, I had two new weekly columns lined up! One of them was for Out.com (”Musto! The Musical!”) which I did for over four years, until very recently.
People also say, “I stopped reading the Voice when they canned you,” which is lovely, except I have to reply, “But they brought me back as a correspondent last year (in 2016)!!! I did three cover stories, among other things!” This year, they haven’t used me much, but I’m going to be represented in the final issue coming out next Wednesday, and what I’m doing will be a nice surprise for my fans.
So the truth is, I – like Cher and cockroaches – never go away, and as much as I loved doing “La Dolce Musto” in the Voice all those years, I’m basically still doing it, and I’ve adapted it to the present. I must say this NewNowNext column (“Musto Unfiltered”) has re-invigorated me, and I’m already getting a kick out of spilling the tee for their fab site.
How do you handle potentially writing negative pieces/reviews about the work of people you personally like, and have to constantly run into?
I used to say that when I walk into a room, half the people run towards me and the other half run away (because they don’t like something I wrote about them, or are afraid of something I might write now). That’s a good ratio.
DragCon was so upbeat and fun, and it was very inspiring to me to see all the baby gays and drag queens milling around and bonding and enjoying. I grew up in a wasteland, with no LGBT representation, so to find a world where it’s all celebrated like this is a glorious thing to witness. The panel I moderated on the herstory of downtown clubbing was a big hit, I’m happy to say, filled with memories, revelations, and lotsa laughs.
You wove yourself into the fabric of NYC nightlife in the 1980s contributing to several publications, including ultimately the Voice. Did you choose to make that world your beat, or was it assigned to you?
I was already drawn to nightlife, theater, and movies when I started my Voice column in 1984. So I was a natural choice for them to hire as a columnist. But I was then allowed to take it and make it my own, making it more political as AIDS (and activism) grew and going off on any tangents I wanted. The Voice let me be openly gay, openly silly, openly profound…whatever I was in the mood for. And it was always one of my goals to champion the nightlife and all of its glittery stars. I’ve always treated the performance artists and drag performers as equal to major movie stars because of what they bring and how they bring it (and what they go through).
Can you describe for the children how the community of 1980’s NYC drag queens, clubgoers, underground artists, etc. was different from what you might find in today’s gayborhoods?
In the ‘80s, drag wasn’t everywhere, so it was more subversive. This was also pre-Internet, so we all had to leave the house in order to make a social connection. The clubs had a social urgency because we were under siege as a people–AIDS was mounting and President Reagan refused to address it – so we found a solace in each other, in the venue of flashy, escapist nightspots (and some serious ideas were born there as well). It was a special time, but I still prefer today, where there’s more visibility, rights, and options (but worse nightlife).
Does it surprise you to see who is still active in the scene today from that era, versus those who have left?
It’s always interesting to see who’s still around and who’s still active. I love the fact that people like Susanne Bartsch, Johnny Dynell, Chi Chi Valenti, Brian Butterick, and Paul Alexander are still doing it and mixing it up and making things happen.
Being on the rag has always been [Sophia’s] shtick, and she can be wickedly amusing. I love being called “out of it” when I’m on CNN, Channel 13, Logo, have a new column, and am singing in clubs. But I hope she finds her peace, lol.
You’re well-known for helping to bring the “Party Monster” story –
i.e. New York drug dealer Angel Melendez’s gruesome murder, and the involvement and ultimate conviction of club kids Michael Alig & Freeze Rggs in relation to it – mass attention via a well-worded blind item. In James St. James’ book about the events, the author describes how strangely blasé both the nightlife community and the police were initially when Angel disappeared. What drew you to that story, in the beginning? And were you expecting that you would ultimately learn the truth when you started investigating?
Alig had called me, saying he was fired from Limelight and his apartment was padlocked. He sounded like a complete mess. I asked around, and someone mentioned the murder buzz. I slipped in a mention of buzz about a missing person and what Alig might have done or known. Then more details started buzzing my way, so I did my famous blind item. Between that and a New York Magazine item, Page Six got a lead item out of it. Alig started out brattily rebellious, with some terrific ideas and charisma, but without boundaries and with more drugs, he spiraled.
