Lady Gaga's early days: "The sexual energy was palpable. You could smell it"

The story of Gaga's ascent is also the story of New York nightlife in the '00s. Her ex-DJ reveals the inside story

Published August 27, 2013 11:15PM (EDT)

   (Reuters/Tim Chong)
(Reuters/Tim Chong)

Before Lady Gaga wore the meat dress and presided over her “little monsters,” before she arrived at the Grammys inside a giant egg or tweeted photos of herself hanging with Julian Assange — before there really even was a Lady Gaga — there was Stefani Germanotta, a downtown New York scenester hungry for stardom.

That was the young woman whom Brendan Jay Sullivan befriended in 2006, and the one he writes about in a new memoir, “Rivington Was Ours: Lady Gaga, the Lower East Side and the Prime of Our Lives” (It Books). It’s a fascinating look at the early days of a pop superstar from someone with unparalleled access: Not only did he witness all of it, he participated in a good portion of it. Sullivan, then a DJ nicknamed VH1, a bartender and a would-be novelist, chronicles the Lower East Side nightlife with a keen eye for detail, capturing the essence of the downtown scene with vivid evocations of the people, places and peccadilloes that comprised it.

He and Gaga became close friends after meeting at St. Jerome’s, a Rivington Street dive that closed last year. Sullivan writes that each was the other’s biggest fan, and as they talked each other through romantic turbulence and shared artistic aspirations, their mutual admiration grew into collaboration. She accompanied his DJ sets as a go-go dancer, and he backed her onstage, and appeared in her first music video, right as she was on the cusp of fame.

And then she was famous, becoming one of the biggest stars in the world on a pair of albums, with a third, “ARTPOP,” due in November. Meanwhile, Sullivan unplugged from the scene in pursuit of his career as a writer (which began when he was a college intern at the Hartford Courant in Connecticut; when I was rock critic there, I once sent him to review a Weezer concert. He did a nice job).

What was the scene at St. Jerome’s like when you met Gaga in 2006?

Everybody focuses on the drugs and the rock ’n’ roll, but there was tons of sex. The whole place was sex. Classic porn playing on a screen overhead, people having sex in the bathroom, behind the black velvet curtain in the DJ booth or on the carpet on the go-go platform under the red light. There were girls dancing in less than bikinis. And it was the kind of place where you could walk up to anyone in the place, introduce yourself and go home with them because they knew you had to be cool if you walked in there. The sexual energy was palpable. You could smell it. No one went there to start a book group. They went there to have fun and get laid. If you worked there you were at the top of the food chain. Having a set of keys was like knowing the directions to the “Love Shack.” Everyone who worked at that bar eventually had sex on it.

You wrote in the book that you knew Gaga would be a star. But at the time, there was nothing in the music industry that sounded like what she was doing. What made you so sure?

I watched her first as a go-go dancer. When she’s walking around at the time, she’s got this rocker-chick look, kind of the baggy shirt, the bangs in her eyes, the heavy eye makeup, sort of an inscrutable look. But then she would get onstage in high heels and just her underwear and we’d put a light on her, and people were just transfixed by her. She wasn’t singing or anything, she was just dancing. One day, our friends’ band was playing, and they invited her onstage, and she looks around the room and sees that everybody is kind of chatty and talking to their friends and checking their phones. So she took all her clothes off, and sang “Smack My Bitch Up.” She came out of that not just saying, “These guys are just looking at me because I was naked,” but the idea was, “I can control the way people look at me very simply, and I’m going to do it.” And she took that and started over again as a pop act, and when I saw her do that, that’s really when she became Lady Gaga. You’d see her walking down the street running errands, wearing fishnets and a leotard as a whole outfit, no skirt, no shorts, wearing high heels with her hair done up all platinum blond.  You could see that Lady Gaga was taking over her life and becoming her. It was like she never wanted to break character, and when I saw that, that was the day I knew she was going to be a star.

Was she always Gaga to you, or was there a period when she was Stefani?

From the day she introduced herself to me, she was Gaga. But as I got to know her better, and you’ll see this in the book, she goes in and out of being Stef, Gaga, that kind of thing. When we’re being the most serious with each other, we were Stef and Brendan.

Can she turn off the Gaga persona and just be Stef? Or have Stef and Gaga merged?

I remember her mother one time, around a holiday, saying to her, “Stef, can you —.” And she said, “It’s Gaga now, Mom.” And her mother turned to her and said, “You’ve told me you’ve had a new name every year since you were 3 years old.” As if, next year you’ll be something else. Such a great mom response. I loved it.

That’s just the name that happened to stick.

She could well have been one of those people for whom everything came easy, everything could have been handed to her, and if that had happened, I wouldn’t have written a book about her. I don’t think we’d be talking about her, either. What makes her so interesting is what happened after all that went down for her. Someone like Britney Spears, or Beyoncé, even — and I like both those artists — at 17 someone said, "OK, you can get to pop star, you just have to work even harder.” And they did. But nobody looked at little Steffi Germanotta — the Germ, when she was a kid — and said, “You’re going to be a pop star.” It’s something about the way she comes alive onstage. It was her own kind of blurred line. At first, she acted a certain way onstage and then she’d get off and be all demure. And then slowly she just stopped stepping off the stage. It’s a forced metaphor, but she wears these platform shoes now, and it’s like she’s always in the Gaga world. Now it’s like we’re stepping into her world.