Were you surprised, amused, annoyed etc. by James’ portrayal of you in one scene of his book, describing how you were – I guess – milquetoasty, and fled when Alig and his boyfriend DJ Keoki were quarreling over a jacket?
That actually sounds like a compliment. Like I knew when to get away. Keoki once almost broke my back when jumping on me to say hello.
Alig has been released from prison after having served his time, and you two have since co-starred in the indy horror comedy Vamp Bikers Tres. He has even returned to nightlife. Do you believe he has officially turned over a new leaf, or is it maybe a bad idea that he’s back in arm’s reach of all those bad influences? And by the way, what was the experience of filming that movie like for you?
Before he got out of jail, I wrote articles saying I’d like to get together with him and give him advice. But when I ran into him, he didn’t seem like he’d changed at all – he was talking about his publicity, and seemed druggy. By the time the movie came around, I thought I could keep my word and connect with him, and the director said I actually did seem to help ground him. (And I enjoyed making the film because I got to camp it up.) Michael was focused when doing his scenes and when we acted together, some of our old chemistry actually came back. (I only saw him blow up once.) But I think his getting back into nightlife is a bad idea, and I would urge against that. Alig should be out of clubs, off drugs, and working for Planned Parenthood or something.
Aside from nightlifers, you’ve done amazing interviews with so many genuine stars of stage and screen, politicians and important people of all walks of life. Do you have a single favorite experience as an interviewer? How about a worst experience?
I’ve had bad luck with very high-toned people like Christopher Plummer and Patrick Stewart. My irreverence just doesn’t sit well with them. I don’t do traditional interviews, I’m more conversational and bantery. But I’ve always done great interviews with the downtown crowd (like Amanda Lepore), and I’ll never forget Carrie Fisher running into the other room and coming back with a pair of her panties for me to wear! Long story.
You were on TV news shows a lot recently sharing touching and funny stories, like that one, about Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds after their tragic deaths. It was poignant for their mourning fans, and you’ve offered similar treatments to other fallen stars over the years. Do you ever get concerned that these news outlets might associate you too closely with celebrity death, though?
I am not eager to become the go-to person for obits, but the truth is: I’ve been around, and I’m a great source on so many things, and it’s fine. (And who else could tell that panties story?) And since I’m also asked to comment so much on current things – like awards shows – it’s all good. I’m a Buddha-like receptacle for information and opinions on the past, present, and future.
Speaking of awards shows, you correctly predicted Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Emmy win last night, good job! The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies were also big winners of the night. But RuPaul’s Drag Race was snubbed for Best Reality Competition Show! That was kinda disappointing, wasn’t it?
Drag Race should win everything, even categories it’s not nominated for. But Ru did win for Reality Host (in a previous ceremony), so at least I can say I’m personal friends with a two-time Emmy winner – and we even used to hang out, cut up, and make Nelson Sullivan videos together. Those should win Emmys too!
OMG, we were all so worried when you had that terrible bike accident recently. You’re a well-known always-on-a-bike presence in the city, did this irresponsible cyclist who caused your injury deter you from getting back on the bike at all?
Riding my bike is one of the favorite things I do. It’s fun, great exercise, I’m never late to an appointment, and I get to see changes in the city up close as I tool around. I will be back on my bike in a matter of moments.
You’ve written a lot of great, optimistic pieces recently about how the end of the Village Voice’s print edition is actually a very natural, even good, thing as it transitions to a fully online publication. One great point you made is that column length doesn’t have to be so restrictive online. Was limiting the size of your column to fit the printed page one of the harder aspects of The Print Era?
My column started as a third of a page and through the years grew like a fungus to a full page. And once I became a staff writer in 2008, I was doing the full page column plus daily blogs, which allowed me to weigh in on all kinds of stories.
The death of print is inevitable. The Internet is not only accessible, it’s infinite. I was amused by all these sites doing stories about how “The Voice will just be a site!”
Your star-studded charity roast a few months ago was a great testament to how beloved a figure you are in entertainment today. I watched a live clip of Jinkx Monsoon going on forever and ever (but landing a few good zingers) before Judy Gold shut her down. What was going through your mind when she was running on like that, though?
I was thinking, “I’m so honored that Jinkx has agreed to do this, but if each speaker talks as long as Jinkx, we’ll be here all month.” I debated saying, “STFU, bitch!” but decided that wouldn’t be proper, even at a roast, so I was relieved when Judy grabbed the situation by the horns. Their back and forth became one of the highlights of the evening.
It’s been delightful to see you step out often as a performer recently, singing on cabaret stages all over the city! You even just rocked out in a recent staging of Tommy. I know you fronted a Motown band once, sharing the same billing as baby Madonna! Did you ever seriously consider that end of showbiz as a career?
I’ve always been attracted to performing, but I didn’t think it would be a viable enough career for me, so instead, I pursued writing, and have gotten to perform by going on TV as a commentator. That seemed to satisfy both sides of my creative cravings. And then, a few years ago, people started to ask me to sing again and it snowballed to the point where I now do songs at Joe’s Pub (as in Tommy) and am doing my own duets show. But not to the point where I think I could actually make a living doing this. In fact, you lose money off it! So I’ll stick to writing!
Madonna’s early career is gonna be explored in an upcoming doc, and supposedly a feature film as well. Do you have any special memories of her from that those earliest years?
As you mentioned, in the early ’80s, my band shared a bill with her at a downtown bank-turned-nightclub called Chase Park. She was talented, but I already sensed she was driven, chilly, and egocentric. I thought, “She’ll never make it.” Wrong! The kind of tunnelvision is exactly what was required for mass stardom. And she’s done tremendously.
Back to you and your singing! “Musto Duets” at the newly-opened Club Cumming on September 23rd will feature an entire night with you pairing up with nightlife and Broadway luminaries to present some amazing songs. People like Tommy Femia, Alexis Michelle, Molly Pope, Vivian Reed, Brini Maxwell, Aaron Weinstein, Dina Martina, Rain Pryor, Rob Roth, Kenyon Phillips, Mickey Boardman, Frankie C, Tym Moss… I love this. First of all, have you seen Club Cumming yet? What do you think?
I went on Saturday night and it’s intimate and buzzy, with lots of energy. This night–which is a benefit for SAGE–will pack ’em in, and I’ll be doing a variety of songs, some that were written as duets and some that weren’t. But there will be a preponderance of Liza-Judy-Barbra-type stuff, for the old gays in the crowd.
How long have you and your guests been rehearsing/preparing these songs? And what are you really looking forward to singing the most?
We’ve been rehearsing on the phone and with the accompanist, Henry Koperski, and it will be polished, but with room for spontaneity. All my duet partners are equally special to me–whether it be two time Tony nominee Vivian Reed and concert violinist Aaron Weinstein, or drag sensations like Dina Martina and Brini Maxwell.
What else is in store for you?
Death is definitely in store for me, some time in my future. It’ll be a two-drink minimum.
Michael, we need you to write a tell-all about your experiences with NYC nightlife in the 80s and 90s. It’s absolutely necessary. How can we convince you to do this?
Right before the aforementioned death, I will definitely spill EVERYTHING. Proceeds will go to help all the lives of non-straight and non-white people who were destroyed by Donald Trump.
Okay lastly: I know you said you would never accept the mayor’s Nightlife Liaison position… but if you DID… what would be your first official decree?
To re-open all the clubs that have been closed, to shut down all bottle service lounges, and to throw rotten eggs at Rudy Giuliani for having decimated the nightlife. And then we’ll all party!
It’s been a true honor Michael, thank you!