You and Gaga were close friends. Did you feel any hesitation about pulling back the curtain on her early days?

No, I didn’t. I got the nickname VH1 among my friends, and it was all that anybody called me for years, and it’s because I was a storyteller. I was the writer of the group. I just love learning where the meanings of songs come from, and what inspires them, and I love reading all those “Behind the Music” kinds of books. And there came a day when I realized, wow, I just lived through the next chapter of “Behind the Music,” and I get to tell this great story now.

What made you decide to write it?

At first I had this attitude, like, you guys wouldn’t understand. And then slowly, I saw more and more stories getting written about Lady Gaga’s filthy underworld or Lady Gaga’s dirty downtown days, and I thought there was this gap in history. Like the only way to explain these people to a mainstream culture would be to malign them, or put them down, or talk about how they’re dirty or transvestites. And if no one speaks up, then that’s the permanent record, that’s the story of Lady Gaga. Then somebody’s going to sit down and write a biography, and the only source material they’ll have is going to be every day’s trashy tabloid story that’s going to be treated like a historical source when we all know the author of that story was just hoping to be that day’s viral news hit.

So you were setting the record straight.

Nightlife in New York, it does breed culture. It breeds people like Madonna and Gaga and Basquiat, or Fab Five Freddy, but the only time it ever gets attention is when it makes headlines, and that’s usually something like Michael Alig — a club promoter in the ’90s murdered his roommate, a guy named Angel, and it became this sensational story ... It became like “Bright Lights, Big City” in the ’80s, and between then and now, that’s the only time people took a look at nightlife and took a look at the different cast of characters in it. And I had worked in nightlife for so long, I felt like people looked at Lady Gaga as this alien coming from another world, where I just see her as coming from that world, nightlife, where the gay and straight scenes were sometimes united, and where the point of the night was to do something outrageous, to wear some kind of outrageous outfit. It was almost a survival skill. That’s how you would get invited to the party, that’s how you would get in, if you were young and didn’t have a lot of money, that’s how you would get drink tickets or complimentary admission.

Has she read the book?

I sent the first two copies to her and her dad.

Have you heard anything back?

No. I really don’t care to. One thing I’ve learned is to never read reviews. My mother read it and I didn’t even want to hear what she thought of it. It’s too late to make the book better, and the only thing it will do is take time away from whatever I’m going to work on next.

Did you ever think about writing her story while you were in the middle of it?

The first time I went to her apartment, I definitely did a full survey of it, the way I would if I were trying to write about my afternoon with the Strokes or something. And I was writing for Filter and some other things at the time. In fact, I used to worry that she only wanted to talk to me because she knew I worked for them. In fact, because everybody called me VH1 at the time, one of our first conversations, she asked, "Do you still work for VH1?" I said, "I never worked for VH1." And to her at the time, it seemed like it made perfect sense: Oh, you DJ at night and work at VH1 during the day.

Were you really as even-keeled as you wrote when you were replaced as her DJ?

I knew how much she wanted what she wanted. Nothing was more important to Gaga than her career, and there were times when it seemed like she was going to make compromises. One of them was writing for the Pussycat Dolls, which she enjoyed. Another, she thought the one thing that might be holding her back was that she didn’t look like a pop star, and she was considering plastic surgery. And when she asked me to be part of it, I had this immense feeling of, I’m not going to be the reason that something doesn’t work out for you. That conversation we had when she said, “I want you on board,” I just knew that she might have a day where she had to make a difficult decision, and I told her that I wanted her to make that decision.

That’s an easy thing to say, but was it that easy when the actual decision came down? It sounds in the book as if no one actually told you, you just didn’t get a follow-up phone call.

Yeah. For me, it was always a gig, and a gig is a gig, you know? When I DJ anywhere, I play and I get paid and I leave. And if they call me back, that’s great. You know how they say fame doesn’t change you, it changes the people around you? There were times when I saw people who were kind of my friends, and I would go to a party with their friends, and people would say, “Oh, you’re Lady Gaga’s DJ, can you get us tickets to the big Madison Square Garden show?” Well, no. I don’t know you, so I’m not going to try to find tickets ... It’s funny, because I don’t benefit by them feeling cool by knowing somebody who knows somebody. They benefit. Gaga created this idea of fame for herself. It’s like she started a rumor that she was famous, and so many people believed it that it became true. And I watched her do it, so when it came to me, I was like, OK, yeah. It’s never gotten me a table in a restaurant, let’s put it like that.

By Eric R. Danton

MORE FROM Eric R. Danton

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Brendan Sullivan Lady Gaga Madonna Rivington Was Ours Stefani Germanotta